In this conversation with Visible Ukraine editor Marta Haiduchok and RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Yaroslav Hrytsak—author of the new book Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation—explains what makes Ukraine a geopolitically crucial borderland and why the Ukrainian question has become acute at the most critical turns in global history. The conversation reflects critically on modernization theory and the role of violence in the making of modern Ukrainian society, highlights Ukraine’s European and Western connections, discusses how theories of colonialism may be applied to its history, and explores the role of generational change and why—unlike many other revolutionary attempts of the last decade—the Euromaidan has succeeded.
This interview appears simultaneously at Visible Ukraine and at the Review of Democracy
Yaroslav Hrytsak is a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University and the director of the Institute for Historical Studies of the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. He has also taught at Harvard University, Columbia University, and at the Central European University, among other universities. He is the author of several books, the recipient of multiple prestigious awards, and is a leading voice in the study and discussion of Ukrainian history.
Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation is published by Sphere.
You state in your new book Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation that the Ukrainian question, now and in the past, has repeatedly become acute at the most critical turns in global history. You also highlight that Ukraine has quite a unique status in global history as a geopolitically crucial borderland. Could I ask you to highlight some such key turns in global history and discuss their connections to Ukraine? Could you also tell us a bit about how being such a geopolitically crucial borderland has shaped Ukrainian history?
I would start with the moment that might be the most crucial one in history: 1492, “the discovery of America,” which marked the beginning of globalization—Felipe Fernández-Armesto has written an excellent book about it with the subtitle The Year Our World Began. For the first time, people living on two sides of the Atlantic Ocean became interconnected in a variety of ways and with many different results, one of which was the rise of the West. That period ended when the West became global through exercising imperial rule over other parts of the world and, by the end of 20th century, via the collapse of Soviet communism. This is a large process which lasted approximately 500 years.
My basic argument is that Ukraine largely emerged because of this process. I would go so far as to say that without the discovery of America you could hardly have had a Ukrainian nation—Columbus may be considered an important protagonist in its history. This may sound provocative. However, when I started reading to prepare this book, I found out that my thesis was not new at all: it was formulated by Professor Omelian Pritsak, a famous scholar of Turcology who taught at Harvard University. He made this point at the beginning of the 1970s. Later on, I discovered that it was not even him who first made this observation: Eric Hobsbawm articulated it before the end of the 1950s in the famous discussion on the crisis of the 17th century.
We used to think about modernization and globalization in very positive terms, connecting it with all kinds of transformations, such as an increase in communication, etc. Since the Second World War, and especially nowadays, we have come to see modernization and globalization much more critically. Now we see clearly that violence is a very important side of it, which the story of the indigenous people of America after the arrival of Columbus demonstrated very, very clearly. What I am trying to show in my book is that this kind of globalization, the rise of the West in the 16th and 17th century, had an impact on Ukraine at a moment of utmost political crisis and extreme violence. As one of the chronicles from the time says: blood was flowing like a river and rare was the person who had not deepened his hands in that blood. So I am trying to depict both sides of globalization.
I believe the two world wars reveal the extreme of this other, darker side. As a matter of fact, the Ukrainian issue emerged during the First World War. It has been on the agenda of global politics since then. Before that, it used to be a rather minor issue in international politics. Since WWI it has been very important for a variety of reasons but, most importantly, because it was a total war. Total war requires the total mobilization of resources and Ukraine has huge resources, both human and especially natural resources, including grain, which is became increasingly important during the 20th century, not least because it is used as a strategic weapon.
Probably an even more important reason was that Eastern Europe—by which I mean the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea—acquired a kind of extreme geopolitical importance: whoever controls this territory has a better chance of controlling the whole of Europe and dominating globally. Since the Ukrainian issue was closely interrelated with the Russian issue in the Russian Empire and then also in the Soviet Empire, and Ukraine greatly helped to raise this empire to global status, you had to deal with Ukraine. There’s a rule of thumb, I would say, that has been formulated by people who study peasants: you can hardly find a peasant identity in peaceful times, but it becomes very visible in times of crisis. The same goes with Ukraine. In this sense, Ukrainian history is very much like the game “now you see me, now you don’t.” The deeper the crisis, the more the Ukrainian issue gets accentuated, and the stronger Ukrainian identity gets. This has been the case during the two World Wars, and during the current war as well. Again, I see this as part and parcel of a global process which has two sides, and the case of Ukraine fits both of those sides well.
