Olga Oleinikova is the director of the Ukraine Democracy Initiative at the University of Technology Sydney.
What does it mean to be Ukrainian today? In a conflict premised at least in part on Vladmir Putin’s denial of Ukrainian statehood, it’s a question that bears mounting relevance. And it has an answer the Russian president is unlikely to appreciate.
Modern Ukrainian identity today goes beyond mere history, ethnicity or language. Increasingly, it has come to revolve around a set of shared pro-Western values — values that are growing stronger with each blast of Russian artillery.
Ukraine, of course, has a long history of self-identity stretching back to at least the Middle Ages. But in modern times, it was only in 1991 — after the fall of the Soviet Union — that the country got a chance to shape its own foreign and domestic policy. And in the years since, a series of developments has ensured that their direction turned away from Moscow and toward the West.
Until the mid-2000s, Ukraine pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy, seeking partnerships with both Western countries and the Russian Federation, while remaining a neutral non-bloc state. But then came Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the election of Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-oriented politician, as president in 2005.
During Yushchenko’s five-year presidency, Ukraine took a turn toward Europe, as the country aimed at entry into partnerships like the European Union and NATO. Though these efforts didn’t receive much popular support at the time — especially in the country’s eastern and southern regions, where support for Russia stayed strong — it was, nevertheless, during his period that Ukraine began to develop genuine democratic traditions and distance itself from the authoritarian political culture of the post-Soviet space.
As one of the first “pro-Ukrainian” leaders in the country’s post-independence history, Yushchenko believed that building Ukraine’s connections to its ethnic roots, language, tradition and history would popularize pro-national attitudes across the whole country and move further from Russia and in the direction of the West. And so his government launched a broad spectrum of scientific, educational and cultural work aimed at restoring the country’s national memory and identity as distinctly Ukrainian.
Among the range of reforms and legislation introduced in this period was the law “On the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine.” Adopted in 2006, it officially recognized the man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine as a genocide of the Ukrainian people, signaling a shift away from the mainstream version of events that was promoted by Russia for years, undermining a one-sided view of history.
Under Yushchenko, Ukraine’s nationalist veterans were also recognized as having the same rights and state benefits as World War II veterans, a pressing issue that had sparked protests and conflict for many years, drawing a line between the pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian camps. And though the Ukrainian Orthodox Church only received independent recognition in 2018, it was Yushchenko who first promoted this idea, and nearly succeeded in achieving it, back in 2008.
Though his ideas have gained traction now, Yushchenko was extremely unpopular as a leader, and in 2010, he was replaced as president by Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian figure. Under Yanukovych, the question of Ukrainian identity once again became a secondary priority. The space for a pro-Western identity shrank, sandwiched between nostalgia for the Soviet era and narrow-minded ethnic nationalism.
It was only after Yanukovych was deposed during the 2013 Euromaidan protests that the country reembarked on its journey toward a pro-Western national identity — an effort that was given new impetus after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its subsequent invasion of Donbass and Luhansk.
In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation banning the promotion of communist symbols and all symbols and propaganda of national socialism. The ban applied to monuments, as well as place and street names, kickstarting a race to rename public spaces.
Around this time, privately, many families also decided to stop using Russian and switched to using Ukrainian as their main language both at home and in public. I remember many of my friends getting rid of their Russian computer keyboards and starting to write and speak only in Ukrainian, which they continue to do today.
The government also adopted a range of laws promoting Ukraine’s language, officially making Ukrainian the only language accepted in the public service sphere in 2019. This new law obliged all registered bookstores to provide 50 percent of their books in Ukrainian and required publishers to ensure the language constitutes no less than half of their annual output. All announcements, posters, tickets, brochures and informational material, all audio-visual information in museums and exhibitions now have to be in Ukrainian.
The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy even launched several flash mobs to popularize the language. Looking at public polls, in 2019, 61 percent of respondents favored such state support for the language. But in the more Russian-speaking regions in the south and east, this was still outweighed by concerns over the status of the Russian language.
At the same time, attitudes toward EU and NATO membership, and the general pro-Western course, took off. Survey data from 2021 shows that in a possible referendum on NATO membership, 59 percent would vote in favor, up from 30 percent in 2014, right after the annexation or Crimea. Only 28 percent were against membership in the Western alliance.
And now Russia has invaded Ukraine. There can be no question as to the impact of the war on public opinion. The assault and the brutality that has followed has further cemented the idea of Ukraine as something distinct from Russia — and as a nation with a pro-Western destiny.
The war is doing what the country’s political parties have never been able to do, providing a clear vision of what it means to be Ukrainian — uniting the country in the goal of a free and prosperous Ukraine, as part of Western civilization. Across the country, more and more are people self-identifying as Ukrainians, even in the traditionally Russian-speaking areas, which have come under the harshest attack. Being Ukrainian today is broader than simply being a member of a specific ethnic group, speaking a certain language or belonging to a nation. It has expanded to encompass all those who share the values of freedom, peace, equality and democracy, who are looking to protect their land and culture and give their lives for those they love if necessary.