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The birth of a nation. How Putin wanted to destroy Ukrainian people, but ended up strengthening Ukrainian identity

Vladimir Putin keeps stubbornly repeating that the state of Ukraine is an artificial entity created by the Bolsheviks at the whim of Vladimir Lenin. The Ukrainian nation, he argues, does not exist at all, because Ukrainians and Russians are in fact one nation. The pseudo-historical statements about Lenin's role in the formation of Ukraine need no comment, but, paradoxically, Putin's own role in strengthening the Ukrainian identity proved to be quite important.

  • Putin's Ukrainophobia

  • A new «national myth»

  • Removal of population groups disloyal to Ukraine

  • De-russification by the hands of Moscow

  • Ukrainian nation named after Vladimir Putin

  • «De-russification will be inevitable for modern Ukraine»

  • «Putin has strengthened Ukraine's political and cultural identity»

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Putin's Ukrainophobia

Putin has been concerned about Ukraine's history and Ukrainian identity for years. Few people paid attention at the time, but back in April 2008 (that is, even before the war with Georgia) at a closed meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Bucharest, Putin stated that he did not consider Ukraine a real state. Here is how one of the participants of the meeting recounts Putin's speech:

«When it came to Ukraine, Putin flared up. Turning to Bush, he said: «You understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, and part of it, and a significant one, is our gift!» And then he hinted very transparently that if Ukraine is nevertheless accepted into NATO, that state will simply cease to exist. That is, in fact, he threatened that Russia might start tearing away Crimea and Eastern Ukraine».

For a while Putin had been restraining his desire to rewrite Ukrainian history, but in 2021 he burst out again. In the summer of 2021, he published a giant article «On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians» (with the Ukrainian version posted on the official Kremlin website) in which he meticulously outlined his views:

«Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties have been formed over centuries, they go back to the same roots, have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship is passed from generation to generation. It is in the hearts, in the memory of people living in contemporary Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”

In the text replete with manipulations and gross errors (a detailed analysis can be found, for example, here and here), Putin not only denied Ukrainians the right to national independence, but in fact announced plans to solve the «Ukrainian question» by force:

«We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will make such an attempt, I would like to say that in this way they will destroy their country».

Putin named Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, as the main culprit for the unnatural emergence of Ukraine on the political map of the world:

«The Bolshevik policy resulted in the emergence of the Soviet Ukraine, which even today can be justifiably called a «Vladimir Lenin Ukraine». He was its author and architect. This is fully confirmed by archival documents, including Lenin's strict directives on Donbass, which was literally squeezed into Ukraine».

It is likely that the Russian leader sincerely believes Ukrainians don’t exist. That’s why he gave the order to attack Ukraine on February 24, 2022, counting on a widespread support on the part of Ukrainian citizens who yearn for reunification with their Russian brothers. However, even the apparent failure of the swift special operation, which turned into a protracted and bloody war, did not affect his rhetoric in any way. On 3 March 2022, Putin, as if nothing had happened, said at a meeting with the permanent members of the Security Council:

«Nor will I ever give up my belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.»

It is very likely that the result of Putin's military adventure will not be the restoration of the «historical unity» of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but exactly the opposite - the final formation of the Ukrainian nation. And not just as a distinctive ethno-cultural group, but as a political community that is united by the collective experience of mobilization to fight Russian aggression and, for this reason, unwilling to consider itself part of the Russian cultural space.

A new «national myth»

Any modern political nation has a pantheon of national heroes and key historical events, which serve as the basis of a common identity and the sense of civic solidarity. The so-called «national myth» does not necessarily reflect reliable or generally accepted historical facts. But in order to be effectively disseminated through education, media and mass culture, it has to have an internal logic.

Post-Soviet Ukraine experienced serious problems with the « foundation myth», as different groups of the population placed a symbolic value in the historical narratives that not only differed from, but oftentimes contradicted, one another. In general terms, they can be called the Soviet (imperial) and the anti-Soviet (anti-imperial) versions of Ukrainian history.

