Becoming Ukrainian. The context of national indifference in Ukraine

By Yana Hryshko | 24 April 2017

To quote this document: Yana Hryshko, “Becoming Ukrainian. The context of national indifference in Ukraine”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 24 April 2017,, displayed on 04 December 2022

In the history of independent Ukraine, we can distinguish three periods of rising nationalism with rising national indifference in response. The topic has always been strongly influenced by the ‘Russia factor’. Moreover, the occurrence of national indifference was highly politicized, raising both nationalism and national indifference to the rank of a problem, issue, and even threat. In this article, I try to describe the origin of national indifference in Ukraine, the specificity of Ukrainian nationalism and the evolution of these two opposite yet intertwined phenomena.

I was born in 1994 in an independent state, in an independent Ukraine. For some periods of my life I did not realise why we celebrate the Independence Day every year, I only remember that it was an exciting holiday in summer when we went to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where blue-and-yellow colors appeared everywhere.

From my early childhood, I was taught that these blue-and-yellow colors are the colors of the Ukrainian flag, I learned the Ukrainian anthem, the Ukrainian language, all of which are also considered to be national symbols of my country. For a while I did not even realise that a few years before there had been no Ukraine as an independent state, I did not know about the existence of the Soviet Union and about the fact that Ukraine had been a part of it, and of course I did not know about Ukraine’s history as a part of Russia or Poland. First I learnt it at school during the history lessons, from the Ukrainian literature where authors were describing these periods of Ukrainian history, from my parents who told me when I started asking them. My father, in fact, is Russian, but despite that, I had never doubted that I am Ukrainian. I clearly associated myself with this nation without even knowing many details about Ukrainian history and Ukrainian society, and, of course, without any knowledge about definitions of a nation, nationalism, or national indifference.

Later I realised that not all people living in Ukraine ask the same questions and think in the same way as I do, that actually some of them do not care about the issue of nationality, do not have strong feelings of patriotism or even do not identify themselves with Ukrainians as a nation or Ukraine as a state or motherland. It is important to understand why these people feel this way and how to deal with the fact that citizens of a nation-state which faces an external threat do not feel as members of this nation and how to react to that.

As much as it is hard for me, born and raised in independent Ukraine, to accept that some people living in Ukraine do not feel Ukrainian, it is as hard for these people who were born and raised not in Ukraine but in the Soviet Union to feel Ukrainian and to accept that they might be Ukrainians.

Why they do not feel Ukrainian – a Soviet Legacy

To begin with, it is important to understand the fact that not all people living in Ukraine were born and raised in Ukraine. They were born and raised in the Soviet Union, in the first place, which was claimed to be the motherland of all nations living on its territory and where political nationalism was perceived as a threat to the existence of the country. The main aim was to build a multinational society in which people identify themselves with the Soviet Union, not with the republics they live in.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine granted citizenship for all people living on its territory. But that did not mean that all people who happened to live on the territory of Ukraine were Ukrainians; moreover, according to the last census of Soviet Ukraine in 1989, 11.4 million Russians – 22% of the population of Ukraine – lived on its territory. Many of them did not care about the independence of Ukraine or the collapse of the Soviet Union, they did not feel proud for gaining national sovereignty, they just were waiting for how it will be solved and what they will eventually gain (Applebaum, 2014). There were a lot of people who just happened to live in Ukraine and happened to be there during all those events. They did not have any warm feelings or attachments to Ukraine, they lived here because their parents or grandparents had been sent here. And even if they were born in Ukraine it did not really mean that they wanted to be citizens of independent Ukraine or Ukrainians.

Nationalism in Ukraine

Discussing the cause of national indifference of those people is impossible without discussing the reasons of rising nationalism in the first few years of the independent Ukraine’s history.

Nationalism should be understood properly in the particular circumstances of a nascent Ukrainian state that had to arise out of the collapsed Soviet legacy. We should distinguish nationalism from the category that implies the superiority and exclusiveness of one nation above the others, and nationalism as a category which inclusively aims to unite a nation divided along regional, historical, cultural, religious, and ethnical lines (Brubaker, 2004). However, nationalism is „both inclusive in creating a political community bound by common values, as well as exclusive separating the ‘We’ from the ‘Others’” (Kuzio, 1999). In this context, we cannot avoid mentioning patriotism which is usually perceived as a positive category that implies a love to your country.

