Friday, March 17, 2006

Comparative Politics: Essay on Ukrainian Nationalism


Nationalist sentiment in the past decade became prominent in the Yugoslavian wars, Rwandan genocide, Quebec separatism, and Chechnya rebellion. Trouble in these regions proved the profound impact nationalism has, and renewed emphasis on its study in political science. The meaning of the term nationalism and whether nations are primordial, imagined, constructed, or deconstructed has been at the forefront of scholarship for sometime. Other scholars of nationalism have debated the normative aspects of nationalism: whether clinging to national claims is good or bad for societies and states.[1] The purpose of this paper is to think more about the former concern – how nationalism arises and nations are sustained -- than the latter. Particularly I am concerned about how nationalism developed in modern-day Ukraine. The concepts of primodialism, instrumentalism, and social construction figure prominently in this discussion. Although some theorists have argued increasingly for post-modern, social-contructivist views and cynical instrumentalist conceptions, I suggest that primordialism – or the belief that nations are age-old – have merit in the Ukrainian case.

While hard primordialists are virtually non-existent, scholars like Anthony Smith and Robin Cohen have been staunch supporters of soft primordial positions and historian Timothy Snyder has been critical of the constructivist literature. Other social scientists such as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, John Anderson, Yuri Slezkine and Keith Darden have critiqued the primordial case, and championed other, more “modern” and “postmodern” views. Although these views often conflict with one another, they do posit an interesting parallel to the Smith, Cohen and Snyder positions. If this paper is a success, I hope to do two things. First, I explore various positions about nation-formation and nationalism held by the different authors and claim that soft primordial positions still have relevancy in the discipline. Secondly, I introduce several positions on Ukrainian nationalism, point out the limitations of modern and postmodern theories in explaining Ukraine, and support finally conclude that Snyder’s historical narrative best explains Ukraine.

Nationalism and the Nation Defined: The Dilemma

Imminent nationalism scholar Benedict Anderson noted that nations, nationalism, and nationalities “proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone analyse [sic]” (Anderson 1991: 3). Conflating the two terms to mean the same thing has confused many a discussion about nationalism and the nation. Of course, the nation and nationalism are two distinct, yet also interrelated, concepts. Put simply, nationalism is the act of promoting a particular nation. A nation, therefore, is the entity, real or imagined, that nationalists seek to promote. Nationalism is best summed-up by Anthony Smith, who argued that certain human populations forged an “ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity,” of their actual or potential nation (Smith 1999: 37). Unfortunately, nationalism has also been characterized as feelings or emotions towards the state, a misnomer that suggests “nations” and “states” to be one in the same (Connor 1994: 40).[2] This is not a major concern of this paper, but something that scholars must contend with.

To define “nation” has been more contentious and ultimately the key source of disagreement among scholars. First, social scientists have debated the extent to which nations are real or invented. While Smith contends that nations are “real and powerful sociological phenomena,” Anderson and Hobsbawm, among others, have suggested that nations are “imagined” and “constructed.” (Anderson 1991, Gellner 1999, Smith 1999, Hobsbawm 1993). Secondly, the issue of time is of great concern. Gellner and other self-described modernists argue that the nation is a rather recent event, coming about in the 17th and 18th centuries (Gellner 1999: 32). Smith and Cohen suggest that the nation is much older, and not that modern. I will explore these critiques of the primordialist stance before proceeding to offer a defense of primordial interpretation.

Imagined or Real? The Trouble With the Nation

Contemporary scholarship has found many problems with primordial interpretation. Although many of these theorists disagree with one another, one thing is certain: the nation is an invention, a construction, or an imagined community.[3] Whichever the case, the nations are not “real” in the sense primordialists think, and certainly not old. One camp has taken the side of Anderson, who acknowledges that nations are “imagined communities,” created by print-capitalism and newspaper readership (Anderson 1991: 62). Newspapers printed “local” stories, and advertised goods in the “local” market. Through the process of communicating via the press, readers developed an imagined sense of their community.

Another view depicting the invented quality of nations is instrumentalism. Instrumentalists’ suggest that people create nations and promote nationalism to further their own ends. According to Darden, instrumentalists are often ordinary citizens that adopt certain national viewpoints to achieve their goals (Darden 2002: 6). Others have argued that it is elites – or those at the top – which seeks to manipulate and energize nationalist sentiment. Slobodan Milosevic is a prime example of instrumentalist logic. By rallying seemingly peaceful Serbs and Croats around national rhetoric, his goal of ethnic cleansing is easier accomplished.