Since 2014 the annexation of Crimea and the sluggish armed conflict in eastern Ukraine have provided an ideal environment for a nation-building project, alternative to the dichotomy of Soviet and anti-Soviet historical memory. Disputes over figures like Stepan Bandera or Simon Petlyura were overshadowed by the image of an insidious and powerful external enemy. That role was assumed by Russia, which treacherously seized part of Ukrainian territory and unleashed a civil war by supporting the separatists in Donbass.

Moreover, the experience of contact with the enemy proved to be truly massive. More than 400,000 people have passed through the zone of the United Forces Operation (formerly the Anti-Terrorist Operation, ATO) in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Together with family members, those are millions of Ukrainians with a personal negative attitude towards Russia.

The full-scale war that began on February 24, 2022, has multiplied the alienation effect. According to the latest available opinion polls, 92% of Ukrainians treat Russia mostly badly or very badly.

Changes in good and bad attitude of Ukrainians towards Russia
Changes in good and bad attitude of Ukrainians towards Russia


Ukrainians have changed their attitude not only towards Russia, but also towards their own history. In the early 2010s groups of Russians and Ukrainians, approximately comparable in size, regretted the collapse of the USSR. But if in Russia nostalgia for the Soviet past has only increased over the last 10 years, in Ukraine there are almost no people who share this attitude.

Another example. If in April 2012 74% of Ukrainians considered May 9 to be primarily the «Victory Day», in April 2022 only 15% continued to do so. Today 80% of Ukrainian respondents call the Kremlin’s sacred date «the day of remembrance for the victims of the Second World War». Even among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, 66% adhere to an interpretation which is completely sacrilegious from the point of view of Russian officialdom.

Removal of population groups disloyal to Ukraine

For a long time Ukraine has been considered a classic example of a divided society. In the 1990s and 2000s, each electoral cycle demonstrated a split between the «pro-Russian» southeast and the «pro-Western» western and central parts of the country. Kommersant.Vlast came out in 2004 with a flashy cover headlined “Yu-kraine vs. Ya-kraine” (referring to the confrontation between the «pro-Russian» candidate Viktor Yanukovych and «pro-Western» Viktor Yushchenko in the presidential elections). Then, the struggle between them resulted in the first Maidan - the Orange Revolution, which brought Yushchenko to power.

The second Maidan in the winter of 2014 not only led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, who had managed to win the presidential election on second attempt, but also brought about the forcible seizure of Crimea and the subsequent hybrid aggression in Donbass. As a result, Russia removed from Ukraine’s political and electoral field 1.7 million voters in Crimea and Sevastopol and about 3.5 million voters in the «DNR» and «LNR», those who had previously voted in a disciplined manner for political forces loyal to Moscow and generally rejected the Ukrainian identity.

Without those votes, Ukraine's electoral divide has disappeared. In 2014, Petro Poroshenko became the first Ukrainian president to win a majority in elections in all regions of Ukraine. In 2019, in the second round, Volodymyr Zelenski won in all regions except the Lviv region.

However, neither the annexation of Crimea, nor the conflict in Donbas, nor the openly anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian state TV channels has been able to shake the conviction of almost half of Ukrainians that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. In August 2021 41% of respondents thought so. But after two months of war, by April 2022, that figure dropped to 8%. The thesis so dear to Vladimir Putin now has a relatively noticeable support only among the older generation (13% among respondents aged over 50) and in eastern Ukraine (23%).


Over the same period (from August 2021 to April 2022) the percentage of Ukrainians calling themselves «citizens of Ukraine» (from 75% to 98%) and «Europeans» (from 27% to 57%) significantly increased. Self-identification as «Soviet people», on the contrary, was rapidly losing popularity (from 21% to 7%). In other words, civic and civilizational identities that were incompatible with the project of a «big Russian nation,» which included both Russians and Ukrainians, came to the fore.

De-russification by the hands of Moscow

Protection of the Russian language in Ukraine is a favorite topic for attacks and high-profile propaganda campaigns by the Russian authorities. At the same time, both before and after 2014, Ukraine remained a bilingual society with the dominance of the Russian language at the level of personal communications and in the public sphere.

For example, according to the social network «Vkontakte» (before it was blocked in Ukraine) Ukrainian language was definitely predominant among users only in the west of the country. In January 2022, 50% of Instagram users from Ukraine used Russian, 46% - Ukrainian, 4% - other languages.

Russia's attack changed the status of the Russian language overnight. As producer Aleksandr Rodnyanskyy noted, the Russian language is now associated with those who came to kill Ukrainians:

«If you read Ukrainian publics, you will see a huge number of texts that will tell you the same thing: I used to be Russian-speaking or I only spoke Russian, but today I switched to Ukrainian, I want to be Ukrainian and speak the language, I want to forget Russian or not use it, because it is the language of those who came to our country with weapons and are killing people.»

In just a few months of the war, the percentage of Russian speakers in Ukraine has fallen from 18% to 15% (vs 37% in 2012). True, most of them have shifted to the bilingual segment. But Ukrainian, it seems, has already permanently taken the dominant position in the list of languages Ukrainians speak at home.

Ukrainian nation named after Vladimir Putin

The Kremlin's policy in Ukraine, whose crowning achievement was the military invasion, seems to have forever discredited the concept of the «Russian world», dealt a crushing blow to Russia's ability to implement foreign policy objectives using soft power and, most importantly, created all the necessary conditions for the formation of a full-fledged civil nation of Ukrainians.

Putin, with his own hands, has turned an objectively heterogeneous mass of Ukraine's residents into a cohesive community of citizens, diverse in origin, language, religious affiliation and values. The Russian language and culture, the Orthodox Church, and the memory of a shared past as the factors of mutual attraction have transformed into lines of tension and separation.

It is unlikely that future history textbooks will name Ukrainian statehood after Vladimir Lenin, as was suggested by the Russian leader. But Vladimir Putin's name will almost certainly appear in the section devoted to the Ukrainian nation.

«De-russification will be inevitable for modern Ukraine»

Andrey Zorin, Russian literary critic and historian, specializing in the history of Russian culture

I believe that Putin indeed, unwittingly, contributed significantly to the formation of post-Soviet Ukrainian culture, but still not decisively. Obviously, the Ukrainian civil nation existed before the war, otherwise this level of national mobilization would not have been possible.
As for the cultural divide, if it had existed at all, it was apparently overcome long before the war, although serious cultural differences will remain in any case. Ukrainian identity is largely based on regional diversity and internal differentiation. Only this mosaic has not two, but much more components. As for the language, the process of the Ukrainian language becoming a universal means of communication for the country's citizens has certainly received a powerful impulse, but it had started earlier and will not end soon - it will take a couple of generations.
If we are talking about the Russian language, there is no special «imperialism» in it. But if we are talking about culture, it would be strange to assume that the culture of a huge empire could remain aloof from this issue - Russian culture has both imperial and anti-imperial components, which are locked in a very complex relationship. However, I would not exaggerate the importance of either component. Any culture, if it is worth anything, matches up human existence to the questions of life, death, love, suffering, and mutual (mis)understanding, and only then does it tackle the empire, the state, the people, and so on.
«Russian culture has both imperial and anti-imperial components, which are locked in a complex relationship»
As for «de-russification», it is a natural component of any decolonization process. For modern Ukraine it is not so much «necessary» as inevitable, and has no special relation to the specifics of Russian culture and, moreover, language. Whether it is good or bad, it is the culture of the former metropole, whose influence has to be and is being eradicated. Another thing is that this process could go smoothly and evolutionarily, but now it has been sharply accelerated.
There is no doubt that this war will become a constitutive national «foundation myth», a basis for a more homogeneous nation and a more stable state of the future, replacing the historical World War I and World War II constructs and personalities, which many consider controversial. Almost regardless of its outcome. The specific mythological narrative may change somewhat, depending on how the war ends, but its «mythogenic» potential is enormous and will certainly be in demand. However, I am certain that the Russian language and culture will not become a part of such a national myth or of the symbolic complex of the future Ukrainian nation. And it's not just about the war, although it will definitely play its role. Post-colonial identity is built on the repulsion of the former metropole, so the process of removal of Pushkin monuments is logical and inevitable. Had there been no invasion, maybe they wouldn't have been torn down yet, but they simply would have ceased to be noticed and paid attention to.
The whole ideology of the Putin regime was built on the cultivation of ressentiment about the image of «the greatest geopolitical catastrophe» imposed on the country in retrospect - the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War, which should be followed by a revival and revenge. This myth was based on the metaphor of the dismembered body of the Russian people, where Ukraine and Kyiv («the mother of the Russian cities») played the role of the main symbolic loss, which had to be recovered at any cost. In this context, Ukraine’s European choice was a serious threat to the regime - if one part of the once united nation is capable of building a European-style democracy, it is impossible to explain why Russia is doomed to a personalist dictatorship.
Sooner or later Russians will start to consider Ukrainians as a separate ethnic group such as Poles and other Slavs. This will happen inevitably. Although it’s frightening that tens of thousands of people will have to lose their lives, and tens of millions will have to suffer in order to learn those history lessons.

