By Mychailo Wynnyckyj.
April 16, 2022
Since independence, whenever Ukrainians have quarreled publicly, their most emotional disagreements have focused on differing interpretations of public symbols. Monuments, street names, holidays, historical heroes and their presentation in the public sphere and/or educational curricula – all have been contentious, all have roused passions.
To an external observer of these discussions (and their expression in election results), Ukraine seemed hopelessly divided: disjointed, lacking cohesion, speaking multiple languages, profoundly split along regional lines – close to a failed state.
Constructed and supported by Kremlin propaganda, promulgated by “knowing” social scientists, magnified by domestic interest groups for whom Ukraine’s fragmented image facilitated opaque business and political deals, this was the international image of Ukraine for decades.
Ironically, Russia’s invasion seems to have consolidated the Ukrainian identity exceptionally quickly, erasing many (if not all) previous domestic divisions. Paraphrasing Benedict Anderson, one of the classic writers on identity, it would seem Ukrainians suddenly “imagined” their community (commonality) only when – but also as soon as – it came under threat.
Instead of being welcomed with open arms, invading Russian soldiers were met by a highly motivated and effective Ukrainian military, and by unarmed civilians who stopped attacking tanks and armored vehicles with their bare hands. This consolidated Ukrainian identity was completely unexpected not only for the Kremlin, but for most in the West as well.
In the absence of an identifiable historical (or mythological) archetype for “Ukrainians,” western media has filled the vacuum with a stylized Zelensky – a kind of Rambo and Reagan rolled into one. Many in Ukraine find the idolized image of their President constructed by the western media somewhat strange, but acceptable in the short term. After all, we also liked it when foreigners identified us with Shevchenko (the football star), with Klitschko, with Lomachenko, and with Yushchenko.
Identity markers are not always objectively definable. For example, the Kremlin mistakenly assumed that all individuals who speak Russian in Ukraine (and elsewhere) identify with Russia and its leader. In fact, nothing could have motivated Ukrainians to fight more valiantly than an attack by supposedly “brotherly” Russia on their demonstrably separate identity.
Identity is a powerful motivator. When individuals who do not know each other, and objectively are quite different (linguistically, ethnically, politically), imagine themselves to be similar, this identity claim becomes a potent stimulus for both collective action and for the articulation of ideas that were previously left unexpressed. Archetypical heroes or historical characters can be intoxicating carriers of identity myths.
The most powerful and unifying identity construct for Ukrainians is that of the Cossacks. These 16-18 century freedom-loving warriors who would accept no ruler but their own (and even that was often problematic). Cossacks defend their land righteously against all invaders. Incidentally, they apparently were also spectacular dancers.
Among Diaspora supporters of Ukraine (lately this category seems to include anyone with even a fraction of Ukrainian roots), the metaphor of Ukrainians as bees has become popular in social media. The bear has attacked our hive, and the natural reaction of Ukrainians worldwide was to resist, each doing his/her own part, seemingly without orders, with minimal organizational structure, ready for self-sacrifice for the common cause.
This war has produced and will continue to produce new Ukrainian archetypes, symbols and heroes who will embody our consolidated identity well into the future. I have no doubt that a street or two will be named after Roman Hrybov – author of the legendary “dialog” between Ukraine’s defenders and the attacking Russian warship on 24 Feb. 2022. Videogames will be produced based on the theme of the “Ghost of Kyiv” – the mythical MiG-29 pilot who has shot down countless enemy aircraft. I suspect a statue or two of Zelensky, Zaluzhny or Reznikov may appear.
In war, symbolism is an essential part of motivation that then transfers over the long term into identity construction.
On the eve of Day 50 of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet – the missile cruiser “Moskva” sank. According to Ukrainian reports (obviously, not confirmed by the Kremlin) the ship capsized after being hit by a “Neptune” missile – a high tech weapon 100% designed and constructed in Ukraine. Ironically, the Moskva was the Russian warship that Roman Hrybov – the Ukrainian border guard stationed on Zmiyinyi Island – told exactly where to go. It would seem the Moskva followed Hrybov’s order.
Personified heroes are all important avenues for communicating the values of who we are as Ukrainians. In this war we have demonstrated to ourselves and to the world that we are warriors, heroes, volunteers, technically savvy innovators, “bees”. But what it really means to be Ukrainian remains complex and multifaceted.
Ukrainian identity continues to evolve as the war progresses. Historical symbols, flags and maps are important for national consolidation, but so are slogans. Identity archetypes are most powerful when they express an ideal, a value that is often not explainable in simple words. When found, these symbolic forms of shorthand are capable of moving mountains (or stopping massive ground assaults).
I remember the days immediately following the end of the Maidan protests in 2014 – the recently burned out hull of the Trade Unions Building in Kyiv’s city-center was draped in a massive banner that read “Freedom is our Religion”. At the time, that slogan didn’t work for me. After
all, the Revolution of Dignity had been about Dignity, Solidarity, National Identity, fighting corruption. Freedom was an important value, but not central to the protest movement.
Today, I realize that the slogan “Kyiv is the capital of freedom!” is exactly what these past two months of large scale war have been about. We are European civilization’s new frontier – the place where despite “the Rockets’ red glare, the Bombs bursting in air, our flag IS still here!”
And although it’s difficult to imagine – because the horrors of Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and countless other Ukrainian cities are still raw in our memories – we will exit this war more united than ever.
Indeed, as a Ukrainian I am convinced that we will find unanimity as to our own “pledge of allegiance”: to the Flag of Ukraine, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Or perhaps some variant on that theme.