What is Ukraine and Who are Ukrainians?

The above title to this article may seem a bit of a strange question, but I would submit that the answer isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. The words Ukraine and Ukrainians can mean different things depending on the context or frame of reference, and the consequences of such differences can be significant.

For example, I was born and raised in Canada, but my parents were Ukrainian immigrants born and raised in what was then Poland. Does that make me a Canadian, a Ukrainian, or a Pole, or all three? Were my parents Ukrainians or Poles when they came to Canada?
Here we enter the realm of the fine distinctions to be drawn between nationality and ethnicity. Nationality essentially is a legal term identifying a person as being a subject or citizen of a specific nation state. According to Wikipedia, ethnicity is defined as “a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups such as a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area.”

So technically speaking, I am a Canadian by nationality with an ethnic Ukrainian background. Interestingly, in Ukraine, I would be considered a foreigner from a legal standpoint, though I may be more “Ukrainian” in my values, beliefs, language and cultural practices than a lot of what are considered to be full-fledged Ukrainian citizens. There has been a lot of lobbying since Ukraine became independent for diaspora Ukrainians to be able to acquire Ukrainian dual citizenship passports, though to date there has been little progress in that coming into effect. This rankles a lot of the Ukrainian community abroad, as they sacrificed and toiled hard to keep Ukrainian culture, language and aspirations for freedom alive during the brutal Soviet occupation of Ukraine throughout most of the twentieth century.

There are similar ambiguities and perceptual difficulties when it comes to defining what Ukraine is from a nation state point of view. The biggest issue stems from Ukraine’s turbulent history. Its borders have shifted considerably over the centuries. The borders of the short-lived Ukrainian Republic that emerged after the Bolshevik revolution were significantly different from the borders that exist today. The Kuban area for instance, that is now part of Russia, was back then predominantly inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians and were part of the new Ukrainian Republic.

If you go back a thousand years to the Kyiv-Rus state that was the forerunner of today’s Ukraine, you would see that it encompassed a good chunk of what is now Russia and Belarus. There are also large regions of modern-day Poland, Romania, Slovakia and other countries that for much of their history were inhabited by majority Ukrainian populations.
The end result of all this is that from an academic or historian’s point of view, when you speak of Ukraine, you must do so within the context of specific historical periods of time.

For most ordinary Ukrainians though, and diaspora ones in particular, such fine distinctions are not particularly relevant. Ukraine, for them as it is for me, is more of an idea, a feeling and a sustaining mythology in the most constructive sense of the word.

From the earliest age I was inculcated by my parents and the Ukrainian community in exile with the story of Ukraine. It was the magic land of the steppes, the forests and the mountains. Its history was rich with valiant and brave heroes, Kozaks, determined defenders of the faith and fighters for freedom. Its culture was rich with ritual, song, music and dance. It’s poetry and literature were powerful, romantic and inspiring. Its people were the salt of the earth, with a special affinity for the land and all of nature.

Ukraine was not just lines on a map, but a state of mind, a way of life and an ideal to strive to maintain.

In that sense, Ukraine and being Ukrainian are not just geopolitical and ethno-societal constructs, but a defining set of memories, traditions and cultural legacies that define us as a particular group of human beings with shared common beliefs, values and sense of distinct identity shaped by ten centuries of societal and cultural evolution. Trying to define these terms semantically is not particularly useful. One knows when one is Ukrainian without the need for words.