«Putin has strengthened Ukraine's political and cultural identity»

Georgiy Kasyanov, Ukrainian historian, Doctor of Historical Sciences

I don't think Putin has made a decisive contribution to the formation of the Ukrainian nation, although I myself have joked that he should be decorated with some prestigious Ukrainian order for helping to do so. But seriously, one man cannot make a decisive contribution to such a complex process. Ukrainians became a nation because they wanted it themselves. He only helped them to finally understand that Ukraine is not Russia.
The presence of the Russian army in Ukraine, its behavior, the destruction it brought demonstrated to Ukrainians how different they are. And the awareness of this difference is not only political, it’s much deeper - cultural and civilizational. Of course, it is a bitter irony of history that a man who does not recognize the right of Ukrainians to exist as an independent historical entity on at least three occasions acted as a catalyzer for the unification of Ukrainians in the fight against an external threat: when he supported Yanukovich in the 2004 presidential election; when he annexed Crimea and arranged a covert intervention in Donbass which turned into a hybrid war in 2014,; and in 2022.
Now he has proceeded to using the most radical tactics: destroying Ukraine as a state by military force and pursuing a policy of near genocide against Ukrainians. Of course, in this way he has only contributed to the mobilization of Ukrainians and the strengthening of the Ukrainian political and cultural identity, precisely in the sense of an understanding that Ukraine is not Russia, Ukrainians are not Russians, and Ukrainian Russians (in ethno-cultural terms) are not the same as Russian Russians.
There was no rift between the west and the center, the south and the east of Ukraine. There were quite tangible cultural, linguistic and political differences and different attitudes towards the past. The rift theme was eagerly exploited by politicians - both Russian and Ukrainian, and it was actively introduced by the media. But such differences can be found in any country and any society, for example, in Germany or the USA. Differences does not always signify a rift.
«The rift theme was eagerly exploited by politicians, but such differences can be found in any country, such as Germany or the United States»
If we consider the topic of language, the entire sociology of the last 30 years suggests that the «language question» ranks quite low among other problems. Ukraine is a functionally multilingual country, almost the entire population speaks Ukrainian and Russian, plus Hungarian, Romanian, Polish and Crimean Tatar. Another thing is the use and political instrumentalization of the topic by politicians. Again – both in Russia and in Ukraine. Here we observe a remarkable unity between our ultra-patriots and Russian great-power chauvinists: both use the language to split Ukraine, albeit without much success. Moreover, the great-power chauvinists eagerly use Ukrainian ultra-patriots’ antics of to justify their own paranoid actions, while the former, in turn, bolster their foul happenings with references to the «cursed Muscovites». Such is their symbiosis.
Even with the current events, I do not observe an accelerated process of nation-building. There have been no novel actions by the state in relation to nation-building, and, frankly, it’s not the best time. Sure, some especially gifted individuals, settled in far behind the lines, are producing some kind of discourse, but there is nothing new in it, it's all a repetition of the old forms, and besides, it has not been created by them. No new meanings are being injected into the idea of nation-building. The current craze of banning the «imperialist Pushkin,» canceling Russian culture, and name-changing is a manifestation of rather archaic practices, right down to tribalism. Of all the things that have to do with the formation of a civic nation what is actually happening is mass consolidation in the face of an existential threat: everything is very simple - either we will be destroyed as a community of citizens (so far it has not happened), or we will persevere and survive as a nation. And here this threat makes us realize ourselves in a different way as a community, perhaps forming a higher level of civic responsibility and solidarity.
