Ukraine: a crisis of self-identity


Ukrainian identity has historically been defined in opposition to Russia, but an anti-Russian agenda is unable to bind together a state with a large ethnic Russian population. With the Yanukovych administration now taking a neo-Stalinist approach to history and education, airbrushing out nationalist heritage, David Marples asks: where does Ukraine go from here?

David Marples
20 April 2011

Ukraine is currently undergoing a crisis, according to several of its leading intellectuals. It is not an economic quandary, but rather one of self-perception and future path. Six years after the Orange Revolution had appeared to put an end to a neo-Soviet leadership, the country has yet to establish a national identity and a clear direction. One of its leading writers comments that although Ukraine is celebrating its 20th year of independence, it will cease to exist in 20 years’ time.

Are such statements credible? Why is there such a crisis of identity today?

In terms of politics, there is no question that the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych has reversed some of the gains made in 2004-05. Both Western analyst Alexander Motyl and Ukrainian writer Mykola Riabchuk have highlighted the cronyism and corruption of the Yanukovych team.

But it was author and poet Yuri Andrukhovych who expressed the “doomsday scenario” in an interview [in Ukrainian] on 5 April on the website polit.ua (Ukrainian Politics). Noting that Ukraine is divided today between “Soviet Russians and Ukrainians”, he maintained that opponents of the country’s independence are as numerous as its supporters. In this situation normal development is impossible. Instead Ukraine is being dragged into what Andrukhovych calls “the Russian world” under the leadership of its east Ukrainian clan.

In his 18 March article “Beauty and the Beasts”, Riabchuk observes that the leading Ukrainian oligarchs are afraid of a pro-western policy, open competition, and the rule of law and thus abandoned the more moderate and centrist position they had held under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and opted instead to back the Russophile group that is currently in power, which relies on tight control and brutal crackdowns against opponents in the best of Soviet traditions.



The Holodomor (1932-33) has become a symbol of
Ukrainian national suffering at the hands of Russia.
Some pro-Russian Ukrainians contest this version of

Regarding the pro-Ukraine policies heralded by the Orange Revolution, Kyrylo Halushko, a sociologist from the Drahomaniv National University in Kyiv, speaking at the University of Alberta on 7 April, commented that they were identified closely with the personal fortunes of President Viktor Yushchenko and therefore disappeared from view once the latter’s popularity began to drop sharply. Thus national symbols such as Ivan Mazepa, Symon Petlyura, and the Famine-Holodomor of 1933 are barely recognised in contemporary school textbooks.

An additional problem has been the figure responsible for those textbooks, Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine’s Minister of Education and Science, Youth and Sports. In fact Tabachnyk, who has even been chided by Ukraine’s Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov for antagonising teachers, symbolises what critics perceive as the fundamentally anti-Ukrainian nature of the Yanukovych Cabinet.

How can Ukraine attain a national identity if its national leaders deny that one exists?

A study conducted several years ago by scholar Yaroslav Hrytsak contrasted popular opinion in two antithetical cities, namely Hrytsak’s native L’viv and Donetsk; one Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented and pressing hard for recognition of nationalist heroes; the other Russian-speaking, Sovietised, and supportive of the Red Army heroes of the “Great Patriotic War”.

The point, however, is not that both identities exist—they surely do—but that they represent the extremities. Most Ukrainians are not interested in going back to the Soviet Union and the younger generation cannot even remember it.

Moreover, even the Yanukovych government wishes to join the Free Trade Area of the European Union. It is not yet confined within what Andrukhovych calls “the Russian space”. It has not even joined the Common Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Kyiv in April 2011 with a mission to coax Yanukovych to integrate the Ukrainian economy more closely with Moscow. Economic pressure is today’s substitute for the more forcible methods of the Soviet era. Already there is talk that the agreement on gas prices might be waived, and Ukraine could pay $350 per 1,000 cubic meters rather than its current $260.


Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine’s Minister of
Education and Science, Youth and Sports.
For many, Tabachnyk symbolises the
Yanukovych government's inherent

Ukraine’s situation admittedly is troubling, but even the Donetsk group currently in control has its own priorities, and these are national by default. They have no wish to be subsumed to the interests of their larger neighbour.

Ultimately then, Ukraine may be defined not for what it is, but what it is not. And the key goal for Ukrainian intellectuals should be to find issues of common consent to identify what is Ukraine without alienating a large portion of the population. The recent past remains too divisive to be used as a basis.

The first task is to build up a strong opposition force that embraces democracy and the centrism of the Kuchma era without the corruption. The removal of Tabachnyk should be the first task. And focus should be on the parliamentary election set for 28 October 2012. Given the growing unpopularity of the government, there is a real opportunity to bring change.

The response to Andrukhovych is encapsulated by the title of Ukraine’s national anthem: Ukraine is not yet dead!


A version of this article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal

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