Ukrainian Nationalism

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

What does it mean to be Ukrainian? This is a question that many people have struggled to answer for centuries. Many of those who confronted this question would be considered ~'nationalists~' today. This lesson looks at the way Ukrainian nationalism has developed over the centuries.

Early Stirrings

Portrait of Taras_Shevchenko
Taras Shevchenko

Nationalism is feeling or belief that a certain group of people share an affinity with one another and should rule themselves. Nationalism was often the product of the educated middle class, and there are many who think it developed as a way to secure political power for the middle class, during an era when most political power was still held by hereditary rulers, or foreign governments. Although there is much debate over when nationalism began to develop, there is no question that it became the defining character of much of western civilization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Despite this, nationalism was not as prevalent in the Ukraine during this era as it was in other places in Europe. Ukraine had been under the rule of Polish or Russian rulers for centuries and did not have a tradition of being an independent nation like neighboring nations such as Poland. Local leaders had tried to build Ukrainian culture and establish an independent state, they had largely failed because they did not have the support of the peasantry who made up most of the population. Ivan Mazepa, a hetman (a military commander) donated much of his own money to revive Ukrainian culture and rebuild Kiev's Saint Sophia Cathedral. However, Mazepa betrayed the Russian Czar and joined the Swedes in their invasion of Russia during the Great Northern War.

Not all nationalists are political or military leaders, however. Perhaps the most influential thinker of the Ukrainian nationalist tradition was Taras Shevchenko, a romantic-era poet who had been born into serfdom, but escaped through education. Shevchenko wrote in the Ukrainian language often from the point of view of peasants who suffered severe hardships suffered under Russian rule. This often led him into conflicts with the government. His book, Kobzar, which means ''Bard'' in Ukrainian, was highly influential and a much-treasured item for many Ukrainians during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ukrainians briefly received their freedom with the collapse of the Russian Empire after World War I. Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, a Ukrainian historian, led the Central Counsel in Kiev which declared Ukraine's independence. This led to a brief swelling of Ukrainian nationalism among the people, but it was short lived. Hrushevskyi's government was unstable and was opposed by several other factions in the Russian Civil War. Eventually, the Ukraine was conquered by the Bolsheviks and incorporated into the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union

During the early days of the Soviet Union, the new government actually encouraged Ukrainian nationalism because of their policy of Korenization (which means ''indigenization'' in Russian). The Soviets believed that, by encouraging local cultural expression they would win the people over to the new government, prevent revolts, and also show that they were different than the old Russian Empire which has always stood against such things. During this era, Ukrainian culture prospered, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was created, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church, and new young elites rose to prominence. However, this would all come to a halt with the rise of Joseph Stalin who distrusted the upsurge in Ukrainian culture. Claiming he was striking out against anti-Soviet nationalists, Stalin purged much of the new Ukrainian cultural elite and had them killed. As a result, when World War II broke out, many Ukrainians chose to support the Nazis, believing the Germans would give them their independence. Eventually, disillusioned with both sides, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was created. The UPA struggled for an independent and free Ukraine and fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets. During this struggle, the Ukrainian nationalists showed a darker side of nationalism, and it is estimated that tens of thousands of Poles, Jews and members of other ethnic groups were killed by Ukrainians in ethnic cleansing.

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