At the Limits of Nationalism

Confronting Ukraine's past to imagine its future

No one spoke of Ukrainian nationality before the nineteenth century. Nor did a state named Ukraine exist before the twentieth. Ukraine isn’t very different from its Eastern European neighbors in this regard; modern nations, by and large, were dreamt up by nineteenth century intellectuals and realized by twentieth century statesmen and soldiers, all of whom selectively cited diverse and often contradictory historical forces and figures to justify their immediate political aims. Nationality is always constructed, and nations—as the Anglo-Irish historian Benedict Anderson famously argued—are “imagined communities” projected back into the past to serve present-day agendas. In the case of Ukraine, this meant connecting the dots between ancient Greek colonists, Sarmatian tribes, Christian Slavs of Medieval Kyivan Rus, Orthodox peasants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s eastern frontiers, seventeenth century Cossacks, Ruthenians of Habsburg Galicia and Bukovyna, the “Little Russians” of Romanov Russia and not-always-welcome Jews and Crimean Tatars. All of these histories and communities were united to produce a coherent national narrative supporting the existence of an independent Ukrainian nation-state—the state whose legitimacy Vladimir Putin called into question when justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The global face of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion has been, of course, that of President Volodymyr Zelensky. His Jewish background and native fluency in Russian have been widely cited as refutations of Putin’s central premise—that Ukraine is controlled by a fascist junta brought to power in a 2014 coup backed by the United States and its NATO allies, and that Russia is committed to “denazification” and to defending the rights of Ukraine’s allegedly oppressed Russian-speaking population. “How could I be a Nazi?” Zelensky asked rhetorically in a plea for peace just before the invasion. A comedian and actor by training, Zelensky has been uniquely positioned to present Ukraine to the Western powers whose military and financial backing it depends on as a familiar, appealing and essentially liberal country fighting for its sovereignty against Putin’s authoritarian empire. In this context, Zelensky’s Jewishness has played a key role in neutralizing Ukraine’s historical reputation for antisemitism. Without Zelensky, it is difficult to imagine the blue and gold banner of Ukraine becoming a fixture in progressive American neighborhoods, displayed alongside Black Lives Matter signs and intersectional rainbow flags.

Somehow, a nation that reveres the legacy of the Cossacks has become identified around the world with Western democratic values. How that pairing became possible, and whether it’s sustainable, could help determine whether Ukraine prevails in its war with Russia—and more fundamentally, whether pluralism and nationalism can coexist anywhere. The latter is a question the entire world has a stake in, and answering it will require an honest engagement with some of the most controversial symbols of Ukraine’s national identity.

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One of the most prominent landmarks in Kyiv is an equestrian statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky that was erected in 1888 in Sophia Square, between the similarly iconic Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael’s Monastery. The seventeenth century Cossack leader is also depicted on the five-hryvnia note, worth roughly 15 cents. Cities and streets throughout Ukraine bear Khmelnytsky’s name, as does a bridge in Moscow near the railway station to Kyiv. So too does a military honor that Zelensky has awarded to numerous soldiers who have resisted Russia’s invasion.

Every nation has its heroes, but few are as polarizing as Khmelnytsky. To Poles and Ashkenazi Jews throughout the global diaspora, Khmelnytsky, the founder of the Cossack state known as the Hetmanate, is often grouped with Hitler and Stalin as one of history’s most reviled mass murderers. The Cossack Uprising he led in 1648, generally considered a key moment in the founding of the modern Ukrainian nation, was an uprising against western Ukraine’s ruling Polish nobility and its de facto alliance with Jewish merchants and artisans. Recent scholarship estimates that tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by the Cossacks under Khmelnytsky’s command. Even some Ukrainian nationalists—including Taras Shevchenko, the beloved national poet—have questioned Khmelnytsky’s legacy, since it includes the 1654 Pereiaslav Agreement pledging the Cossacks to the service of the Russian Tsar. Khmelnytsky’s defenders characterize the agreement as a pragmatic alliance intended to secure Cossack autonomy against the Poles, while Russian and Soviet historians have tended to cite it as a legal basis for the Moscow-ruled Ukraine that Russia now seeks to restore by force.

