In the main square of the ancient cobblestoned city of Lviv in westernmost Ukraine, young people are dancing and singing folk tunes performed by an acoustic guitarist and a vocalist. It is 19 months since Russia began its brutal 2022 invasion of their country. As the concert reaches an end, the revelers plead for the Ukrainian national anthem, and so it is rendered, the words sung in unison, hands over hearts. Amid chants of “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Down with Putin!” the crowd disperses. It’s at this point that I spy the placard that the assemblage had obscured: Ukraina Ponad Ooseh!—“Ukraine Above All!”
Lviv is setting the pace for the nation. Thanks to Vladimir Putin, who denied the existence of an identity for Ukraine separate from Greater Russia, the country is experiencing a national renaissance—one that I saw, and felt, for eight days traveling from Lviv to the capital city of Kyiv and a Kyiv suburb targeted by the Russian invaders. Leon Trotsky, one of Ukraine’s most famous natives, born Lev Bronstein in a village in the southern province of Kherson, viewed nationalism as atavistic, destined to fade as human beings discovered their higher common interests. As in so much else, Trotsky was wrong. Ukraine in the third decade of the twenty-first century stands as a testament to the persistent—and volcanic—power of nationalism.
That is not to deny other attachments. The Ukrainian aspiration to join the European Union is real. Many Ukrainians desire to join a vast cosmopolitan community, “where there is order,” as a Lviv native explained to me. Still, nothing trumps national feelings. Over dinner at a fashionable Crimean Tatar restaurant in Kyiv, my Ukrainian companion asked, “Why do [the Russians] need to whip up our identity?” The question begs an understanding—perhaps impossible to obtain—of the warped psychology of a tyrant.
But to note the fact of the Ukrainians’ identity is only to begin our exploration, for a societal journey under nationalism’s force can follow various paths. An intense nationalism can consist of love and hatred, with a fixation on who is and who is not a member of the group. It can take the shape of an insistence that people use a single spoken language in public spaces. The construction of myths becomes an industrious, organic enterprise. Popular demand surges for national heroes—no bland technocrats, thank you—who embody the awakened moment. National passions guide aesthetic choices in architecture. And though nationalism is meant to bind a people—in today’s Ukraine, even the children’s playgrounds are painted in the blue and yellow of the national flag—internal debate over matters of national identity involving politics and culture can be fierce. What, then, is the nature of Ukrainian nationalism—and what path is it taking?
One path might be called the ennoblement of martyrdom: the self-presentation of the Ukrainian people as yet another of history’s beaten-down victims. In 2008, 17 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Republic of Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko inaugurated the Holodomor Monument on a bluff in Kyiv, overlooking the Dnipro River. At long last, Ukraine had an iconic memorial to the epochal famine of 1932–33, engineered by Stalin in Moscow, in which at least 3.5 million Ukrainians died of starvation. The memorial displayed a 100-foot-tall Candle of Memory, a pair of weeping Angels of Sorrow at the gates, and a statue of a young emaciated Ukrainian girl in braids, her hands clutching shriveled stalks of wheat.
But Russia’s 2022 invasion prompted Ukrainians to contest this narrative of victimhood at the hands of an unappeasable oppressor. In the first days of the war, in a lightning strike toward Kyiv, Putin’s tanks bore down on the suburban town of Irpin, just over 15 miles northwest of the capital city. Once past Irpin, there would be little to stop the invading force from seizing the capital. To impede the tanks, the Ukrainian military blew up a crucial roadway bridge spanning a narrow portion of the Irpin River, a tributary of the Dnipro. Then the men of Irpin strapped on their helmets, grabbed machine guns, and spearheaded a resistance that forced the Russians to retreat, even as sections of the town lay in smoldering ruins.
