The history and evolution of Ukrainian national identity – podcast

What does it mean to be Ukrainian? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we talk with three experts about the origins of Ukrainian nationalism and the evolution of Ukrainian national identity.

And we hear about a rare archive of Ukrainian dissident literature from the Soviet era, and why it is now in danger.

History is key to understanding why the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened and what might happen next. And in this episode, we explore the history of Ukrainian national identity.

Dominique Arel, Professor and Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada, explains how Ukrainian national identity began to emerge in the 19th century, when the territory that later became Ukraine been divided between the Russian Empire in the east and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the west.

“The birth of Ukrainian nationalism as a mass social movement was really crystallized by the First World War,” says Arel. “It was much more developed in western Ukraine than in eastern Ukraine because in the Russian Empire Ukrainian nationalism was suppressed and even the Ukrainian language was banned.” In the Soviet era, when Ukrainian nationalism was initially encouraged under Vladimir Lenin, it began to be seen as a “nationalist resistance that needed to be crushed”, says Arel.

When Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, anyone living in the territory was entitled to citizenship. At that time, just under a quarter of the population identified as ethnically Russian and three-quarters as ethnically Ukrainian – alongside minorities including the Crimean Tatars. But researchers point to shifts in those identities since then.

Volodymyr Kulyk is research director at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He told us about kyiv. “Previously, to be Ukrainian meant to be Ukrainian by descent to be of Ukrainian descent or, in official Soviet parlance, to be of Ukrainian nationality,” he says, explaining that nationality was “mainly understood in ethnic and hereditary terms”.

But now Kulyk says that is changing and more and more people identify as Ukrainians. “This means that more and more people who were Russian or were of other ethnicities are starting to identify as Ukrainians.”

The Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 marked a turning point. Olga Onuch, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester in the UK, has been involved in a number of studies surveying Ukrainians about their opinions, identity and politics. She says they found that “civic identity or attachment to the state was extremely strong among Ukrainians, across all languages ​​and regions,” and increasing over time. “As the conflict escalated, support for the Ukrainian state also increased,” says Onuch.

His research also tracks changing political attitudes. It was gradual at first, in the years after 2014, but after the election of the current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in 2019, Onuch says there was a “huge leap” in favor of membership. Ukraine to the EU and NATO, which it calls the “Zelensky Effect”.

Our second story brings a personal perspective to part of this story. In Soviet times, when the Ukrainian language was suppressed, it was dangerous to publish Ukrainian political and cultural texts in Ukraine. A man, Wolodymyr “Mirko” Pylyshenko, from the Ukrainian diaspora community in the United States, began collecting this dissident literature. His daughter, Katja Kolcio, associate professor of dance and environmental studies at Wesleyan University in the US, tells the story of the archive – and why it is now in danger. (From 36 minutes)

And Moina Spooner, editor of The Conversation in Nairobi, Kenya, recommends analysis marking the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. (From 48m)

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