Western Ukrainian Identity

[Jacob Lassin]

Today, one sees Ukraine on a map as a single unified state but these national borders are an anomaly. For most of history the land now known as Ukraine has been divided among the great powers that surrounded the region. As a result, there is a noticeable distinction between the how people in the Western part of Ukraine, an area largely made up of the historic region known as Galicia, and the more Russified Eastern portion of the Ukraine identify themselves and utilize their distinct histories in creating contemporary identities. Focusing specifically on Western Ukraine one is able to chart the origins of a distinct Ukrainian national identity which at various times has been cultivated and suppressed, dominated by Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians themselves. Moreover, examining Western Ukrainian identity demonstrates that an essentialist argument in favor of one identity over another in a region has an often flimsy historical and intellectual basis and that identity survives and thrives due to its flexibility to incorporate or adapt to new elements.

The Western Ukrainian region of Galicia was under the rule of the Hapsburg Empire since the first partition of Poland in 1773. Austrian rule did not entirely disassemble the previous power structures in Galicia, it merely added Austrian administrative officials to the cultural mix of Galicia. Poles still owned the land and made up the gentry, Jews often were involved in trades and other mercantile activities, and the Slavic peasants, those who would eventually identify as Ukrainians toiled in the fields (Reid, 72). The Ukrainian peasants had long felt marginalized by the Polish nobles who, aside from owning the land they worked, also aimed to Polonize and Latinize their unique religion, the Uniate Church. The Uniates are a religious group which pledges fealty to the Pope and the Vatican but retains many Orthodox traditions. For the Poles the Orthodox symbols and practices of the Uniates appeared as Russian encroachment on their faith and their identity and they worked to discourage Uniate religious expression. This active discouragement was done out of fear for the differences between Poles and Ukrainians highlighted by Uniate worship. The Poles (correctly) feared that the Uniate Church could be used as a tool to lessen Polish domination over their Slavic peasants and aimed to mitigate this factor.

For all of their efforts, Polish suppression of the Uniate Church could only go so far in Hapsburg-controlled Galicia. Western Ukrainian identity got its largest push from Hapsburg officials eager to pit Ukrainians against Poles and thus shore up their own dominant position. During 1848, the Governor of Galicia encouraged the Ukrainian leaders and Uniate Church officials to submit a loyalty petition to the Austrian Emperor in exchange for recognition of their nationality (Reid, 88). The Austrians followed this with some support of the Uniate Church as a means of breaking the monopoly of Polish clergy and Catholic Church officials in the region (Bociurkiw 1996). Thus the use of religious politics helped to spark the notion of a Ukrainian nation in the minds of many Uniate believers and as a result led them to reject many parts of Polish religious culture which they had long used as their own, illustrating a shift in how Ukrainians viewed themselves and how under certain circumstances excluding aspects of a certain culture can be advantageous, without this rejection of some Polish religious culture and reassertion of the Uniate Church there might not be a concept of Western Ukrainians today.

Eventually, as the twentieth century began, the Uniate Church, which did not officially endorse any side of the nationality question debates, cast its lot with Ukrainian identity. The Uniates’ powerful and politically savvy Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, whose family identified as conventional Roman Catholic Poles and who himself said that his identity was dependent on who he was addressing began to identify as Ukrainian by the time he became Metropolitan in 1900 (Reid, 76). When such a renowned figure as the Metropolitan calls himself Ukrainian, it lends a great deal of credence to the notion of a Ukrainian nation, again providing an alternative to the Polish culture that dominated Galicia.  Of course this was all a shrewd calculation on behalf of the Metropolitan who saw that the political waters could accept such a notion.

It was not only in religion that one can see the origins of a Western Ukrainian identity. No man did more to advance the idea of a Ukrainian identity than the painter and poet Taras Shevchenko. His poetry chided his countrymen for abandoning their motherland and allowing her to be subjugated to Russia and Austria (Reid, 79-80). Shevchenko’s works incited a Ukrainophile renaissance in culture, literature and politics in both Eastern and Western Ukraine. This new outpouring of Ukrainian identity appeared as a threat to Russian rule and following a Polish uprising in 1861, the publication in Ukrainian was banned and Ukrainian activists were sent into exile, often landing in Galicia (Reid, 88). This strengthened the Galician and Western Ukrainian intelligentsia and as a result, intensified Western Ukrainian identity. This intelligentsia is still looked to in contemporary Ukraine for guidance and inspiration, this is the place and time where a “true” Ukrainian identity is founded, which appears again as a historical anomaly because for so long Galicia was seen as an impoverished backwater.

In the early twentieth century, the cultural expressions of Western Ukrainian nationalism were replaced by extremist politics and violence. The waning days of the Hapsburg Empire and defeats in successive wars had limited Austria’s powers over its provinces, this allowed for more Polish control over Galicia (Reid, 89). This led to even more Ukrainian resentment and as a result more nationalist activities in Galicia. After World War I, Western Ukraine once again found itself under Polish rule and with it a suppression of Ukrainian national identity.

In order to combat the lack of support for Ukrainian identity in Western Ukrainian groups like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) took part in an assassination campaign as a means of staking their spot in the Polish political consciousness (Wikipedia). Their activities during the interwar period in the restored Poland aimed to maintain a semblance of a true Ukrainian national identity in the Western portion of Ukraine. To many of these nationalists, neither Polish nor Soviet rule was acceptable and they had to provide an alternative to the Ukrainian people.