The Ukrainian case is delicate. As the following will show, Ukrainian identity politics has been oscillating between the two extremes of highly inclusive and highly exclusive nationalism. This was exacerbated by the fact that Ukrainian nationalism has repeatedly been under heavy attack ever since the country gained independence. However, I argue that Ukrainian nationalism has found an equilibrium that does not lead to hostility, an equilibrium that strives to be inclusive – including towards the Russian population in Ukraine – by not “creating the other within” (Snyder, 2017).

Two very important documents for the history of Ukraine - III and IV Universals –  exemplify this statement. The documents, adopted by the Ukrainian Central Counsel (Ukrainian parliament during that period) in 1917 and 1918 respectively, proclaimed the People’s Republic of Ukraine and its independence from Russia. These documents acknowledged that there are many representatives of other nations living on the territory of Ukraine and expressed the will of the government and the Ukrainian people to protect their rights to self-determination. It is stressed that the “Ukrainian people, having straggled for their national freedom and finally having archived it, will strongly protect the will of the people of other nationalities living in Ukraine.” It particularly noted the Russian, Jewish and Polish people (III Universal, IV Universal). Furthermore, a Committee on affairs of the autonomy of minorities was ordered to be established and representatives of these nations were included in the parliament as representatives of the interests of their people. That was precisely about letting people of other nationalities feel free to be of any nationality they assign themselves to be while living in independent Ukraine. The chairman of the Ukrainian Central Counsel Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, who is considered to be the first president of Ukraine, emphasized in his publications that he and his followers have always been strongly against any kind of national chauvinism and stated that “protectors of Ukrainian nationality will not become nationalists”, thus, emphasizing that Ukrainian nationalism has nothing in common with radicalism and hostile attitude towards other nations (Hrushevskyi, 1917).

To the Ukrainian people, nationalism is directly related to state building, as the state building has always been directly related to the independence. Without nationalist sentiments, the young state cannot properly develop. One of the OUN’s (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) ideologists Yuriy Pundyk in his considerations about nationalism stressed that “nationalism is the driving force of cultural and political life” and that we should think “not about how to restrain this force, but how to aim and use it to unfold all its energy for the sake of further human progress”. (Pundyk, 1966)

For centuries, the main aim of Ukrainian elites was gaining independence and building up functioning governmental institutions in order to rule by themselves. This is not meant to exclude any hostile elements or to assert the superiority of Ukrainians, but in the meaning of ‚not being told what to do‘ by outside forces, in a mere formal sense of finally achieving a sovereignty that is recognized, yes, recognized even by that one country which has the most difficulty of accepting it.

“Diversity” of Ukrainian population

In post-soviet Ukraine with the previous policies of institutionalized multinationality and “centralized rule and state-wide economic integration which led to linguistic and demographic Russification” (Brubaker, 2011) and attempts to create a Homo Soveticus (Richardson, 2004) opposing national identification, it was quite expected that a nationalist movement would emerge that would try to express its uniqueness and the right to exist in an independent state (Zahra, 2010; Kuzio, 1999).

Every former Soviet Union republic had minorities in their population, and Ukraine received one of the largest Russian minorities in relative numbers. Nationalizing discourses, policies, and practices have therefore been more central and more sensitive in countries with a large population of representatives of other nations as Ukraine or Kazakhstan than elsewhere (Brubaker, 2011).

However, we cannot talk about a particular “diversity” of Ukrainian population because it remains a national state with more than 70% of Ukrainians and the “diversity” of approximately 30% being representatives of other nations is “pretty much the norm for all stable states everywhere” (Motyl, 2014). Ukrainians from Lviv in the west and Donetsk in the east may differ in views on the political situation and chose different presidents and parties during the elections, but it is almost the same as the differences between Americans from Massachusetts and Mississippi. And it does not mean that they do not belong to the same country (Finin, 2013). Moreover, according to the surveys conducted in 2007 answering the question “Do you consider Ukraine as your motherland?” 92.6% answers “Yes”, only 4.8 percent answers “No”, and 2.6 % found it hard to answer. And divided by region, it is more than 90% in Western, Central and Eastern parts of Ukraine, Southern – 86% of “Yes”.

