Putin Says Ukraine Doesn’t Exist—That’s Why He’s Trying to Destroy It

From a New York Times guest essay by Olesya Khromeychuk headlined “Putin Says Ukraine Doesn’t Exist. That’s Why He’s Trying to Destroy It.”:

How did people imagine Ukraine before Feb. 24, 2022? If pressed, some might have conjured mail-order brides and shaven-head gangsters roaming one big post-Soviet Chernobyl. But most probably didn’t think even that; instead, they didn’t imagine Ukraine at all. The country popped up on most people’s radar only in connection to Western political scandals and Russian war making. Few Westerners visited it, and those who did might have concluded — as one Western journalist confessed to me recently — that “Ukraine was just like Russia but without all the crap.”

How do people imagine Ukrainians today? As brave fighters who are standing up to a bully, perhaps, defiant modern-day Cossacks in their colorful embroidered shirts, a bit wild but still safely European. Ukrainians are the ultimate underdog, righteous warriors winning an unequal battle. Pretty much everyone now knows two things about Ukrainians: that there are lots of them, some 40-odd million, and that they are nothing like the Russians.

These before and after images of Ukraine have more in common than we might think. They are both caricatures based not on knowledge of the country or the people who inhabit it but on mythology. In Ukraine’s case, this mythology is shaped in relation to Russia. Whether people think of Ukraine as just like Russia or nothing like Russia, many still don’t know what Ukraine really is. After centuries of imperialist repression and decades of Soviet subjugation, Ukraine has a profound story to tell about the meaning of freedom.

According to Vladimir Putin, Ukraine doesn’t exist. Before he started his murderous full-scale invasion, he repeatedly denied the country’s existence in pseudohistorical essays and speeches. He is just the latest in a long line of Kremlin rulers who have tried to deprive Ukrainians of their subjectivity. For a man so obsessed with history, he should have worked out that centuries of unsuccessful attempts to destroy the Ukrainian nation show that Ukraine very much exists.

For more than a century before World War I, the Ukrainian lands were split between two empires. The western parts were controlled by the Austrians, and the rest were ruled by the Russians. The ruling powers took different approaches. While the Hapsburgs were less prepared to resort to outright repression, the czars experimented with a variety of ways of eliminating Ukrainian national self-expression, such as banning Ukrainian-language publications, prohibiting Ukrainian cultural societies and exiling or imprisoning insubordinate elites. Most important, they kept the vast majority of the population in poverty, depriving them of education and social mobility.

Nevertheless, this period was notable for efforts to forge Ukrainian identity. In the absence of an independent state, writers, poets and artists became the figures who shaped national identity, which was then deepened through consciousness-raising community organizing. Some of the greatest examples of Ukrainian literature were written in this period, including the fiery poetry of Taras Shevchenko, whose line “Fight and you shall prevail” is recited as a mantra by civilians and troops today.

In the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire and before the Soviet Union took shape, Ukrainians got a brief taste of statehood, further strengthening their sense of national belonging. Once the Bolsheviks took hold of Ukrainian lands, they were forced to recognize Ukrainians as a separate nation and not a mere deviation of the Russian people, as the czars had seen them.

Ukrainian culture flourished in the 1920s. The Soviet policy of indigenization, encouraging the use of local languages, was a pragmatic step on the part of Moscow to better disseminate Soviet ideology to its multiethnic territories. Inadvertently, it facilitated the growth of local cultural expression that was socially challenging, aesthetically experimental and politically provocative. Ukraine’s unruly homegrown culture exposed the hypocrisy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where all nations were equal but some were more equal than others.

In the 1930s, Ukrainians were subjected to a deliberate attempt to destroy them as a nation. While the elites were exiled or executed, millions of peasants were killed through the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine. Like other non-Russian peoples who dared to demand autonomy, Ukrainians were systematically repressed, Russified and denied subjectivity. All the same, the urge for independence remained. During the decades of Soviet rule, sometimes this urge manifested simply in keeping the Ukrainian language and traditions in private use and at other times in an open and organized struggle against the Soviet regime.

Just as the previous empires collapsed, so did the Soviet variant. In 1991, a week before the Soviet Union ceased to exist, 92 percent of Ukrainian voters — just under 30 million people — supported the declaration of independence in a national referendum. Statehood, at long last, was restored. Since then, this supposedly nonhistorical nation has continued to defend its sovereignty against Russia’s interference and the authoritarian impulses it encourages. In three decades, Ukrainians have mounted several large protest movements and revolutions, testament to citizens’ deep civic consciousness.

This historical experience — of statelessness and struggle, repressive external rule and hard-won independence — has shaped Ukraine into the nation we see today: opposed to imperialism, united in the face of the enemy and determined to protect its freedom. For the people of Ukraine, freedom is not some lofty ideal. It is imperative for survival.

Even so, some commentators insist that Russia’s all-out war has somehow molded Ukrainians into a nation for the first time. This is a tired claim: Three decades ago, Ukrainians were perceived as an unexpected nation suddenly risen from the rubble of the Soviet Union. In this simplistic view, Ukraine is little more than a buffer zone with an identity far too complex to grasp that only tenuously amounts to a nation.

Yet for the people who live in Ukraine, that complexity is part of the country’s strength. Because of its history as a divided borderland between multiple states and empires, Ukraine has always been a melting pot of cultures, languages and traditions. The result of that intermingling is the modern Ukrainian political nation, members of which speak Crimean Tatar, Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and many other languages in addition to Ukrainian. And as a viral meme from the start of the invasion showed, all of them can tell a Russian warship and its commander exactly where to go in fluent Russian.

Against those tempted to marvel at the apparent awakening of the Ukrainian nation, there are the words of Lesia Ukrainka, a pen name meaning “Ukrainian woman.” “To suffer in chains is a great humiliation,” she wrote in 1903, when the country had yet to taste self-rule. “But to forget those chains without having broken them is the worst kind of shame.” For much longer than Russia’s war, Ukrainians have fought for — and achieved — freedom and sovereignty.

Olesya Khromeychuk is a historian, the director of the Ukrainian Institute London and the author of “The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister.”

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