Who the Ukrainians Are, and Why We Should Support Them

Media provided from President Zelenskiy’s Instagram post, 02/26/22.

It was in 2004-2005, while I had the privilege to teach History at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, a city now filling up with refugees from Russian military advances, that I came not only to love Ukraine, but to stand in awe of it. 

That year, a bitter presidential election took place between two leaders whose names sounded the same to foreigners, but could hardly be more different: Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. For most Ukrainians, Yushchenko represented liberalism and connection with the West, while Yanukovych represented cultural conservatism and connection with Russia. The liberal Yushchenko was more popular and was expected to win. In September 2004, two months before the election, Yushchenko’s enemies poisoned him, which was intended to kill him but succeeded only in disfiguring his face. And on November 22, the day after polls closed, corrupt election authorities falsely declared victory for his opponent, Yanukovych. This was a truly stolen election, and thousands of Ukrainians traveled to Kyiv to protest it. Despite the cold of winter, the center of Kyiv became a vast encampment, filled with people from every corner of Ukraine, demanding a new election. My colleagues from Lviv traveled to Kyiv to take part, and I went with them. 

For over a week, Ukrainians organized food, shelter, and medical help to keep the protests going. Ukrainians from all walks of life contributed. People proudly held signs displaying the names of their towns and villages, reaffirming that they were all part of Ukraine. Music played continually from a bandstand set up in the central square. Finally, on December 3, propelled by the pressure from the streets, the Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the fraudulent election and announced a new election to be held on December 26. The city erupted in joy. People sang and danced in the street throughout the night. On the night train I took back to Lviv, people didn’t sleep, but spoke all night about what had been achieved. They spoke proudly about how they’d not only defended their democracy but became kinder to each other. 

For centuries, Ukraine was a so-called “nation without a state,” with most of it under the rule of the Russian Empire, the rest of it under Poland, and then all of it under the Soviet Union. Yet the culture and heritage survived. Many of the poorer classes of society easily resisted Russification and Polonization. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s diaspora communities worked hard to preserve the Ukrainian cultural-linguistic heritage (as 9th grader Greg M ‘s’s talk at last Friday’s assembly taught us). Yet, at the same time, throughout the centuries of Russian, Polish, and Soviet rule, and through a dreadful Nazi occupation in World War II, many Ukrainian intellectuals built and promoted a non-ethnic ideal of civic nationhood: a vision of Ukraine as a liberal, pluralistic society, in which any person living on the territory, whether Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Jewish, Tatar, or other, could claim membership. 

The result is that Ukrainian identity is as complex as American identity. The complexity can be seen in the country’s language situation. Within Ukraine, many Ukrainians speak Russian as their day-to-day language. Some speak one language at home and the other at work. Some speak no Ukrainian at all. In the far-western region of Transcarpathia, some speak Hungarian. In rural parts of Ukraine, it’s common to speak in a free mixture of Ukrainian and Russian known as Surzhyk. In western Ukraine, I heard older people speak a version of Ukrainian that sounded closer to Polish. 

Putin’s supporters and Great Russian chauvinists have long pointed to the linguistic patchwork in Ukraine as evidence that Ukraine is not a real nation, or an “artificial” country. But national identity is more complicated than that. Ukrainians take pride in their diversity, and in the Ukrainian state’s 30 years of independence (since 1991), the people of Ukraine have come to identify ever more strongly with their country and assert its separateness from Russia. 

But those 30 years of Ukrainian statehood have not been easy. Ukraine is a poor country. Most people I knew had no real savings to speak of and depended on meager monthly wages for food, rent, and heat. The university I taught at needed constant foreign donations to stay open. The archives and libraries in which I did research saved on energy bills by keeping the lights off during the day and the heat off as late as possible into the winter. Infrastructure was crumbling, streets were full of potholes, and services were insufficient to provide the needs and comforts most Americans are used to. 

So, people did things for themselves: many Ukrainians I met were self-taught plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and even herbal healers, and they always looked out for themselves and their neighbors. For wealthier people, middle-class consumerism was beginning to take hold, but franchise outlets and supermarkets were far and few between. In Lviv, I bought food in the neighborhood outdoor market, where farmers brought fresh produce – vegetables, preserves, pickles, cheeses, fresh bread, smoked meats – from the surrounding villages. Even those lean years were comparatively prosperous: many Ukrainians had family members who lived through famine and war. Decades of deprivation have taken their toll but also taught Ukrainians to survive. 

With poverty comes corruption. Like Russia (and like the USA, for that matter), Ukraine has venal politicians who abuse their power to grow rich off the country’s natural resources and shield themselves from accountability. And with high-level political corruption comes day-to-day corruption. If faced with criminal danger, most Ukrainians turn to their friends and family for help, but never to the police, who they fear would likely demand protection money in exchange for help. Many of the services people need, such as healthcare, permits and licenses, and even school diplomas, are secured with bribes. 

