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What Makes a Nation?

What Makes a Nation?

Russia’s war offers a window on the inner workings of history and offers insight into how nations are formed in Eastern Europe and beyond.

John Connelly

Something very unusual has been happening in the annals of European history this past year: Suddenly there is a “new nation” on the map. Volodymyr Zelenskyy used this phrase to describe Ukraine in a speech on August 24, and it has been embraced by journalists and other close observers ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. It appears in random comments by citizens, too. For example, Olesya Vynnyk, a young physician George Packer met in Lviv during a recent trip, said she was fighting for “democracy, a new nation, survival—all together.”

The phrase “new nation” sounds odd because, despite claims once made by Donald Rumsfeld, Europe is old, its various sections settled centuries ago by peoples who became nations under a variety of kingdoms and national movements. When in recent generations empires or multinational states exploded and subdivided, they did so not into new nations, but into nations that had survived foreign rule over the ages, like Croats, Slovenes, Poles, Slovaks, or Estonians.

This generalization would also seem to hold for Ukraine. Ukrainians voted for independence in August 1991. Was that not a nation rising from decades of suppression under various Russian-dominated empires? Arguably August 1991 was for Ukraine what November 1918 was for Poland. No one called Poland a new nation back then; it was simply returning to the map after an absence of 130 years under domination by imperial neighbors.

Ukraine seems not much different. It has featured on European maps as a political unit at least since the 17th-century “Hetmanate” was carved out by Cossack leaders and defended against the huge Polish state of that time. But Ukraine was not just a named place; in the 18th-century geographers and travel writers referred to Ukrainians in the ethno-national sense, as a people with a separate language, culture, and traditions. Take the great philologist Joseph Dobrovský, co-creator of the modern Czech language, who described attributes of Ukrainians in a book printed in Prague in 1806:

We are dealing with a brave, enterprising, cheerful, even reckless, but straight and plain-thinking people . . . people experienced in all the crafts necessary for human life. . . . There is no one among them, regardless of age, sex or status, who does not try to surpass his companion in drinking, and in all of Christendom there is certainly no one who knows how to live without sorrow for the next day better than they do.

Beyond the stereotypes typical of this genre, the mention of “status” demands attention because it challenges what we read in standard academic works, where early modern nationhood is said to involve the nobility and urban elites, leaving out the mostly illiterate peasantry as people without rights or history. Yet in this passage Ukrainians are portrayed as advancing into modern nationhood like other Europeans, consisting of all classes, united in mentality, preferring “the ardors of a restless, uneasy life to a soft slavery.” Ukrainians loved independence and fathers taught sons to die for it.

Like Poles, Ukrainians of that time had fallen victim to centralizing ambitions of a rapacious Russia ruled by Catherine the Great, yet their statelessness was a common predicament in that period, shared with Italians, Slovaks, Serbs, Czechs, and Romanians. When Dobrovský was putting his book into print in Prague, Napoléon Bonaparte was busy dissolving the only state that had united the Germans, the “Holy Roman Empire” founded by Charlemagne.

Ukraine is, then, an old nation among European nations, and like many of them simply had to wait until modern times to become an independent nation-state.

History in the Making

Still, something happened in February that is worth dwelling upon. The war opens to our view the inner workings of history, and if we pay careful attention we gain insight into processes of nation formation in and far beyond Eastern Europe.

Until recently, Ukrainians seemed more divided than other European nations. Their country includes regions with multiple senses of the past, from Black Sea coastal towns to large post-Soviet industrial cities to former Habsburg areas touched by baroque Polish and Hungarian culture. Majorities in eastern and southern Ukraine are Russian-speaking; indeed, until recently Russian was all that one heard on the streets of Kyiv. If one goes back a few generations, one finds major figures in the Ukrainian national movement who said that Ukrainians were part of a “common Russian people” and that Ukraine’s fate was inseparable from Russia’s.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly ten months ago, however, regional identities as well as separate languages and heritages have receded in the face of an existential fear: that the right to live in a freely constituted community, without oppression, was disappearing. The nation Ukrainians are organizing to sustain at this moment—at the risk of their lives—is not ethnic or ethno-national, not primarily united in language or religion or a strong memory of common statehood. Indeed, it is hardly rooted in history at all.

The new Ukraine is a place that looks not to history but to the future, in a shared desire to live free from tyranny. Here Ukraine’s story has few precedents in European and world history: Its fight is a rare case of liberal revolution. There was 1789 when the French people walked onto the historical stage with the novel insistence that they—the nation—had a holy right to self-rule; there was 1848, when others across Europe tried to follow the French example but soon came apart in ethnic bickering (a “failed” revolution). And then there were the revolutions of 1989, when the peoples between France and Russia rose up against the Soviet empire. In world history the closest parallel may be 1776, when colonists in North America defied the British Empire. In all of these rare cases, the causes of national independence and the freedom and rights of the individual were inseparable.

