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Nationalism Is Exactly What Ukraine Needs

Democracy fails when citizens don't believe their country is worth fighting for

Close your eyes, repeat the words “Ukrainian nationalist,” and an image might spring to mind: probably a man, most likely bearded, possibly with a shaved head and a drooping moustache. Perhaps he will be dressed in a black uniform, or a leather jacket and boots.

Depending on where you come from, you may additionally imagine an anti-Semite or a murderer of Polish peasants. Like any other stereotype, this one will be related to some historical realities. Two generations ago, there were Ukrainians who, caught between two of the most murderous dictatorships in history, collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. There were some who participated in the mass murder of Poles and some who participated in the mass murder of Jews.

But this grim image also leaves out some other historical realities. It excludes another, less infamous group of Ukrainian nationalists, the ones who—in a country with luckier geography—would have become the Giuseppe Garibaldis, the Sándor Petőfis, or the Thomas Jeffersons of the modern Ukrainian state. It leaves out the enlightened nationalist Mykhailo Hrushevsky, for example, who wrote the first histories of Ukraine and chaired Ukraine’s short-lived independent parliament in 1917 and 1918, before Ukraine’s defeat and incorporation into the USSR.

Above all, it leaves out the story of what actually happened to the vast majority of Ukrainian nationalists in the twentieth century: They became prominent targets of purges, artificial famines, and deportations. Between three and five million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately starved to death in 1932 and 1933 because Joseph Stalin feared the power of rural nationalism. After they were wiped out, Russians, deported from elsewhere in the USSR, were sometimes sent to live in their empty villages in order to complete the process of cultural genocide. Arrests of people whom the state considered “too Ukrainian” continued into the 1980s.

Illustration by Simon Prades

By 1990, when the Soviet Union was beginning to break apart, the widespread result was not, therefore, a Ukraine awash with textbook nationalists marching in parades, but a nation filled with people who had no national identity whatsoever. In that year, I spent a few weeks in L’viv, in western Ukraine, reporting on the nascent independence movement. Hotels were scarce, so I stayed in the apartment of two middle-aged musicians, Władek and Irina. At the time, I didn’t write about them at all, but now I realize that their apathy and their cynicism about independent Ukraine were just as significant as the heated debates that the flag-waving nationalists were then holding in L’viv’s central square.

Władek came from a Ukrainian village and played the accordion in a Soviet “folk” group. But he was half-Polish—I met him through his cousin in Warsaw—he spoke Polish, and he had a Polish name. His wife, Irina, was Jewish and a native Russian-speaker. Both had been born elsewhere, and like so many Soviet citizens, they lived in L’viv by accident.

Neither was remotely fond of Soviet communism, and they were fed up with life in L’viv, a city that at the time had running water for only a few hours a day.

But they didn’t hold out much hope for a Ukrainian state either. Władek told me that he didn’t want any “new people” to come to power, because they would “arrive hungry,” in need of fast money and big bribes. Better to leave the old politicians in charge; they had already stolen what they needed. When demonstrators tore down the Lenin statue in front of the opera house—revealing that it had been built atop old Jewish tombstones—they just shrugged. “They’ll just build another statue to another ‘hero’ over somebody else’s tombstones,” Irina told me.

Even then, earnest articles had begun to appear in the Western press warning against the dangers of nationalism in Ukraine: that powerful stereotype—men in black uniforms, anti-Semitic slogans—was already in circulation. But in retrospect, the writers of these articles feared precisely the wrong phenomenon. For what Władek, Irina, and the majority of Ukrainians really lacked, then and later, was nationalism. Or patriotism, public spirit, national loyalty, national allegiance, whatever word you prefer: the sense that there was something special and unique about Ukraine, the feeling that Ukraine was worth fighting for.