The Ukrainian voting public was so sick and tired of corruption that in 2019 they rejected politics as usual and elected as their president a beloved comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky. Ironically, Zelensky had starred in the TV program “Servant of the People,” in which he portrayed a humble history teacher who, after an absurd series of events involving social media, gets elected president and gallantly fights against corruption. Though the real-life Zelensky was ill-equipped to face Ukraine’s daunting challenges, even before the invasion, he is well meaning, and his landslide victory was a clear rebuke to Ukraine’s oligarchs. 

Ukraine also has in its favor a multiparty system with competitive elections and diverse party representation in its legislature, unlike Russia, where opposition parties are denied access to the state-controlled media and muzzled by censorship laws, and whose legislature is dominated by Putin loyalists. Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts are sincere and forceful (enough for Donald Trump to personally try to manipulate them in September 2019), and its politics is a field of genuine debate and contestation. Ukraine is a troubled democracy, but it is a democracy nonetheless. And though Ukrainians mistrust their state bureaucrats, they love their country and have rallied strongly around Zelensky. 

One should not idealize Ukraine. Alongside progressive attitudes, one finds in Ukraine the types of regressive attitudes that are all too common around the world, including in our own country. Sexism and patriarchy are deeply embedded. In the current crisis, most of the fighters are men, and while there are some women soldiers, many of the women are making food or taking care of the children. There is xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Some Ukrainians were uneasy about the accession of President Zelensky, not because of his inexperience but because of his Jewishness. I frequently experienced anti-Semitism directed against myself, things I never experienced in America. A Black American I knew working in Kyiv endured frequent identity-checks from policemen and verbal taunts from bullies, as he walked the streets. 

Nonetheless, Ukraine is a pluralistic society. Putin’s claim that Ukraine is a “neo-Nazi” regime is an absurd lie. In a world of authoritarian regimes that attempt to turn their nations into cultural monoliths – such as Putin’s Russia – most Ukrainians embrace their country’s diversity and take pride in it. Besides the linguistic diversity, there are several large active churches, including Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, and Greek Catholic or “Uniate” (an eastern Orthodox denomination that recognizes the Vatican). Muslims, Protestants, and Jews worship freely. In the two years I lived there, many Ukrainians, of different backgrounds, expressed deep interest in learning more about their country’s rich Jewish heritage. Nearly all Ukrainians I met were liberal minded, curious about the world, and eager for Ukraine to be a cosmopolitan member of it. 

Russia, too, is a diverse country, but its political leaders throughout history have failed to come to grips with that diversity, let alone celebrate it. Russian governments have tended to offer its diverse peoples only carefully controlled, tokenistic cultural expression. But like neighboring China, and like the resurgent white supremacists in our own country, Russia’s leadership now promulgates the belief that a strong nation requires a uniform culture. Putin has supported the religious hegemony of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Patriarchy over all of Russia’s Orthodox Christians and Russian linguistic hegemony by manipulating school curriculums in non-Russian-speaking areas. His regime has explicitly criminalized LGBTQ+ expression and activity. While Ukraine is no haven for LGBTQ+ life either, and does not allow same-sex marriage, it has not criminalized LGBTQ+ expression or activity. And if Putin conquers Ukraine, he will aggressively Russify Ukraine’s culture, education, and religious life, and he will impose upon Ukraine his repressive social and cultural policies.

But the news we’re getting suggests that many Russian people, perhaps the majority, understand that what Putin is inflicting upon Ukraine is a moral crime. Some Russians see in Ukraine the pluralism and comparative freedom they hope someday to have for themselves. And many have bravely faced arrest and intimidation to protest against the invasion. In our support for Ukrainians, let us also support the anti-Putin movement in Russia, and let us keep our indignation focused on Putin and not the people of Russia, who are also his victims. 
Many people are probably wondering, but may be nervous about asking, why do we care so much about Ukraine when there are so many other invasions and humanitarian atrocities in the world? This is a legitimate question, and here is how I would answer it: As a matter of geopolitics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a unique global threat because it involves one of the world’s three superpowers potentially pitted against another, and such a situation could draw hundreds of millions more people into the struggle. As a humanitarian matter, it is true that the moral crimes committed against Ukraine have also been, and are being, committed in other countries throughout the world. And we cannot shirk from the admission that much of what Russia is doing in Ukraine are things our own military has done in other countries. But this is not an either-or question. Ukraine is a country of 44 million people that has worked hard for 30 years to build a thriving, pluralistic, democratic society. It is this society, which the Ukrainians chose for themselves, that Putin wishes to destroy. We need to support Ukraine, and we need always to remember, as David Brooks recently wrote, that democracy, rule of law, equity, freedom, transparency, and peace must be appreciated and protected at home, and nurtured wherever in the world people build them, because those phenomena are precious, fragile, and rare.