You state in the book that the creation of Ukraine was threefold: from a people to a nation, from a traditional to a modern society, from Rus to Ukraine. You also argue that, more recently, Ukraine has undergone a complex transformation from an ethnic to a civic nation. Could you elaborate on this threefold creation and that more recent transformation? What might have caused these transformations and how did these processes unfold?
I believe that what we are discussing as a threefold creation is, as a matter of fact, three dimensions of one and the same large process. For lack of a better word, you may call it modernization. I believe that Ernest Gellner was right in the sense that pre-modern society could exist without nations, but modern society depends on their existence. They become a kind of norm—you can hardly imagine the modern world without nations.
In a sense, nations are created by modernization. When we are talking about the origins of Ukrainians, as well as Belarusians and Russians, I do not believe that there is a place for a nation in traditional communities and in Rus broadly speaking—in Kyivan Rus but also in “Rus after Rus,” which is the story until the 19th century, if we are talking about Rus society as Orthodox society.
I try to substantiate this argument by providing statistics on book reading and book printing because, as Yuri Slezkine nicely put it, “nations are book-reading tribes.” And to read books, you have to have them. Many medievalists who focus on Byzantium and Rus state that the intellectual tradition of Rus was poor, especially in terms of producing books. Most of the books on the territory of Rus until the 18th century were books translated back in the 10th and 11th centuries. If you collect all those books, what you get is the library of a medium-sized Byzantine monastery. There were hardly any original books, which means that an Orthodox reader in the 19th century would still be reading the same books as his or her counterpart seven centuries earlier. There is thus no intellectual communication. Printing has changed something, but not that much. What I am driving at is that to make a nation you have to destroy Rus as a traditional community. In a sense, the making of Ukraine was the unmaking of Rus.
Having said that, I do not believe in simple dichotomies. We may use concepts like traditional society and modern society as working concepts, but they should not be more than that. The two world wars were the largest intrusions of modernity into the traditional worlds of the Ukrainian peasants and of the Jewish shtetl, and they destroyed them. Still, Rus and Rus values are very much persistent. I believe what Putin is trying to do is to deliberately build on the concept of a Russkiy mir as a world of traditional values as opposed to the West.
The current Russian war is largely a war on history. “Let’s make Russia a superpower again” is a strategy to return to the past. Traditional societies see the golden past as their best scenario. Ukrainians have a very different strategy. This is why my book in Ukrainian has the subtitle Overcoming the Past. Ukraine, luckily enough, has no past golden age to cherish and the only strategy left for Ukrainians is to try and overcome the past.
While I do not really believe in sharp dichotomies, this dichotomy makes sense to me and it is a dichotomy that means war today—it is about much more than just history.
Your book discusses the manifold and heterogenous influences that have come to shape Ukraine over time. As part of that discussion, you emphasize the European and Western aspects of Ukrainian identity in several places. At one point, you even state that – and I am quoting—the “transformation of the Orthodox Rus into a Ukrainian nation was a consequence of the spread of Western Christian ideas to the East, through the mediation of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth.” Could I ask you to elaborate on Ukrainian history’s European and Western connections and why you attach such importance to them in the book?
I am afraid that many of my colleagues will strongly dislike this book because it is an unashamedly Eurocentric one, which is certainly not considered fashionable or modern nowadays. This is not about my personal or political preference but rather about the fact that I follow the argument that nation per se is a Western concept. Andrian Hastings’ book Construction of Nationhood had a very strong impact on me. In rough terms, this book argues that nationhood has emerged in a cultural milieu which may be called Catholic Europe. I accept his point that the nation is a Western concept which became global with the globalization of the West.
