The current war with Russia is not only for territory as much as for an idea, a worldview that will prevail in these territories.
At the heart of Russian aggression is a racist ideology, a bizarre combination of fascism, communism, and Russian imperialism. The restoration of the Russian Empire, whether in the form of the USSR or the pre-Bolshevik Russian Empire, is the Kremlin’s strategic goal.
Ukrainians are now opposing this goal, relying on their own courage and perseverance and military assistance from the West.
But in an ideological war, it is important that Russian ideology be opposed by an equally strong Ukrainian idea that will mobilize Ukrainians to fight, attract the support of allies, and determine our vision of the world after victory. Such an idea is Ukrainian nationalism, which has long been a way of preserving Ukrainian identity.
This phrase still frightens people who are unable to overcome Soviet myths and stereotypes. But people of pro-Western liberal views are also wary of it, mistakenly associating it with Nazism and chauvinism.
So, let’s start with a definition – what is Ukrainian nationalism?
In short, it is a worldview that presupposes the existence of a Ukrainian state that preserves a unique Ukrainian culture in the international system of other nation-states, each of which has its own cultural uniqueness.
Its essence is best expressed in the OUN slogan, which first sounded in 1940: “Freedom to the Nations! Freedom to the People!”
This message is not just about the world order of nation-states. Here is another important point – the combination of the struggle for national freedom with the defense of personal freedom. It was this call in 1991 that ensured the victory of Ukrainian nationalism by inscribing it in the pan-European “Wind of Change”.
The peculiarity of Ukrainian nationalism is its democratic character. It best corresponds to one of the basic mental traits of Ukrainians – freedom-loving.
Of course, Ukrainian nationalism has undergone changes throughout its history, combined with elements of other ideologies – liberal, socialist, authoritarian, there was even an attempt to combine it with communism.
Mainly though, is that it preserved Ukrainian identity during the turbulent 20th century. In particular, from attempts to destroy Ukrainians by the most powerful imperial projects of the time – the Soviets and Nazis.
In the end, it was Ukrainian nationalism, along with the nationalism of other peoples enslaved by the Soviets, that led the USSR to collapse.
Ukrainian nationalism has not lost its relevance since 1991.
Although it would seem, that its main goal, formulated in another well-known slogan of the OUN’s, “You will gain the Ukrainian state or die for it” has already been achieved.
Unfortunately, this was not understood by the leaders of the state, in which the Soviet reluctance to this worldview persisted. Although nationalism could help to overcome important problems of the period of Ukraine’s formation. Even corruption.
American researcher Francis Fukuyama wrote: “The quality of public administration, that is the efficiency of public services and low levels of corruption, depends on whether officials put the public good above the personal…If people are not proud of their country, they will not work for its benefit. A strong sense of national identity in Japan, South Korea and China has spawned elites who have focused on their countries’ economic development rather than personal enrichment.”
Another American expert, Anne Applebaum, agrees: “Only people who feel a sense of devotion to their societies, people who respect their national language, literature, history, people who sing national songs and pass on national legends from generation to generation, will work for the good of society.”
The urgency of Ukrainian nationalism became even more apparent after the start of the war with Russia.
History tells of indomitable fighters who fought in hopeless conditions and inspires today’s heroes to feats that the world admires. That is why nationalist symbols and songs have become so popular today among the Ukrainian military and civilians.
But the importance is not limited to the fact that history is a source of inspiration. At the heart of Russian aggression is the idea that Ukrainians and Russians are one people.
A strong national identity based on a conscious “we are not like the Russians” became the basis for uniting Ukrainians in building an army in 2014, and even more so in the fight against full-scale aggression. We see how the level of resistance depends on the level of national consciousness. The Russians managed to temporarily occupy the East and South, where before the war the level of national self-awareness was not so widespread.
Even before the start of the large-scale aggression, Vitaliy Portnikov wrote: “You and I inherited a state that declared independence within the borders of the former Ukrainian SSR. But for this former Uk.SSR to truly become an independent Ukraine, we need a Ukrainian identity to spread from Uzhorod to Kharkiv. Because if we fail to spread it from Uzhorod to Kharkiv, these territories will remain outside this identity, and therefore under the influence of another identity – the Russian. Sooner or later, they will not be Ukrainian from a political point of view.”
Therefore, today we have to talk about the military liberation of territories and purposeful state policies of strengthening national identity in the occupied territories.
Moreover, the brutal Russian occupation for many Ukrainians was a moment of truth that showed their national self-awareness. They do not want to be like the Russians, they do not want to have anything to do with them.
The army and culture are two equally important defenses against Russian aggression.
Why does the world need Ukrainian nationalism today?
As a reminder, it is the common sense of pride in belonging to one national community that can unite the country’s citizens to protect it. And this unity can be a decisive factor in confronting a force that has other resources: technical, financial, and human. It is the nationalism of one nation that can thwart global imperial plans that threaten other nations.
Because nationalism is fundamentally an anti-imperialism idea. Its vision of the world – nations formed into independent states that cooperate or compete with each other. Whereas imperialism is a world dominated by one nation over another, the destruction of diversity through the imposition of a single universal culture.
It was nationalism, which gradually established socio-political life, first as a cultural and then as a political movement, that finally put an end to the existence of empires that dominated the world order in the 20th century.
It blocks attempts to restore Russian imperialism in the 21st century, which now threatens not only Ukraine but the entire free world.
It also launches changes in Russia and builds on its ruins independent democracies from those who are still enslaved by the Kremlin.
Because, “Freedom to the Nations! Freedom to Peoples!” is about a free world and free people in free nation-states.