The third in a three-part series about Ukraine
Ukraine has gone through many transitions. From the great steppe-empires of ancient times, to mighty kingdoms in the middle-ages, to its partition and occupation by various empires, to its status as a modern nation-state on the periphery of Europe, Ukraine has maintained key aspects of its identity while never quite “making it” as an agent of its own—until its most conspicuous struggle to date, the ongoing fight for independence from Russia.
This modern and independent Ukraine is what I observed while traveling and living there between 2015-17. This information is, as previously stated, being written a year or two after I left, which means some things must be different. I departed from a Ukraine that was just beginning to seriously discuss issues that led to fateful 2019 presidential election. The process of evaluating potential contenders for the presidency was just beginning. I left while the war was grinding on with quiet ferocity—that may no longer be the case by the time one reads this. I suspect that many of the same trends I saw have not changed, that Ukraine is about the same as it was when I left, in spite of the declaration of martial law, in spite of their religious split from the Moscow Patriarchate. Every “legal” or official recognition of war, or rift from Russia, is simply an admission of the state of affairs since 2014, rather than some dramatic new development.
Each Ukrainian contains multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman. The history of Ukraine—its lengthy background as a crossroads for Europe, its period under Polish and then Russian colonization, the lows and the highs of the USSR, the lawless barbarity of the 1990s, and the uncertain but exhilarating pride of standing toe to toe with Russia since 2014—are all reflected within towns, families, and even within individuals.
Ukraine means “borderlands,” in Russian, but to Ukraine’s people, the word means (broadly) to be accustomed to enduring great suffering. Sometimes the people struggle with a common enemy, and sometimes against each another. All over the country, people acknowledge this truth—in the port city of Mariupol, in Odesa (another port city), and in Kyiv, Lviv, Chernihiv, and Khmelnitsky. In all these cities and more—Dnipro, Mikolaiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Sumy, there are people who understand themselves as Ukrainian. Most of them speak Russian, some speak Ukrainian. Many have Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian grandparents. Some have Greek or Jewish grandparents, about which they’ll talk about with friends.
Ukrainians are generous and hospitable, but also have a superstitious and conspiratorial streak in spite of their strength in STEM education, perhaps owing to the low esteem in which religion was held in the USSR and the corresponding attention paid to it by generations of authority figures. Living in a country with low rule of law or institutional credibility, spiritualism and hokum hold a powerful and natural attraction to those who seek a measure of control over their lives. Moreover, conspiracy is a kind of widespread social defense mechanism; it is easy to spread rumors in Ukraine, as in Russia, but no single rumor or conspiracy is generally granted much weight. People are quick to believe even the most stupendous fabrications, but act no faster on those than on credible information. Then, there is the lived experience of people in their fifties and older of the conspiracies that felled the USSR, and the memory of the conspiracies that created it, mapped onto the oligarchic inheritors of the businesses and endeavors that stretch, interconnected across nations, across the vast breadth of the land from the Carpathians in the West to the Bering Sea in the East.
Citizens are welcoming and curious, and willing to engage with foreigners. There are some places (Kyiv, Lviv) where it is common to find people who speak English and not difficult to navigate important landmarks; outside those cities, one needs a guide. This is due in part to the prevalence of Cyrillic signposts, and in part to the Soviet-era legacy of addresses being counterintuitive and hidden. One can wander for an hour seeking what ought to be an obvious address or landmark, only to find one’s destination through an archway, down an unmarked street, and between two dilapidated buildings.
Mystery and romance are at the heart of Ukraine’s society. While Ukrainians themselves dislike the name “borderlands,” as it sets them down as a referential, defined only in terms of something else (their neighbors), they also own their status to being in-between place, a space where fortunate meetings and collisions occur without scripting.
Many people are nationalistic (and here I do not mean patriotic), but they do not connect to their nationalism in the way that people might think (let’s say it—the bad way). They are nationalistic in the sense that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, meddling in politics, seizure of Crimea, and ongoing threat of invasion all put “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian identity” forefront in the imagination of Ukrainians. At a time when politics has put nationalism in the spotlight for the usual, bad reasons in Europe and the United States, it might be strange to hear that there could be a kind of nationalism that isn’t irrevocably and irredeemably compromised. But I’d say the type that springs up organically as a response to an actual (rather than fabricated, as in the case of invented “migrations” to Europe and the U.S.) threat has some basic utility.
That nationalism manifests itself in different ways, from public wearing of traditional clothes like ornate, hand-stitched “Veshivanka” shirts, to the flying of Ukraine’s flag, to less visible means of support. Ukrainians are unusually interested in Ukrainian history, perhaps in some measure due to its relative novelty per se (this essay presumes a novelty in discussing Ukrainian history). Their art, language, and poetry, are all subjects of conversation outside educated circles.
Nationalism conjures horrible images from history, and patriotism, despite Boswell’s (or Johnson depending on how credible one finds Boswell’s accounts) negative framing of the term, doesn’t do much better. In the best circumstances, nationalism is a poison, and that must not be lost in the conversation. Much as a steady course of adrenaline in the athlete’s or warrior’s bloodstream could lead to a much shorter (and violent) life than otherwise, nationalism, unadulterated and in the wrong country, will lead it to criminal activity in and outside its borders, and, ultimately, to collapse.
Ukraine has an unusual relationship with nationalism, historically and in the present (of course the two are related). It’s more complicated than “Ukrainians are nationalistic.” On the contrary, the pride of local citizens in their history, and that history which their families have been able to preserve against the storm of the 20th century, is refreshing and instructive. Although it will seem paradoxical, Ukrainians who are nationalistic or patriotic (not nationalists) nevertheless do not understand themselves as such, because the idea of Ukraine is still so young there is nothing, bad or good, to guide the sentiment.
The long experiment with socialism and centralization left a number of marks on the place. One is that Kyiv is a massive city with a proud educational and social legacy. There are slums, of course, like Moscow, Tokyo and New York, but people find a way to get by. Public transit is heavily subsidized and more dependable than the DC Metro or NYC Subway (not that that says much anymore). Ukraine is crammed full of engineers, technicians, and IT experts—the product of the USSR’s focus on building engines, rockets, and machines in order to increase industrial and agricultural productivity. Many people who were in their 40s when the USSR fell would be retiring now; because of decreased life expectancies due to stress, environmental factors, and a dilapidated health care system, they’re dying instead of enjoying retirement (this is true of many countries that used to be members of the USSR, with the notable exception of the Baltic states). With help from Putin and his political apparatus, the same phenomenon in Russia has produced nostalgia for a nonexistent Soviet past. In Ukraine it is a source of frustration, confusion, and malaise.
There are some recent buildings that are more or less built to European standards, but most of the buildings still date back to Soviet times, and their quality varies with the era in which they were built. Housing from the 50s is grim, if functional; 60s tends to be sturdy and durable (while retaining the spare functionality of earlier buildings), and buildings from the 70s, 80s, and 90s are miserable and worn. Little of Kyiv or other front-line cities survived the 40s, though there are many buildings that date from the last part of the 19th century, or the first part of the 20th.
Ukrainian society is organized very tightly around family and friends, in large part because it’s the only institution that has had any staying power. In opposition to that organization—which has survived in spite of organized attempts to destroy it by the state, and by political parties—is the mobility made possible by economic opportunity in Europe, and social media (5% of Ukraine’s economy was made up of IT workers, many of whom were working as subcontractors for American or European companies). Ukrainian towns are dying, and a way of life is dying with it.
That opposition of urban to rural, or modern to traditional, is a major fault line within Ukraine. It’s such an antiquated conflict from modern American perspectives that it’s almost incomprehensible. Perhaps the closest analogy would be films from the 1960s or 70s about Western towns being dismantled for interstate highways, or neighborhoods destroyed by a bridge or a connector (this happened in New Haven and Hartford, two cities with which I’m better acquainted than most owing to my proximity to them growing up). The “urban versus rural / blue versus red” political explainers today would have readers believe that this is a divide that animates American voters. But when one visits Ukraine and sees the difference between a place like Kyiv where people routinely travel to other countries, and a town just two hours outside Kyiv where horses pull wheeled carts full of crops and plow fields, one sees measurable and comprehensible distinctions. Yes, rural poverty exists in the United States, and income inequality, but while hookworm in the rural South centers around bad plumbing and sanitation, in many parts of rural Ukraine there isn’t plumbing at all, but outhouses. As of the most recent reckoning, 81% of the US lives in an urban or suburban area, while 19% lives in rural areas; in Ukraine, not only is that split closer to 70%/30%, but the gulf between those two places is far greater.
Urban/rural isn’t the only way to tell the story of Ukraine, but it does a pretty good job, and better than many other models. Traveling to the East to report on the war there in 2017, I found myself in a small, old town. The residents there spoke Ukrainian, and had, presumably, for centuries. I was shocked to hear Ukrainian in the heart of “separatist” territory; the East is spoken and thought of as a “Russian-speaking” and culturally Russian. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the beginning of the industrial age. Prior to the development of coal and mineral deposits there, and widespread migration of Russian-speakers to the area for that industrial work, the East was sparsely-populated and agricultural/pastoral. Owing to those mineral deposits, the land wasn’t fertile—brackish, polluted water sources were common before men started taking coal out of the earth—and farming was less easy than in other parts of Ukraine. I have verified this with my own eyes (and nose). To give one a sense of how Ukraine was for much of its history, as recently as 1897, nearly 53% of the region identified as ethnic Ukrainian, and 29% Russian. While in the 20th century the numbers shifted such that ethnic Russians dominate the east today, many of those “ethnic” Russians identify politically as Ukrainians; once again, the split depending on a complex web of familial, economic, and cultural affiliations.