In Ukraine, the West meant the Polish factor. Famous historian and Byzantinist professor Ihor Ševčenko said it very nicely: the West came to Ukraine in Polish dress. After all, Poland was part of the space where the nation was very important. To give just one example: until the 17th century, the Orthodox space had no university and the furthest one to the east within the Catholic realm was the one in Cracow. Nobody had ever forbidden creating universities in the Orthodox realm and still they were very late to emerge and only came with the extension of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth towards Rus.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a special animal. This was the only large state where Orthodox and Catholic people lived together in comparable numbers. That led to intense encounters that were problematic, and very violent as well, but there was much cultural interaction too. The Cossack rebellions which led to the Cossack state was a rebellion against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The irony is that the Cossacks deliberately emulated the status of the Polish nobility, not least with their concept of a nation.
This trend becomes even more visible in the 19th century. Modern Polish nationalism emerged after the partition of Poland. In my opinion, it was the only real nationalism in the Russian Empire until the middle of the 19th century. Polish nationalism played an extremely important role in this region; it did what the French Revolution did for the Western parts of Europe. They both taught the local population the logic and rhetoric of nationalism. One of the most telling pieces of evidence is that three national anthems have nearly identical opening lines: the Polish, the Ukrainian, and the Israeli. All the three lyricists were born in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, and they all had this idea.
We used to consider the Ukrainian past in the shadow of Russian history. That has a certain logic, but I would also say that the Russian factor is a relatively modern one. It came to this space largely by the end of the 18th century. However, Ukrainian territories were under the strong impact of the so-called Polish factor and prior Western influences even later. In the 19th century, the largest noble group on Ukrainian territory was the Polish nobility. The Polish language was loudly spoken in Kyiv until the middle of the 19th century. You have a lot of Polish professors and students in Kharkiv, including Józef Piłsudski. In the case of the western part of Ukraine, this lasts until the Second World War.
When you draw a map that shows the longevity and intensity of the Polish factor and explore the map of today, you find that its various zones roughly coincide with the intensity of Ukrainian identity, with the use of the Ukrainian language and, even more importantly, with political divisions in Ukraine.
Your book indeed recurrently addresses the differences in the development of Western Ukraine compared to other regions. You mention that in the case of Western Ukraine a form of Ukrainization took place instead of Sovietization. Lviv became a sort of hidden capital of Ukraine as a result. However, in the context of the ongoing war, it might not be the best time to emphasize the differences between the regions of Ukraine. What is your current understanding of the relevance of Western Ukraine’s “exceptional” trajectory? More generally, how do you relate to the question of the diversity of Ukraine’s regions nowadays?
That is a very complicated matter. Let me start with a simple statement that I can state with certainty: Putin is interested in Ukraine, but not in Western Ukraine. He considers this part of Ukraine one of the most toxic territories for his Russian world. He believes that the accession of this territory to the Soviet Union was among the greatest mistakes of Stalin. If not for the Baltic States and Western Ukraine, the USSR might still exist today, he seems to think. There was even a rumour that Putin wants Western Ukraine to be taken by somebody else, like Poland—which is a strange and crazy idea.
To zoom out: regionalism is probably the most important factor in Ukraine’s past and present. There is hardly another country where regionalism plays such an important role as it does in Ukraine. Ukraine is an extremely divided country—it is divided by language, religion, culture, tradition, you name it. Many people say that, in this sense, Ukraine is unlike most European counties. The closest comparison might be the United States. We have extreme heterogeneity in Ukraine, but the country still holds together. There is a paradox here which we have explored in our project on regionalism which we have conducted together with Swiss scholars. What we have found is that there is a lot of regionalism, but there are no stable regions in Ukraine. The divisions between them are unstable. However, there is one exception, which is easy to guess: Western Ukraine—Galicia. This is the only real region. The Donbas has increasingly become a region, but only since the rule of Yanukovych and the spread of his narrative.
