A Nationalist’s Lexicon [Three Essays on Identity]

Mykola Riabchuk

1. Nation

At the onset of the 1990s, my daughter, who was seven at the time, told me they were asked to study a poem entitled “Ukrainian Anthem. She did not know what an anthem was, so I had to explain to her that it is a text meant to eulogize and glorify something or somebody. She did not ask what Ukraine was apparently, she already knew.

I still regret not having followed the emergence of this concept in my childrens minds, along with many other notions; the more abstract the idea is, the harder it would be for a child to understand. Obviously, all these concepts Ukraine, nation, identity, and patriotism have to be primarily associated with something concrete: neighbors, who speak another language; pedestrians, who look quite different; a world map or, better yet, a globe, on which your country, the land inhabited by people like you, is marked by a distinct color.

I assume that understanding of these abstract ideas first emerges at the age of five, gradually becoming more profound. Traveling makes it evident that such people live not only around you, but also in other places, designated on the map. The notion of endless and linear time makes it possible to imagine a “people as human beings not only living now, but also those who have lived before your birth, and are likely to continue to live after your death. Finally, the grasp of other abstractions allows you to realize a “people as a community of human beings not only similar to you in language, appearance, and habits but united by the same rights, laws, and state institutions of a political nation.

The more complex an abstraction is, the older and more intellectually experienced a person has to be to understand it. Likewise, all of humanity has to be more mature and intellectually experienced. It is as hard to explain the concept of a “nation to a primitive human as it is to a three-year-old child. After all, even in the Middle Ages a “nation was something too abstract, as people had identified themselves primarily based on their locality, and wider communities were thought of primarily in terms of faith, social status, or political subjectness.

Nowadays it is difficult to imagine a world in which language bears no symbolic value and is perceived just as a more or less convenient tool of communication; in which writers avoid using the “folk language in favor of Latin (or Church Slavonic); in which the nobility, in contrast to the common people, “unpatriotically use the foreign French; and in which flags and coats of arms symbolize not the nation, but merely a specific dynasty.

There is a good book by Liah Greenfeld, entitled Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, in which the evolution of the term “nation is traced from the times of ancient Rome, where it actually came from, to this day. The Latin word nātiō, which means birth, descent, or race (from nāscor “I am born, begotten), was used primarily to denote groups of strangers who came to Rome from other places in search of work and did not enjoy the same rights as the Romans. In medieval universities, this category was used to describe groups of students from different lands the division was rather unspecific and arbitrary, with countries lumped together on geographic or linguistic principle. This bureaucratic classification was always practical and temporary and in no way influenced the development of any stable common identities outside the universities that would be shared, for example, between students from Italy, France, and Spain, which were brought together in the University of Paris under the common rubric of l'honorable nation de France, or students from England and Germany, registered as la constante nation de Germanie. But as these student communities functioned as devices of mutual assistance, and as teams at university debates, the term “natio had started to denote not only a shared region of origin, but also a shared position and activity.

In this sense as a community united by beliefs the term “nation was applied to the participants of ecclesiastical discussions at church councils, in which representatives from universities were actively involved. And because such councils also included secular and ecclesiastical authorities, the term “nation went on to denote the political, cultural, and later social elites. Liah Greenfeld considers this shift to be fundamental: the affiliation of students to this or that “nation was temporary and entirely practical; on the other hand, participants of church councils reinforced their high status outside the council by belonging to a certain “nation, thus imbuing this affiliation with symbolic nature.

In this fashion, the whole elite became the “nation at first in England, and later in other countries through the diffusion of ideas and opinions. Philosophers of the European Enlightenment had gradually spread the concept of “nation from aristocracy to other social strata, and the French Revolution established such an egalitarian nation as the principal sovereign, the bearer of all rights and freedoms.

This egalitarian process was not easy and linear: one can easily discern this by looking at the classic History of Rus (1818), one of the cornerstones of the future Ukrainian project. Its author perceives the Russian-Ukrainian nation as a nation of primarily Cossack officers and their descendants, rather than that of common people, which are looked down on by the noble-born author. Several more decades had passed before the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood appeared in order to create Book of the Genesis of the Ukrainian people and to embrace the passionate Shevchenkos longing to “glorify those petty and voiceless slaves “the dead, the living, and the unborn ones and only then was the Ukrainian project transformed from one based on the elite and stratification into a truly national one.

However, the perception of a nation as the countrys entire population is only the first part of the project. The second part, which seems much more complicated is the acceptance of this idea, however simple at first glance, not only by the intellectuals, but by the entirety of people themselves. The transformation of French farmers into Frenchmen, according to the eponymous book (Peasants into Frenchmen by Eugen Weber), lasted more than a century. The transformation of Ukrainian peasants has not been completed to this day. For the past twenty years, the opinion polls have consistently shown that a third of the population identify themselves primarily with their town, village, or region. Only slightly more than a half of the respondents identify with Ukraine as a nation, in its ethnic or civil sense.

