Any nation in time gathers a pantheon of key events in its life and a series of national heroes that serve as a basis for strengthening a common identity and a feeling of civic solidarity that justifies the existence of the national community in history. Any nation creates the so-called “national myth” that sometimes reflects not necessarily genuine or generally accepted historic deeds, but that should be mandatorily distinguish itself by its internal logic so as to be efficiently disseminated through the sphere of education, the media and mass culture. In other words, the nations are created by providence, but are maintained by people, especially by state policies.
Origin myth and image of a sly and strong enemy
The post-Soviet Ukraine, as actually most of the young independent states that formed part of the Soviet empire, met with serious problems related to the “founding myth” as the historical narratives for different groups of people from this states were not only different, but were often contradictory. In the most general forms, they can be described as Soviet (imperial) and anti-Soviet (anti-imperial) versions of history. For Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the waging of the war by Russia created suitable conditions for a project to build the nation, which not only alternates in the dichotomy of Soviet and anti-Soviet historical memory with arguments about controversial figures, such as Stepan Bandera or Symon Petliura, but also became a solid foundation for building the image of a very shy and strong enemy.
Russia acquired this image after perfidiously tearing away a part of the Ukrainian territory and causing an atrocious war by supporting the separatists in Donbas. Moreover, the experience of a contact with the enemy turned out to be really eminent. Almost half a million Ukrainian citizens experienced the events of the former Antiterrorist Operation (ATO) in particular parts of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Together with the family members, these represent millions of people with a negative personal attitude to Russia. The large-scale war that started on February 24, 2022 exponentially increased the effect of alienation. According to the last available opinion polls, over 90% of the Ukrainians have a generally bad or very bad attitude to Russia.
Effects contrary to those expected by Putin
The war waged by Putin against Ukraine caused the effect of a real revolution in the collective mentality of the victim. The Ukrainians changed their attitude not only to Russia, but also to their own history. At the start of 2010, approximately comparable groups of Russians and Ukrainians deplored the collapse of the USSR. The nostalgia for the Soviet past in Russia over the past ten years increased, but in Ukraine there are almost no people who would share this option. Only one Ukrainian in ten remains nostalgic for the Soviet period and this comes from the senile zone.
Another example that is devastating for Putin refers to the change of Ukrainians’ attitude to the basic ideological element of the current Russian imperialism. It goes to the victory in the great patriotic war against fascism. In April 2012, 74% of the Ukrainians considered that May 9, in accordance with the ideological narrative of the Kremlin, was primarily “Victory Day”. In April 2022, the figure declined to 15%. Currently, 80% of the Ukrainian respondents call this date that is sacred for the Kremlin not “Victory Day”, but the day of remembrance for the victims of World War II. Even among the Russian-speaking Ukrainians, 66% subscribe to a completely blasphemed interpretation of the victory, as the Kremlin considers.
“Great Russian nation” and “Soviet people” disappear and “Ukrainian citizens” and “European citizens” appear
Under the influence of the war, the number of Ukrainians who consider themselves “citizens of Ukraine” over a year increased from 75% to 98%, while of “Europeans” rose from 27% to 57%. The self-identification as “Soviet people” on the contrary declined from 21% to 7%. In other words, in Ukrainian society the civic and civilizational identities moved to the forefront, being incompatible with the project of a “great Russian nation” that includes both Russians and Ukrainians. This is a serious blow to Putin, who on March 3, 2022, in a televised meeting of the Supreme Council in Moscow, nonchalantly declared: “I will never renounce my belief that the Russians and Ukrainians are one nation”.
Emerging Ukrainian nation and political community of Ukrainians
The Russian leader probably sincerely believes that there are no Ukrainians in nature. But Putin’s policy that resulted in a military adventure in Ukraine objectively leads not to the restoration of the “historical unity” of the people of Russia and Ukraine, but to the opposite – definitive formation of the Ukrainian nation, and not only as an original ethnic and cultural group, but also as a political community united by the collective experience of mobilizing against the Russian aggression and which, therefore, does not want to consider itself part of the Russian cultural space called “Russian world”.
The Russian attack overnight changed the position of Ukrainians to the Russian language. As polls show, now the Russian language in Ukrainian society is associated with those who came to kill Ukrainians. The presence of the Russian army in Ukraine, its behavior and the destructions it cases showed to the Ukrainians how different they are from the Russians who want to absorb them as a nation at any cost. The acknowledgment of this difference is not only political, but is much more profound – cultural and civilizational. Putin’s policy caused repulsion to the Russian culture among the Ukrainians, who even refuse to speak Russian in public, while the monuments to Pushkin are being demolished.
Putin cannot stop in Ukraine
Recently, Putin, by recalling Peter the Great, showed again that his objectives are guided by a particular feeling of the historical destiny of Russia within which the Ukrainians, as all the other former Soviet nations, cannot claim national legitimate identity. The imperial restoration project of Putin cannot stop in Ukraine and is to be expanded to other territories that earlier formed part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. This generates a profound feeling of alarm and resistance in all the countries that appeared as a result of the fall of the USSR.
The Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine, which ended in a military invasion, apparently discredited for good the concept of the “Russian world”, gave a shaking blow to Russia’s capacities to implement foreign policy tasks by “soft power” instruments and, what is more important, showed that the strengthening of the new states in the post-Soviet space is indissolubly related to the assertion of the national identity, distinct from the former national imperial construct. The experience of the Russia-invaded Ukraine clearly shows that the post-colonial identity is built on the rejection of the former metropolis and includes the process of “de-Russification” that in the case of Ukraine was extended to the “war against monuments”. The constraining of what imperial culture means becomes a natural component of any de-colonization process. Surely, if an invasion hadn’t been staged, the demolition of monuments wouldn’t have been witnessed in Ukrainian society and these monuments would have been simply ignored.
Moldovans at history desk
The first lesson from the Ukrainian experience for Moldovans is the necessity of realizing the value of authentic and acknowledged national identity without which a nation cannot resist a foreign invasion. A state or a society without an identity easily becomes prey for any foreign invader and cannot bank on consistent assistance from outside as this will not be offered to a nation that does not know what it represents in history.
Another lesson derives from the understanding that the fight for independence and freedom of the former colony should be based on a profound process of de-colonization that should include elements of constraints on the influence of the imperial culture that dominated in the former metropolis, with regard to the national culture. Not at all accidentally, the revanchist-imperialist policy of the Kremlin by all means obliges to keep the privileged role of the Russia language and culture in the former colonies that are now formally independent and sovereign states.
Putin argues the war against Ukraine by maintaining that the Ukrainians do not have legitimate national identity and that their state is, in essence, a marionette of the West. The imperialist narrative of Moscow with respect to the Republic of Moldova contains a similar historical myth that deprives the Moldovans eastward the Prut of their legitimate Romanian identity, substituting it with primitive Moldovenism of colonial origin. Any attempt by the Moldovan natives to assert their authentic national identity is described by Moscow as Chisinau’s obedience to Romania and the West, which should be counteracted by encouraging and supporting separatist movements in Transnistria or Gagauzia. One more lesson should be learned here by the Moldovan government that, promoting the policies to increase welfare of citizens, in most of the cases neglects the necessity of state policies in the fight for people’s minds. If this state of affairs is maintained, Moldovan society will continue to be profoundly divided by identity cleavages and to be extremely vulnerable to a possible foreign military aggression.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.