To the polonophile historian Norman Davies, Khmelnystsky “brought a murderous army of Cossacks and Tatars right up to the Vistula [and] left a swathe of butchered Catholics across Ukraine.” In The Atlantic, David Frum writes that Khmelnytsky “murdered Polish landlords and Polish Catholic priests when he could get them, but he above all targeted Jews. He killed thousands and enslaved thousands more. Khmelnytsky’s atrocities haunted Jewish memory for generations, until they were overshadowed by the even more terrible organized mass murder of the twentieth century.” Leon Wieseltier recently called Khmelnytsky “one of the most reviled figures in Jewish history,” responsible for “some of the most hideous atrocities in the annals of anti-Semitic violence,” and said the hetman’s name was “a common curse word” among the Brooklyn Jews of his childhood.

Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard scholar and bestselling author of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, doesn’t deny any of this, but he stresses how Ukrainian historians have tended to regard Khmelnytsky: “They extolled him as the father of the nation, the liberator of his people from the Polish yoke, and the hetman who had negotiated the best possible arrangement with the tsar.” In the Ukrainian national imagination, Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks are less marauding killers and rapists than something akin to the mythologized American cowboys or Argentine gauchos: proud, independent horsemen defending the frontier against those who would impose imperial order upon it. To Ukrainians attempting to assert a unique national destiny, the Cossacks represent freedom from serfdom and from any kind of foreign domination; their folkways are distinctly Ukrainian and bridge the country’s east-west divisions.

At the extremes, those divisions are undeniable.

At the extremes, those divisions are undeniable. The westernmost parts of Ukraine were never under Russian control before the twentieth century. Rather, they were shaped by Central European influences, which explains, for instance, the prevalence of the Greek Catholic or “Uniate” Church in the west, which reconciles Orthodox Christian rites with fealty to the Vatican. By contrast, the easternmost regions, along with Crimea, were heavily settled by Russians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to further Tsarist and Soviet strategies of imperial and industrial development. The large middle of the country surrounding the Dnieper Valley, the Cossack heartland, is where these easy distinctions collapse, and where bilingualism is most common. Both east and west are plausibly tied to the legacy of Khmelnytsky’s Hetmanate, even as they understand that legacy and its implications for present-day Ukraine in very different ways.

If the Cossacks have been broadly accepted as foundational to Ukrainian identity, the legacy of the nationalist Stepan Bandera has been far thornier. Bandera was born in Eastern Galicia in 1909, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the time he was nine, the empire had dissolved into multiple new or expanded nation-states, and for a brief moment, it looked as if Ukraine might be one of them. But the initial attempt to establish an independent Ukraine failed—most of its territory became a component republic of the newly established Soviet Union, and the western region that had been Austro-Hungarian ended up in a reborn Poland. Bandera came of age in the latter, becoming involved in Ukrainian nationalism as a youth. At age 20, he joined the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a far-right group founded in Vienna that was committed to establishing an independent Ukraine. Later, he became the leader of its more radical wing. After being imprisoned for life for attempting to assassinate a Polish official in 1934, Bandera was freed in September 1939 when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, with the Soviets capturing and annexing western Ukraine. He relocated to Nazi-occupied Krakow, where he began collaborating with German intelligence to support an independent, fascist Ukraine allied with Germany. During this period, Bandera’s wing of the OUN committed acts of terror against Jews and Poles under German rule. However, a few months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Bandera was arrested and sent to a German camp for political prisoners for most of the remainder of the war. He spent the postwar years in West Germany working with the CIA to subvert Soviet Ukraine and was fatally poisoned by a KGB agent in 1959.

To many Ukrainian nationalists, Bandera is remembered as a hero and a martyr. To Jews, Poles, Russians, leftists of all stripes and most historians, he was first and foremost a fascist and Nazi collaborator. Russia and its apologists today cast Ukraine’s government as “Banderites,” and regard all opposition to Russian domination of Ukraine as essentially fascist in character. Plokhy, in his history of Ukraine, acknowledges Bandera’s fraught legacy but also notes that Bandera “had no operational control over the forces that bore his name” in waging an insurgency against the Soviet Union. His view of occupied Ukrainians who fought in Bandera’s name is fundamentally tragic. “Few were happy with German rule in Ukraine, even fewer shared the Nazi ideology, and no one believed in a German future after Stalingrad and Kursk,” he writes. “Apart from hard-nosed calculation, only their shared anticommunism brought the Ukrainian politicians and German authorities together.”

