Review of Ukraine’s Nation Building: The Ongoing Struggle Against Moscow’s Domination
On February 24, 2022, tanks from Russia crossed into Ukraine through Belarus with the intention of taking over Kyiv. The tanks were seen moving through a terrain of forests and swamps. The Russian government expected an easy win, but their plans were disrupted in Bucha, a peaceful town located 15 miles away from the Ukrainian capital.
A team of individuals, comprising of a musician from a university orchestra, a therapist specializing in Argentine tango, a recreational hunter, and a gas station attendant, joined forces to defend the barricades. For a period of four weeks, these non-military personnel successfully resisted the powerful Russian army. Their tactics included constructing barriers with bulldozers and seeking warmth from a fire in a damaged structure.
According to Yaroslav Hrytsak, the volunteers were not instructed to engage in combat. In other Ukrainian regions, there were also instances of local resistance in the face of Russia’s extensive invasion. Hrytsak notes that a sense of initiative swept across all of Ukraine, leading to this spontaneous action. This stood in stark contrast to the passive behavior of the Russians, who waited for orders.
Hrytsak is a professor, intellectual, and liberal historian. He is a faculty member at the Ukrainian Catholic University located in Lviv. His book, “Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation”, has become a popular and best-selling read in his home country. It was released just a few months before Vladimir Putin’s aggressive assault on Ukraine. The book delves into the country’s past, which is filled with violence, but also provides reasons for hope and progress within a worldwide perspective.
Hrytsak questions the reasons behind Ukraine’s decision to resist against Russia. He compares their efforts to the Greco-Persian wars, where a coalition of democratic Greek city states were able to overcome the larger Persian empire. Similar to the historian Herodotus, who sought to comprehend the roots of Greek strength, Hrytsak explores various time periods in his search for understanding.
He explores the impact of Columbus’s 1492 discovery of America, the rise of European Romanticism, and the emergence of modern states in the 19th century. Additionally, he delves into Ukraine’s ongoing struggle against Moscow’s dominance, highlighting key figures such as the Cossacks, Ukrainian nationalist groups during World War II, and the 1960s dissident movement of poets and journalists.
The book presents a sophisticated evaluation of the biased Russian mindset and flawed historical research. In 2021, Putin released a controversial “essay” justifying his impending invasion. He claimed that Ukraine was never its own nation, but rather part of a larger civilization and religious sphere with Russia, dating back 1,000 years. Under this reasoning, Putin is not viewed as a violent aggressor, but rather a revered restorer of a lost and inseparable entity.
Previous historians from Russia have put forth comparable points. They asserted that Kyivan Rus, a principality established in the ninth century and centered in Kyiv, was a predecessor to present-day Russia. However, Hrytsak refutes this notion. He likens referring to Rus as a nation state to calling a wooden abacus the first computer. According to him, Kyivan Rus existed in a world without national identities, and was initially a trading company based on rivers long before the concept of states and boundaries came into being.
The area has always been desirable for settlers due to its rich soil and access to the Black Sea. The Scythians mentioned in Herodotus’s Histories were likely of proto-Iranian descent. The founders of Rus arrived by sea from Scandinavia and lived alongside Slavic tribes. The Ottomans came later. Hrytsak views the Eurasian steppe as a diverse thoroughfare, with no one group dominating it. He believes Russia’s insistence on being the sole ethnic group in the region is a dangerous political illusion.
The city of Kyiv was established prior to Moscow and developed its own unique political culture. According to Hrytsak, this can be attributed to the lingering influence of Poland. Until the 18th century, a large portion of present-day Ukraine was under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, known for its tolerance of different religions. The nobility had a say in choosing a monarch, creating a consensual political system that was influenced by Western Europe and had an impact on Ukrainian identity.
The warrior Cossacks who guarded the commonwealth’s borderlands had a similar democratic culture. They chose a military leader, or hetman. After each election they pelted him with rubbish “so that he didn’t get too full of himself”, Hrytsak reports. Cossacks enjoyed autonomy. For more than 100 years they had their own state, up until 1764, when Catherine the Great folded Cossack territory into imperial Russia.
Hrytsak’s writing is rich in descriptive comparisons. He likens Ukraine to a “bumblebee” – defying the laws of physics by flying – and to a butterfly. One particularly intriguing chapter delves into the topic of language. In Russian, Ukrainians are referred to as “khokhol,” a derogatory term derived from the single lock of hair traditionally worn by steppe peoples. On the other hand, Ukrainians commonly refer to Muscovites as “katsapy,” or goats. These age-old insults serve as evidence of long-standing cultural distinctions.
The topic of Ukrainian “separatism” according to Moscow was closely tied to publishing and language. The Russian government frequently prohibited the use of Ukrainian. Following the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks permitted Ukrainian to be taught in schools, but it was once again restricted by Stalin in the 1930s. Hrytsak points out that the linguistic policies of the Russian empire and Soviet Union were a form of genocide, often accompanied by physical violence.
Putin claims that one of the reasons for his military actions is to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from what he perceives as “neo-Nazis”. However, Hrytsak argues that language and national identity are not intrinsically linked in Ukraine, a country where both languages are spoken. Many Russian speakers in Ukraine identify themselves as Ukrainian. In 2022, when Russian soldiers took control of Kherson, the city’s Russian-speaking population protested, but they were happy when the Ukrainian army removed them.
The cost of Ukraine’s independence has been significant. According to Hrytsak, the country’s establishment as an independent nation in 1914 was accompanied by a time of extreme violence. This included a tumultuous civil war that was so chaotic and disorienting that it was compared to the plot of Verdi’s opera Il trovatore. The engineered famine of 1932-3 orchestrated by Stalin resulted in the deaths of approximately 4.5 million Ukrainians. This tragedy left the peasant class shattered and the intellectual elite decimated.
During World War II, Ukraine experienced a significant amount of violence. According to Hrytsak, approximately 1.5 million out of the 6 million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust were in Ukraine. On September 29, 1941, the Nazis killed 34,000 Jews in just one day. This was just one instance of many interconnected acts of violence, including massacres by Ukrainian partisans against Polish villages and horrific pogroms.
Despite difficult circumstances, Ukraine has successfully transitioned into a democracy in the late 20th and 21st centuries. According to Hrytsak, it is now a fully developed nation with a strong civic identity. The current president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is of Jewish descent and the newly appointed defense minister, Rustem Umerov, is Muslim. The historian believes there are reasons to remain optimistic, even as Putin’s attacks on Ukrainian homes persist in his pursuit of victory.
Luke Harding’s book, Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Struggle for Survival, was nominated for the Orwell prize and is available from Guardian Faber.
The book “Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation” by Yaroslav Hrytsak (translated by Dominique Hoffman) is now available from Sphere for £25. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.