Historian Timothy Snyder tackles the complex and intricate creation of Ukrainian nationality. In his work, Ukrainian identity is neither a complete construction of Imperial forces nor an innate sense of ethnicity. While the Ukrainian identity was affected by Imperial Russian and Soviet rule, it was not defined by it. Identity is instead an ever-changing entity defined by language, religion, and a conception of being against whoever was in charge. Often, the Ukrainian paths diverged, leading to different courses of assimilation or rebellion. In the end, it was World War II and the subsequent ethnic cleansing that led to a succinct definition of the Ukrainian people.

According to Snyder, the “modern Ukraine” period began in 1569 with the Lublin Union. For two hundred years prior to this, Ukrainians were part of the Kievan Rus kingdom. The Union repatriated old Rus in Poland’s favor, and the nation inherited many of the Southern territories, Kiev, and the territory that is now Ukraine. The forced union between Poland and Ukraine was significant in the formation of Ukrainian identity in that it gave the Ukrainian people an “other” a people from which they could distinguish themselves. The “precipitous and decreed” new state brought Orthodox Ukrainians “into close contact with Western Christendom (Snyder, 106).” The Project for unification with Rome–The Brest Union–only heightened this intense and sudden contact. The Poles set off to “civilize” the Ukrainians, a Christianity-based mission that included the gradual elimination of Old Church Slavonic. While Ukrainian nobles were “swept of their feet” by reform and converted to either the Catholic or Protestant church, the peasants were left behind. Without an elevated role in the new state, even the middle gentry were “at the mercy of their richer and more powerful brethren (Snyder, 111).” For the upper echelon Ukrainian nobles, it paid to have jumped on the bandwagon of reform. These elite inherited a Polish court life, and even incorporated Jews and Poles into their employ. However, these privileges were only enjoyed by a small percentage of the Ukrainian population, leaving the majority behind as an impoverished second class. Language factored into this to a large extent. With the introduction of Polish, the Ukrainian vernacular was not elevated, and Church Slavonic was not revived. Rather, Polish just “won the day,” which served to further distance the Church from the commoner. By 1640, Old Church Slavonic was essentially extinct, and Ukrainian Orthodox Churchmen were writing their texts in Polish.

The year 1648 saw the first organized attempt at revolt against the Polish state. With the Lublin Union, the Poles had inherited the Cossacks, but neglected to pay them after 1643. According to Snyder, Poland failed to “create, attract, and gain the loyalty of the political elite;” the Cossack officer corps was a powerful entity, and the Poles failed to incorporate it (Snyder, 116). The Cossacks lobbied parliament for a return to their privileged status, but their efforts were to no avail. Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi, a minor member Cossack gentry, organized the uprising. In a move of distinct Ukrainian agency, the Cossacks allied with Muscovy at Pereiaslav in 1654 to make war on the commonwealth.

The 1667 Andrusovo Treaty split the Ukrainian people between Muscovy and the Commonwealth, creating several de facto Ukrainian nations with different stories. Newly Russian Ukrainians were pleased with this new development; to them, this was a time of great rebellion against the Commonwealth. From the Russian perspective, the Ukrainians had finally found their way back to Russia. Russia strove to subsume Ukrainian history and culture, inheriting Ukrainian Churchmen and the prestigious Mohyla Kyiv Academy. The Churchmen accepted Muscovy as the new center of Orthodoxy, and transferred the Princely Kiev seat to Russia. Ukrainian culture became the “Bulwark of the Russian Empire,” as the Russians borrowed liberally from Ukrainian myths and folktales for the new merged national identity (Snyder, 121). But while the Russians were eager to incorporate Ukrainian elements into their own identity, they were wary of allowing Ukrainians to develop their own separate one. The emerging “Ukrainian idea” as espoused by the poetry of Taras Shevchenko instead found an audience in Galicia.

When Austrian rule supplanted the Commonwealth around 1772, Western Ukrainians found themselves oppressed under the new system, either by Austrians or by ruling class Catholic Poles in Galicia and Lodomeria. However, despite this oppression or perhaps because of it, Ukrainian nationalism began to gain support. First, the Ukrainians staged a rebellion in 1848. When it was put down by Greek Catholics, the people turned to other means of establishing their separatism. Through literature and politics, the new Ukrainian nationalists practiced “Ukrainophilia,” a linguistic dream of unity and tempered Pan-Slavism that was “Close enough to nationalism to win local support, and close enough to realism to nurture some hope of eventual success (Snyder, 127).” Essential to the new “Ukrainian idea” promoted by an increasingly influential “secular intelligentsia”–led by Ivan Franko–was Hrushevsk’kyi’s “History of Ukraine-Rus,” a text that created for the first time a written Ukrainian history, where the people were “active participants.”