Over 90 years ago the brilliant Ukrainian satirist Ostap Vyshnia described Chukhrainians, his fictional people, as follows: “And if you, by chance, ask them: ‘Dear sirs, what nation are you from?, they would scratch their heads and utter: ‘Lord knows who we are... We live in Peredriivka, and our faith is Orthodox...

Todays Chukhrainians certainly know what Ukraine is, thanks to television, and may even grasp the concept of an anthem; however, the term “nation still remains too abstract and the “state is too estranged and dysfunctional; thus, in no way the irresistible urge to identify with this state or this nation may yet form.

2. Identity

Cud Purimowy, a witty comedy by Izabella Cywińska, describes a certain Jan Kochanowski, namesake of the famous Polish Renaissance poet. Kochanowski, unlike his renowned predecessor, is an avid, to the point of caricature, anti-Semite. He bears the resemblance of those people who see the machinations of the ubiquitous “Jews everywhere, who read anti-Semitic newspapers and lower their voices to say that Yeltsin was really a Jew, that Tymoshenko is “zhydivka, and that the fourth-floor neighbor is also “of their folk.

This perfectly simple, black and white world shatters one day for Cywińskas character, when he suddenly learns that he is in fact a Jew by the name of Kochan. Moreover, he has a relative in America's by the name of Cohen, who died leaving a considerable inheritance behind. He can, however, get it only on one condition by converting to Judaism. And he must do it seriously undergoing the circumcision and learning all the appropriate ceremonies and customs.

At this critical moment, his wife also admits that she is a Jew too. And their son makes a logical conclusion: “If we are Jews anyway, let us better be rich Jews than poor Jews.

On the feast of Purim, the American lawyer comes to visit the Kochan-Kochanowski family to assess their transition into their new role. And then he informs us, as if on the side, that a new heir was found for the Cohens fortune and that their inheritance would likely be negligible barely enough to pay the lawyer.

The Kochans, shocked by the news, go silent for a moment, but then regain their self-control unexpectedly fast. They continue to celebrate Purim, making it clear to everyone that they liked their new identity and they prefer to stay with it, regardless of the mythical American inheritance.

This funny story about the conversion of a Polish antisemite into Judaism opens a question of what was the real reason for Kochanowski to keep his new identity after the hope of American fortune had vanished. What was crucial: the discovery of his own Jewish origin (the “ancestral call), or the sincere admiration of Jewish religion and culture, which he had discovered during his forced conversion for the sake of inheritance? In other words: was a Jew destined to be a Jew by virtue of his birth (which seems to be the case with Kochanowski-Junior accepting his fate), or could a Jew choose this identity himself (because it looks like a deliberate choice on behalf of Kochanowski-senior)?

Among the experts, the first approach is known as the Primordialist, and the second as the Constructivist. The former permeates everyday life, providing the basis of many stereotypes, including the racist ones. The latter dominates the scientific discourse, with debates going on only about the possible scope and means of constructing an identity and about the proportion of individual choice and social circumstances.

In 1999, a Canadian historian John Paul Himka, published a provocative article entitled “The Construction of Nationality in Galician Rus: Icarian Flights in Almost All Directions, which argued the nineteenth-century Galician Rusyns might not have necessarily become Ukrainians. They had at least three other options: being assimilated into Polish culture, being assimilated into the “all-Russian culture, or creating a separate Galician-Rusyn national identity. (A fourth, purely theoretical option can be added to this Germanization, provided the Austrian government ran certain policies). In any case, the total number of opportunities opening before Rusyns was limited: whereas each individual Rusyn could theoretically have become anyone they liked, no amount of social engineering could have made the entire Rusyn community Africans, Americans, or even Swedes.

In this regard, the identity of communities is to some extent Primordialist: unlike individuals who enjoy almost unlimited freedom of choice and may, in principle, reconstruct their identity in any way, communities are heavily dependent on inherited features, cultural codes, and ideas they have of themselves and of each other. Individuals are dependent on these too, but a radical revision of an acquired identity is almost entirely subjected, as Kochanowskis experience shows, to the individuals will. The communitys identity can be influenced neither by individual will nor by the ordinary sum of individual wills; it is more inertial, amorphous, fluid, less changeable by reflection. It is largely determined by what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism the unconscious (and thus invisible) reinforcement of patriotic feelings through everyday rituals and practices, like reading the same newspapers, supporting “our sports team, celebrating, however passively, the Independence Day and the Constitution Day (these also, of course, being “ours), reading the weather report, which mainly or entirely focuses on the territory of “our country, and so on.