Just over a year and a half later, on a visit to Irpin on a sun-kissed Saturday, I stared from across the river at the blown-up bridge, gruesomely resplendent in its twisted beams and exposed metal-wire undergirding. Since the invasion, no effort has been made to repair the structure; a new, parallel bridge over the river was under construction. As my host for the visit, Irpin deputy mayor Dmytro Negresha, explained, the destroyed bridge will stand forever in that stark condition as a memorial of Irpin’s response to the invaders. But what sort of memorial? In Kyiv, the architect Slava Balbek, the founder and CEO of Balbek Bureau, had an idea. He submitted a design in the spirit of “super-minimalism.” The concept was to leave the site largely undisturbed. From an austere narrow walkway spanning the river, visitors could observe the ruins of the bridge, as if to take in the scene in a moment of silence. The spare design looked like something that might commemorate the victims of a German concentration camp—and the Irpin community resoundingly rejected it. True, the Russians had killed some 400 people in Irpin in the battle to subdue the town. Still, the community’s image of Irpin, Negresha said, is of a “shield city” that stood up to the invaders: “Irpin is not about victims. We did our job.” He pulled out his phone and shared snapshots of civic leaders, himself included, in military garb, weapons slung on shoulders. That is the sort of image that Irpin aims to memorialize.
On my departure, Negresha presented me with a new, copiously illustrated hardcover book, Battle of Irpin, translated from the Ukrainian into English: “the first chronology of the defense of the Hero City Irpin . . . written by the boundless desire for liberty and the heroic resistance of civilians who took up arms.” He also gave me a golden-hued metal pen, the top half fashioned from shells from World War II, the bottom half from shells from the ongoing Russian–Ukrainian War. The outside of the wooden box containing the pen was inscribed with the words “Irpin, misto-geroi [‘hero town’].” The inside bore the inscription, in Ukrainian, “Peeshee Historiu! [‘Write History!’].”
Irpin, then, is assuming its proud place in a flourishing national myth of martial defiance, laced with swagger. A myth, of course, need not embrace falsehood—a national myth is better thought of as a kind of emotive rallying tale to which all members of society can subscribe. A comparison of the transformation that Ukraine is undergoing, in mythical terms, might be made with modern-day Israel. The Jews, too, have a powerful martyrdom story, on display in the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, in homage to the millions slaughtered by the Nazis. But with its seemingly miraculous triumph over the numerically superior Arab aggressors in the Six-Day War of 1967, the nation of Israel acquired a dashing warrior image, represented by the likes of Moshe Dayan in his signature black eye-patch. With Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attack on Israel, including a massacre of innocents at a dance festival, the nation recharged its warrior identity as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to exact a “mighty vengeance.”
As the Israel example shows, national myths cry out for heroes to embody the tales—and one day become marble monuments in the town squares of the nation. Nation-building is a spirit in need of flesh. In today’s Ukraine, it is perhaps early to talk about future monuments. Nevertheless, I asked Ukrainians: Whose likeness is likely to be erected as a statue after the war? President Volodymyr Zelensky, the onetime comedian, who, in his customary olive garb, has become the global face of Ukraine’s armed struggle, seemed the obvious choice. But popular acclaim appears to be most ardent for the “Iron General,” Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. On his 50th birthday, in the summer of 2023, messages of congratulations flooded Ukrainian media, some inflected with religious fervor: “Valerii Zaluzhnyi, we love you! . . . May the Most Holy Theotokos [the Virgin Mary] protect you from enemies and bullets.” The Iron General has abstained from politics, but so, too, did General Dwight D. Eisenhower as he led the Allied armed forces to victory over Hitler’s Germany. In a devoutly patriotic Ukraine, Zaluzhnyi is not a bad bet as a future president. Zelensky, perhaps jealous of the general’s popularity, appeared poised to dismiss him from his post at the start of February. Zaluzhnyi, in turn, seemed determined not to step down.
Or perhaps Ukrainians will turn to a charismatic populist like Serhiy Prytula, the former television host now leading an effort to deliver military equipment and medical supplies to troops on the front lines. He greeted me, wearing a red-plaid flannel shirt, in his Kyiv foundation office, which sported an enormous map of Ukraine on the wall. “I want them to know their history,” he said of his countrymen, “not history written by Soviet or Russian leaders.” Prytula can be outrageous in his barbed broadsides, as in his suggestion on social media to award a medal to a shark that mauled to death a young Russian man in waters off Egypt, as the victim cried to his father for help.
