The Russia-Ukraine crisis and how Ukrainians are finding a new sense of national identity

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A demonstrator cries listening a national anthem as other rally with Ukrainian national flags in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo)
A demonstrator cries listening a national anthem as other rally with Ukrainian national flags in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo)

The world's eyes are on the diplomatic surge trying to head off a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For Ukrainians themselves, the rising tensions are concerning. But there's also something else — the feeling of a nation being reborn.

“Putin always trying to say that Ukraine is a failed state, Ukraine is an artificial state," Hanna Hopko, former Ukrainian member of Parliament, says. "But Ukraine is a democracy in action."

For centuries, Ukraine has been a pawn in great power competitions. This time, Ukrainians say it’s different:

“This crisis galvanized, consolidated, accelerated the development of this new civic identity, where folks who never in their lives spoke Ukrainian all of a sudden made a conscious choice to make an effort to start speaking Ukrainian in public," Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Kansas, says.

Today, On Point: What it means to be Ukrainian, now.


Vitaly Chernetsky, born in Ukraine, now a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Kansas. Author of the forthcoming book, "Spaces of ‘Glocalization’: Studies in Ukrainian Literature and Cinema." (@globalrhizome)

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale. Author of several books, including "Our Malady" and "The Road to Unfreedom." (@TimothyDSnyder)

Sevgil Musayeva, editor of the online daily Ukrainska Pravda. Co-founder of Crimea SOS, which is helping more than 200,000 Crimeans who fled the Russian invasion in 2014 resettle.

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Hanna Hopko, former Ukrainian member of Parliament and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee. (@HopkoHanna)

Interview Highlights

On a history of Ukraine

Vitaly Chernetsky: “Ukraine, as an entity in our modern understanding, like all nations, is a product of the last 200-plus years. But of course, it has deep historical roots that go more than a thousand years. However, it is the understanding of what it means for a nation as an imagined community. As what scholars call that is the idea of people sharing and understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian. That started forming in the middle of the 19th century, accelerated gradually. And so by the beginning of the 20th century, we see a very serious movement towards cultural autonomy and independence.

"And within the revolution of 1917, the first part of it, the end of monarchy in Russia after February. We have an autonomous Ukraine come into being, and very rapidly trying to figure out what it was. And then the Soviet period freezes it because it has sort of these boxes that all the ethnic groups that fit in, and it's after the collapse of the Soviet Union that we have a new sense of now Ukraine figuring out for all the people in the now independent country called Ukraine, how they can come together and be one.”

On the origins of Ukrainian national identity

Timothy Snyder: “One way to understand Ukrainian history is to imagine that Ukraine is a very normal country, just more so. That is to say that Ukraine passes through stages that are very familiar to us and European history generally, but at some points those passengers are turned out to be much more difficult, or in the 20th century, much more violent. So I mean, as Professor Chernetsky says, in the 19th century, there is a actually quite typical Ukrainian national movement. It begins in the early 19th century, I would say, in Kharkiv, in what's now eastern Ukraine.

"And over the course of the 19th century, largely as a result of Russian prohibitions on the use of the Ukrainian language, it ends up landing in what's now western Ukraine, around the city of Lviv, which is in the Hapsburg monarchy. The notion of what Ukraine is has to do with the Ukrainian people. So at the time, history was very often written in terms of states and empires. But what national movements did was they shifted the discourse to society, to culture, to the people themselves. The most important Ukrainian historian, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, wrote the history of Ukraine as a history of the Ukrainian people.

"You know, something which we now take for granted. We take for granted that social history as normal is actually pioneered by these national movements. So in the late 19th century, there wouldn't have been a clear notion of where the Ukrainian borders are. But the notion was that there was a Ukrainian people which was deserving of the same kinds of political rights that other peoples would deserve.”

On how a rise of the use of the Ukrainian language gives Ukrainians a shared sense of national identity

Vitaly Chernetsky: "There was resistance for a while. In many sectors, cultural sectors. For instance, most of the print media, even during period of independence, was in Russian. But things have really radically changed recently. We see that and I observe that, you know, when I was last in Ukraine this summer, visiting family and friends in July and August, a lot more effort, even in ... cities like my native city of Odessa, of people making an effort even at a supermarket, speaking to each other in Ukrainian and in other public situations.

"A lot of the glossy magazines have just deliberately switched from Russian to Ukrainian, the ones published in Ukraine. So we see a lot of those changes. A lot of public intellectuals, for instance, some of the writers who used to write in Russian ... have now become bilingual writers. They consciously made efforts to write in Ukrainian. In some case, that would be displaced writers from the now Russian controlled Donbas region. ... [There's] much more of an effort to become part of this unified community of people of Ukrainian culture."

How do you think this Ukrainian identity might inform what could happen there between Russia and Ukraine in the coming weeks and months? 

Timothy Snyder: "I would prefer to land on the positive. I mean, what I really liked about this conversation is that it's helped filled out what Ukraine is, as opposed to what people outside Ukraine, who are hostile to Ukraine, say about it. I think  it's just very important to recognize that here we have a country where the president is bilingual, you know, with the country's bilingual, the capital's bilingual, the president of Ukraine represents a traditionally oppressed ethnic minority. In this case, it happens to be the Jews.

"We're looking at a country where there are all kinds of differences, but the diversity is very real in politics, and the country is being held together by a kind of civic identity. This leads to a basic misunderstanding, sometimes in Russia, about what Ukraine is. But it also leads to a certain amount of disquiet. I think for people like Mr. Putin, who don't want the world to run in this way. They don't want there to be messy democracies. He wants there to be a clear, authoritarian line where the dictator gets to say who you are. So I can't predict what's going to happen. But I do think what we've talked about today helps us to understand why Mr. Putin fundamentally misunderstands certain things."

From The Reading List

Kyiv Post: "Hanna Hopko, Olena Halushka: Vision 2030 for Ukraine-NATO" — "We must not forget why NATO was formed in 1949 — in order to prevent the expansion of the Stalinist USSR to the West, European Parliament member Rasa Jukneviciene reminded us on Feb. 9."

This program aired on February 8, 2022.


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Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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