The Nazi invasion of Poland and then of the Soviet Union appeared to provide the opportunity for Ukrainian independence. Seizing the chance, OUN head Stepan Bandera, a Galician, declared an independent Ukrainian state. The Nazis did not accept this and imprisoned Bandera from 1941-45 (Wikipedia). Aside from Bandera, other Ukrainian nationalists joined the SS as a means of liberating Ukraine from Soviet rule. These strains of Ukrainian nationalism were suppressed in 1945 when Western Ukraine was annexed into the Soviet Union. During Soviet rule only a very controlled version of Western Ukrainian identity was allowed to be expressed.

In post-war Lviv and the rest of Western Ukraine there was too much conflict and history for a generic Soviet Ukrainian identity to be imposed upon the area (Risch, 4). As a result, the Soviets had to work with an “acceptable portions of the Galician past and allow for some expressions of Ukrainian identity in order to quell any nationalist unrest. One of the most interesting changes in how the story of Lviv, as the unofficial capital of Galicia, was soon labeled an ‘eternally Ukrainian’ city in Soviet media” (Risch, 255). This act effectively erased all of the history of Polish domination and culture in the city. This was compounded by a project of memorializing Ukrainian national heroes throughout the city, making it clear that Lviv was Ukrainian above all else (Risch, 41).

In addition to the new memorials and discourse of an “eternally Ukrainian” Lviv, internal emigration also helped to Ukrainianize the city and the region. Ethnic Russians who were sent to the region right after the war to rebuild it soon found ways to leave and in their place came Eastern Ukrainians searching for more opportunities in Western Ukraine, making the area much more Ukrainian than it had ever been before the war or really at any time in history (Risch, 61-2). This once again made Western Ukraine like the Galicia of the Austrian Empire, fueling more Ukrainian cultural production and provides another example of a surviving Western Ukrainian identity from the past surviving in a totally different society and yet incorporating new Soviet and Russian elements in order to thrive.

For all of the Ukrainianization of Lviv and Western Ukraine in Soviet times, it would be a gross overstatement to say that this area became just like Eastern Ukraine, which was pretty effectively Sovietized and Russified. A Polish element always remained in the city, keeping alive a sense of the old, lost Lwów. Often this involved tensions between the old urban and sometimes Polish Lvivans and the other Western Ukrainians from villages moving to the city (Risch, 65). The competition between the old cosmopolitan Lviv and the Ukrainian countryside remained a constant source of tension in defining Western Ukrainian identity and has a strong historical precedent. Thus, one sees that the pre-war Western Ukrainian identity, which consisted of a dichotomy between a Polonized, urban elite and a rural, Ukrainian peasantry, remained even in Soviet Ukraine, evidencing the resilience of certain forms of Western Ukrainian identity and their ability to adapt and survive in a very different cultural milieu.

Official Soviet Ukrainianization was by no means the only way to forge an identity in Soviet Western Ukraine. Ironically, educated Lvivan Ukrainians looked to Polish culture, literature, and film as an alternative to Soviet culture, finding Polish culture more open and chic in comparison to official Soviet life (Risch, 85). This appears as a delayed victory for the Polish culture which so long dominated life in Lviv and Galicia and demonstrates the extreme flexibility of Western Ukrainian identity to shift from an extremely Ukrainocentric position to one that looks entirely outward for cultural life. However, just as many other moments in Ukrainian history and especially in Western Ukraine, this was a fleeting moment in the complicated give and take of culture in Western Ukraine.

This shift to idolizing Polish culture would end before the end of the Soviet Union, as seen before it appears that emulation of other cultures and reassertion of Ukrainianness go ebb and flow in Western Ukraine. It was youth culture that brought about this shift. This generation had been raised under Soviet rule and was looking for a more authentic alternative. Polish culture did not fill this void as Polish control over Galicia was a distant memory of their parents and grandparents; instead they turned to more Ukrainian nationalist expressions of identity. These expressions of a nationalist Western Ukrainian identity were seen in support of the Lviv-based Karpaty (Carpathians) football club and in listening to  nationalist pop music, like the popular song “The Embroidered Towel” which nostalgically cries for both mother and the Ukrainian motherland (Risch, 224; 236). At this time too, the historic religion of the Ukrainian nation, the Uniate Church, was once more recognized by the state after more than a half century of operating underground (Bociurkiw 1995, 136). Eventually, nationalist rallies and other demonstrations fueled by rock music, were reaching a wider and wider reach. This reassertion of an Ukrainophile, Western Ukrainian identity is just another chapter in how people express national sentiment in the region and underscores the fact that identity is often a reflection of the historical and political climate of a moment in time.

As the Soviet Union came to an end, it was becoming increasingly clear that Lviv and the rest of Western Ukraine wanted to finally stake its own identity and gain autonomy. When Ukraine finally gained its independence this was seen as a crowning achievement for Western Ukrainian identity. No longer would the Ukrainian language and culture play second fiddle to Russian or Polish culture and language. Today in Lviv and Western Ukraine there is a generation growing up without any knowledge of Russian and speaking Russian on the streets will attract some dirty looks (Reid, 85-7). To many inside and outside the country, Western Ukraine  holds the heart of the Ukrainian nation, from the Uniate Church, to the Galician Intelligentsia, to claims on the now nationally elevated Stepan Bandera. While culturally and historically it would be a difficult to argue that Western Ukraine and Lviv were “eternally Ukrainian” at the present time or that Ukrainian eternity has been achieved in Western Ukraine, but as history shows, this is most likely just another trend in a cycle of cultural flexibility and redefinition in Western Ukraine.


Works Cited:

  • Bohdan Bociurkiw , “Politics and Religion in Ukraine: The Orthodox and the Greek Catholics,” in The Politics of Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia, ed. Michael Bourdeaux, 131-62 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995).
  • ________, The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Soviet State (1939-1950) (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1996).
  • Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997).
  • William Jay Risch, The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Cambridge: Harvard, 2011).
  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, www.wikipedia.org, 4 May 2012.