Whoever leads postwar Ukraine, his task will be to rebuild cities like Kherson and Kharkiv that have suffered substantial damage—and, in some cases, virtual obliteration—from Russian assaults. In Western circles and in Ukraine itself, this is already an active question: What should a new Ukraine physically look like? The European Investment Bank, jointly owned by EU member countries, has suggested that reconstruction costs could exceed $1 trillion. The renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster was participating in discussions with Ukrainian federal and local government officials, as well as with Ukrainian architects, on an ambitious “reconstruction master plan” for the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest metropolis in population, behind Kyiv. The initiative, praised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, included a “heritage project” as a landmark for the center of Kharkiv and a “science neighborhood project” to make the city an “international talent magnet” for technology innovation. In the mid-twentieth century, postcolonial India, liberated from its longtime British overseers, faced a similar question. Jawaharlal Nehru, an admirer of Le Corbusier, the modernist Swiss-French architect, advocated for a cosmopolitan aesthetic—for an India that would be in visual sync with the most advanced countries of the world. But Mahatma Gandhi pushed for an inward-seeking aesthetic that drew on distinctive Indian traditions and folk images.
In the inflamed Ukrainian context, the Gandhi-oriented vision, the exaltation of a recognizably Ukrainian look, is ascendant. One can see this aesthetic in the street art in Ukraine—a harbinger, perhaps, of buildings to come. In Irpin, on what remains of the front wall of the Russian-attacked House of Culture, some talented artist has painted a glowing vision of Ukrainian resurrection. The image shows a pair of adult storks—the snow-white leleka—their claws resting on a nest filled with their beak-upturned babies, the nest surrounded by sunflowers set on a blue background. So, too, is the work of the Ukrainian folk painter Maria Prymachenko, whose “primitivist” style inspired Picasso, experiencing renewed popularity here. Women’s blouses decorated with familiar Prymachenko images—exotic purple flowers in boughs, fanciful red-and-blue peacocks, sprigs of evergreen—are a fashion item in Kyiv. As I observed, men, too, are adopting a kind of national costume. At a café, the Ministry of Desserts in central Kyiv, I saw a golden-locked young man spiffily clad in a blue cotton jersey, matching blue sneakers, and knee-length yellow trousers nibbling at his slice of cake. A performative sartorial outfit, maybe, but an understandable one, with the capital under nightly assault by Russian drones. Down the street, at Maidan Nezalezhnosti—Independence Square—thousands of small Ukrainian flags waved from plastic sticks planted in the earth, each representing “an innocent life” taken by Putin, a “madman,” in the inscription of the memorial’s plaque.
Nikita Torzhevskyi, a young Ukrainian filmmaker based in Kyiv, is developing a project that he calls “Ukraine Rebirth,” envisioned as a series on how Ukrainians can rebuild their society, physically and culturally. It will be a journey of rediscovery, he told me, for under Moscow’s domination, “we forgot what it is to be Ukrainian.” One answer, he said, is already settled: “Our identity is that we are not, and never will be, Russian.”
Not, and never will be, Russian.” National quests for identity typically feature such negatives. In America’s formative years, as musketeers fought to rid the colonies of intolerable rule by London, it was important that one be “not British.” That meant, for one thing, a casual and sometimes rowdy everyman style, intended as a repudiation of Britain’s formalized class- and Crown-based regime of social manners. For Ukrainians stirred by nationalist passions, “not Russian” means, first, a cleansing of avenues, public parks, and the like of Russian names—to rename, as Lviv had done, a tainted Tchaikovsky Street for the Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk, or to enshrine the name of an anti-Russian figure like Chechen separatist Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was assassinated by the Russians but lives on through a Lviv street now bearing his name. The street formerly was named for the Russian poet and prose writer Mikhail Lermontov, whose nineteenth-century novel A Hero of Our Time tells of “Chechen bullets” meant for Russian officers. Ukrainians know how to troll their tormentor.
