|Ukrainians gathering and supporting independence by making the Tryzub (Trident) with their hands – circa 1991|
Since its independence in 1991, the unifying factors which are supposed to have united Ukrainian citizens together have instead been in constant dispute between different parts of its population. This divergence in outlook towards personal and collective identities stems from Ukraine’s territory being shared between European empires for centuries beforehand. With ethnic Ukrainians scattered amongst Polish, Austro-Hungarian and Russian realms, the only thing which bound them together were ethnolinguistic links (Kulyk, 2016b, 91). Any kind of civic identification was impossible due to the lack of an independent Ukrainian nation-state.
The primary reason as to why Ukraine has had such difficulties with its nation building project is due to its history and how the now unitary territory had different influences that impacted on the idea of collective national identity. Western Ukraine until 1939 was under Polish rule and episodes of conflict between them in fact fortified national identity. It is from this region where the contemporary Ukrainian state derives some of its ethnocultural influences and democratic values. However, the reasoning as to why the South and South East have been traditionally hostile to the concept of sharing the ethnocultural and civic identities that Western Ukrainians propagate is due to their own history under the rule of Russia. With the said regions being amalgamated into the Russian Empire from the seventeenth century, steady Russification and a lack of divisive ethnic based conflict left those residing in these territories with a vague sense of commonality with minimal historical mindfulness, merely identifying as traditionally having a close association with Russia (Wolczuk, 2000, 671).
Somewhat ironically, it was the Soviet regime which incorporated all ethnic Ukrainians into one territorial entity by 1954, with the Ukrainian language being the initial marker for common identification, but decades of Russification, purges and resettlements led to a blurring and misconstruing of what Ukrainian identity was across its own population and territory (Kulyk, 2016b, 91). The notion of national identity was also propagated in the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens were made to identify with a specific ethnicity, which was designated to them in passports, despite those who previously resided in the Russian Empire having little prior knowledge or experience as to what ethnicity meant. Therefore, ethnic identity in the USSR was a largely unemotional concept. People were officially designated with a fixed ethnic nationality but in everyday life preferred to identify more closely with their towns, regions or the Soviet Union as a whole, as they were historically more familiar with such identifications. This is further exemplified by looking into census data where ethnic identity continued to be used as a subjective perception, regardless of a person’s official passport status. People fluidly shifted between ethnic identities depending on their circumstances (Anderson & Silver, 1983, 461-489). It was these such legacies that left Ukraine in 1991 at a crossroads in relation to its new nation building path. Due to the Soviet processes mentioned previously, there lacked a tangible unifying factor which connected all newly independent Ukrainian citizens.
With the Western regions of Ukraine having greater historical, cultural and political self awareness, as a result of a more benign imperial experience before 1945, when they obtained long awaited independence in 1991, they felt the need to promote their national identity vision as the true Ukrainian identity. They had been less affected by the repression of political behaviours that those in the East and South East had become accustomed to, and thus were far less passive in their political outlooks (Himka, 2015, 133).
Brubaker (1992, 187) speaks of “habits of national self understanding” which are apparently inherent amongst all people of a shared history and such “habits” are the intrinsic basis for being able to officially identify with a particular state. However, as Shevel (2004, 4) points out, with Ukraine such “habits” were not inherent and homogenous across the population due to the diverging historical experiences within the different empires they were once a part of. This point illustrates that, from the outset, the nation building project in Ukraine would always be an increasingly complex task in a more liberal and globalized world; with the need to create a cohesive identity amidst a backdrop of ‘competing “images” of the nation and myths of national origin and civilization that are propagated by different political forces and find resonance with different segments of the society (Shevel, 2004, 4)’.
Ukraine faced the daunting task of attempting to facilitate its new role as a nation state of ethnic Ukrainians alongside the multicultural legacies which remained from its past. It did so by granting all ethnicities residing within its territory with citizenship whilst elevating the national symbols, language and history of the ethnocultural Ukrainian majority as the official identity markers of the new state (Kulyk, 2016b, 91). This was an attempt to symbolically distance the new Ukrainian state from that of the Soviet Union, and to instigate a new framework for national identity which would facilitate smoother state building. However, as Geertz articulates in Wolczuk (2000, 671) such attempts to create a particular unifying identity in new states usually always encounters contestation due to the convergence of diverging traditions being encased in a newly formed and for some, alien political entity.
It should be noted that in the 1991 referendum for Ukrainian independence, turnout was exceedingly high at 84%. 92% of those citizens voted in favour of ceding from the Soviet Union, which shows that there was an initial unitary consensus towards the creation of a separate Ukrainian state. Even the Crimean population that was traditionally most ambiguous towards the idea of a cohesive Ukrainian national identity, voted 54% in favour (Lalpychak, 1991). Whilst such data does not hold the reasoning behind why independence was favoured, it does show that there was some sort of cohesive front which encompassed the entire country to vote in unison. Undertones of a pursuit for greater economic prosperity and self determination from an authoritarian regime are often posited as the primary causes for the voting in favour, with reasons differing amongst regions.