Another version of the constructed view is that of Ernest Gellner. Gellner believed that the nation was a product of state-formation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike Anderson, Gellner does not believe that nations are simply “imagined communities.” He believes that nations are very real, but very recent (Gellner 1999: 32). Nations “as natural and God-given” is the imagined myth and to think about the nation as a “sleeping beauty” upon need of awakening is great folly (Gellner 1987: 49). For Gellner, the development of the state and the advancement of industrialization destroyed previous cultural, religious and ethnic ties. With this seeming anonymity of person, citizens sought recognition, protection and kinship within the boundaries of the state. “This is what automatically makes people into nationalists,” Gellner noted, “because if there is no congruence between the culture in which they are operating and the culture of the surrounding economic, political and educational bureaucracies, then they are in trouble” (Gellner 1999: 33). Thus, the simple lesson we can learn from Gellner’s story is that statehood invented the nation and nationalists.[4]

As acknowledged earlier, primordial notions of nationality have come under great attack. Most of these critiques were advanced against the “primordial ooze” position. Many nationalists themselves argued that nationality existed through bloodlines, and either one was “born into” the nation or not. Science and anthropology alone have discredited this often times racist and ethnocentric viewpoint about nationality. Soft primordial positions, however, still carry some currency in the debate. Soft primordialists agree that national bloodlines seem spurious and that at some level a degree of construction exists, but these primordialists also grant that ethnic and national bonds are very “real” and also very old. Smith argues that most nations, and their constructors, have a very hard time building nations and states without first a preexisting “ethnic core” (Smith 1987: 262). As he remarks: “The history-less are destiny-less, and this becomes the central dilemma of state-making and nation-building today” (Smith 1987: 244). Cohen, moreover, suggests that primordial identity have such grave practical concerns – life or death potentially – that to deconstruct and dismiss such identity is problematic (Cohen 1999: 10).

My own concern with the “imagined” and “social construction” literature is twofold. One, many of these theories view common citizens as gullible and naive. As the road to nationalism and nation-building marches merrily along, citizens are duped into imagining something they are not. By downplaying the fact that people may choose to reject or accept certain arrangements, social constructivists and instrumentalists assume too hastily an overly determined nation. Two, these theorists have a very narrow view of history, that as Smith has argued, only tells “half the story.” As noted earlier, time matters, and social contructivists and instrumentalists ignore critical historical junctures for more favorable points of departure that (usually) makes their imagined nation a tidy conception. The Ukrainian case will show that both the agency of common citizens, and the history of these citizens, matters.

Ukraine’s Nation and Nationalism: Imagined or Real?

Because of the diverging viewpoints among historians and social scientists about the age of the nation, the way it was created, if it was created, who the nationalists were and where the nationalists were, Ukraine provided an interesting case study for nationalist scholars. Ukraine has also been popular for those interested in proving how new and constructed nationalist sentiment is. Rather matter-of-factly, John Anderson claims that it is the “late emergence of Ukrainian nationalism” that made new studies on the topic enticing to scholars (Anderson 1990: 1). Paralleling the growth of Marxism in Moscow, Ukraine’s nation and nationalist sentiments seemed to be a reaction against Soviet communism (Anderson 7). For J. Anderson, the idea of Ukraine was a product of intellectuals promoting independence from Russia.

Yuri Slezkine also believed that Ukraine developed about the time of Lenin’s revolution in the early 20th century. Suggesting that the Soviet Union was analogous to a communal apartment, large but with distinctly different inhabitants, Slezkine believed Ukraine was a creation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. By “inventing” Ukraine and “fostering national cultures… creating national autonomies, national schools… and national languages,” this enabled Lenin to solidify and stabilize his regime (Slezkine 1994: 420). Lenin understood that nationality was a matter of cultural ‘form’ but not political ‘content’ (Slezkine 1994: 434). Therefore, nationalism became the form from which to promote the doctrine. For example, coupled with Ukrainian national myths taught in schools, was the socialism of Marx and Lenin.

Slezkine and J. Anderson both argue for the “invented” and relatively recent existence of Ukrainian nationalism. They also believed that nationalism was a means to an end, or instrumental in purpose. J. Anderson might be right that intellectuals pushed nationalist myths along. Without a doubt, intellectuals can stoke the coals of nationalism. It is also possible that Slezkine is onto something by suggesting that Lenin had profound influence on nations and nationalism in certain Soviet republics. Lenin’s influence cannot be denied. But both arguments were limited with respect to history. What was Ukraine and other regions like before the Soviet Union? Keith Darden has tried to answer that question, and his research suggests that Ukrainian nationalism – while still relatively new – was a pre-Soviet phenomenon.

Darden, like Benedict Anderson, believes that the forms that make mass communication possible enable myths about the nation and nationalism. For Darden, the way nationalist myths spread are through mass schooling and literacy (Darden 2002: 3). However, this mass schooling occurred not in the 20th century, but the late 1700s and early 1800s, and far removed from the communism of the Soviet Union. He contends that Austria, who fought for control of parts of Western Ukraine and Galicia, created the Ukrainian identity as a way of fighting off rival claims to the territory (Darden 2002: 30). Vienna did this through educating and promoting literacy that created Ukrainian myths but also painted Austria in a favorable light over Polish or Russian aggressors. “Schooling provided an institutional vehicle for legitimizing mass ideas,” Darden asserted, “of which nationalism was one manifestation” (Darden 2002: 10).[5] Darden acknowledges that regions like Galicia where mass literacy was prominent were also the most active in undermining the Soviet Union.[6] This fact alone would seem to give great credibility to this claim.

