Expert opinion: There is no real “Ukrainian nationalism”

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July 15, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

In 2010, I wrote a large research article on contemporary Ukrainian nationalism, perhaps the only such scholarly article on the topic in Russia at the time, for an expert journal. My colleagues reported afterwards that the article had even been distributed as a resource for Ukrainian nationalists. Meanwhile, it went unnoticed in Russia, just like the subject to which it was dedicated. The paradox is that, despite the fact that Russia has had to deal with Ukrainian nationalists for more than 100 years (if their history is taken as beginning with the Sich Riflemen of the First World War and E. Konovalets’ “Ukrainian Military Organization”), there have been virtually no specialists on modern Ukrainian nationalism and literally no works on the initial stage of its history. As a result, we paid the price for ignorance of this phenomenon as it was none other than the “nationalists” who turned out to be the driving force behind the Euromaidan. but even worse is that even today this situation is not being corrected. All of our knowledge of the subject is placed in the category of “journalistic historiography”, i.e. as journalism and not scholarly work. One of the consequences of this superficial judgement of the subject has been an inaccurate and simply wrong terminology. 

Before the Second World War, the term “Ukrainian nationalism” took root in Soviet propaganda which was then included in political and scholarly literature and international media. Its modern synonym which journalists really like to use is the term “radicals.” 

The methodologies of Soviet ideology and propaganda left any kind of nationalism as a scarecrow, an ideological taboo. But since then, tectonic changes have taken place. The Soviet Union collapsed and different varieties of nationalism won out in the majority of the former Soviet republics (except Russia and Belarus). Nationalism turned out to be not simply legitimized, but ended up being the only form of ideological legitimation for the new ruling regimes.

When we employ the concept of “Ukrainian nationalism” or “radicals in Ukraine,” whether we like it or not we are doing this phenomenon an enormous service by refining and legitimizing it. The whole world lives with nationalism and many countries and regimes are nationalist. Nationalism is thus no such taboo as it was for Soviet ideology and propaganda. But Soviet ideology and propaganda were bad not because they became hopelessly outdated, but worst of all because they were wrong in this regard. In reality, there is no Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian nationalism died and this death took place (the paradox can be heard) on the Euromaidan. Only Ukrainian Nazism was left.

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I will not bore the reader with lengthy argumentation and evidence supporting the thesis that “Ukrainian nationalism” was born out of fascism (the totalitarian ideology based on violence and segregation). “Ukrainian nationalism”, according to its own indices, is closest of all to the Eastern European and Southern European varieties of fascist ideologies, such as the Romanian and Croatian versions. Croatia and Galicia (the “Piedmont of Ukrainian nationalism”) were the most culturally and economically backwards outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Romania was a state whose independence was born as a result of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. The country was also agrarian and backwards in economic and social development. In Croatia, Romania, and Galicia, fascism was by definition different from its developed form in Germany and even in Italy. The Croatian Catholic Ustashe hated the Orthodox Serbs dominating the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes just as the nationalists and Greek Catholics of Galicia hated the Roman Catholic Poles of Pilsudski’s Poland for the same reasons. Both either had no experience of their owns statehood or had fundamentally forgotten such.  

Ukrainian (Galician) nationalism was initially not so much a “nationalism” as it was an ideology of cultural renaissance or political emancipation analogous to the rising nationalisms of many European peoples during the first half of the 19th century. But “Ukrainian nationalism” in its prime, Galician version, was originally Ukrainian Nazism. Nationalism can be good, it can be bad, or it can be very bad. But even in the latter case, it can oriented towards development. The Galician version of “Ukrainian nationalism” was opposed to any form of development. It was a form of regression, the opposite of progress for Ukrainians themselves. It is no coincidence that Shukhevych, the commander of UPA, is quoted as saying that he was ready to destroy half of Ukraine’s population. 

The essence of “Ukrainian nationalism” in its most famous Galician version of Dontsov, Bandera, and Shukhevych lies not in the creation of a new political or cultural project but in the destruction of Culture as such. It is the revolt of the small, poor, and backwards village of Khutor against the materially and culturally-high City. Typologically, “Ukrainian nationalism” is closer to “black racism” among tribes in South Africa as opposed to the Enlightenment versions of European nationalism. In Europe, the bearers of the idea of “enlightened nationalism” were groups of the intellectual elite, while in Galicia this role was fulfilled by the children of Greek Catholic village priests culturally and intellectually narrow-minded and intolerant towards peoples of other faiths, such as Roman Catholics and Orthodox. To this hatred for the “others” was added a hatred for “heretics.” Various factions of the OUN were no less fiercely at war with each other than against the Poles and communists. Even in the conditions of emigration in the US and Canada, a total, mutual alienation was preserved between nationalists from Galicia and the Skhidnyaki (“Easterners”) from Dnieper Ukraine.

Tracing the development and collisions of these versions of Ukrainian nationalism in independent Ukraine would be very interesting, but this would require much more space.

To summarize: “Ukrainian nationalism” in its Galician version was born in the form of fascism. The first steps of this phenomenon were the extermination of the Galician Russians in the death camps at Talerhof and Terezin. Then, there was close cooperation with like-minded adherents of the other fascist factions of interwar Europe, especially the Croatian Ustashe and German Nazis. After the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of independent Ukraine, the remnants of the Banderites and Melnykites returning from emigration quickly captured leading positions in the spheres of ideology and education. They began to impose their primitive and backwards ideas from 50-60 years ago. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, there was swift growth in Ukrainian nationalism without the quotes, i.e., the creation of a project for cultural and political development. But the lack of its own intelligentsia (all of the intellectual and cultural elite in Ukraine was always Russian and considered itself part of the Russian World) as well as the lack of any experience in state-building initially made Ukrainian nationalism into something weak and sickly childish. It finally died on the Euromaidan and was strangled by Ukrainian Nazism. Society became polarized and those who chose the slogan “Ukraine is Europe”, meaning “Ukraine is anti-Russia”, thus chose in favor of Nazism. Some Ukrainian nationalists, by contrast, returned to their Russian family. While some, paralyzed by such a painful choice, were eliminated (such as Oles Buzina, the brightest and most engaging example of a Ukrainian nationalist).

After all, it is difficult to remain in the middle between good and evil when the burning of the House of Trade Unions in Odessa and the bombing of Donbass is ongoing in front of your very eyes. 

Eduard Popov, born in 1973 in Konstantinovka, Donetsk region, is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia in Rostov-on-Don. From 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don. He has actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass and has been a guest contributor to various Donbass media, such as the Lugansk-based Cossack Herald

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