We have been working on a comparison between Donetsk and Lviv and between the Donbas and Galicia, more generally. We have been conducting social surveys for many years. It was a revelation for us that it does not really make sense to repeat surveys in Lviv because the results will not differ much. We are dealing with a region that has a very strong Ukrainian nation identity in which the Ukrainian language is a crucial factor. Next to that, there is a very strong regional identity: the idea of Galicia and that of Ukraine are twin brothers or twin sisters who cannot be separated. In contrast to that, Donetsk is unnational. When you ask people to define themselves, the majority of people do not choose national identity as their main identity—they would rather talk about their gender identity, social identity, or professional identity. We have a Russian-speaking city with a very weak Russian identity. Ukrainian identity is faring somewhat better than Russian identity, but no single form of identity ever gets more than 50%. It’s a very fragmented society which is in a constant flux. You can achieve many things here if you make a serious effort, which Yanukovych and his team did.
Shmuel Eisenstadt developed the theory of multiple modernities. My point would be that Ukraine has experienced one kind of modernity coming from the West and the other coming from the Russian and then the Soviet Empire. Stalin was a very ambitious modernizer and he largely succeeded but it was modernization without the concept of the nation. As a matter of fact, neither the late Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union particularly liked this idea because their ideal was basically a homogeneous society imposed from above—Donetsk may illustrate the results.
There is a variety of reasons for this. I would just like to highlight one geographic reason here because it is a global factor and is quite often omitted: the steppe, which is one of the largest axes of the Eurasian continent economically, politically, and militarily. The steppe starts in Manchuria and Mongolia, and goes through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to end around Pannonia. This is a huge zone for nomadic migration and a source of threat for settled territories. What the historical process produces are zones or borderlands which are extremely rich in resources, but also very dangerous. There is a parallel here with the colonization of America. I mean this quite literally: the Polish nobility treated this zone, which was part of the Polish state, as their America and saw themselves as conquistadors. The similarities between North American and the steppe are remarkable; the two models are practically the same.
I believe there is a radical difference between Western and Eastern Europe. Even as the meaning of these terms needs to be revised, there is one factual, very tangible difference between them: in Western Europe, you did not have large migration processes since the end of the Viking era and ethnic borders have remained relatively stable. In the case of the steppe, large-scale migrations last until the Second World War, not least through forced migrations, and so-called special actions, etc. The colonization within the Russian Empire was much like the colonization of America and the problems with establishing borders may have been larger in the former case. The Donbas is an extreme here case: it has been a problematic territory for every state, including for contemporary Ukraine, and has been very difficult to bring under control. Hiroaki Kuromiya has written an excellent book on this subject. The debate about the Donbas is obviously not only historical but also political: after all, the question is whose territory it is.
Having said that, regional differences have generally been a blessing for Ukraine. These divergences create a situation where no elite can rule the country single-handedly. To be able to rule in Kyiv, you need to strike a compromise with regional elites. That is the only way to preserve the unity of Ukraine and compromise is also the daily bread of democracy. Therefore, Ukraine has democracy by default—not by institutional design, but by default. I believe that one of the main challenges for Ukraine since the Euromaiden is how to transform this democracy by default into a strong, socially embedded democracy.
In short, the diversity of Ukraine can be very problematic, but I also see it as a kind of blessing: it helps Ukraine survive as a relatively stable and democratic political community.
I wished to ask you a bit more about your inspirations and approach. You state that your book follows in the footsteps of economists, social scientists, and sociologists. You also oppose simple dichotomies and plead for a combination of tradition with modernity, the secular and the sacred, and reality with myth. Which scholars inspired you while writing this book and how would you characterize your approach?
My intellectual guru is Leszek Kołakowski, the famous Polish philosopher. When he was asked about his politically identity, he would reply that he was a conservative-liberal-socialist. This reflects my views quite well. I draw from many sources.
In connection with Ukraine, I would like to mention two persons who have had a strong impact on me and to whom I am very thankful: Ivan L. Rudnitsky, probably one of the best historians of the twentieth century, and Harvard professor Roman Szporluk, who taught me a lot about modernization. These two historians of Ukraine have dealt mostly with European history, and I have learned a lot from that.
Two other books have been extremely important for me: Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History by Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast; and Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. Both books use the concept of modernization but revise it critically. The authors are not historians but both books provide a synthesis of global history.
