The national anthems of Ukraine and its neighbor Poland bear a remarkable similarity. The first line of the Ukrainian national anthem is, “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor its glory, nor its freedom,” while the Polish national anthem begins, “Poland has not yet perished while we still live.”
The reason why both national anthems open with an emphasis on perishing was the starting point for Hollins’ War on Ukraine Teach-In, conducted via Zoom on March 7 and featuring the expertise of three faculty members: Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern European History Julia Riegel, who studies Polish – Jewish and Eastern European history; Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies Sandra Russell, a literary and cultural studies scholar who focuses on gender and sexuality in Eastern Europe and particularly in Ukraine, where she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2012 – 2014; and Visiting Assistant Professor in Global Politics and Societies Ashleigh Breske, who studies and teaches in the areas of refugees and forced migration as well as cultural property protections. The goal was to offer context and background on the war in Ukraine and explore the ideas of national and cultural identity that have persisted across centuries.
Riegel argued that Ukraine and Poland’s location between major empires underscores the “perishing” theme in their anthems. “In both cases, their modern national identities arose while they were partitioned between different empires. Imperial rule denied both Poles and Ukrainians the opportunity to create their own nation-states, but both had their own national movements.”
Ukraine and Poland “engaged in a process of historical imagination,” Riegel noted. “They looked to the past for a sense of identity and even inspiration.”
The history of Ukraine goes back to Kyivan Rus’, a loose, medieval federation, probably led by Vikings, that began in the ninth century and continued until 1240. “The modern states of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all claim Kyivan Rus’ as their cultural ancestor, and Russia and Belarus derive their names from it,” Riegel said. “The real question today in some ways between Ukraine and Russia is, who ‘owns’ the legacy of Kyivan Rus’? When Putin says that Ukraine has no legitimate history, this is precisely what he’s talking about. He’s claiming Kyivan Rus’ for Russia.”
Later, Riegel said Ukraine found itself under the control of external powers, divided up and ruled over the years by the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires. Still, there were moments where Ukraine got a taste of autonomy. In 1648, citizens rebelled against Polish – Lithuanian dominance and formed the Cossack Hetmanate, which lasted until 1764. “The creation of this semi-independent state is widely perceived as the precursor of modern Ukraine,” Riegel stated.
Nationalist movements spreading throughout 19th century Europe inspired Ukrainian writers and intellectuals to revive the region’s cultural traditions and promote a spirit of Ukrainian identity. But the Russian Empire, which now controlled substantial parts of Ukrainian territory, took action to prevent any kind of separatist movement. “This is the era where you see Russia apply the term ‘Little Russia’ to Ukraine,” Riegel said. “Many Ukrainians today find it offensive, but nonetheless Putin has used it in some of his recent speeches, which is no doubt purposeful.”
An independent state briefly emerged after World War I but was ultimately replaced by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which became one of the USSR’s founding republics in 1922 and lasted until 1991. “The 20th century was not good for Ukraine in many ways,” Riegel said, citing the devastating impact of the Great Famine in the 1930s and Nazi control during World War II. “But in 1954, following Stalin’s death, policies got friendlier, particularly after Nikita Khrushchev, who was born in Ukraine, took power. Notably, Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.”
Finally, in 1991, Ukrainians voted for independence from the USSR. “Some scholars believe that Ukraine actually dealt the death blow to the Soviet Union. Within a couple of weeks of Ukraine’s vote, the USSR voted to dissolve. When we think again about historical imagination and what is going on today, we can see perhaps where the relevance of this lies.”
Russell focused on “the continuity of the Ukrainian national project and the two most recent revolutions that punctuate this history” since 1991. The Orange Revolution, which took place between November 2004 and January 2005, was a response to corruption in the 2004 presidential election. “This was the first instance of Ukrainians coming together and advocating for themselves as a nation.” More recently, the Euromaidan Revolution/Revolution of Dignity (November 2013 – February 2014) was prompted by then-President Viktor Yanukovych breaking a promise to work more closely with the European Union and instead tightening affiliations with Russia. “Yanukovych’s government was ousted, but it paved the way for Putin to intervene in the ways he is now. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia and breakaway states were established in Ukraine’s eastern region that are Russian puppets.”
Threatened by Ukraine’s movements toward sovereignty, Putin became determined “to create false narratives and spread disinformation within and beyond Russia’s borders.” Russell identified the four most prevalent narratives:
- Reunifying the “Slavic brotherhood” between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. “This leans on the concept of Ukrainians as just ‘little Russians.’ This is like saying Spain and Portugal are the same place. Ultimately, it delegitimizes Ukraine’s culture, language, and autonomy.”
- “Denazifying” Ukraine. “The notion here is that Putin’s intentions are great and he’s going to remove Nazis from Ukraine. To be clear, ultra-nationalist movements exist there, but only about two percent of Ukrainians support them. This is not a reason to invade and cause war in a country.”
- Reuniting a divided nation. “Since 2014, Putin has falsely claimed that Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are being oppressed and harmed. In fact, Ukraine is a multiethnic and multilingual country, and most Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian.”
- Claiming political and historical justification over Ukraine. “In reality, Putin is a far-right, ultranationalist authoritarian who wants to make Ukraine a puppet state. He’s explicitly said he will do whatever it takes to achieve it.”
Breske spoke about the efforts underway to support both internally displaced (those who have had to leave their residences but have not crossed an international border) and externally displaced (those who have gone to another country) peoples. “The UN Refugee Agency is working in countries surrounding Ukraine and supplying people with clean water, sanitation, healthcare, and shelter. We’re also seeing civil society helping as well, creating shelters or taking people into their homes.” Over 2.5 million refugees have left Ukraine since February 24, with two-thirds of them currently in Poland. “The thought is that four million Ukrainians will flee in the coming weeks,” Breske said.
Organizations such as UNESCO and the International Council of Museums, Breske added, are protecting Ukraine’s artistic legacy by using international humanitarian law, most notably the 1954 Hague Convention, which sought to prevent large-scale destruction after Nazi Germany looted important works of art. But there are also grassroots efforts underway by ordinary Ukrainians: Breske told the story of Sasha, an artist who has been forced to move from his home city of Kharkiv to Lviv, while his family evacuated to Croatia. “Sasha felt he had to remain behind to help preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage. He’s in the process of reaching out to museums to see what can be done. He said he couldn’t think of any other thing to do. He had to stay and protect the art. He has now joined a group called SaveCultureUA to document the destruction of cultural heritage in his country.”
Russell summed up the essence of Ukraine’s national identity that has endured despite centuries of oppression and hardship and continues to persevere today. “Ukrainians have been fighting for sovereign statehood for a long time. Over and over again, they’ve been underestimated. As someone who has lived there, I can tell you the kind of tenacity and fortitude Ukrainians have for the culture and their country. They will not give up easily, they will not give up without a fight, and as horrific and awful as this war has unfolded, it’s one of the things that’s been so moving about this.”