Ukraine’s identity shift may outlive the war

Six months into the Russian invasion, Ukrainians find national unity around concrete values that explain their military’s strength.

A family in Kyiv, Ukraine, visits an exhibition of destroyed Russian military vehicles on Independence Day, Aug. 24.

In a news report on how Ukraine has changed six months after the Russian invasion, a Financial Times reporter went to an underground music club in the capital, Kyiv. There he saw a DJ at the turntables unfurl a large Ukrainian flag.

“Glory to Ukraine,” the DJ screamed.

“Glory to the heroes,” the crowd screamed back.

Such joyful unity among young Ukrainians may seem like merely wartime patriotism. But it is not. In an Aug. 24 speech marking 31 years of independence from the Russia-dominated Soviet Union, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said a new nation appeared when Ukraine was invaded Feb. 24.

Six months later, “we changed history, changed the world, and changed ourselves. ... We started to respect ourselves,” he said.

As The Kyiv Independent put it, Ukraine is a very different country from a year ago because “its values, ideas, and future are more concrete than ever.”

If love is self-negation and loving one’s neighbors, then Ukrainians learned quickly how to love their country – through the sacrifices of soldiers (more than 9,000 killed) and the selfless giving of those supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty against the second-largest military in the world.

Rather than hold an independence parade on Wednesday, Kyiv displayed the symbols of an empty type of patriotism on its main street: the wrecked tanks from Russia’s failed attempt to take the city in March. That early victory for Ukraine reflected how much its soldiers have absorbed the democratic values that give them an edge – enough liberty to take individual initiative on the battlefield but accountability to the goals of a civilian, elected government.

“We are not afraid because we have complete faith in our defenders, the armed forces of Ukraine,” one civilian, Viktoria Skovroska, told The Wall Street Journal.

Ukraine’s rapid shift in identity shows up in the latest poll taken in July by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

During the early years of independence, a majority of people associated more with a region, language, or ethnicity than with Ukraine as a nation. After two democratic revolutions in 2004 and 2013, 64.4% put Ukrainian citizenship first. Soon after the war started, support of a national civic identity rose to 84.6%.

Even among ethnic Russians in the areas controlled by Moscow, it’s 78%. These numbers defy a claim by Russian President Vladimir Putin that there is no such thing as the Ukrainian nation.

The country’s cohesion around democratic ideals – especially freedom from invasion and the integrity of nation-state borders – serves a purpose beyond Ukraine. It has united the European Union to make sacrifices on Ukraine’s behalf.

“We turned out to be the heart of Europe,” President Zelenskyy told The Washington Post. “And we made this heart beat.”

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