I think that Darden falls into the same trap that Slezkine and J. Anderson do. Darden’s interpretation is that Galicians were a surly bunch because of one event alone: mass literacy and education provided by Austria. This ignores, however, the tremendous fighting over the region that extended back to the 16th century. Moreover, Ukrainian nationalism was not isolated to western Ukraine, nor were all those in Galicia sympathetic to Austria and the Hapsburg dynasty. He makes a second mistake, like many social constructivists; by assuming that Galicians were tricked and duped into thinking they were “Ukrainian” or “Austrian.” Increasing literacy rates is certainly an achievable goal and a measurable one. But promoting nationalism is overly ambitious, and I suspect, much more difficult than just teaching kids to read.

Oversimplification by the constructivists and instrumentalists has been less noticed by social scientists, and perhaps that is why constructivism has had such great appeal in the discipline. The cases made are tidy and neat, with clear causation from one event to another. Of course, politics and history are much messier. As historian Timothy Snyder has noted, relevant omissions of key historical detail and vast generalizations cannot piece together the story of nations and nationalism. Although Snyder does not self-identify as a primordialist, or any type of theorist for that matter, he does believe that the social construction literature has a lot to learn from history, and that it is folly to believe nationality comes about from imagination or accident (Snyder 2003: 11). Snyder traces the rise of four “modern” nations – Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus – from the 16th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, composed of nobility, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant origins, became one of the largest nations in modern Europe. By the time the Commonwealth disintegrated in the 18th century, four distinct nations existed, and four states later arose (Snyder 2003: 1-2). Snyder’s account is one of great detail, and he proves that many nations, including Ukraine, are indeed very old and very real.

Snyder provides several interesting observations about the beginnings of the state we now know as Ukraine. One, he notes that many of the Ukrainian intellectuals and elites who supposedly “created” Ukrainian nationalism were rejected by many citizens. Snyder posits: “The political idea of ethnic nationalism was conceived by elites before it was accepted by peasants: and…the elites often failed to meet ‘ethnic’ definitions of nationhood themselves” (Snyder 2003: 130).[7] Two, the Slezkine view that Ukraine was a Soviet, Leninist creation is also challenged. In fact, imperial Russia recognized Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalism some sixty years before, when the 1878 Ems Decree banned the publication and import of Ukrainian works into Russian borders (Snyder 2003: 123). Three, Darden’s claim that Austria’s mass literacy program made Galician and western Ukrainian nationalism stronger than other regions does not appear to be the case. In fact, the prominence of Lemkos[8] in Galicia weakened the “national movement” for Ukrainian independence and proved the strength of nationalism might be in other parts of Ukraine. Furthermore, it was not until the 1930s that Galicia became the “unrivaled center” of the Ukrainian independence movement (Snyder 2003: 139-141).


After reflecting on the downfall of the Soviet Union, Mark Beissinger argued that nationalism seemed to be the key contributor in its demise (Beissinger 2002: 8-9). If we accept this to be the case, then understanding the nation and nationalist sentiment in Ukraine and beyond is of great importance. As I have explained, nations and nationalism are very real and also very old. Instead of viewing the nation as a modern construction, scholars need to turn to history and its details, not isolated political incidents, in order to understand the perilous events of the present. It is also of importance that ordinary citizens are not as easily duped as we might think. Instead, nationalists have a clear, and certainly real, understanding of who they are and who they are not. Echoing Smith, who claims that the “history-less and destiny-less,” Snyder argues that Ukrainians are guided by the past. In some cases, it is a past that dates back to the 16th century. Hopefully, social scientists will think more critically about the past and reality in future conceptualizations of nations and nationalism.

[1] See Peter Uvin’s Aiding Violence (2001) and Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002)

[2] By state, I understand it to be what Max Weber suggests as a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force with a given territory” (Weber 1983: 111).

[3] These interpretations have been attractive to many associated with the postmodern movement that has questioned various realities and perceptions about the world, but also attractive to those dissatisfied with primordial conceptions.

[4] Or as Eric Hobsbawm has said: “Nations do not make states and nationalism, but the other way around.”

[5] This use of education was similar, but also very different from Lenin’s. The ‘content’ of Lenin’s story was ideological Marxism, and nationalism was in some ways a byproduct of this goal. For Austria, the ‘content’ was nationalism itself, and this nationalism was the tool used to push out other interests.

[6] Of course, Darden was not the first scholar, nor the last, to understand the importance of Galicia in discussing Ukrainian nationalism.

[7] Indeed, some of the Ukrainian intellectuals were actually of German origin.

[8] Snyder describes the Lemkos as: “East Slavic inhabitants of the hills and mountains… on the Polish-Czech border” (139).

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