To an outsider, street reassignments—which, like takedowns of out-of-favor monuments, have a long history in Ukraine—may seem trivial; but for natives, such purging caters to popular appetites. “I can compare Russia and its narratives to something like cancer—a poison that lasts for centuries,” a Ukrainian woman told me. In this spirit, for some nationalist-minded Ukrainians, “not Russian” also applies to Russian literature—the poetry of Pushkin and the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. “Fuck their Chekhov,” a Ukrainian financier blurted over coffee in Kyiv. Their Chekhov? To my American ear, the sentiment seemed decidedly illiberal, in keeping with manifestations of cancel culture that have scrubbed worthy classics like To Kill a Mockingbird from school reading lists. In this instance, my coffee mate apologized for his outburst—but only, I thought, because he sensed how startled I was.
Chekhov, of course, wrote his stories and plays in Russian, and that highlights the liveliest wire in the Ukrainian nationalist firmament: language. In a national rebirth, history shows that language, especially spoken language, can be the ultimate signifier of identity. In twentieth-century Spain, under the decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the use of Catalan was prohibited. Not surprisingly, a touchstone of the post-Franco separatist movement in the Spanish region of Catalonia was language. As the saying went, “We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.” Ukraine experienced a similar suppression of the native tongue: czarist Russia, which referred to “the Ukraine” as Malorossiya (“Little Russia”), at times banned Ukrainian.
Now the wheel has turned. In preparation for my visit to Ukraine, I marked the language question as ripe for exploration. My initial thinking was that this was an issue that resonated most with nationalist types among the cultural and political elites—with those actively immersed in the project of a reborn Ukraine. But that supposition proved wrong. On my entry to Ukraine via a long, stifling bus ride that began in Warsaw, I was the sole foreigner, the sole non-Ukrainian, among the passengers. These were not VIPs but ordinary Ukrainians lugging frayed suitcases to spend time with their families for the cost of a €23 ($25) ticket. Because I could speak conversational Russian and because I knew that many Ukrainians understood Russian, also a Slavic language, I decided to try to converse with the young woman across the aisle from me. Her wrist bore a yarn bracelet in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. That, perhaps, was a signal that I should have heeded. “I prefer not to speak Russian,” she responded, politely, in broken English.
In some Lviv shops, a sign in Ukrainian greets customers: My ne rozmovliajemo movoyu okupanta (“We don’t speak the language of the occupier”). Fleeing from the war zone to the east, Russian-speaking Ukrainians have resettled in the Lviv region. This sign is intended for them—as an encouragement from Lviv’s dominant Ukrainian-speaking community to join in the movement to expunge the Russian language from routine everyday encounters outside the home. In Lviv’s schools, all children are taught Ukrainian as their first language; Russian is not an option. (The second choice, for most, is English.)
So, too, in Kyiv is the primacy of the Ukrainian language an asserted aspect of the nationalist cause—and not only in the schools and shops. A well-educated, middle-aged Ukrainian woman raised to think of Ukrainian as a “peasant language” informed me that she no longer spoke Russian to a close friend from Russia of 20 years’ standing: they would now converse in Ukrainian, or not at all. Her friend was trying, dutifully, to learn Ukrainian. A Ukrainian teenager said that on a recent trip to Sicily, she became apprehensive on hearing Russian spoken by fellow tourists: How did she know whether these people were Russian speakers from Ukraine or Russian speakers from Russia? The only prudent course, in her anxious mind, was to be suspicious of all Russian speakers. Only a Ukrainian speaker could assuredly be a fellow Ukrainian.
Yet how successful are these attempts to implant obstructions to the Russian language likely to be? Commerce, as ever, tends to be a solvent. Along the “Alley of Artists,” a leafy stretch of Kyiv below St. Andrew’s Church, I negotiated, in Russian, for the purchase of handicrafts and several small paintings—and got no objections from their sellers. And when my cabdriver, probably a recent arrival from eastern Ukraine, got lost on Kyiv’s outskirts, we spoke in Russian as we tried to find our bearings. Meantime, on the front lines, Russian-speaking soldiers in the Ukrainian army are waging bloody combat against Russian-speaking soldiers in the Russian army. Ukrainian troops, I was told, are expected to address their officers in Ukrainian, but among foot soldiers in regiments raised from cities like Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Odesa, communication in Russian is common.
