Ukrainian nationalism is at the heart of the struggle
The war with Russia has brought out a spirit of fierce resistance
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When Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, all evidence suggests he expected it to be a comparatively easy victory. From his standpoint, many residents of that relatively young country (independent for a little over three decades) barely thought of themselves as Ukrainians at all. Many, he hoped, looking to Russia as their mother country, would welcome Russian troops as liberators. Others, weakened by Western decadence that had infected Ukraine in recent years and with little to cling to beyond its thin ideals of individual autonomy, would perhaps put up a token resistance before melting away.
Many Western observers shared Putin’s skepticism about the fledgling nation, which has shown limited cohesion and conviction in the face of Russian aggression over the past decade. And yet, Ukrainian resistance has been stubborn and unyielding—not merely on the part of the Ukrainian military, which many had doubted, but more strikingly and more importantly on the part of the Ukrainian people. Borrowing from the modern tendency to identify “nationalism” with Nazism and other evil regimes, Putin had insisted that his “special military operation” was undertaken to combat Ukrainian “nationalism.” Ironically, his invasion may have caused a resurgence of Ukrainian nationalism, as citizens rallied to defend their homeland.
Nationalism, to be sure, is a slippery term, but in its older and better sense, it meant something similar to “patriotism”—only a bit thicker and richer. Nationalism is the pride that a nation takes, not merely in its form of government and its territory, but in its shared culture, language, traditions, and sense of place and purpose in the world—things that may be far older than the formal nation-state. Nationalism names the thick bonds of mutual loyalty created by this heritage—often latent and nearly invisible but roused suddenly to life in the face of an existential threat. Its spirit is captured in the maxim, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us,” as one New Yorker puts it in the 2002 film Spider-Man, summing up the mentality of post-9/11 America.
It is this commitment, not some idealistic defense of freedom, democracy, or Western values, that seems to have spontaneously summoned a spirit of fierce resistance among the Ukrainian people—that has Ukrainian men who have lived abroad for years returning to fight for their homeland, and Ukrainian wives and mothers staying up all night to make homemade Molotov cocktails. Appealing to the once-commonplace idea of the nation as a family writ large, one Ukrainian expatriate in London explained his decision to return and fight: “It is as if a stranger came into your house. And they would want to hurt your family, your children, your wife. I think any man would behave the same way as me and other guys here, who are all now going back to Ukraine.”
Such sentiments have been widely belittled and demonized in recent years by Western elites who have dismissed as selfish jingoism the natural human tendency to feel a special regard for one’s homeland. The conflict in Ukraine offers us a reeducation in a side to human nature that we have long tried to deny. If Donald Trump—or any other American president—had stood up in the United Nations and raised his fist to the “glory of America,” one can only imagine the consternation that would have ensued. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s declaration “Glory to Ukraine!” in his speech to the European Parliament brought a standing ovation. (Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi repeated “Slava Ukraini!” in her introduction of Zelenskyy yesterday before his address to Congress.) To be sure, in his appeals to the West for support, Zelenskyy has emphasized the defense of shared Western values, but in his stirring addresses to his own people, love for Ukraine predominates.
Calling directly upon his Russian neighbors on the eve of the invasion, Zelenskyy stressed that each nation should be free to celebrate its distinct national identity without this being seen by neighbors as a threat: “We are different. But this is not a reason to be enemies.” Contrary to Putin’s propaganda, Zelenskyy insisted, Ukrainians were a real nation, with their own story and destiny: “They remember their past and are building their own future. … We want to define and build our history ourselves.”
To be sure, nationalism can be a dangerous and volatile force, and it is perhaps well for the world that it lies often submerged under the more abstract ideals and everyday concerns that ordinarily motivate us to action. Still, if it were killed off altogether, as many modern elites seem to wish, to make way for universal brotherhood or individual self-fulfillment, we would find ourselves without an essential emotional resource that can steel us to heroism in the face of national adversity. At times such as this, we can thank God for the oft-hidden virtues of nationalism.
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