Letter from Ukraine — From the July 2015 issue

Fugue State

The struggle for national identity in wartime Ukraine

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I had not really come to Ukraine to seek out historical truths. What interested me was the way in which Ukrainians interpreted their own history and identity following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. — especially in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which fanned separatist flames throughout the eastern part of the country. Within months, war broke out between the Ukrainian army and two self-proclaimed secessionist republics in Donetsk and Lugansk. In September came the first of many truces, which both parties have been quick to violate. When I was there last winter, the shelling and the skirmishes continued, while the West upbraided Russia for its (unofficial) connivance in the conflict.

Moscow would have people believe that the war was instigated by a fascist junta in Kiev, bent on oppressing ethnic Russians. Meanwhile, the new government in Kiev maintains that local criminals and terrorists have locked arms with Putin’s jackbooted invaders. My question wasn’t which side fired the first shot but how the status quo unraveled with such astonishing speed. How can a nation lose two of its major cities to separatists overnight? If every group in Ukraine builds its own museums and publishes its own history books, why would anyone feel loyalty to the center?

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

Ukraine did not exist autonomously within its current borders until 1991. When the U.S.S.R. disintegrated, the newly independent nation needed patriotic myths to teach its schoolchildren — a complicated matter even in a less frangible society. At first, many of these stories defined the country in opposition to Russia. Historians quickly dredged up forgotten nationalistic episodes: for example, the Cossacks of central Ukraine who had refused to join the Russian Empire during the eighteenth century. In 2003, Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, published a book whose title neatly summarized the national conversation. It was called Ukraina — ne Rossiia: Ukraine Is Not Russia.

After the Orange Revolution of 2005 — a two-month-long pro-democracy demonstration that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power — this national mythologizing went into overdrive. Yushchenko bet heavily on Ukrainian identity. In 2006, he established the National Institute of Memory in Kiev, and directed historians to pore over Soviet archives (the ones the Russians hadn’t destroyed or carted back to Moscow) in order to document the Holodomor. Scholars diligently classified the mass starvation as an act of genocide, on the grounds that it targeted the bread-producing class, which meant Ukrainians. Though most reputable historians estimate that 3.5 million people died, some put the death toll at 10 million — by counting the millions of Ukrainians who would have been born if the Soviets had not caused the artificial famine.

To balance the victim narrative, Ukraine also needed heroes. The government focused its adulation on the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (U.P.A.), the militant wing of the O.U.N. The U.P.A. collaborated with the Nazis to fight the Soviets, but turned against the Germans after realizing that they had no intention of making good on the promise of independent statehood. Yushchenko also propagated a cult of personality around Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian political activist and O.U.N. leader who was imprisoned by both the Poles and the Germans before being assassinated by the KGB in 1959.

The problem with using anti-Russian sentiment as nation-building glue was that many in eastern Ukraine had strong ties to Russia. Even during the 1990s, before the rise of Yushchenko, this regional division was clear. During the so-called War of the Monuments, people in the west toppled statues of Lenin and erected busts of U.P.A. fighters and Taras Shevchenko, the national poet. In the east, Soviet monuments remained intact and celebrations of Soviet holidays drew large, noisy crowds.

The elevation of the U.P.A., which had pretty much ceased to exist by the mid-Fifties, was also problematic. After all, most Ukrainians had family who had served in the Red Army, which taught them that Bandera and the U.P.A. were murderers. Then there was the inconvenient fact that the U.P.A. had started as a fascist organization devoted to ethnic purity. Its members had killed their share of Poles and Jews, though they would soften their stance against minorities over time.

Not surprisingly, Yushchenko’s nation-building strategy never completely panned out. It struck many as contrived and divisive. Ethnic Ukrainians as well as ethnic Russians complained to me that Yushchenko’s efforts, for all their claims of inclusiveness, had rigorously excluded Soviet heroism and Soviet mythology — deeply personal matters to much of the population, especially in the east. “Yushchenko just said, ‘I’m Ukrainian, and I should be proud that I’m Ukrainian and you should be proud that you’re Ukrainian,’ ” the parliamentarian Mustafa Nayyem told me. “And that Ukrainian means this. A lot of people didn’t agree with him.”

The president and the Orange Revolution floundered, and Viktor Yanukovych, a strongman from the east whose candidacy Russia had approved, replaced him in 2010. At once Yanukovych began to roll back his predecessor’s narrative. He downgraded the National Institute of Memory to a toothless government think tank and handed it over to a retrograde Communist. In public speeches, he referred to the Holodomor as a crime, a tragedy, an Armageddon — but not, pointedly, as a genocide. The courts stripped Bandera of his posthumous Hero of Ukraine medal on the grounds that he had never been a citizen. Nationalist museums like the one in Lviv were targeted by security services, and Zabily was brought in for interrogation.

But national myths die hard — or not at all. For decades, identity, history, and language cleavages were used by Ukrainian politicians to divide the population and pander for votes. “It was much easier to say, ‘Our opponents, they don’t like the Russian language, so vote for me,’ than to say, ‘I want to make reforms,’ ” Nayyem explained.

In 2013 and 2014, protests broke out in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) when Yanukovych bowed to Russian pressure and halted plans for Ukraine to align economically with the European Union. During what came to be known as the Euromaidan protests, the red-and-black banner of the U.P.A. began to make frequent appearances. It was usually associated with the Right Sector, a nationalist organization whose adherents shouted U.P.A. slogans: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” Meanwhile, in the east, pro-Russian protesters donned the Ribbon of St. George, a black-and-orange military decoration awarded to those who had fought in World War II, which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Some waved Russian flags, others pulled out their Soviet banners, which were looking less defunct by the day.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Guns and Poses,” appeared in the December 2014 issue. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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