The ideas that the Russian language and culture, at least those incarnations of them that were formed on the territory of modern Ukraine, are unique and should be appropriated by Ukraine, are not new. Ukraine has a unique Russian and Russian-speaking culture, and it should neither be handed over to the Kremlin blockheads, nor allowed to be ripped apart by our home-grown guardians of the purity of the nation, who are few in number but very loud. Even «Ukrainian Russian» is obviously quite different from «Russian Russian». Maybe like Australian English is different from British or American English. This is how I feel, based on my personal experience and on other people’s knowledge.
And let me remind you that the culture of the Ukrainian nation encompasses Malevich, Bulgakov, Jabotinsky (Ze'ev), Gogol, Odessa and Lviv, Dnieper and Kharkiv. Ukraine is an outstanding country for its richness and level of interaction and interpenetration of different cultures. Of course, the trauma of war, Putin's criminal policy and the repulsive nature of marauding, raping and murdering «liberators» provoke a psychological rejection of Russian culture as such and engender extreme reactions, but we should already be thinking about a longer-term perspective, in which at least the Russian culture of Ukraine should be seen as an integral part of the national collective consciousness.
«The culture of the Ukrainian nation encompasses Malevich, Bulgakov, Jabotinsky, and Gogol»
The worldview of Putin and many other of his compatriots - both within the ruling class and in the broader society - does not imply an understanding and recognition of Ukraine and Ukrainians as a cultural and civilizational Other. For them, Ukraine and Ukrainians are part of the historical body of the Russian people. True, with some peculiar folklore elements such as melodic songs, fatback slabs, gopak, a specific dialect and borsch (as I’ve heard, some high-level Russian diplomats have special views regarding the latter). Accordingly, if a part of a historical entity suddenly claims independence and uniqueness, different from Russia’s, there may arise a kind of cognitive dissonance, and then - bewilderment, irritation, indignation, and so on. Of course, the desire of Ukrainians to live independently, not as part of Russia, is traditionally explained not so much by some internal processes in Ukrainian society, as by the intrigues of the West which is dead set on destroying Russia. This worldview has its roots in the second half of the nineteenth century; combined with another product of the long nineteenth century, geopolitics, it shaped a ressentiment that led to violence and a dirty aggressive war. And then there is the well-known psychological phenomenon when a person hates those whom he has caused pain and suffering.
As for the Ukrainian nation - if we mean a community with a distinctive culture, language, common history and collective self-consciousness (identity), i.e. an ethnic nation in scholarly terms, then the presence of the Ukrainian nation can be observed as early as in the XIX century. Provided that we view the concept of «nation» within the framework of a modernist theory, of course. There is also another approach, when signs of a nation are found in more ancient times, in Kyivan Rus, for example, or even further in the past - in the times of the Trypillia culture. I believe that Ukrainians as an ethnic nation were formed in the second half of the nineteenth century.
If we are talking about a political (civic) nation - a community of fellow citizens united by the principle of civic loyalty and the framework of a state, which they recognize as their own, regardless of ethnic, religious, linguistic and other forms of identity, then this process is in its final stage, although it is subject to critical external and harsh internal challenges. Putin's goal is to eliminate Ukrainians precisely as a political nation.

Co-written by Veaceslav Epureanu and Sofia Presnyakova

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