In Kharkiv itself, a city some 25 miles from the Russian border with a population of more than 1 million, Russian is heard everywhere on its streets, recent visitors said, while Ukrainian predominates in rural areas outside the metropolis. Kharkiv is a classic “borderland” city of Ukraine, as long reflected in its mixed linguistic culture, the historian Volodymyr Kravchenko, author of the 2023 book Kharkov/Kharkiv (the first for the Russian pronunciation of the city’s name, the second for the Ukrainian), explained in a Zoom call. A native Ukrainian now living in Canada, Kravchenko ventured that “identity and language are not the same.” After all, he continued, “look at Canada,” with its two official and widely spoken languages, English and French.
A frustrated pursuit for purity in language, then, suggests one limit to a certain conception of the Ukrainian national identity project. And any nationalist saga would also come with its inevitable shadows. What nation forges its identity without shameful acts that later generations would just as soon forget? In Ukraine’s case, some twentieth-century nationalists supported Hitler. This conduct was embarrassingly brought to light in a ceremony that the Canadian parliament held in honor of a visit from Zelensky this past September. The Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons saluted a 98-year-old man in attendance, “a Ukrainian hero,” who had fought in World War II to expel the Russians—as in the Soviet Red Army—from the territory of Sovietized Ukraine. It turned out that this man had been a member of a division of the paramilitary Waffen-SS composed of fellow Ukrainians. The Waffen-SS, led by Heinrich Himmler, played a pivotal role in organizing the mass wartime slaughter of Jews. Nor was anti-Semitism in Ukraine a German import. My own grandfather, on my mother’s side, left Kyiv for America around the time of World War I, in part for fear of one day being the target of a pogrom.
The important question, then, is how a nation on a path of renewal deals with the messy past—and not only with the past. In a rebuke to Ukrainians who cheered the fatal shark attack on the Russian tourist in Egypt, Oleksiy Arestovych, a former Zelensky advisor, posted on social media that “dehumanization” had arrived in his traumatized country. The choice confronting Ukraine is between a crude populism born of chauvinistic thinking and a Western-style open and liberal society, Arestovych told me in a Zoom call. In a sign of the capacious quality of the quest to forge a Ukrainian identity, Zelensky, who himself has Jewish roots, recently named a Crimean Tatar, a Muslim, as minister of defense—this in a nation in which some 80 percent of the population claims an affiliation with an Eastern Orthodox Christian denomination (and an additional 10 percent with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church).
Ukraine’s reborn nationalism, its “whipped-up” sense of identity, is apt to take more twists and turns. Come back in five years, I thought. But there seems to be no viable alternative to this nationalist passage. In a nod to the cosmopolitan ethos, Lviv has on its outskirts a street named for John Lennon—vulytsia Dzhona Lennona. “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for,” Lennon sings in “Imagine.” But in the world as it is, and as a defiant Ukraine demonstrates, this would be a spectacular feat of imagination. The globe remains split into nations—only sovereign countries raise serious armies primed for combat, not supranational bodies like the European Union or the not-so United Nations, and not cities in the bygone tradition of ancient Athens or Sparta. National resistance to foreign conquest remains a supreme cause. There is plenty worth dying for, for to bow to the invader is to live as a slave, one Ukrainian told me. On a drizzly morning after my arrival in Lviv, I stood silently, cap and black umbrella in hand, as a trumpeter played a mournful tune for a fallen Ukrainian soldier, while the funeral procession passed by town hall. In a gray light’s requiem for a battlefield death, the cause of Ukrainian nationhood found fresh life.
Top Photo: Ukraine stands as a testament to the persistent—and volcanic—power of nationalism. (Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo)