Ukrainian Nationalism

The Ukrainians considered themselves a nation even under the rule of the Soviet Union. This sense of nationalism in part led to the break up of the U.S.S.R. Now the Ukraine is an independent state and their economy has been decimated. The Ukrainian central government is struggling and penniless, and for the most part, the Russian Mafias are now running the country (Jorgensen). The result of this being that for all intents and purposes the Ukraine has become feudalistic state. So here’s the question, what exactly motivates the Ukrainians to keep their National identity?

In an effort to explore the issue further let us proceed with a brief examination of the elements we are dealing with here. While nation-states are prevalent keep in mind that a nation is different then a state. A state is a political community with a government. A nation-state is a state inhabited largely by citizens who identify themselves as members of the same nation. Ethnicity does not create a nation either, America for instance is a Nation comprised of many ethnicities.

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A National identity exists when a group of individuals identify themselves as a people. In some schools of thought to have a national identity qualifies as also having a nation, a nation is born when a national identity is forged. Another school of thought maintains the belief that only when certain conditions are met does this “people” actually form a nation until then they exist only as a minority or factional group. Surely though without a national identity a nation does not exist (Hutchinson).

Be that as it may, there are certainly factors that are at least related to having a nation. Whether these factors produce or are produced by a nation is not relevant to this discussion as long as it can be agreed upon that these factors contribute in a positive way to a nation’s continued existence. The factors I refer to include, territory, language, economy, a shared history, solidarity, and a common plight. Some nationalists also believe that, characteristics like behavior and shared roots, such as blood or cultural roots, are factors as well (Rusinow).

It is my belief that the best way to proceed is to take a look at some of those factors in Ukraine. So that we can answer the question of why Ukraine has remained a nation, and also so we can come to some kind of conclusions as to whether or not we can believe that it will continue to do so.

First off lets take a look at the “shared history” factor for the Ukrainians. “The early history of Ukraine is also an important chapter in the history of Russia. Kyyiv was the center of the Rus principality in the 11th and 12th centuries AD, and it is still known as the Mother of Russian Cities. In the 13th century the area was invaded by Tatar-Mongols and was annexed by Poland in the 14th century. At about the same time Kyyiv and the Ukrainian principality of Volhynia were conquered by Lithuania and later came, with the latter country, into the possession of Poland. Poland, however, could not subjugate the Ukrainian Cossacks, who allied themselves with Russia.

The lands east of the Dnepr River were ceded to Russia in 1667 (some parts of Ukraine had been annexed by Muscovy much earlier), and the remainder of Ukraine, except for Galicia (part of the Austrian Empire; 1772-1919), was incorporated into the Russian Empire after the second partition of Poland in 1793 (Ukrainet).

“The Ukrainians under Austrian rule in Galicia and Bukovina and in the region of Hungary known as the Carpatho-Ukraine preserved their identity as a separate group and engendered a forceful nationalist movement; in 1917, the Ukrainians in Russia established an independent republic following the Bolshevik Revolution. Austrian Ukraine proclaimed itself a republic in 1918 and was federated with its Russian counterpart; the Allies took little cognizance of Ukrainian claims for Galicia, however, and following World War I (1914-18) awarded that area to Poland.

In 1919 the Russian Ukrainian republic declared war on Poland. In the same year Ukrainian Communists established a second government and declared the existence of the Ukrainian SSR. In 1920 the advance of the Russian Bolshevik armies caused the Petlyura government and Poland to become allies; they were too weak, however, to prevent the Soviet government from assuming control of the country. In 1922 Communist Ukrainian delegates joined in the formation of the USSR (ualberta).”

“In the period between 1922 and 1939 drastic efforts were made by the USSR to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. Ukraine suffered terribly from the forced collectivization of agriculture and the expropriation of foodstuffs from the countryside; the result was the famine of 1932-33, when more than seven million people died (Ukrainet).”

“Following the Soviet seizure of eastern Poland in September 1939, Polish Galicia, comprising nearly 62,160 sq km (24,000 sq mi), was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR. When the Germans invaded Ukraine in 1941 during World War II (1939-45), Ukrainian nationalists hoped that an autonomous or independent Ukrainian republic would be set up under German protection. Much to their disappointment, the Germans not only divided Russian Ukraine and West Ukraine (Galicia) but also came as hostile conquerors.

Ukraine was retaken by the USSR in 1944. In the same year parts of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina were added to it, and the Ruthenian region of Czechoslovakia was added in 1945. The Ukrainian SSR became a charter member of the United Nations in 1945. The Crimean region in Russia was added to Ukraine in 1954. Communism in the USSR collapsed in 1991. At the end of 1991, the USSR ceased to exist, and Ukraine became an independent republic (Ukrainet).”

“After independence, political tension developed in Ukraine over several domestic and international issues. Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954, became a source of contention between Moscow and Kyyiv. Shortly after Ukrainian independence in 1991, a Russian-led movement to secede from Ukraine was formed in Crimea, which succeeded in changing the status of the Crimean oblast to an autonomous republic. Crimea also issued a declaration of independence, which was rescinded in May 1992. In the same month, the Supreme Soviet of Russia declared the 1954 transfer of Crimea null and void.

The Russian Supreme Soviet also laid claim to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol’, the home port of the 350-ship Black Sea Fleet, despite an agreement to divide the fleet, which was signed by President Kravchuk and Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1991-) in August 1992. Conflict between Ukraine and Russia also developed over several other issues, including possession and transfer of nuclear weapons, delivery of Russian fuel to Ukraine, the division of Soviet assets, and military and political integration within the CIS (Ukrainet).”

“A second separatist movement developed in eastern Ukraine, where coal miners and other workers in eastern Ukraine went on strike in June 1993 to protest the poor state of the economy. A political crisis developed within the government over the pace of economic reform in 1993.

In May 1993 Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma (1992- ) threatened to resign if he was not granted additional powers. In response to the threat of resignation, President Kravchuk proposed that the Ukrainian parliament grant Kuchma additional executive powers. The parliament rejected Kuchma’s resignation and most of Kravchuk’s proposals, but they did grant Kravchuk the power to rule by decree on some economic issues (Ualberta).”

The territory that comprises Ukraine has been under the control of foreign countries longer then it has ever existed has as an independent state. When is has been an independent country, their political power has for the most part been because of strong associations with another stronger country (Gray 353).

The shared history of this country is one of many defeats and almost constant unrest. It is interesting to note that while they never were actually successful for very long as an independent state, they continued to strive for an autonomous Ukraine. Time and time again they rebel or change sides in an effort to break away from whatever country they currently are occupied by and regain control again for themselves (U.C.C.A. 25).

While their history is not exactly a glorious tale of the victories and accomplishments made by “the great Ukrainian people”, it is clearly a story of a nationalistic people who want to be recognized as an independent nation. In the case of the “shared history” factor it is doubtful that their sense of nationalism comes from the legacy of their great past. Nonetheless, their shared history does play an interesting part in Ukrainian nationalism. The Ukrainians of today can certainly identify with this history. The struggle that seems to define this nation spans from its inception all the way to its present times.

This very nicely also ties into another one of our what makes a nation factors namely the “common plight”. If we were to point at any one factor as key in understanding the national Ukrainian sentiment it would have to be this one. The poor conditions the people have undergone and the hardships they have faced are the historical plight of Ukraine. The history of their plight to better their lives and to brake free from foreign oppression becomes a key rally point for Ukrainian nationalists (Armstrong 2-7).

When it comes to our understanding of how people live on a day-to-day basis, in America, we are very aware another of our “key factors” namely economy. Economy has a profound effect on a culture and that culture’s people. In American when our economy is strong people tend to be more contented with the government and less likely to vote against sitting government officials and their associated political party members (CNN).

Economy is a key factor in assessing the stability of a country. When a country has a lot of unemployed males in the young adult age category, this leads to instability. Another sign of instability is a high ratio of nonproductive members of a society to few active working members. Also when the general population no longer considers the legal currency to be a dependable means of exchange, this brings their government’s influence (as well as its relevance) into question.

When this happens a government’s ability to have any meaningful effect on its country’s problems weakens substantially and the extent to which that government can control or affect the people it would seek to govern is greatly stricken (CIA). Basically the point is when an Economy is strong things are well and good, the people are generally contented and the nation remains stable. Vice versa when an Economy is not strong, things are bad for the people and the nation becomes unstable.

So then, is the economy in Ukraine stable? Simply put, no. Some statistics. When Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 they we’re twenty-six percent indebt. 1996 the country was forty-four percent indebt. That means in five years the country’s debt increased by eighteen percent. The inflation rate of Ukraine in 1992 was hitting thirty percent monthly (Shoemaker 124-129) and was estimated to have taken six years to drop to twenty percent by 1998. In Ukraine no less then fifty percent of the population lives below the poverty line (CIA). This is the official report released by the CIA on the current state of Ukraine’s economy.

“Economy-overview: After Russia, the Ukrainian republic was far and away the most important economic component of the former Soviet Union, producing about four times the output of the next-ranking republic. Its fertile black soil generated more than one-fourth of Soviet agricultural output, and its farms provided substantial quantities of meat, milk, grain, and vegetables to other republics. Likewise, its diversified heavy industry supplied equipment and raw materials to industrial and mining sites in other regions of the former USSR. Ukraine depends on imports of energy, especially natural gas.

Shortly after the implosion of the USSR in December 1991, the Ukrainian Government liberalized most prices and erected a legal framework for privatization, but widespread resistance to reform within the government and the legislature soon stalled reform efforts and led to some backtracking. Output in 1992-98 fell to less than half the 1991 level. Loose monetary policies pushed inflation to hyperinflationary levels in late 1993. Since his election in

July 1994, President KUCHMA has pushed economic reforms, maintained financial discipline, and tried to remove almost all remaining controls over prices and foreign trade. The onset of the financial crisis in Russia dashed Ukraine’s hopes for its first year of economic growth in 1998 due to a sharp fall in export revenue and reduced domestic demand. Although administrative currency controls will be lifted in early 1999, they are likely to be reimposed when the hryvnia next comes under pressure. The currency is only likely to collapse further if Ukraine abandons tight monetary policies or threatens default. Despite increasing pressure from the IMF to accelerate reform, significant economic restructuring remains unlikely in 1999 (CIA).”

As the CIA’s Economic overview indicates, Ukraine specializes in heavy machine industry. They actually are a sitting on one of the world’s most abundant land in terms of natural resources. Likewise Ukraine has some of the world’s finest soil for agricultural use. From what intelligence indicates from the cold war time period, when know that in 1970 Ukraine comprised only three percent of the area of the U.S.S.R. and contained nineteen percent of its population. At the time it was referred to as “a power within a power”, namely because Ukraine was responsible for a great deal of the total production of the USSR.

It produced fully a third of the coal for use in the USSR. Also Ukraine produced forty-eight percent of USSR’s pig iron, forty percent of its steel, fifty-seven percent of its Iron ore; it also grew approximately, nineteen percent of the grains, fifty-nine percent of the sugar beats and twenty-eight percent of the vegetables (Katz 21-49).

Why then is the economy in such bad shape? Well the answer can be found at least partially in its history. Like previously indicated, when Ukraine is at its most successful it existed largely with heavy association with foreign powers. Now with neither the economic support provided by Russia, in the form of large industrial machinery necessary to process and mine the mineral resources, or the economic base of consumers provided by the greater USSR that allowed them to fully utilize their large-scale agricultural resources, Ukraine no longer has the means to make use of their natural resources. Hence the area suffers, as it can’t continue to provide the economic base necessary to support its population estimated at about fifty point five million in 1997 (Shoemaker 130-134).

Due to massive corruption on the part of the government officials and the overwhelming influence of the mafia, a widespread Black Market has emerged. This black market has all but taken over as the only real economy that exists for the Ukrainian people (Jorgenson). Internationally their economy has become more and more dependant on foreign aid. An increased relationship with Russia has boosted their trade to some extent (CIA).

Ukraine government trades of materials used in making nuclear type weapons as the main staple export. This is supplemented as well as by the mafia (the mafia is now almost synonymous with the government officials) who trade a large amount of weapon and munitions. These weapon materials are obtained either through international black market, or from the left over stock of warehouses originally produced in the cold war area (Fager).

The nature of black market trade however, means that while some people involved in such illegal activity become wealthy and prosper, those who are not involved in this form of do not reap its benefits. Hence this form of trade does not really boost the nation’s economy in a very useful fashion. After such business does not actually open factories or create new jobs (Jorgenson).

The larger issue here is the factor of solidarity. The answer to our main question lies in whether or not the Ukrainian people are in fact solid social unit. Do they identify with each other? Do they and will they, pull together as fellow members of a larger community when pressed? The best way to know whether or not Ukraine has pulled together is to consult actual Ukrainians. Operating under this premise, I have obtained a selection of letters written to Dr. Alan Fager and his family from residents living in the city of Bogodukhov in Ukraine.

I also interviewed Dr. Donna Jorgenson to help me know more about the life and culture in present day Ukraine. Dr. Jorgernson was involved with a teacher exchange program with Bogodukhov; she has spent extensive time in the country and has done a great deal of research on the region. Dr. Fager and his family have also visited the area both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union and have been in written contact since the late nineteen eighties. Here are some excerpts from those letters. The first set of excerpts is from Vera who teaches English at a local school in Bogodukhov.

Everything in these countries, Russia and Ukraine is very very miserable. Politicians cry ‘We are independent, we are building new life.’ It’s ridiculous. Nothing new, nothing good, no country, no life. Everywhere the same in Russia and Ukraine. They are Siamese twins, these two countries…”

1997 “…Life here is very different from yours. It’s better to say like heel and yours like paradise. We have no gas for half a month. Then it is for a month, then again no for three weeks. Very often electricity goes off for two hours in the evening. It’s for the sake of economy. Besides they don’t pay us our salary in time. We don’t know the date it will be paid. Sometimes it is twenty five days late, sometimes less. The same is with people’s pensions. You can’t even plan your budget.”

1995 “…with spring comes work comes hard work as we are to plant potatoes and other vegetables. And I think with horror about future work but without it we can’t survive. All our lives in this country we are struggling for something… Humanitarian aid came to Bogodukhov. But new Ukrainian government made such regulations that it’s a problem to have it. Lots of papers are needed. The USSR was famous for the bureaucratic procedures. But independent Ukraine outnumbered it.”

Vera makes here makes reference to the close relationship between Russia and Ukraine also she illustrates a popular distrust in politicians and a lack of faith in the state. The humanitarian aid she makes reference to is an example of how mafia and government apparently have become almost the same organization. As it turned out the elections held put the same people into power as were in power under communism. The bureaucracy Vera refers to is in fact a system of bribes.

The proper tax must be paid in order to accomplish any thing through the government. No specific legislation dictates most of these supposed taxes, in essence a system of bargaining and bribery has become the normal state of day to day government affairs (Jorgenson). Vera does raise a flag of nationalism in her statement, “All our lives in this country we are struggling for something…”, she identifies a common plight specific to the people of her the territory of Ukraine. Also she refers to the greater population of Ukraine as we. This simple action reinforces the notion that these are a group of people who identify themselves as part of a greater community; she identifies herself as part of a people. This is if you recall our definition of having a national sentiment.

The next few selections are from Yuri a bus driver by profession but due to a recent lack of gasoline has taken up doing odd jobs fixing and rigging house hold machinery. Yuri lives in Bogodukhov with his wife, Alla, and their two daughters, Yulya and Inna.

1996 “…I am writing this letter in Russian, I hope the girls (Inna and Yula) can translate it… …I worry it will be hard and long (to get) used to our difficult reality. The independence of Ukraine brought nothing Good. Its worse and worse every day. All factories are closed, prices are up (and grow) and nothing better in future. Our government is not interest(ed) in people’s life. Instead to make our own goods, they get everything from abroad, they spend all money on that. Our people can work and they are able to do the same things that government take from abroad, but nobody wants to know this. Now the people with black (market) money more important. Everybody respect (the mafia). Nobody need honest working hands and bright, smart heads. And I am worry about this most of all.”

The note about writing in Russian is significant because it wasn’t until 1989 that Ukrainian became the language of Ukraine. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Ukrainian language was used in the schools. This indicates an attempt to form a stronger Ukrainian Nation (Kuzio 107-110) up until that time Russian was the standard language. Yuri indicates a lack of faith in the government and the future of the state. He also makes references to the effects of prevalent black market and the economy on the nation. He does demonstrate a nationalistic sentiment when he refers to his people as smart and able workers. He clearly others the people from the state. This indicates a faith in his nation but not necessarily in his state.

What conclusions then can we take away from all of this? They clearly are not a stable state. Their government is riddled with corruption, a weak economy and no real future except to align themselves yet again with stronger more stable foreign powers. Further more the conditions of the people are not good, and little faith or support is given to the government. My assessment is that Ukraine as a state has had limited success historically speaking and as an independent state their future does not look much brighter.

Be that as it may, I hold that the Ukrainians are indeed a people who do hold on to a national identity. They even make steps to ensure their national identity in the forms of revolutions, such as when they broke away from Russia, and also in reforms, such as their legislation to enact a nation language of Ukrainian. They are a seen as a strong willed people who if nothing else endure. They indeed share a common plight, a history, and a strong national identity. I believe that as a nation Ukraine shall endure. In conclusion I believe that while Ukraine fails as a state, it does succeed as a nation.


  1. Armstrong, John A. Ukrainian Nationalism, Colorado: Ukrainian Academic Press, 1990
  2. Central Intelligence Agency “world fact book”, CIA Web Page, Accessed March 2000,
  3. CNN News, “world report”,, Accessed February 2000,
  4. Hutchinson, John and Anthony D. Smith eds. Nationalism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

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