Inglehart and Welzel, on the one hand, present a revised version of modernization theory which takes into account values and cultural change. North, on the other, says that we tend to see democracy and the free market as a kind of norm and that that is a fundamental mistake. From a global perspective, the norm appears to be violence and poverty. He says that for the past two hundred years, many societies have tried to overcome both violence and poverty. This obviously goes against the perspective of authors such as Jared Diamond or, more recently, Yuval Noah Harari who do not perceive this as such. Even though these books were not written by historians, they explain how much history matters to understand the contemporary world.
They also concur with a recent trend called “applied history.” You find its legitimization in The History Manifesto written by David Armitage and Jo Guldi. The Belfer Center at Harvard University has even established an Applied History Project. They call for a type of history that may serve as a guide to action in the present: they use the resources of the past to imagine alternative possibilities in the future. I appreciate this agenda very much.
Throughout recent years, and especially since February 2022, more and more attention has been paid in academic circles to the colonial politics of the Russian Empire, followed by what has sometimes been called the neocolonial politics of the Russian Federation. When addressing the history of the nineteenth century, you state that the part of Ukraine under the Austro-Hungarian Empire can be characterized as a colony, whereas the Ukrainian lands under the Russian Empire did not qualify as a colony but were in many ways part of the key political and economic areas of the Empire. Later on, you describe how Ukrainians were united and enclosed in the Soviet Union, becoming a nation state in a formal sense just as they were deprived of national memory. In the concluding part of the book, you state that Ukraine used to be a strange colony in history and is a country whose colonial history is coming to an end now. How would you locate your approach within the broader field of colonial and post-colonial studies? Has the full-scale invasion of Ukraine perhaps altered your understanding of the history of Ukrainian–Russian relations?
I hate to say it, but I don’t particularly like postcolonialism. I would like to quote Ernest Renan here: “to have good reasons you have to be unfashionable sometimes.” I believe that postcolonialism proved to be very important for literary and cultural studies and tremendously good scholarship has been done in those fields. But when it comes to the hard facts of Ukrainian history, I am sceptical about its import. I find it hard to characterize Ukraine as a colony. The right question is not whether Ukraine was a colony, but rather when and to what extent it was one, if at all?
I would say that for most of its history Ukraine was not a colony. There are some periods of colonization. Probably the most intensive one occurred under Stalin and the Holodomor was a part of that. There were instances of Habsburg colonization in Western Ukraine, which to me implies that colonization is not by definition a negative thing—it can in fact contain positive aspects too. When it comes to other parts of Ukraine, they constituted the core of the Russian Empire. If you look at the history of 18th-century Russia or that of the late Soviet Union, you see that to a large extent it was Ukrainian elites who were running those empires. There was even a chance, as Andreas Kappeler has argued, that 18th-century Russian Empire would have become a Ukrainian Empire. Ukrainian elites had the advantage of coming from the Western borderlands and used that to their utmost advantage. Russia was a large but backward empire and to run it educated elites were badly needed and those elites often came from the Baltic region, Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, and Armenia. Ukraine thus resembles Scotland which was built the British Empire as its empire too.
There is a paradox however which was especially visible under the Soviet regime. Ukrainians were overrepresented among members of the Russian imperial elite and then the Soviet elite, but they were also overrepresented among the dissidents and nonconformists. To make a career in the centre, Ukrainians had to deny large parts of their identity. They were Ukrainian by origin and servants of the Russian Empire by conviction. Many other Ukrainian intellectuals and members of the middle classes tried to resist this. There is an estimation that perhaps as many as 50% of all Soviet dissidents were Ukrainian under Brezhnev. By the way, you could make the same argument about Jews who were overrepresented both in power and in the opposition.
In this respect, Ukrainian history may be reduced to a simple sentence: Ukrainians started as the Scots and ended up like the Irish. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union failed and collapsed. They couldn’t keep up with modern societies and it was therefore obvious to many Ukrainians that they needed to leave this space—even while it was in the interest of many of them to try and make their empires succeed.
I should mention that I even wrote a piece for Slavic Review on why postcolonialism is not enough to understand the region and its complex history. I like to say that we enjoy talking about colonialism because it makes us feel special. That may be especially true for humanities professors, for historians, or for scholars of literature. I do not deny the validity of such explanations, but I believe that in the hierarchy of things there are much more important things for us to discuss. For example, I believe that institutional reform in Ukraine—and more specifically the reform of the justice system—is far more important.