In 2015, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko implemented a program of “decommunization” that has resulted in the removal of thousands of statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders and the renaming of tens of thousands of streets. Polling a year later revealed that this policy was deeply divisive among Ukrainians, although another poll following Russia’s invasion in 2022 showed much more robust support—perhaps in part driven by Putin citing “decommunization” in his speech justifying the invasion. Although the Soviet legacy is condemned by many Ukrainians—most infamously because of the Holodomor, the “death by hunger” genocide that Stalin imposed in the process of collectivizing agriculture—other Ukrainians have a more nostalgic view of the era, viewing decommunization as less a recognition of past injustice than an attack on the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. After all, no one is pulling down statues of Khmelnytsky. And ultimately, as Plokhy writes, Bandera “became a symbolic leader and a proverbial father of the nation.”

To Zelensky, the issue of Bandera’s legacy has been tricky. In a 2019 interview, the president was asked how he reconciled his support of his predecessor Poroshenko’s “decommunization” policy with the continued memorialization of Bandera. “Stepan Bandera is a hero for a certain percentage of Ukrainians, and this is normal and cool,” Zelensky said. “He is one person who defended the freedom of Ukraine. But I think that when we call so many streets and bridges by the same name, this is not entirely correct.” Instead, Zelensky suggested, more streets should be named for prominent artists and writers “who unite Ukraine today.” A 2021 poll suggested that 32 percent of Ukrainians approve of Bandera, and Ukrainian politics have been perpetually divided over whether to recognize Bandera as an official hero of Ukraine. The pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko attempted to do so in 2010, only to be blocked by an administrative court in the Russian-speaking city of Donetsk (which has been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014). In July 2022, Zelensky fired Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany—a country that prohibits pro-Nazi speech as penance for its central role in the Holocaust—for praising Bandera and questioning whether he was antisemitic. The firing was a case study in how delicate a position Ukraine now finds itself in—dependent on Western countries like Germany to financially support its resistance to Russia, while also relying on nationalists on the frontlines whose views play poorly in the West.

The divide over Bandera is partly ideological, with the right in favor and the left against, and partly geographic—generally speaking, he is a hero in his native western Ukraine and to many in the global Ukrainian-speaking diaspora, and a villain in the Russian-speaking east. But Bandera also has his fans in the east, especially among one faction that has become highly visible in the past eight years and that poses unresolved questions about the future of Ukrainian identity.

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No aspect of contemporary Ukraine inspires more heated debate than the Azov Regiment, which was founded in 2014 as an independent militia, the Azov Battalion, and later incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. Azov was organized in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and backing of separatist republics in the eastern Donbas region—both of which followed street protesters overthrowing the unpopular but legitimately elected government of Viktor Yanukovych in what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity. Consisting mainly of Russian-speaking volunteers in the Donbas region, Azov grew in part out of football hooliganism and became notorious in Russia and beyond for its frequent embrace of neo-Nazi symbols, rhetoric and ideology. Bandera is a touchstone for many Azov volunteers, some of whom go so far as to display swastikas and praise Hitler. To Western critics of Ukraine on both the left and the right, the frequent appearance of Nazi imagery in photographs of Azov volunteers has become a fixation—evidence that Russia’s casus belli of “denazification” is not entirely without merit.

No aspect of contemporary Ukraine inspires more heated debate than the Azov Regiment, which was founded in 2014 as an independent militia, the Azov Battalion, and later incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard.

There’s little doubt that Russian propaganda has exaggerated Azov’s significance. The regiment’s membership is estimated to be in the thousands across the country, concentrated in the country’s embattled east, and some analysts argue that the group is far less ideologically focused than is often alleged. Far-right political parties peaked at roughly 10 percent support in Ukraine’s 2012 parliamentary elections, and in 2019, a bloc of far-right parties collectively received barely more than two percent of the vote—a smaller share than similar parties in most European countries, and insufficient to secure any seats in the Rada. Zelensky’s presidential campaign that year, by contrast, won 73 percent of the vote on a vague reform platform bolstered by the comedian’s performance in the TV series Servant of the People, a national hit (incidentally written almost entirely in Russian) in which he plays a guileless everyman who becomes president of Ukraine.