This isn’t to say that language determines identity, certainly not on a national level. I met plenty of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots throughout the country. Speaking Russian doesn’t give people any special affinity for that country or culture, any more than speaking French gives people a preference for France and French things. I’ll use myself as an example here; while I love Paris, and appreciate French culture, if I had to choose on a country-by-country level between France and Germany, or France and Italy, or even France and Sweden, I’d choose any of those other countries over the one country where I can make my preferences known in some fluency outside English. Another example: of the dozens of people I spoke with at length in Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kyiv, most spoke Russian primarily or exclusively. Nevertheless, these were people who went out of their way to emphasize that they identified as Ukrainian, and felt themselves not just part of the national Ukrainian project but an essential part—full citizens, and part of the exciting new national project on which their people had embarked. They viewed Russians as outsiders, who (after 2014) meant them harm; the invasion had put to bed any notion of Russia as a cultural “brother” or even cousin. I suppose this makes sense; if one’s brother wields a knife against you in an attempt to kill you, familial considerations take a back seat to the drama of existential struggle.
If in the center and parts of its West, Ukrainian language competes with Russian at an advantage, in the East, Russian is the dominant language (and again, independent of ethnic or political considerations). This, however, tells a different story than one might think—a story about Industrialization, urbanization, and patterns of migration rather than cultural hegemony. Throughout Ukraine, this is most visible in those hundreds or thousands of towns and hamlets that dot the landscape as they have for centuries, in which Ukrainian is still spoken as the primary language. This is the case in places historically settled by Ukrainians that are currently part of Russia, too, like the region in which Mikhail Gorbachev was born to Ukrainian and Russian parents.
A powerful cultural legacy helps underpin the ongoing influence of “rural” Ukraine. During the aforementioned experience with Soviet collectivism—an experience, for Ukrainians, that is indistinguishable from the famines of the 1920s and 30s, and which was passed down verbally from generation to generation—loss of the legal right to land was one of the most bitterly-felt blows. Land that had been owned and farmed for generations was expropriated by the State and redistributed for collective use. In some cases, that expropriation accompanied the exile of some or all of the former owners to different parts of the then-USSR, including the Soviet Far East, and Siberia. When Ukraine declared its independence in the early 1990s, one of the most anticipated changes was a key land reform that accomplished two things at once: the return of collective land to private ownership, and a contentious law that prevented the sale of farmland to foreign individuals or companies. The EU hates the law, because it frustrates investment and development. But given the country’s history, and the relationship many still have to private land ownership, it’s unlikely that the law will change; this will mean the continued habitation of rural areas of many Ukrainians, and therefore ongoing rural culture.
Another thing worth considering when it comes to the question of whether Ukrainians ought to hang onto their rural heritage—having friends or family with land, or access to land, has been a godsend for even the most affluent Ukrainians seeking to survive during war and revolution. Within living memory, there have been times when food was either unavailable or hopelessly expensive—Ukrainians have learned the value of a resilient economy in which one always has recourse to one’s own garden, if more robust systems fail (as they have).
On many issues, analysts are tempted to characterize national or local disagreements in terms of identity (Russian/Ukrainian based on history) or language (Russian/Ukrainian). From what I saw in Ukraine, and knowing what we do about its history, I think the clash between city and country is the best single way to understand how people think about various issues.
What will become of Ukraine, tomorrow? It’s impossible to know. So much depends on the interests of the countries around it. In concert with Europe as part of the EU and with the military guarantee of NATO at its back, it’s possible to imagine Ukraine growing into a strong and dependable country of commerce and laws, a valuable and important member of a community of developed nations.
Left to its own devices, the country will likely descend into dictatorship, nationalism, or even fascism, as a prudent mechanism by which to defend itself against neighbors that have, historically, invaded and seized portions of its territory (or, in the case of Russia, are actively involved in doing so today).
In the event Ukraine is left to fend for itself and slides toward dictatorship or fascism, it will eventually almost certainly return to some sort of agreement or accommodation with Russia. The energy and attention needed to keep Ukraine independent and aloof from both East and West is tremendous, and while such an exercise has been possible for a time in the past, for a hundred or two hundred years at a time, the allure of participating in some shared community, even one as toxic and unidirectional as one dictated from Moscow, is probably more palatable than solitude. Imagine having to endure both insulting jokes and condescension from Russia, and low-grade racism and cultural superiority from Europe. Either one is frustrating and annoying, but both together will, over time, push Ukraine in one direction or the other.
The journalists, advocates, civil society volunteers, veterans, and middle class aspirants in Ukraine are doing their utmost to pull Ukraine toward Europe, but tradition and the disappointed, impoverished poor are satisfied with an oligarchic or dictatorial status quo. The most clever, energetic, and best-organized side will likely determine Ukraine’s future. Until that time, the country is worth seeing for oneself.