I should add that Western academia has recently been greatly influenced by postcolonial theories. I think rightly so. When it comes to Eastern Europe, Western academia has focused on Russian history to the extent that chairs have been named “Russian and East European Studies.” I do think that it is time for decolonization there, to give voice to other people, and maybe to drop the label Russian. The journal Ab Imperio has done tremendously important work in this respect.
Having said all that, when it comes to the hard facts of Ukrainian history, which I prefer to study for a variety of reasons, I do not believe that postcolonial studies can offer us much help.
When you discuss the dilemmas of the Russian language in Ukraine, you mention that even though Ukraine was never a monolingual country, Russian used to have a very strong position because of its status as a “world language”. How do you view the status and role of the Russian language and culture in Ukraine in the postwar period? Would you say Russian is likely to lose its prestige as a “world language”?
I don’t have too many original ideas to offer here. On these issues, I am basically referring to other academics, mostly social linguists, whose research I trust very much. They use statistics to say that the number of Russian-speakers is decreasing globally. There is a chance that in the few next decades Russian will cease to be one of the 10 global languages.
I would say that process has intensified after the start of the current war. I believe that nobody has done as much for the de-Russificiation of Ukraine as Putin with his bombing of Russian-speaking cities. But there is a larger process at work here which the war has only accelerated.
Russian was not just a language of domination. In every new country that emerged out of a now old empire, the language of the empire has been maintained—this has been the norm. When we talk about global dimensions, for Ukrainians, Georgians, Belarusian, Chechens, and others, the Russian language was their only access to a global world. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian has increasingly been replaced by the English language. This, you can clearly see in Ukraine, especially among the younger generations. This has much to do with the internet of course. I believe that the Russian language will lose its special status and will become the language of a minority in Ukraine—like how German is in Poland or Hungarian is in Slovakia nowadays. As predicted by social linguist Tomasz Kamusella, this probably will take two or maybe three generations to materialise.
Kamusella made a simple observation which may not be too evident: you cannot find a single country in the world which accepts Russian as an official language and is at the same time democratic. You cannot say the same about the German language or the English language, not even Arabic for that matter. In the case of Russian, this is almost a norm for which we shouldn’t blame the language, of course. It is rather a matter of political culture that has come together with the language. Maybe someday Russian will also become a language of democracy. I very much hope for that for the sake of Ukraine too, but so far, that has not been the case.
You place a clear emphasis on the role of violence in the making of the modern nation—the birth trauma of modern and contemporary Ukraine, if you so wish. You indeed depict the history of Ukraine as a history of progress and catastrophes, a history that provides grounds for “limited but defensible optimism”, as you put it. Could I ask you to discuss the role of violence in shaping Ukraine and what grounds for limited but defensible optimism you see?
Like I mentioned earlier, I think Ukraine largely emerged as a modern nation due to the two world wars.To use a metaphor: if nations had passports, Ukraine’s would say 1914. Military historian Mark von Hagen was the first to make this point and he has shown very persuasively to what extent war, and especially the First World War, accelerated the nation building process in Ukraine. You have a period of thirty years of violence and Ukraine emerges out of that. As a matter of fact, the territory of today’s Ukraine became integrated within one state in this period—the Soviet Union.
Until 1945, or even the death of Stalin in 1953, Ukraine was a territory of extreme violence. There were several waves of the extreme violence, like the repression of the thirties, the destruction of the Soviet prisoners of war by the Nazis, then the ethnic cleansing of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists, the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the deportation of Ukrainians and Poles—wave after wave. The violence was so extreme that it is difficult to understand how certain people managed to survive it at all.
War was also, if I may put it like that, the largest intrusion of modernity into the traditional world of Ukrainian peasants, Jews, and Tatars. This intrusion destroyed their society—the Holocaust and the Holodomor should doubtlessly be seen as part of this form of modernity.
These are birthmarks and I try to show their lingering effects in my book. I believe that one of those effects is corruption. This may sound strange at first hearing, but several analysts have pointed to the correlation between the levels of violence and corruption. Societies that experience extreme violence tend to be more corrupted because corruption can serve as a kind of survival strategy. This connection needs to be explored further.