Ukraine’s place in that small club upsets what specialists tell us about nationalism, namely, that it divides into Eastern and Western types. The former (Czech or Slovene) is more about culture, the latter (French or American) more about politics. According to the Jewish-Czech political scientist Hans Kohn, the Western vision involved “a rational and universal concept of the political liberty and the rights of man,” whereas Eastern nationalism, lacking statehood, expressed itself culturally, characterizing the nation as “a mystical collective emerging from history and nature.”

Eastern though they may be, Ukrainians are fighting for political liberty and the rights of man. At the same time, culture is not absent from their struggle (more on that in a moment). Ukraine the “new nation” suggests that all nationalisms combine demands for political liberty and cultural sovereignty, but the relative balance of these two elements depends upon the forces against which a nation has to contend.

If Polish nationalism has been more concerned with culture and language than its French counterpart, that’s because for centuries imperial rulers tried to make Polish culture and language disappear. And so when Poles fought for independence, as they did repeatedly, they wanted above all to make sure that people speaking their language and sharing their culture did not vanish from history. By contrast, the French who rose up against the Bourbon king in 1789 did not worry about threats to their language; they were asserting that they and not he embodied the nation, and as such had the right to self-rule.

So what the Poles celebrate on their national holiday on November 11 is the freedom gained in 1918 from empires that stifled their culture, whereas on July 14 the French commemorate the breaking from royal bondage in 1789. But the two strands of nationhood are interwoven; after World War I Polish citizenship was extended to everyone on Polish territory, including equal civic rights, while the French state has long invested massively in protecting and propagating French language and culture.

If all nation-states have the function of protecting political and cultural freedoms, each also carries a tension between universalism (rights of man) and particularity (rights of groups). Each claims to respect the rights of citizens, who can be of any background, but each also defends an identity related to a shared claim on past and present. Here we can glimpse something particular about Eastern Europe—understood as the band of countries between the old imperial powers of Germany and Russia—including places as diverse as Slovenia, Slovakia, and clearly Ukraine.

A nation whose members have died for preserving their culture and language comes to venerate culture and language as holy things; language becomes a core of identity, and national myth comes to surround its bearer: the supposedly eternal people. This more ethnic form of nationhood is something those of us from nations like the United States founded through political revolutions have difficulty understanding. The American people date from July 1776, not from time immemorial.

What is unusual about Ukraine is that its struggle against tyranny has political and cultural dimensions at the same time. We learn from liberated Kherson of people not just denied the basic civic freedom of speech, but also the freedom to speak in a particular language. Occupation authorities forced children to memorize the Russian national anthem, and punished them for speaking Ukrainian while abducting and torturing a teacher who posted videos celebrating Ukrainian culture. Now that Kherson is free, authorities are endeavoring to displace Russian with Ukrainian.

The preference for the Ukrainian language is not new: For decades Ukraine has been favoring Ukrainian over Russian in schools, and the number of people using Ukrainian has been rising. The language began to be heard in places that were Russophone, and people who were previously bilingual but more accustomed to Russian started using Ukrainian. According to countless reports, that movement has been massive since February, especially among people liberated from Russian troops, who express a visceral distaste for the “language of the occupier,” and pledge no longer to speak it, even when their personal attachment to Russian is so strong that they continue to dream in it.

These events are historically atypical, but also instructive: I can think of only one other language so sullied by the behavior of officials and troops speaking it that otherwise bilingual people felt that the language had been spoiled forever: German. My first Polish teacher came from a borderland area where German and Polish had been spoken by virtually everyone, yet during the war she was struck in the face by a passersby for speaking Polish with her sister. For decades she refused to utter a word of German, even when travelling in German-speaking countries (how she broke that vow is another story).

If one looks to other postcolonial areas one finds Irish, Indians, and indeed Americans happily using English; Latin Americans employing Spanish and Portuguese; and former subjects of French imperialism helping form French literature and culture. But the German and Russian empires have injured human sensitivities in a way that “blue water” empires have not, and people are taking that out on German and Russian.

Something about this story upsets the liberal imagination. One alarmed historian friend showed me a sign from a shop window in Lviv urging people to make a transition to Ukrainian and not speak the “language of the occupier.” The right to speak one’s chosen language is a human right, and anti-language laws constrain concrete human beings, a step backward for human freedom. John Rodden has written in these pages about the Ukrainians’ broad cultural offensive, which spares no cultural icons in its efforts to de-Russify Ukrainian education.