Billig ingeniously compares militant nationalism with the flag that flies in the hands of an agitated crowd and attracts worldwide attention unlike the flag of “banal nationalism, quietly hanging outside the post office. Militant nationalism is the nationalism of a community that fights against real or imaginary infringements of their rights. Banal nationalism instead is inherent to a community that is quite satisfied with its position; such community would not fight for anything, except for, if necessary, the preservation of the existing status quo, that is their traditional domination and usual privileges. Banal nationalism is mostly latent; under certain circumstances, however, it can become pretty militant recall the US after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

But what motivates millions of people to identify with this or that national communities, and why even national?

There was a time some centuries ago when the national (or rather ethnic) identity did not play any significant role; in fact, it remains relatively unimportant for some people today, compared to the confessional identity (take Muslim ummah, for example) or, say, the class one (“proletariat in the minds of the communists). And yet the religious identity of the Middle Ages gave way to a secular religion nationalism; and class identity, contrary to Marxs prediction, never eclipsed the national this is what Marxists themselves had finally ascertained during the First World War, when the proletarians more readily identified themselves with their own, national bourgeoisie than with their counterparts on the other side of the frontline.

So, where does this enthusiasm come from? Why are people very conscious and rational people ready to sacrifice their health and even lives, “put body and soul (as our infantile anthem goes) for an abstraction called “the people? After all, these particular people whom we face in everyday life on the streets, in offices, in the crowded city transport are a mere crowd, which usually never inspires any particularly positive emotion. So, what is the trick of our imagination that transforms this mundane crowd intro the ideal “people, the bearer of all possible virtues, the object of worship, celebration, and sacrifice?

There are two answers to this question: yet they are not mutually exclusive, but, on the contrary, complementary.

The first answer is the need for solidarity and security, the purely practical desire to rely on ones “own people (be it family, clan, or tribe) as one faces various external threats and internal challenges. In this sense, a “nation is a large family and the national identity is a kind of extrapolation of the archaic tribal communication onto an abstract community of the modern world, which suddenly spans far beyond ones native village.

The second answer is the fear of death and the longing for eternal existence, albeit symbolic. In pre-modern times this need was met by religion; a new era of secularization ushered an existential void, which, in turn, had to be filled with nationalism. It is a secular religion that has its own, civil ceremonies and rituals and its own faith in metaphysical symbolic immortality through involvement in the “nation a transcendent body that has existed before your birth and will exist after you disappear from the physical realm.

Chukhrainians in Ostap Vyshnias skit describe themselves as “Peredriivka locals and “Orthodox without any demand for national identity, for their practical needs of solidarity and security are met within the “tribe (of Peredriivka village) and their metaphysical needs are fully met by the traditional religion. In principle, such an identity can be preserved in the wider world, but it is bound to erode, i.e. modernize. Simply put, such an identity gets nationalized Chukhrainians become Ukrainians, or Russians, or, as it was the case for almost the entire twentieth century, “Homo Sovieticus.

As to the Kochanowskis becoming Kochans: they represent a rather postmodern trend, in which national identity does not disappear, but cease to be exclusive. By converting to Judaism, they do not stop being Polish citizens and therefore do not lose the associated practical advantages. At the same time, they acquire additional symbolic benefits associated with the apparent involvement in another cultural-historical community.

Finally, two words about the American relative. This vaudeville figure, in my experience, is able to catalyze not only the conversion of Kochanowski into Kochan, but also that of Mina Mazienin back into Myna Mazaylo [this character of the eponymous play by Mykola Kulish was ashamed of his Ukrainian surname Mazaylo and changed it to a more prestigious-sounding Mazienin]. I remember my Russian-speaking friends from Kyiv some twenty years ago, as they instructed their seven-year-old son before the visit of a distant American cousin: “Be careful, Serezha, you should speak Ukrainian with pan Mykhailo!

Pan Mykhailo had passed away long since, Serezha is a grown-up man now; however, he still speaks Ukrainian today.

But who knows, maybe pan Mykhailo is not at all to blame for this[1].

3. Language

Somewhere at the same time, in the early 90s, I happened to visit a kind of “Peredriivka a village in Kyiv oblast, where the distant relatives of my wife lived. They accepted us with extreme hospitality, customary in Ukraine. It seems that only one thing had worried my wifes grandmother: we spoke Ukrainian not only between ourselves, but with the children - so Grandma finally said [in pidgin Ukrainian-Russian surzhyk]: “You should not do that. Here we can speak local. And you live in the city, so you should speak the city tongue.

She did not say “in Ukrainian or “in Russian because these labels were too abstract and therefore meaningless for her. She used a practical approach exclusively in terms of common sense: here in the village we use one language, and in the city they use the other; in each area you have to speak the local language, especially when you are going to live there for a long time or even forever.