Through their momentum, Ukrainian activists in Austria were able to gain greater leverage in the state, as evidenced by new language policies and assignments to prestigious academic posts. However, this was not enough for the Ukrainians: they wanted their own state with an ethnic border. The Ukrainian people formed political organizations, voted their own into office, and pushed for a greater use of their native language. They also pursued a claim to the city of L’viv/Lwow, which was dominated by Poles and had a substantial Jewish minority population. These efforts culminated in the Ukrainians of West Galicia declaring their independence and establishing the Ukrainian National Republic in November 1918. In response, the Poles led a popular uprising, crushing the new Republic by the spring of 1919.

Though more than a million Ukrainians died in the uprising and related violence and the Galician province soon ceased to exist, the Ukrainian movement survived. Scarred by violence and angered by their Ukrainian brethren’s 1920 unification with Russia against Poland, inhabitants of former-Galicia formed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). A far cry from the movement’s intelligentsia roots, the OUN was a terrorist organization that exercised brutal tactics not only against the Poles but also against Ukrainians who sought cooperation with the Poles. Though the OUN was a significant movement, most Ukrainians favored a more tempered of socialism and nationalism. After the 1921 Riga Settlement partitioned Ukraine between Poland and the Soviet Union, the Polish Ukrainians established the more moderate Ukraine National-Democratic Alliance. The Ukrainian identity in Soviet Ukraine, meanwhile, started off on a high note. For a time, Ukrainian language and Orthodoxy were permitted. However, Stalin soon ended this policy and instead instituted a systematic purge of Ukrainian intellectuals and churchmen. The Ukrainian national movement in the inter-war period was largely a peaceful, political movement. As Snyder points out, in certain villages Ukrainians and Poles lived quite well together, and spoke both Polish and Ukrainian in public. However, World War II would guide the fight for Ukrainian independence in a new direction, with the large-scale implementation of ethnic cleansing.

The war served to further divide Ukrainians and Poles, and ultimately created conditions in which the nationalist sentiment that had been building in both populations was able to manifest itself in the form of ethnic cleansing. Once again, the legitimate rule question had been reopened in the problematic regions of Galicia and Volhynia. Furthermore, both populations had seen firsthand, and sometimes participated in, the ethnic cleansing programs of Hitler and Stalin. Increasingly, ethnic cleansing was accepted as the most viable way to achieve national assimilation.

The OUN-Bandera, now the only political organization active in Western Ukraine, began to advance its nationalist agenda in earnest in 1943. The Ukrainian Insurgency Army (UPA), formerly the military wing of the OUN-B, gained control of Volhynia from the Germans and immediately crushed the weak Polish resistance. The Polish population, terrorized by collective killings and deportations, was driven to collaboration with Nazi forces, which gave the UPA even more an incentive to target them. The civil war spread to Galicia in 1944, where Poles and Ukrainians killed five thousand of the other’s civilians in only a year.

In Poland, too, political leaders were searching for solutions to the problem presented by Poland’s Ukrainian population. Communists and nationalists alike had concluded that nationality centered around the people themselves, not elite traditions. The fact that Stalin himself was coming to the same conclusion reveals much about Soviet nationalist policy at this time. Stalin’s support for the ethnic cleansing programs in Ukraine and Poland stemmed from his belief that homogeneity made ethnic groups easier to rule. Towards this end, Volhynia and Galicia were returned to Soviet Ukraine in 1944. Stalin also oversaw a set of repatriation accords to facilitate the movement of the minority Polish and Ukrainian populations back to their respective “homelands”. Though Stalin often used deportation to punish populations perceived to be troublesome to the Soviet Union, in this instance, deportations were used to build nations.

The same UPA which had engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Polish in Ukraine now took action to prevent the deportation of Ukrainians from Poland, burning depopulated villages, blowing up train tracks and targeting officials involved the deportation process. In response to the UPA’s campaign, Polish infantry units moved in to attempt to coerce the remaining Ukrainians to comply. However, by this time, Stalin had lost patience for the repatriation idea and the deportations across borders ended. Left with a remnant Ukrainian population within its borders, the Polish state enacted Operation Vistula to internally resettle the Ukrainians to the newly regained territories in the north and west. The operation had the added goal of crushing the UPA’s resistance movement, which proved more difficult than expected. In all, 140,660 Ukrainians were resettled under Operation Vistula, and hundreds of UPA members or suspected collaborators were killed or sent to concentration camps.

The climate of the postwar period and the experience of ethnic cleansing had a great impact on both Polish and Ukrainian postwar national identities. The memory of the UPA in particular was central; the Ukrainian population lauded its resistance while the Poles focused on the UPA’s murder of civilians during the deportations of Galicia and Volhynia. The deportations themselves also encouraged a focus on national rather than local identity. Although nationalist sentiment in Ukraine had been building for some time, when introduced to the violent context of World War II, it accelerated and matured into a legitimate movement with definite, though sometimes tragic, results.


Works cited

  • Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus 1569-1999 (London: Yale University Press, 2003).