Ukrainian authorities will respond that well-established liberal nation-states—British, American, French, German—do not subsidize foreign language schools. Such states may promote bilingual signage, but don’t propagate other languages. The MP Inna Sovsun of Kyiv told students in Berkeley that her state’s favoring of Ukrainian was historic justice in the wake of colonialism. If Ukrainian authorities are tearing down statues of the imperialist Catherine the Great, their language policies are undoing centuries of discrimination against the native tongue. Ukrainians speaking Russian are people whose ancestors Russia attempted to de-nationalize. During Soviet times Sovsun was bullied for speaking Ukrainian.

Nation-Building, Ukrainian-Style

But can we in the West really relate to arguments like these? Perhaps there are no eastern versus western forms of nationalism, and historians can explain the origins of the clash in Ukraine as stemming from renewed Russian imperialism; we can further represent Ukraine’s response to the best of our profession’s standards. In the end, however, a boundary in perception may hinder our best efforts to understand Ukrainians. Western cultures have not, after all, faced annihilation.

Annihilation is a strong word. All nations have struggles for self-assertion of some kind, even in places that have mostly been peaceful (take the marvelous case of Sweden). But even beyond Ukraine and Poland in Eastern Europe, an area of peoples under the pressure of large empires, we encounter a proliferation of extreme words such as genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Perhaps our Western-oriented toolkit on nationhood contributes to this alienation. The most influential Western authors on nationalism have called nations “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson) that have “invented traditions” (Eric Hobsbaum). Neither seems appropriate in the context of such extremes.

In the hopefully not-too-distant future Ukrainians will have the leisure to ponder what sort of past they share and how it inspires the future they desire. They might find inspiration in the words Dobrovský recorded over two centuries ago. “The Cossacks of the Ukraine were a quiet people,” he wrote,

they responded to the insolence of the Polish nobility and clergy only by quietly taking flight: but when they saw that outsiders desired their extinction [Untergang], they seized—and is it any wonder—the saber to avert an unbearable yoke, and strengthened themselves more and more in the taste for independence.

The weapons of our day—substitute drone for saber—and the weapons of their day defend the same thing: this taste Ukrainians had gained for independence. It’s a taste that has gained strength in Ukraine regardless of the language people speak since 1991. And when those ill-led columns of Russian soldiers crossed Ukraine’s borders last February, people became acutely aware of how precious independence has become. Admittedly, today’s Ukrainians are not the Cossacks of the 17th century, just as Americans today are not directly akin to Americans of the 18thcentury. Still, in both cases past and present have flowed through interceding generations, through ideas and values one hands to the next; none of this is “invented.” Instead, it’s interpreted and made useful, like anything we have received from people who came before us.

In “imagined community” we likewise have the misleading sense that the nation is a fiction, a mere concoction put together by random groups of individuals. This most influential thought on nationalism in the last half century derives from the title of an essay the anthropologist Anderson penned in 1983. It’s not clear what exactly the author’s intention was, but his words are read to imply that nations exist in human minds, not in reality.

Of course nations also exist in the mind, but not as simple imagination. Ukraine is more hope and faith than imagination, such that when the shock of February 24 arrived, the physician interviewed by Packer got involved, believing that thousands of others who felt the same way would do the same. Soon evidence was ubiquitous that she was right, evidence not of things imagined, but seen and known.

Anderson’s concept of the nation was not entirely original. His inspiration was Hugh Seton-Watson (1916–84), son of R.W. Seton-Watson. Hugh, a foremost historian of East European Slavic peoples who did much to contribute to their independence in 1918, endeavored to be precise. The nation eluded “scientific definition,” he wrote. Still, it existed: “All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.”

Anderson presumed to improve upon this formulation and wrote: “We may translate ‘consider themselves’ as ‘imagine themselves.’” But the original is more accurate and revealing. Today’s Ukrainians, whatever language they speak or dream in, consider themselves part of a larger community; they see and believe, but they also feel and act, as we see in their innumerable efforts to displace hated Russian symbols and words. Nationalists of all stripes, more and less liberal, may imagine all kinds of things about people in and outside the nation, but they don’t just imagine. A merely imagined community never becomes a nation.

So beyond inspiring us, Ukraine helps us get beyond tired academic debates about whether ideal types of civic and ethnic nations exist. In fact, a nation cannot be a nation without elements of both. Without the political aspect there is no desire for a common governed community; without the cultural and ethnic factor—without memory and language and even shared imagination projected forward—there is no substance, no underlying belief in the nation’s right to exist, thrive, and take its place in history. But the task is never complete. As Dobrovský knew, nations have fallen by the wayside. What Ukrainians are doing now is making sure that does not happen to them.

John Connelly is Sydney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches a course on east Central European history (including Ukraine).

Image: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes part in the raising of the Ukrainian flag in de-occupied Kherson, Nov. 14, 2022. (Flickr: President of Ukraine)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraineRussiaPolitical Philosophy