Although both had lived all of their lives in Ukraine, neither of my hosts felt any attachment to the Ukrainian state that was about to be born. Neither felt any responsibility to the new Ukrainian government, and they certainly felt no special connection to other Ukrainians. In this, they resembled the vast majority of the post-Soviet world: Belarusians, Kazakhs, and even Russians themselves often felt no allegiance to their “new” countries or to their new countrymen. When the Soviet Union broke up, these people suddenly found themselves the citizens of entities that hadn’t existed for decades, if at all. Unlike Poles or Estonians, they felt no pride in gaining or regaining national sovereignty, only confusion.

But with no widespread sense of national allegiance and no public spirit, it was difficult to make democracy work. Władek turned out to be right: The people who eventually came to lead independent Ukraine failed to build Ukraine’s institutions. Instead, they built their own fortunes. Ukraine’s first two leaders were former communists who conducted a privatization even more corrupt and chaotic than the one in Russia. The leaders who followed the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution proved hardly any better. Thanks to the weakness of the state they left behind, their successor, President Viktor Yanukovych, managed in four short years to dismantle Ukraine’s army, its police force, its tax service, and much else, all the while increasing his family’s personal wealth. Ukraine’s oligarchs—the real beneficiaries of two decades of independence—don’t necessarily feel any loyalty to their countrymen either. Some have sided with “Ukraine” or “Europe” in the current conflict, but others will side with “Russia.” Their decisions have nothing to do with the welfare of ordinary Ukrainians at all.

The result can be seen right now in eastern Ukraine. For this—Donetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk—is what a land without nationalism actually looks like: corrupt, anarchic, full of rent-a-mobs and mercenaries. For the most part, the men in balaclavas who have assaulted Ukrainian state institutions under the leadership of Russian commandos are not nationalists; they are people who will do the bidding of whichever political force pays best or promises most. And although they are a small minority, the majority does not oppose them. On the contrary, the majority is watching the battle passively and seems prepared to take whichever government they get. Like my friends in L’viv, these are people who live where they do by accident, whose parents or grandparents arrived by the whim of a Soviet bureaucrat, who have no attachment to any nation or any state at all.

Thus do the tiny group of nationalists in Ukraine, whom perhaps we can now agree to call patriots, represent the country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment.

And this should be no surprise: In the nineteenth century, no sensible freedom fighter would have imagined it possible to create a modern state, let alone a democracy, without some kind of nationalist movement behind it. Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf. This goes for Russians, too, though tragically they insist on looking to their imperial traditions as a source of national pride, instead of to their liberal leaders in the early twentieth century or to their outstanding Soviet-era dissidents, the founders of the modern human rights movement.

In the West, we know this, but lately, we rarely admit it. That’s in part because we remember very well the disasters that ethnic nationalism, cloaked as fascism or sometimes as communism, brought in the twentieth century. Europeans in particular now go out of their way to downplay national differences, which is usually good. Territorial disputes in Europe have dissolved, since open borders make it simply less important whether Alsace is French or German. But European democracy would fail if European politicians did not also appeal to patriotism, did not take national interests into account, and did not address themselves to the special problems of their particular nations, too.

In the United States, we dislike the word “nationalism” and so, hypocritically, we call it other things: “American exceptionalism,” for example, or a “belief in American greatness.” We also argue about it as if it were something rational—Mitt Romney wrote a book that put forth the “case for American greatness”—rather than acknowledging that nationalism is fundamentally emotional. In truth, you can’t really make “the case” for nationalism; you can only inculcate it, teach it to children, cultivate it at public events. If you do so, nationalism can in turn inspire you so that you try to improve your country, to help it live up to the image you want it to have. Among other things, that thought inspired the creation of this magazine 100 years ago.

Ukrainians need more of this kind of inspiration, not less—moments like last New Year’s Eve, when more than 100,000 Ukrainians sang the national anthem at midnight on the Maidan. They need more occasions when they can shout, “Slava Ukraini—Heroyam Slava”—“Glory to Ukraine, Glory to its Heroes,” which was, yes, the slogan of the controversial Ukrainian Revolutionary Army in the 1940s, but has been adopted to a new context. And then of course they need to translate that emotion into laws, institutions, a decent court system, and police training academies. If they don’t, then their country will once again cease to exist.