First Wave of Nationalism and National Indifference 

We can distinguish several periods of ups and downs of nationalism in Ukrainian national memory as an independent state.

It is worth to mention that the the rise of Ukrainian nationalism occurred already in the Soviet Union in 1989 after the policy of «glasnost» ("open up“ policy) when political pressure on the republics was reduced and other parties than the communist party were allowed. An anti-communist movement called Narodnyi Rukh za Perebudovu (People's Movements for Perebudova) emerged which included different democratic groups, dissidents, intellectuals, politically active youth . Later in October 1990, two hundred students went on a hunger strike which was called «Revolution on the Granite» and among their demands there were the end of communism and independence of Ukraine.

After the proclamation of independence of Ukraine 1991 amidst an elevating mood inspired by notions of freedom, the new government started to implement pro-Ukrainian politics. An important notice is that a referendum on the Act of Declaration of Independence was held in Ukraine on 1 December 1991.[1] An overwhelming majority of 92.3% of voters approved the declaration of independence made by the Verkhovna Rada on 24 August 1991 and thus confirmed the independence of Ukraine.

That was a period of «establishing new order» and the quest for the symbols of a Ukrainian Nation (Yurchuk, 2014). And during this period, the main difficulty was «to separate Ukrainian identity from Russian or Soviet» (Kuzio, 1999).

The population composition that Ukraine obtained as a heritage from the Soviet Union cannot be described as difficult, but it was the potential cause of concern as 11.4 million Russians comprised 22% of the population in 1989. In the Crimean peninsula, Russians formed 66% of the population; in the strategically important industrial region of the Donbass, their share was 44% (Brubaker, 2011).

However, a significant decline in Russian population by 3 million people occurred between 1989 and 2001 according to the two most recent census of population of Ukraine. Yet net emigration of Russians accounts for only about 5 to 10% of this decline. Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that Russians have not been just leaving the country, they have been reidentifying themselves as Ukrainians. That  large numbers of people who previously identified their nationality as Russians appeared to have identified as Ukrainian in the most recent census; and children from mixed-nationality families were more likely to be identified as Ukrainians than were such children in previous censuses (Brubaker, 2011).

After the rising nationalism which occurred in 1991 on a wave of gained independence and freedom from communist regime, new problems arose as building a state and building a nation are not exactly the same, and once people have nothing to eat, then it becomes secondary whether communists or national democrats rule the country. Basically, after few first years of euphoria, hard times started, and at that period people were not satisfied with the situation prevailing in the country, they did not care about the issue of nationality and national identity; they only cared about themselves and their families, strove for satisfactory conditions for their well-being, which, however, the Ukrainian government could hardly provide on the eve of the presidential elections in 1994. That year, the second president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, was elected, whose narrative during the elections can be estimated as relatively anti-nationalistic. He emphasized that now the most important for the young country is to focus on the development of the economy, not on the historical memory and other sentimental issues (Yurchuk, 2014). However, as a matter of fact, his policy was quite diversified. And even the period of his presidency is called «multi-vectors policy». And here we can witness the second wave of national indifference that people felt since 1991, which was caused by economical difficulties and which brought up the question whether independence was really worth in face of these economical difficulties (the first period should be considered the one right after the collapse of the Soviet Union).

Second Wave of Nationalism and National Indifference: 2004 Elections

The next wave of nationalism can be distinguished during the presidential elections 2004 where we can see a precise example of how the issue of nationality and self-identification was politicized. During the presidential election campaign, Ukraine was divided by politicians into two parts: the west and the east, while the Ukrainian people were divided into three sorts: first sort in Western Ukraine, second – Central part, and the third – Eastern part of Ukraine (Poster from presidential elections in Ukraine 2004). Both candidates were clearly identified with either pro-European, or pro-Russian policy (Yurchuk, 2014). Moreover, Yushchenko, who later won elections and became the third president of Ukraine, used nationalist narratives for the purposes of his campaign, while Yanukovich represented the "abandoned" people of Eastern Ukraine, people who were claimed to be of the "third sort".

