Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 5

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

Ukrainian national identity has not had a happy history. In Marxist-Leninist philosophy and social studies in the USSR and in Ukraine there was no place for research into questions of national self-identification, national characteristics, national ways of running the economy and the national character. “Workers have no fatherland,” said Karl Marx. After the “proletarian world revolution,” with its aim of establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat and destroying the bourgeoisie and private property, all nationalities would “merge” into one, according to Marxism.


From a theoretical point of view, Marxism was a typical example of “reductionism.” It reduced the great diversity of history, politics, rights, psychology and so on to a “dialectic” of a few category pairs: bourgeoisie-proletariat, private-public ownership and so on. In this, Marx was repeating Hegel, though in his own way. Marx criticized the German thinker, who reduced the whole tapestry of reality to categories of logic and theory of knowledge and turned life into a dialectic of epistemological categories.

Marx and his followers tried to reduce social relations to the “struggle” of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, of progressive and regressive classes. Hegel gave us “epistemological reductionism,” Marx gave us “economic reductionism.” Hegel, however, never asked himself questions about national identity and national diversity. For him, the pinnacle of world historical development was the Prussian Empire, and the Germans were the master race. Marx could not accept this point of view, because it contradicted his tenet that workers have no fatherland–that is, that the social should define the national. At the same time, his theoretical postulates could not explain the existence of the factor of nations, their variety, and–most important–national ways of running the economy.

This put the question of national identity among the “awkward” issues of Marxist theory and practice. Without the means for a theoretical description of nationality, national originality and national psychology, nationality was simply “abolished.” Leonid Brezhnev–and Mikhail Gorbachev after him–declared that the nationality question had been “fully and finally” resolved under socialism. This was accompanied by the roar of guns in Afghanistan, Tbilisi, Moldova, Tajikistan and–under Boris Yeltsin–Chechnya. Earlier, Stalin had found his own way of resolving the nationalities issue: “resettling” whole peoples and replacing them with Russians. This is what happened to the Crimean Tatars in 1946. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev recalled that on a number of occasions Stalin wanted to move the Ukrainians out of Ukraine, but did not have enough railway carriages to do it.

Problems of national identity–and in particular of Ukrainian national identity–were forbidden subjects in Soviet social sciences. Those researching these issues usually ended up in the Gulag. The KGB ranked research into Ukrainian national identity under “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.” In the Ukrainian KGB there was a special department dedicated to the “fight” against Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism (that is, the Ukrainian diaspora) in Europe, the United States and Canada.


The question of Ukrainian national identity was studied primarily abroad–in the United States, France and Canada–by a number of specialist historians, linguists and social anthropologists.

This led to a division between research traditions in Ukraine and abroad. For objective reasons, no methodology has yet been developed in Ukraine for social research (apart from sociology), which is commensurable with Western models. Therefore, methodologically, the issue of Ukrainian national identity was studied more intensively in those places where there was less need for it–in developed Western countries.

Simply transferring the methodology and problems of research in humanities from the West to Ukraine does not achieve anything, because Ukraine is still dominated by the reductionist spirit of Marxism, a highly moralizing and didactic form of analysis, and a tendency among authors towards ideological “moral edification.” The tradition inherent in Western methodology of objective description of real life phenomena still has to overcome the ideologizing Hegelian and Marxist essentialism, which focuses on the abstract essence. The situation is critical: In Ukraine, where it is needed most, there is no research into problems of identity and, furthermore, no non-Marxist research tradition.

In the West, the research undertaken is primarily of theoretical interest and does not have any influence on the state policy of the countries where the Ukrainian diaspora resides. Furthermore, the research does not have any nationalist soil beneath it. This would only be found in Ukraine, if the research was adapted to the conditions of post-Soviet Ukraine.


As a result of this, Ukraine has not developed a national identity since independence in 1991. It is now becoming particularly clear that practically all the problems facing Ukraine in foreign and domestic policy, economics, state structure and democracy come down to the problem of national identity in one form or another. Progress in forming this identity will determine the pace and direction of Ukrainian modernization. This conclusion is suggested by the example of Ukraine’s closest neighbors. In Poland, for example, a sense of national identity and an understanding from the outset of its place in Europe and of the direction of its foreign policy determined the subsequent pace of reform and the entry into Western structures–NATO and the European Union. The same is true of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

Conversely, in countries with a weakened sense of national identity which have experienced the influence of eastern Christianity and Turkish rule–Rumania, Bulgaria, Moldova–progress in carrying through market reforms is very slow.