The language was only a tool for her, without any symbolic meaning. Although subconsciously she may have felt the higher status of the city tongue compared to the village one because of it representing the higher more cultured, better educated, wealthier, more successful, influential world. In any case, younger villagers moving to cities, adding to the workforce there a kind of Third World enclave in the First feel this distinction quite clearly. For them, Ukrainian language is a sign of misfortune, inferiority, collective slavery; this is their black skin, which they try to get rid of in order to be white, or at least make their children white “lest they suffer be subjected to ridicule and humiliation, physical, and symbolic.

In a colonial country, language is not just a utilitarian tool that facilitates communication, it is also an expression (and means) of domination of one group over another. Language thus bears not only and not so much a pragmatic nature, as a symbolic one. A person may accept the colonial situation for granted as a legitimate one, supporting and reproducing it with their choice of language; or calling it into question, trying to deny and change it.

If language is a symbol of enslavement or liberation then the attitude towards it is much more significant than its practical use. Metaphorically speaking, a white man should not necessarily become an Indian; it is enough at some point, as it was in the classic American film, to show ones eagerness to “dance with the wolves.

Semen Gluzman, a long-term political prisoner, has recently published a book of memoirs, in which he tells how he, a Jew in Siberian prison camps, got friendly with Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and other “nationalist dissidents, and also with UPA fighters who were still serving while their 25-year sentences. He writes how the camp authorities used to divide them up along ethnic lines, try to incite quarrels against each other, and how they raged when they did not succeed in this strategy. Gluzman writes and speaks only in Russian, but considers himself a Ukrainian. His “Ukrainianness is defined, of course, not by the passport, but by loyalty a certain set of ideas, beliefs, and values. In Northern Ireland, he would be called a non-practicing Catholic. Or even an atheist. But still a Catholic one. For the denomination for them is like a language for us it is rather a political marker, which tells us little about the actual church or language practice, but a lot about identity.

One day, walking by the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, I noticed an older woman with a 12-year-old girl perhaps a grandmother with her granddaughter who were slowly strolling across half-empty halls and chatting in Russian. There was nothing surprising in that, there are many Russians everywhere, only the iron curtain prevented the earlier realization of the fact that every fourth inhabitant of the European continent is Russian. But in the last room I suddenly heard the grandmother angrily uttering before a sculpture by Arckhypenko: “What did they write?! How can he be Russian?! He is ours! Like Malevych! she looked angrily further down the hall. “And Ekster...

I do not know if its the foreign land that so affects the identity of my countrymen playing in a sense a role of the collective American relative, or whether it is Ukraine that itself becomes postcolonial and postmodern, miraculously avoiding the unpleasant problems of decolonization and modernization. But I know that real life is always richer than all our schemes, models, and classifications. And I can easily imagine a future where identity would not be determined by religion, language, or nationality, but rather by type of computer software or the register of telepathic communication.

In these situations, I always remember the ironic Borges or rather the Chinese encyclopedia he (probably) invented. Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge has all animals divided into a) those that belong to the emperor; b) embalmed ones; c) those that are trained; d) suckling pigs; e) mermaids (or Sirens); f) fabulous ones; g) stray dogs; h) those that are included in this classification; i) those that tremble as if they were mad; j) innumerable ones; k) those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush; l) et cetera; m) those that have just broken the flower vase; n) those that, at a distance, resemble flies.

Thus, he parodies our everlasting attempts to classify, arrange everything in drawers, to line the hierarchy. “Obviously, there is no classification of the world that would not be arbitrary and problematic, he concludes. “The reason is very simple: we do not know what the world is... Yet the inability to understand the Divine scheme of the world does not discourage us from building our own, human schemes, although we understand that they are temporary.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Oles Petyk

BIO | Mykola Riabchuk

Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian poet and essayist, the president of Ukrainian PEN-center and co-founder and co-editor of the Krytyka monthly. Born in 1953 in the city of Lutsk, he spent his adolescent years in Lviv, where he graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in 1977, and eventually from the Gorky literary institute in Moscow in1988. Of his many books, four were translated into Polish “Od Malorosji do Ukrainy (2002), “Dwie Ukrainy (2004), “Ogrod Matternicha (2010), and “Ukraina. Syndrom postkolonialny (2015). Mykola Riabchuk was distinguished with the POLCUL award in 1998, and the Bene merito medal of the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs for his contribution into Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Since 2014, he heads the jury of the Angelus literary award endowed by the city Wroclaw for the best book by a Central East European writer published in Poland, and the Yuri Sheveliov national award for the best essays, endowed by the Ukrainian PEN-center.


Honore Daumier, The Beautiful Narcissus, 1842 (original print), litography. Source: public domain.

[1]  Its authors irony parody at dominant views and discourses that considered Russian superior, and therefore pan Mykhailo should be blamed (from this point of view) for he “spoiled the boy, detracted him from (Russian-speaking) “normality - ed.