The Use And Abuse Of Ukrainian Nationalism

In a long and deep look at the history of national identity, fascism, and Russian imperialism in Ukraine, Timothy Snyder examines the role of nationalist parties in Ukrainian politics today:

Of course, there is some basis for concern about the far right in Ukraine. Svoboda, which was Yanukovych’s house opposition, now holds three of 20 ministerial portfolios in the current government. This overstates its electoral support, which is down to about 2 percent. Some of the people who fought the police during the revolution, although by no means a majority, were from a new group called Right Sector, some of whose members are radical nationalists. Its presidential candidate is polling at below 1 percent, and the group itself has something like 300 members. There is support for the far right in Ukraine, although less than in most members of the European Union.

A revolutionary situation always favors extremists, and watchfulness is certainly in order. It is quite striking, however, that Kiev returned to order immediately after the revolution and that the new government has taken an almost unbelievably calm stance in the face of Russian invasion. There are very real political differences of opinion in Ukraine today, but violence occurs in areas that are under the control of pro-Russian separatists. The only scenario in which Ukrainian extremists actually come to the fore is one in which Russia actually tries to invade the rest of the country. If presidential elections proceed as planned in May, then the unpopularity and weakness of the Ukrainian far right will be revealed. This is one of the reasons that Moscow opposes those elections.

Anne Applebaum argues that Ukraine needs more nationalism, not less:

Ukraine’s oligarchs—the real beneficiaries of two decades of independence—don’t necessarily feel any loyalty to their countrymen either. Some have sided with “Ukraine” or “Europe” in the current conflict, but others will side with “Russia.” Their decisions have nothing to do with the welfare of ordinary Ukrainians at all.

The result can be seen right now in eastern Ukraine. For this—Donetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk—is what a land without nationalism actually looks like: corrupt, anarchic, full of rent-a-mobs and mercenaries. For the most part, the men in balaclavas who have assaulted Ukrainian state institutions under the leadership of Russian commandos are not nationalists; they are people who will do the bidding of whichever political force pays best or promises most. And although they are a small minority, the majority does not oppose them. On the contrary, the majority is watching the battle passively and seems prepared to take whichever government they get. Like my friends in L’viv, these are people who live where they do by accident, whose parents or grandparents arrived by the whim of a Soviet bureaucrat, who have no attachment to any nation or any state at all.

Thus do the tiny group of nationalists in Ukraine, whom perhaps we can now agree to call patriots, represent the country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment.