February 20, 2014

Photo: Sasha Maksymenko
Photo: Sasha Maksymenko

Violence within the demonstration movement in Ukraine has been blamed upon the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), an ultra-nationalist splinter group that has broken away from the main Euromaidan movement. Their hero is Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era nationalist who initially welcomed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union as a means of achieving Ukrainian independence.

Bandera was ultimately imprisoned by the Nazis – who had no intention of fostering nascent independence movements – before being assassinated by KGB agents in 1959 for his continuing anti-Soviet stance. Former President Viktor Yushchenko made Bandera a posthumous Hero of the Ukraine in 2010, an honour revoked by the subsequent pro-Russian government.

Ukrainian nationalism was an influential factor in both World Wars, although it remains difficult to define. Nationalism is a notoriously tricky concept, very basically described as a devotion to one’s country. Writing in 1941, Harold Weinstein attempted to understand nationalism in Ukraine and its potential impact on World War Two:

The development of a distinctive Ukrainian nationalism has always been hampered by the historical, linguistic and religious affinity of the Ukrainians and the Russians. 

Noting that Russia and Ukraine had been united between the 9th and 13th centuries, and again during the 17th and 18th centuries, Weinstein suggested that many Ukrainians had been assimilated into a ‘Great-Russian nationality’. This was strengthened, he argued, by the fact that even during their centuries of political separation, Russia and Ukraine were aligned in their opposition to shared enemies, including the Tatars and Poles.

A definitive Ukrainian nationalism only truly developed during World War One, Weinstein argued. This was fostered both by the Bolshevik movement in Russia, the collapse of the Tsarist system and a massive decline in agricultural productivity. Stirred by a ‘nationalist intelligentsia’ in Austrian Galicia (where many ethnic Ukrainians resided), the peasantry began to agitate for a free and independent homeland. Having been forced to fight for the Tsar’s disastrous army at the beginning of the war, the majority of Ukrainians became increasingly disenchanted with their historic union.

In 1918, Ukrainian nationalists declared independence and invited a German invasion to further their aims. This they repeated in WWII. Weinstein was unsure what role the Ukrainian nationalists would play in the outcome of WWII:

Large sections of the Ukrainian population have been bound more firmly to the Russians by cultural assimilation, by industrialization and urbanization, by the inculcation of Communist doctrines and Soviet patriotism, and by the abandonment of forced Ukrainization…On the other hand, Soviet policy has heightened the cultural consciousness of many Ukrainians, which, together with opposition to Soviet political and economic policies, may provide many potential supporters for an anti-Soviet régime. 

Substitute Communist doctrine for ‘Putin’s Doctrine’ and Soviet with Russia and a similar situation to today can be seen.

Ukraine and Russia’s history is inextricably linked. Is it unnatural that they should share a common identity? Are the anti-government, and by extension anti-Russian sentiments, actually a sign of anti-nationalism? Or is the separateness and uniqueness of the Ukraine in danger of being eradicated by Yanukovych’s regime, requiring the modern nationalists to forge a new national identity and welcome new ties with the rest of Europe?

By no means do all Ukrainians favour a loosening of ties with Russia

A majority will soon arise to make the decision clear.

Source: H.R. Weinstein, ‘New Factors in the Old Ukrainian Problem’, Foreign Affairs (October 1941)

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