How Ukraine is creating a second national identity

When everything happening in Donbas will have ended, nothing will be over. The death count cannot be annulled, personal memories cannot be eradicated. Portraits with black ribbons will remain on the shelves of old polished closets. “And this, son, is your father’s camouflage, he fought in it.” What for? Who cares – children’s memories are the most powerful and real. The families of the fallen will measure the future with the past, it will start defining the present as well. Time does not heal anything – it only promotes what one has survived into the category of myth. And a myth is characterised by the fact that it cannot be rationalised with facts.

The first death negates any rationality – henceforth there are only “us” and “them.” It is not important what things are really like – the only thing that matters is that people are thinking about it. Ukraine has survived 23 years without bloodshed. The death of the people from one camp bore the picture of the future. Now, a second one is being born right before our eyes.

National building live 

I remember the night of the final storming of Maidan. It was difficult to believe even, everything was so epic. Just like in a Hollywood blockbuster: a decisive attempt to burst through in the morning, then a counterattack, street battles, the detachment of the most capable Hundreds, the retreat to the last barricades, an hour for capitulation, its refusal, and then – the storming. The flame of tyres, burnt armoured carriers, waning ranks of protectors. There were no grounds to think that they would withstand. And they held on. Internet channels showed the picture worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office – if they had been set-up shoots. But it was reality.

A new Ukrainian heroical myth was being formed online. Those who did not leave the square that night will take the place of the boys who died near Kruty in the consciousness of the Ukrainians. Everything that had existed before in the heroic pantheon of the protesters was bound to gradually take second place. This happened far too rarely to deny it.

A day later, the “Heaven’s Hundred” happened. Yanukovich’s flight. The Crimean annex. Donetsk. Luhansk. The ATO. The death of the soldiers. War.

For the past half year Ukraine has been speedily forming its own identity – with a pantheon of martyrs, heroes and traitors, with the understanding of the norm, with limits of what may be allowed and with the category of “us” and “them.” This had not happened since the moment of obtaining independence – the victory at “Eurovision” or the successes of the national teams have been forgotten today as something of second-rate importance. The national liberation ethos that serves as foundation for the establishment of any nation was born on Maidan. And not just the ethnic establishment, either – the “Ukrainian” is gradually becoming both political and civil.

And if at that moment everything had been over, history would have taken a different turn. But after Yanukovich’s flight there were Crimea, Donbas, volunteers from Russia, shot-down helicopters, murdered soldiers and their enemies. If not for this, the country would have had only one collective myth. Now it has two.

Donbas as Ulster

Because right now, right before our eyes, a counter-myth is being formed in Donbas. Yes, there are more than enough “wild geese” from Russia, yes, the weapons are being supplied from across the border, yes, without involvement from outside the region would not have sparked like a match. But all of this does not negate the most important fact: local citizens are also dying in battle. Some of them with weapons in their hands.

Portraits with black ribbons will remain on the shelves, never-been-worn clothing – in the wardrobes, fishing rods and gardening boots – in the closets. Acquaintances, family, children, nephews, parents will remain. Don’t try to tell them how the victory of the fallen would have ended – they will not listen. The past is stealing pieces of their future – and they will fill the vacuum with their own view on reality.

For them, bound to the fallen with a joint past, the events also fall under the category of heroics. A myth doesn’t have to be mathematically precise – “Banderites,” “the junta” and “fascists” can be invented, but they are real for those who are ready to fight them with weapons in hand.

This process cannot be stopped – if Kyiv breaks the situation in its favour, the myth formed about “resistance to neofascism” will not go away. Decades of Sovietism were unable to eradicate the memory of OUN-UPA – and as soon as the USSR was history, we saw the rebirth of the legend. Just like Chechnya stories about the old and new Shamil may emerge, and Timur Mutsurayev may sound from MP3 players. This is the peculiarity of myth: it can be hushed up but it cannot be eliminated. Especially if it had blood spilt over it.

Any war, especially with the involvement of the aviation and armoured equipment, births history. For the supporters of unitary Ukraine it is about war with the interventionists. For part of the Donbas population, it is different: about the lost (or betrayed) victory. And it will make no sense to try to explain that Girkin was a foreigner, that Ponomarev was insane and Gubarev was a freak. Myth cannot be rationalised – we have already said so.

I am writing this only to reiterate that blood sanctifies. It bore Ukraine – from the remnants of the Ukrainian SSR. It bore Ukrainians – from the varied inert population. During civil war the People’s Republic of Ukraine and the People’s Republic of Western Ukraine existed several months, but this did not prevent them from taking their place in history books. Why do we think that short-term existence and caricature of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk will not become a basis for a new myth, however alien to the rest of Ukraine?

Ukrainian Zugzwang

Ukraine cannot not fight for Donbas. Otherwise it will get “Palestine” at least, or, which is worse, an analogous scenario in the southern oblasts. But victory will not put an end to the story. Because it does not matter what motivated the people to take up arms – the characteristic of war is that starting a certain moment it self-reproduces. It no longer needs loud mottos and goals of the greater good – they are fighting for themselves and the rest, for yesterday’s defeat and tomorrow’s victory.

In Russia it is customary to think that Ukraine is in the midst of a civil war. Ukraine is convinced that it is fighting with intervention. In reality, the truth is somewhere in between. A fire needs a source of fuel and firewood. And it does not matter if the match was not produced here – what is more important is that the firewood is local.

One thing is clear. There is no more peace. Everyone has gone to war. War births the myth of victors and the myth of the defeated. And therefore the victors should not forget this, no matter what side of the barricade they stood on.

Source: Slon

Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina  

One thought on “How Ukraine is creating a second national identity

  1. Pingback: SEN News Bites, June 10- 16

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