However, even in these countries progress is faster and carries with it a lower social cost than in Ukraine, which shows the slowest progress among Eastern European countries on an entire range of indicators, including the economy, privatization, corruption, state structure and rule of law. What is happening in Ukraine is an imitation of reforms in the absence of the cultural and ontological preconditions for such reforms; among these preconditions is national identity.

The only solution to this situation is to move away from abstract analysis of Ukrainian national identity and to direct analysis toward the actual existing conditions which Ukrainian ethnicity now faces. To put it philosophically, pragmatism and realism should be united with the practical ontology of being in modern Ukraine. This will allow us to formulate the problem in question: What are the real conditions in which the formation of the Ukrainian identity occurs?

This immediately shifts the focus of the analysis onto the components of Ukrainian national identity and the conditions in which they are formed.


The Ukrainian national identity being formed faces particular challenges from the economy. What are the political and economic reasons for the delayed reforms in Ukraine? One could indicate the desire of Ukrainian “rent-seekers” to occupy indefinitely the position between “not real socialism” and “not quite capitalism.” This fact enables different types and representatives of the postcommunist nomenclature in Ukraine to avoid any real change for the sake of preservation of “societal stability”–which in this case is tantamount to stagnation.

Indeed, even the highest Ukrainian officials have recognized the dismal status of the Ukrainian economic situation, which is the starting point of any reformist efforts and successful shaping of pillars for the national identity. In his extraordinary November 20, 1998 address to parliament, President Kuchma admitted that GDP had fallen dramatically since 1991 (Literaturna Ukraina, November 26, 1998). The national debt, according to Ukrainian finance minister Igor Mityukov, is US$14.9 billion or 48.4 percent of the planned GDP for 1999 (Uryadovy kurier, November 11, 1998).

Ukraine is the only postcommunist state which has lost more than half of its economic potential in peacetime with no natural disasters to explain the loss (Literaturna Ukraina, op. cit.). For example, during the Great Depression in the United States, American GDP fell by only 30 percent (as compared with 240 percent in Ukraine, as calculated in “Literaturna Ukraina”), which caused many human tragedies and brought the United States to the brink of social collapse. It was only President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the radical reappraisal of the role of the state in economic development that saved the US from revolution. The Americans’ sense of national dignity, which had been injured by the Great Depression, was reborn, which helped America to victory first with its allies in the Second World War and then in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Similarly, a protracted and deep decline in the national economy diminishes national self-assurance and the feeling of economic security. This presents a particular danger for the sense of national identity, which has barely begun to form in Ukraine. A national poverty complex is generated, with its tendency for corruption and an understanding of property as something “stolen” or “solicited” but not “earned.” This attitude to property hampers the transition from socialism to market democracy.


The Ukraine case is complicated further by the existence of several identities in Ukraine–Ukrainian, Russian (because of the presence of 12 million ethnic Russians), Soviet (in Eastern Ukraine), pro-Western (in Western regions) and regional identities. It is an open question as to which identity will predominate. External parameters will determine the answer, in other words where Ukraine sees itself: in European structures, in the “Eurasian space,” or possibly in an Eastern Slav union with Russia, Belarus and possibly Yugoslavia.

Ukraine’s leaders never tire of repeating that Ukraine’s strategic goal is to join European structures. However, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development figures from its 1998 Transition Report show how far Ukraine is from this goal. According to the report, the GDP of Ukraine in 1998 constituted only 37 percent of its GDP in 1989, while figures for Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic are 118, 100, 103, 95, 97 percent respectively (Financial Times, November 24, 1998). The gap between Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbors is widening. “Countries which have balanced privatization and liberalization with deep institutional reforms have been more resilient to recent global pressures,” the report says (ibid). With Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining NATO, their identity in the political sense will cease to be East European and become European. Ukraine faces a threat to freeze its “East European-ness” (in the political sense, a synonym for backwardness) for a long time and to appear in a gray zone between Russia and Germany. What will this mean for the formation of the Ukrainian national identity? Could Ukraine withstand the negative consequences of a scenario such as marginalization, an ingrained feeling of inferiority or even turning into a European pariah-state? These problems deserve close attention for the sake of the preservation of European and regional security.


Paradoxically, the issue of Ukrainian identity has recently arisen suddenly and seriously for the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States. “Suddenly” because the international Ukrainian diaspora, and particularly the representatives of the “three waves” of emigration, have always been proud of their strong sense of national identity, which helped the diaspora and its institutions survive in alien surroundings. The question “who am I?” was somehow self-evident for the diaspora. “Good Ukrainians” were those who went to church, participated in the life of the community and brought up their children in the Ukrainian national spirit and conversant in its language.

The collapse of the USSR and the “fourth wave” of economic emigration from Ukraine presented the diaspora with the problem of integration between “Ukrainian” Ukrainians and the diaspora. It became apparent that the former did not meet the criteria of “good Ukrainians” which were self-evident for the latter. They did not go to church, and their language, even if it was Ukrainian, was different from the dialect in the diaspora. Moreover, their main aim in life was to get rich (American ideals) and they had very little interest in what was happening in their homeland.

The diaspora was not prepared for such a turn of events. The result was a sharp drop in circulation of leading Ukrainian newspapers, and a drain of young people from the diaspora’s traditional institutions to American ones. The children of Ukraine’s baby-boomers decided that it would be better for them to adapt to the endogenous culture and society rather than preserve their national identity at any price. As Bohdan Oryshkevich, an American Ukrainian, put it, the problem is that of ethno-national survival in the American “melting pot” and fundamentals of such survival (The Ukrainian Weekly, November 15, 1998). The author shows the limits of the traditional diaspora attributes of national identity in modern conditions. He stresses that churches (Orthodox, Lutheran and Catholic) have evolved into quintessentially American and Americanizing institutions. He says: “Religion ultimately deals with one’s relationship with God and with the universe, not with one’s ethnic background… It is hard to see how the purchase of life insurance policies from the Ukrainian National Association would preserve the rapidly declining Ukrainian identity in America above and beyond the capital it would provide indirectly for Ukrainian activities…. There is nothing intrinsically Ukrainian about Soyuzivka [a resort] or IRAs or mortgages” (ibid).

The author argues that profound education is the key to survival of Ukrainian national identity: “Education and world-class skills are the only elements which will provide Ukraine and its diaspora with the skills to address these problems, and maintain a functioning rather than a dysfunctional identity (ibid). Education to preserve the Ukrainian identity will require extensive home-stays by Ukrainian American students in Ukraine to learn the reality of what is Ukraine. Without the challenges presented by Ukraine, a Ukrainian American identity is largely meaningless and serves little purpose because assimilation is a natural process. Stressing the “functioning” rather than “dysfunctional” identity and “cognitive” rather than “recreational” skills (for example, folk music and arts). Oryshkevich hits the core of the problem–the Ukrainian diaspora should change traditionalist components of ethno-national identity which accelerate the assimilation of the Ukrainian American youth and lose the best to a purely American existence. It means that the problem of Ukrainian national identity cannot be reduced to ethnic and linguistic elements, but should include basic modernizing ingredients–of which education is a major part.


In the opinion of James Mace–the prominent American expert on Ukraine and the author of the pioneering research into the origins of the artificial Stalinist famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, professor of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy–“Ukraine’s national identity has not yet been defined. No one has figured out yet what Ukrainians are” (The Kyiv Post, November 4, 1998). Professor Mace attributes this situation to Ukraine sinking inch by inch “into the quicksand of Eurasia” and distancing itself from the European perspective. He thinks that Ukraine, due to the absence of national identity, will go through a very painful period of leftist rule. Bohdan Oryshkevich, in turn, specifies three problems confronting Ukraine in the next century: first, a low level of economic competitiveness; second, a very low level of development, ranking Ukraine 102nd in development in the world in 1998, below Botswana, Albania and Russia; and, third, a loss of population–of some 10 million by the year 2016 from today’s 50 million.

Only by trying to address these and other challenges of the modern age can Ukraine forge a “functioning” national identity. The traditional attitude to the national identity as something already given thus should be reversed. Only in the process of the practical solution of the problems facing Ukraine and Ukrainians can the modern national identity emerge.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University, and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.