Beyond a general pledge to fight corruption, Zelensky initially seemed to offer a more conciliatory approach to Russia, appealing to a broad spectrum of Ukrainians who had grown weary of the grinding conflict in the east. In his first year in office, the new president clashed with army veterans over a proposed troop withdrawal and drew criticism from Azov’s leader, Andriy Biletsky, who threatened to mobilize veterans of the Donbas war to protest Zelensky. Despite the far right’s seeming electoral weakness, some analysts argue, Azov and similar militias have been able to exert political pressure on Ukraine’s elected government, keeping it committed to fighting the war.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine less than three years later rendered this split moot; Zelensky, who sought peace up until the last minute and often cautioned US and British intelligence against stoking tensions with Moscow, quickly embraced his role as a wartime president and enjoyed a massive surge in popularity. In the context of a mass people’s war against a foreign invader, the particular ideology of some of the citizens under arms seems less important than the urgent and just cause of national sovereignty.

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In rallying the nation and much of the Western world in defense of Ukraine, Zelensky has relied on an inclusive, pluralistic vision of what the Ukrainian nation can be. He has lent his own considerable talents as a performer and communicator to a stunningly effective public relations blitz, at one point even participating in an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Vogue along with his wife, Olena Zelenska. Zelensky has been praised as a “Jewish hero” in The Atlantic and Commentary and credited for “comedic courage” in The New Yorker. Any skepticism of his political agenda, personal ethics and preparedness for national office went out the window when Zelensky declined the US government’s offer for safe passage out of Kyiv; in both Ukraine and the West, he has become a living symbol of liberalism’s defiance against Putin’s autocratic threat. Even the left-wing publication Jacobin, which has frequently expressed doubts about Western support for Ukraine, published the Ukrainian socialist writer Taras Bilous criticizing Zelensky for neoliberalism but also calling him “the most moderate politician who could have come to power in Ukraine” post-2014. Ukraine could hardly have asked for a more broadly appealing face to present to the world.

In rallying the nation and much of the Western world in defense of Ukraine, Zelensky has relied on an inclusive, pluralistic vision of what the Ukrainian nation can be.

In championing Zelensky’s Ukraine, Western liberals believe they are backing a country that shares their values—one in which patriotic Jewish volunteers serve proudly alongside the Azov Regiment. In the early twentieth century, as Ukraine tore itself apart amid the wider Russian Civil War, soldiers on all sides committed pogroms and other atrocities against Ukraine’s Jews. Today, as war rages in the country, Ukraine and Russia compete in a global propaganda contest to cast themselves as friends to the Jewish people—and their opponents as the true heirs to Nazi Germany. This shouldn’t obscure the fact that actual neo-Nazis and antisemites exist in considerable numbers in both countries, but it does suggest something about the sophistication with which both governments engage with Western media narratives in 2022. As Franklin Foer writes, it “would have astounded [his] grandparents,” Ukrainian Jews who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, to see a contemporary Ukraine where polls show many Ukrainians want their daughters to marry Jewish men, and where an Afghan and a Rwandan serve in parliament opposite a Jewish president—all, it should be emphasized, amid the enduring names and images of Khmelnytsky and Bandera.

The open question, then, is whether the civic nationalism that Zelensky campaigned on can be fortified by war and mass mobilization, or whether the traumas of the war and a likely imperfect resolution will end up empowering those with a narrower and uglier vision of the Ukrainian nation. This, as much as any wider geopolitical considerations, is what’s at stake in Russia’s war. So far, Zelensky has been the popular wartime leader of a nation more united than ever by its effort to repel Putin’s invasion, but if that effort falters, this could change quickly. And Zelensky’s own branding as a liberal is also at risk of being undermined by, for instance, a proposed media law intended to censor Russian propaganda that might be justified by wartime exigencies but that has run afoul of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Of course, Ukraine is hardly the only country attempting to reconcile competing liberal and reactionary strains of its national history. For Americans to see themselves in Ukrainians is less far-fetched than it might seem. Watching Zelensky navigate these debates, I’m reminded of the image of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, standing before an Oval Office portrait of George Washington, the slaveholder whose face adorns the one-dollar bill and whose name is that of the nation’s capital. A short distance from the White House, a statue of civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. faces a memorial to the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. To schoolchildren touring the National Mall, both figures are now glorified Americans. Whether the United States can live up to the idealism suggested by that juxtaposition is no clearer than whether Ukraine can do the same.


David Klion

David Klion is an editor at Jewish Currents and has written for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, New York Magazine, Foreign Policy and other publications.

Discover the Ukraine that was—and the one that will be. Stranger’s Guide: Ukraine is among the most challenging and powerful volumes we’ve ever put out, featuring Ukrainian writers and photographers, many of whom are still in their country, others living abroad ...

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