Yes, Ukraine Is a “Real Country”

The borders of Ukraine are no more arbitrary than those of Poland, Greece, Italy, or Germany.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko walks through the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra cathedral with Bartholomew I, archbishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, July 25, 2008. (Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the London Review of Books posted an article by the English philosopher Glen Newey. Its title, “Remember Eastern Rumelia,” referred to a short-lived statelet set up during the late nineteenth century. Designed to curb Pan-Slavic ambitions in the declining Ottoman Empire, Eastern Rumelia was soon absorbed by independent Bulgaria.

The implication was clear  —  Ukraine, too, is a fake state, a Western protectorate with meaningless borders that will be forgotten by history, just like Eastern Rumelia, which is remembered now only by rare-stamp collectors. To an English ear, Rumelia suggests “Ruritania,” an imaginary kingdom devised by the Victorian novelist Anthony Hope in The Prisoner of Zenda. Ruritania is usually located in Eastern Europe and denotes silly pageantry, pompous dictatorships, and poverty  —  the European equivalent of a banana republic.

In the run-up to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, it was not hugely uncommon to hear speculation on the fringes of the Left about whether its borders could be more effectively drawn. Perhaps Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden could have sat down together and decided what parts of the country should be given to its eastern neighbor. Around this time, an organization on the British left that should have known better published a map of the country that featured Crimea, recognized by international law as part of Ukraine, as part of Russia. This habit of thought is usually applied to post-Soviet states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the “stans” of Central Asia in particular  —  countries whose ethnic diversity, Soviet-drawn borders, and emergence onto the map apparently invite a strange bien-pensant disbelief in their realness.

This is, fundamentally, nonsense. Ukraine is unreal in the same way that Italy or Germany is unreal. Its “national awakening” in the nineteenth century was commonplace. Déclassé radicals constructed a new identity out of a preexisting linguistic, cultural, and religious history that diverged in various noticeable ways from their neighbors’ histories; there was a national poet (here the anti-imperialist peasant writer-artist Taras Shevchenko), a folk-art revival, a wave of new publishing in the national language, and demands from social movements for autonomy. After the October Revolution, this led to a short-lived independence, and in 1922, Ukraine was admitted into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a member with the right of secession. Its borders were increased at the expense of Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1945, and it exercised that right of secession in a 1991 referendum. All regions of this diverse country voted for it: the rural heartland of the west and center, the Russophone industrial east, the multicultural, maritime south, and even the largely “ethnic Russian” Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Ukraine, like Belarus and Russia, has its roots in the sprawling early medieval state of Kievan Rus’, founded by the Vikings in the ninth century, first as a pagan and then an Orthodox Christian principality, with its capital in Kyiv. On its collapse under the Mongol invasions, Rus’ lands became variously parts of Lithuania, Poland, the Golden Horde, and, later, Muscovy. A revolt saw the largest part of Rus’ secede from Poland and for a time exist as an independent hetmanate run by the Cossack military order. What is now Ukraine was eventually absorbed in the eighteenth century, mostly into the tsarist empire, with its capital in Saint Petersburg, and partly into the Habsburg Empire, centered on Vienna. At around this time, Ukrainian-speaking Cossack colonizers settled in the “wild fields” of former Turkic lands to the south and east, which Tsar Catherine the Great dubbed New Russia.

Because of this complexity, the creation of an independent Ukraine  —  based on those regions where a majority spoke what was alternately called the Ruthenian or Ukrainian (“borderland”) language rather than Polish or Russian  —  involved piecing together regions that had not been part of the same political unit for many centuries. This is only unusual if one forgets that it was precisely how the independent states of Italy, Germany, Greece, Poland, and Romania emerged over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each cobbled together from different empires and principalities by nationalist movements, imperial wars, and risings from below.

Ah, but Italy, Germany, Poland, Greece  —  these are “historic” nations, real nations, with a real literature and a real culture. Actually, there is little more evidence for a common national consciousness in these countries before the nineteenth century than there is in Ukraine; but the divide between the “historic” and “nonhistoric” nations comes, on the Left, from Friedrich Engels’s interpretation of the 1848 revolutions in Central Europe. Struck by how some groups (the relatively literate, organized Germans, Poles, or Italians) rose in revolt against the Habsburg Empire that year, while others (the mostly rural, illiterate Czechs, Slovenes, Romanians, or Ukrainians) did not, Engels theorized that this was because of the latter peoples’ lack of coherent national cultures. It is fitting that the Marxist refutation of this argument was made by a Ukrainian, Roman Rosdolsky, in the 1960s. Rosdolsky asked whether it was tenable to ascribe progressiveness to one nationalism and backwardness to another. Rather, each nationalism tended to have both mixed up within it.

Ukraine is no exception. Yet even the term “Ukrainian nationalism” now usually refers to the traditions of Ukrainian fascism, which sprang from the former Habsburg part of Ukraine under Polish rule in the 1930s, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera. No ambiguity here  —  Bandera’s was a foul, genocidally racist movement. Before the 1940s, however, “Ukrainian nationalism” would also have encompassed the writer and activist Ivan Franko, the first translator of Karl Marx’s Capital into Ukrainian; the reformist socialists of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, who led the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917–1920; and its revolutionary left wing of “Borotbists,” who sided with the Bolsheviks and helped bring Ukraine into the Soviet Union under its own terms, with significant national and linguistic autonomy.

Since independence, official national memory has tended  —  especially in Western Ukraine  —  to draw on Bandera’s far-right Ukrainian Insurgent Army and on a reimagining of the hecatombs of the collectivization-induced famine of 1932–33 as a specifically Ukrainian catastrophe, despite the millions who also died in Kazakhstan and southwestern Russia in the same event. And yet the memory of the war against Nazi Germany has been repeatedly invoked in 2022. As the Ukrainian socialist Volodymyr Artiukh has pointed out, unacknowledged quotations from Joseph Stalin frequently appear in today’s rousing wartime rhetoric. When Ukrainians have compared the bombing of Kharkiv to that of Leningrad, or the siege of Mariupol to that of Stalingrad, it’s because they consider themselves to be the equivalents of the early 1940s Red Army and Putin’s Russians the Wehrmacht.

If all nations are constructions, then so is Ukraine. It is diverse and uneven, but less economically divided than Britain, less linguistically divided than Canada, less politically divided than the United States, less culturally divided than Italy. As nations go, Ukraine is ordinary.

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Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune. He is the author of several books, including Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London.

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