The Hill


Ukrainians are determined to “decolonize” their country. Imperial rule may be a thing of the past, they say, but the damage done to their culture and identity still needs to be undone. Specifically, their history needs to be rewritten from their own vantage point — as history’s losers.

Central to this shift in perspective is the question of violence, with which Ukrainian history is all too replete. A variety of invaders — Mongols, Poles, Russians and Germans — employed extreme violence in their attempts to colonize Ukrainian territories. Ukrainians responded in like form, but since their violence always ended in defeat, it was generally categorized as brutish by history’s winners.

Seen through the decolonization lens, Ukraine closely resembles the colonies that rebelled against European political domination, economic exploitation and cultural oppression by resorting to oftentimes horrific violence against their exploiters. But, in the colonies as in Ukraine, indigenous violence, though morally lamentable, was never the inexplicable product of incomprehensible primordial prejudices. Quite the contrary, in Ukraine as in most colonies, the violence was the product of reactive national liberation struggles and peasant wars.

As Eric Wolf wrote in his 1969 classic, “Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century,” “the decisive factor in making a peasant rebellion possible lies in the relation of the peasantry to the field of power which surrounds it.” Peasants are rational, having material interests and moral codes that they try to pursue in contexts that militate against success. When opportunities to pay back their oppressors for the indignities they’ve endured arise, they take them and often act with extreme cruelty.

By the same token, nationalists are revolutionaries who — like Giuseppe Mazzini, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Vladimir Zhabotinsky — believe that nations should have their own states. Although we tend to associate nationalism with political reaction (thanks in large measure to Hitler’s appropriation of the term), nationalists have spanned the political spectrum, ranging from communism to liberalism to fascism, and their means have ranged from persuasion to violence. And for a simple reason: Nationalists prioritize independent statehood and are usually willing to do anything to achieve it.

Colonizers view rebellious nations and peasants as savage, irrational and impetuous. It’s striking how similar the stereotypes of Ukrainians in two imperial traditions are. The Russian stereotype views Ukrainians as sly, uncultured and treacherous “khokhols” (the equivalent of the n-word). The Polish stereotype views them as bloodthirsty, brutal and violent. Both stereotypes reduce Ukrainians to mindless savages — quite in line with Frantz Fanon’s and Albert Memmi’s interpretations of how European colonizers viewed Africans.

If the stereotypes are rejected and Ukraine’s history is reimagined as having a decolonization leitmotif, it automatically becomes a story of colonization on the one hand and of resistance — sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, but never merely brutish in the way that racist stereotypes imagine — on the other. Ukraine’s history becomes morally and theoretically complex. It becomes a genuine history, and not a cautionary lesson told by victors.

A few examples will illustrate the point.

The rebellion led by the Cossack chieftain Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648 is frequently interpreted as a massive antisemitic pogrom. True, some Ukrainians were doubtless antisemites. Also true that Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks massacred tens of thousands of Jews. But not only did they do so primarily for class reasons — Jews were the hated middlemen between the exploitative Polish landowning nobility and the exploited serfs — the rebels also killed tens of thousands of people viewed as collaborators of the Polish crown: Poles, obviously, but also Ukrainian Uniates who sided with Polish Catholicism. Anti-imperial resistance and class war conjoined to produce a bloody uprising.

The years during and after World War I witnessed several unsuccessful attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian state. While the Ukrainian nationalists squabbled in the sliver of territory they controlled, Bolsheviks, anti-Bolshevik Whites, Poles, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Ottomans, anarchists, warlords and bandits overran the country. They reduced the nationalist elites to complete political impotence, created a Hobbesian state of nature and thereby enabled the aggrieved peasantry to engage in what the historian Arthur Adams called the “Great Ukrainian Jacquerie.”

Once again, national liberation and peasant war, together with some genuine antisemitism, resulted in a storm of violence, especially against Jews, who, as in the 17th century, were perceived as exploiters.

Finally, there’s the controversial Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Incorrectly labeled fascist by its critics, the OUN was a typically nationalist movement that, like the IRA, PLO, FLN and Irgun, placed absolute value on independent statehood. It paid for its intransigence by being hounded by Polish, Nazi and Soviet security forces. The OUN saw its chance during World War II, when Poles and Ukrainians fought over the territory that Hitler and Stalin had reduced to “bloodlands.”

In particular, Ukrainian peasants and nationalists launched an uprising against Polish colonists in Volhynia in 1943, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Polish peasants and about one-third as many Ukrainians. The Polish Sejm declared the Volhynian massacre a genocide in 2016. When seen through Ukrainian eyes, it was a very bloody, occasionally criminal and morally lamentable instance of two simultaneously waged and mutually reinforcing wars, of national liberation and of peasant land hunger.

Many Ukrainians view Khmelnytsky, the World War I nationalists and the OUN with sympathy — not because of the bloodshed and violence, which everyone abhors and condemns, but because of their deep commitment to national liberation and social justice. Just as unsurprisingly,

many Poles, Jews and Russians disagree. As does Russia’s self-elected president, Vladimir Putin, who considers all Ukrainians “neo-Nazis.”

Whose vision of Ukrainian history will triumph depends on the outcome of the current anti-imperial war. If Ukrainians win, they will, like ex-colonies in the Global South, be able to write their own history — with, one hopes, due respect paid to morality and the sensibilities of Ukraine’s minorities. If Ukrainians lose, their history will be written, as before, by colonizers who will depict them as savages deserving of their chains.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”