Yuschenko's presidency is described as an attempt to revive a pronounced Ukrainian history (Yurchuk, 2014). He rose sensitive questions of the status of veterans of OUN UPA (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, Ukrainian Povstanska (Rebelion) Army), recognized the Holodomor 1931-1933 as genocide of Ukrainian People, and granted the status of Hero of Ukraine to Stepan Bandera, who still remains a controversial figure in Ukrainian history. Furthermore, the presidency of Yushchenko was considered to be in favor of people from Western Ukraine, while people of Eastern Ukraine felt abandoned and did not easily agree with the nationalism that was promoted by Yuschenko. Another important matter is that for many people who expressed this national indifference, it was not only the case of identifying or not identifying themselves with Ukraine or Ukrainian nation, but also with the matter that to be associated with the "arm that feeds you" (Zahra, 2010). There was a widespread idea all over Ukraine that people in Russia live better than people in Ukraine, therefore Russians live better, so it is better to be Russian than Ukrainian. According to the results of the poll conducted in 2005, 54.8% of  Ukrainians thought that the level of life would be better in Russia than in Ukraine, and the majority of positive answers were from Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine.

To sum up, economical difficulties and the persisting perception that Russians live better caused the reduction of nationalism and the rise of national indifference, especially among people who felt and lived close to Russia. This became reflected during the next presidential elections when pro-Russian candidate Yanukovich came to power.

The pro-Russian position of Yanukovich was doubtless: His ‘achievements’ include the famous Kharkiv Pact on prolongation of the presence of Russian fleet in Crimea, the adoption of the law about languages of minorities which was directed mainly to support Russian language, and the refusal to sign Treaty of Association with European Union. These three events were the most prominent during his presidency and the most obvious as in favor of Russia. A harsh reaction of nationalist-oriented people was prompted as they considered these events as a giving up of the independence of Ukraine, a return to the era of the Soviet Union or Russian Empire, and a loss of their national identity. It was especially hard after all these years of independence, and with so many children born and raised in an independent state. 

The Third and Latest Wave of Ukrainian Nationalism: Since Euromaidan

The Revolution of Dignity that happened in Ukraine is the latest large-scale expression of nationalism in Ukraine. However, it remains a question to what kind of reaction this will incite from the side of the nationally indifferent people. And after the Maidan events and Russian aggression against Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and the launch of an asymmetric war in the East of Ukraine, the most important question is: is it possible for Ukrainians to remain nationally indifferent towards Ukrainian nationalism when the state you live in faces an external threat? In the case of Ukraine it is even more difficult, because the nationally indifferent population has been associated with the aggressor-country. 

Concluding all the above mentioned, I would say that in Ukraine we can witness the phenomenon of national indifference especially as the response to rising nationalism. However, it should be noted that the issue of national indifference in Ukraine is highly politicised. Moreover, national indifference, not just a phenomenon that is represented in almost every country with a mixed population, but as a problem that can divide the state and the nation apart was invented by politicians and has been politicized to (mis-)guide people's opinions and choiсes. In independent Ukraine, the widespread version of nationalism is equal to patriotism and is not directed against anyone living on the territory of Ukraine (despite the marginal presence of more extreme nationalists). In the case of Ukraine nationalism was directed not against other nationalities, but against centuries of subjection to another state. Nationalism led to the emerging of national indifference among people who did not share the same feelings, which in case of Ukraine is characterised by not only indifference per se, but by the geopolitical situation and the traditionally strong influence of Russia.

At the current stage of the conflict’s evolution we should notice that national indifference declined comparing to the earlier times in favor of Ukraine. According to the recent polls 86.5% considers themselves as Ukrainians, 8.9% - Russians, 2.8% – of other nationalities, and for only 2% it is difficult to answer. Which is the evidence of declining of national indifference. The next census of Ukrainian population is planed to be conducted in 2020, look forward to looking at the data it will display.


Image: Ukrainian flags waving during the revolution 2014. Picture by Yana Hryshko.




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