Ukraine's national identity has come a long way.
"America is a wonderful country. I lived in Tennessee with a family for a year. They treated me well and I had a great time. I learned a lot. But I love Ukraine. I want to live here. I want to be president someday."
These are roughly the first words I heard from the seventeen-year-old Vasyl Myroshnychenko when he returned to Ukraine from his American FLEX high school exchange, a program funded at the time by the U.S. Information Agency. It was the late 1990s and I was the press officer for the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. I got in touch with Vasyl after asking the FLEX program director whether she had any participants from Volochysk, a small town in western Ukraine where my great-grandparents had lived. Vasyl had grown up there, and I met him after he moved to Kyiv to begin studying at a university.
Vasyl’s words have reverberated in my mind over the years. Passion. Ambition. Patriotism—and something more. Love for a country mired in poverty, corruption, crony capitalism, and social divisions. Putting these pieces together, I came to realize that Vasyl wanted something like what he saw in the United States for his own country. Where outsiders saw mostly disarray and failure, young Ukrainians saw promise and were full of hope for their future. And given the opportunity to remake their former Soviet republic, they would apply what they thought appropriate from their Western experiences.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Invariably, I shared their hopes and dreams. This was not only because, as a U.S. diplomat, I was happy to encounter Ukrainians who wished to embrace American and Western values, but because my agency was the sponsor of exchange programs like FLEX, and therefore the source of some of the participants’ new ways of thinking, of their wish to remake their country on a Western model.
When I see the brutality and carnage that President Vladimir Putin and Russian military forces are wreaking on Ukraine today, I am in sorrow and pain. This is not only as a human being watching the suffering of a people victimized by an unprovoked invasion, but because of my own role, albeit minor, in bringing the new ideals of personal freedom, human rights, the rule of law, fair elections, and an uncensored press to the Ukrainians.
I assumed that the Ukrainians, and someday even the Russians, would eventually come to understand and cherish these Western rights through their own post-communist explorations and experiences. But we practitioners of “public diplomacy,” whose mission is to interact with foreign publics and represent American people and society, surely played a role in hastening this development.
Before Ukrainians and other East Europeans were permitted to travel to the West, these values were strange and foreign. They had read about Western society in novels and non-fiction, they had watched Hollywood movies, but the vividness of the lived experience was much more persuasive. And they concluded that they deserved this life of freedom and dignity as much as any other country.
This is true today not only of Ukrainians from the western oblasts, or provinces, but also of those whose heritage or habit it is to speak Russian. During my stay in Ukraine from 1997 to 1999, it was difficult to hire local embassy staffers who spoke Ukrainian at the university level and who could translate our press materials into both the Ukrainian and Russian languages. When I asked my local staffers why they usually spoke Russian among themselves, they shrugged. But you are Ukrainian, right? Both of your parents are Ukrainian, right? I got affirmatives to both questions, and more shrugs. But I did get the sense that their national identity, torn between Russia and the West, was weaker than in any country where I had served and which I knew well, such as in Hungary or Japan.
One of my colleagues from the 1990s in Kyiv, who served multiple tours of duty in both Russia and Ukraine, sensed a more nuanced expression of Ukrainian identity. She found that it was separate from Russian identity, but overlaid, at the time, with a culture of “homo sovieticus.” She often heard stories—mostly in Russian, since that was the language most people spoke—about how the Ukrainian character and culture differed from the Russians. And she often saw examples of the traits Ukrainians claimed for their own, such as their “free Cossack spirit” and their preference for grassroots, democratic decision-making, as opposed to top-down, Russian-style rule.
Young Ukrainians today, and by that I mean those under age fifty, now have a different answer to my questions about Russian influence. In short, “370 years is enough.” In 1654, when their military leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky requested aid from the Russian czar to repel the Poles and Ottoman Turks from Ukraine, the Russians came—and they never left. Russian settlers came to eastern Ukraine seeking work in the developing mines and industry of the Donbas. The czars, and later the Soviet commissars, imposed the Russian language and Russian values by coercion and force of arms.
But, as the Ukrainian national anthem informs us, “Ukraine’s glory has not yet died, nor her freedom.” In their sovereign country since 1991, Ukrainians have slowly but inexorably begun to relearn and cherish their own polity, their own heritage, their own culture. And their wish is to live in freedom like other Europeans, not as a colony dominated by an imperial and autocratic Russia.
I should add that even in the late 1990s, despite the predominance of the Russian language in Kyiv, my Russian-speaking friends already felt the pull of national identity. As parents, they decided to send their kids to Ukrainian-language schools despite the disadvantages this might have for them later in their careers in a region dominated by the Russian language. Even in Crimea, when I spoke broken Ukrainian in a shop, a saleswoman was at first puzzled. But then she shook my hand and happily replied in Ukrainian, especially after I told her that I was an American.
That feeble sense of national identity in the late 1990s is now a distant memory. The Ukraine that I knew was young and rudderless, pulled between two very different national models. Ukrainian identity has been enormously reinforced by Putin, ironically the man who intended to destroy it. If the shift had been evolving slowly, it raced ahead over the last year even in Russian-speaking cities like Kherson, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Chernivtsi when Putin’s forces dropped bombs on them. Like any people who suffer war, cruelty, oppression, and injustice together, the Ukrainians have found hidden sources of strength, pride, and purpose.
It is well known that Ukraine is led today by forty-five-year-old President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a native Russian speaker from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in southeast Ukraine. Not so well known are the many like him, such as forty-one-year-old Vasyl Myroshnychenko, who is now married with two children and serves as Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia. These are the young Ukrainians who have said “enough” and are fighting for the same freedoms that we Americans and Europeans are so fortunate to enjoy.
Ken Moskowitz is adjunct professor of political science at Temple University Japan. He served for 30 years as a foreign service officer in Washington, Budapest, Tokyo, Kyiv, and Sofia.
Image: Ukraine's Independence Monument overlooking Kyiv, June 24, 2018. (Flickr: Hans Birger Nilsen)
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