Another effect is ambivalence. Societies that went through extreme violence will not have clear notions. This was very visible in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If I may draw on my personal experiences in Ukraine during the nineties—it was very difficult to come up with any kind of radical reform because the population remained very ambivalent. They were in favour of Ukrainian independence, but they were also nostalgic about the Soviet Union.
Having said that, I would say that Ukraine now has a chance to transform itself, or at least had a chance to do so before the war broke out. We had the first generation raised without the trauma of violence and they behaved very differently from previous generations. They wanted to express themselves and expand their vision. Once you have such a generation, radical and positive changes come within reach. This is the positive side. The negative side is that now they also have a trauma—the current war—and so we cannot tell what the results will be like. Evidently, a lot depends on the longevity of the war and its result, which are very hard to predict. Now we have both positive and negative tendencies, like so often in history, and it is very hard to strike a precise balance between them.
Why do I see reasons for limited optimism? Because such a generation emerged and, more importantly, they managed to take up positions of power in the country. If you look at almost any field in Ukraine, people in power these days are generally quite young—they are of your age or probably only slightly older than you. If you look at Zelensky and his milieu, you see people who are around 40. Just compare that with the Biden’s or Putin’s milieu who are in their 70s or even 80s. This new generation is now running the country and organizing the resistance.
What I am trying to suggest here is similar to what Anne Applebaum has written in The Red Famine, her book on the Holodomor: what gives us a sense of optimism even after one of the most tragic parts of Ukrainian history is that Ukraine managed to survive and even have a new generation. This resilience should give us hope.
War is a tragedy without any doubt. It is the biggest tragedy that can ever happen to anybody. Paradoxically, it also opens a window of opportunity to make radical reforms because the past is now definitely over.
Let us examine the role of youth in a bit more detail. When discussing significant social events of the 20th century, you assign a lot of importance to the activities of young people, especially when it comes to large social changes. How do you view the current situation and future development of Ukraine in the light of this? How important do you think the current experiences of young people will prove to be and what impact might they have?
When we talk specifically about studies of Central and Eastern Europe, we mostly use concepts such as ethnic and religious groups, nations, and classes. The concept of generation has been largely neglected, despite the famous slogan which becomes especially popular in the West after 1968 that history makes generations and generations made history. There are some exceptions. In Russia, for example, generations have been studied as agents of change. We also have several recent books on the sixties generation in Ukraine who became dissidents. I also emphasize the concept of generation in my book on Ivan Franko and his community.
We have a new generation in Ukraine nowadays which Zelensky epitomizes. Tymoshenko or Poroshenko look like dinosaurs compared to them even though they are quite young when compared to Biden or Putin. The new generation consists of people who were born shortly before or just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have not been Sovietized much and have only a weak memory of the Soviet Union. They may be speakers of Russian, but they do not have a special empathy for Russia because they rather want to have a standard of living like that of the West.
I would claim that the Euromaidan was largely their revolution: it was the revolution of a new urban middle class—the revolution of a class-generation. A very important feature of this class is that they are very educated. Having a graduate degree is the norm among them. Nowadays, Ukraine and Moldova have the highest percentages of university graduates. Unfortunately, the standards of university education in Ukraine are not the highest, to put it mildly. But studies reveal that five years spent in any university will change your values.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, most members of this generation do not work in state institutions or industry. Ukraine has undergone a transformation from being an industrial society to a service sector-based one. Look at Zelensky’s team: they practically all come from the service sector. Of course, this social transformation is also a global one. Just compare it with the recent Belarusian protests or the protests against Putin’s return to power a little more than a decade ago: the main actors in them belonged to the same class-generation.
Those born around the 2000s are trying to find their political voice nowadays. They are part of a global revolutionary wave which started in the last decade with Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab revolutions, and the revolutions just before COVID. We may have already forgotten, but 2019 was a year of revolutions which COVID and in the case of Ukraine, the war, abruptly put an end to. But the seeds are still very much there.
There is one important Ukrainian particularity here: most of the recent revolutionary attempts have failed whereas the Ukrainian one has succeeded.
So why is the Ukrainian middle class different from the Belarusian or the Russian, whose members I sympathize with very much? They have all been raised under conditions of security and relative prosperity, but you also need to have a modicum of democracy to make revolutionary change happen. This combination was only the case in Ukraine.
In my final chapter I point to a very interesting parallel which may be coincidental to an extent. In Chile, you had something almost identical to Euromaidan in 2019, with the same sequence of events and the same kind of logic used by powerholders. You may be surprised to hear that the Russian community in Chile asked the President to take harsh measures against the protesters. The phenomenon is very much global.
I am afraid though that the revolutions of the 2010s are being replaced by the wars of the 2020s, with war in Ukraine and now also in Palestine. And nobody knows what will follow…
When comparing the Ukrainian original and English translation of the book, one may notice that certain parts have been revised. They appear to have been sharpened due to the beginning of the full-scale invasion. May I ask which parts of the book you have chosen to revise after February 2022 and why?
Any book that appears in a different language should be rewritten. There is a Polish, an Italian and an English translation of my book, and a German one is forthcoming. There will probably be a Korean and a Croatian translation too. I will keep rewriting the book for each of these translations because the audiences are so different form one another.
I made the English version shorter with the help of editors and I am very grateful to them because they indicated to me which parts would be difficult to grasp for English readers. I have also added a chapter on the current war.
I use the first year of the war to extend my main argument regarding how developments in Ukraine are global and not local, which is now evident. The ongoing war is not a world war, but it is a global war. You could hardly find a place in the world which has not been affected one way or another by the Russo–Ukrainian war. It really shows the global importance of what you might call the Ukrainian–Russian borderlands.
Having said that, the part I have rewritten the most is the one on language. I have done so because of the war which has brought rapid change in this regard. It is important to recall here that largely peasant-based nations such as Ukraine, tend to choose ethnic forms of identity based on their language. However, as they become urban, that identity may change, and the new urban class may develop a new civic identity. I try to show the emergence of this civil nation in the final part of the book—if you look at the milieu of Zelensky, about half of them are ethnically Jewish, Tatars, or Georgians.
I am afraid that this process of civic nationalism is not irreversible though. The war could change it and a certain re-ethnicization is already happening. It is a dangerous comparison to make, but this is what has happened to Israel after the 1967 and 1973 wars: a nationalization of the space followed.
I regret to add that every translation has dropped the term global. This was not my intention and I do not know the exact reasons behind it either, but the tendency is clear. Publishers have explained to me that this would be better for marketing purposes. In a sense, publishers outside Ukraine bring me back to the nation which I have tried to move away from.
You also state in the book that democracy wins when there is a strong sense of belonging to language, literature, and history. While closing this interview, could we ask you to elaborate on that remarkable statement?
This observation was originally made by Anne Applebaum during the Euromaidan revolution, and I have borrowed the idea from her. She said that we have a very negative notion about nationalism and especially about Ukrainian nationalists who are presumed to be antisemitic and violent. She says that is not true if you look at the Maidan. If you want to find a territory without nationalism, you have the Donbas: a very corrupt and violent territory with a very weak sense of belonging.
I would say there has to be some modicum of belonging because people need to have a narrative of what they are fighting for and why. I also believe that the Euromaidan revolution has been successful because, unlike several other revolutions, it had a national dimension – the protestors on the street were fighting not only against Yanukovych but against Putin as well. We know from our history that revolutions that make national demands have a better chance to succeed than other revolutions.
At the same time, I try to problematize every concept including that of nationalism. What my book is calling for is a revision of the basic notions that were normalized in the 19th and 20th centuries. The society they were meant to describe does not exist anymore; we now have something quite new. This calls for critical revision and rethinking. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, the one duty we owe history is to rewrite it.
Now you could write a global history of anything but why is the global history of Ukraine so important? In my understanding, Ukraine is a kind of glass mirror in which the global can see itself with all its different problems and possible solutions. For that reason, global history is not just very useful, but it also makes a lot of sense.
In cooperation with Oliver Garner and Rohit Sarma.