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On the Usefulness of Nationalism


Anne Applebaum, characteristically sharp in the New Republic:

Donetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk—is what a land without nationalism actually looks like: corrupt, anarchic, full of rent-a-mobs and mercenaries. For the most part, the men in balaclavas who have assaulted Ukrainian state institutions under the leadership of Russian commandos are not nationalists; they are people who will do the bidding of whichever political force pays best or promises most. And although they are a small minority, the majority does not oppose them. On the contrary, the majority is watching the battle passively and seems prepared to take whichever government they get. Like my friends in L’viv, these are people who live where they do by accident, whose parents or grandparents arrived by the whim of a Soviet bureaucrat, who have no attachment to any nation or any state at all.

Thus do the tiny group of nationalists in Ukraine, whom perhaps we can now agree to call patriots, represent the country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment.

And this should be no surprise: In the nineteenth century, no sensible freedom fighter would have imagined it possible to create a modern state, let alone a democracy, without some kind of nationalist movement behind it. Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf. This goes for Russians, too, though tragically they insist on looking to their imperial traditions as a source of national pride, instead of to their liberal leaders in the early twentieth century or to their outstanding Soviet-era dissidents, the founders of the modern human rights movement.

To interrupt at this point, when it comes to Russia, matters are not quite as either/or as Applebaum suggests. There need be no contradiction between Russians drawing on some aspects of their imperial tradition as a source of pride and the target of transforming their country into a modern, democratic and law-based state, but that will take an intellectual leap and a political leadership of a type that Vladimir Putin is, to put it mildly, very unlikely to provide.  

Applebaum concludes:

In the United States, we dislike the word “nationalism” and so, hypocritically, we call it other things: “American exceptionalism,” for example, or a “belief in American greatness.” We also argue about it as if it were something rational—Mitt Romney wrote a book that put forth the “case for American greatness”—rather than acknowledging that nationalism is fundamentally emotional. In truth, you can’t really make “the case” for nationalism; you can only inculcate it, teach it to children, cultivate it at public events. If you do so, nationalism can in turn inspire you so that you try to improve your country, to help it live up to the image you want it to have…

Ukrainians need more of this kind of inspiration, not less—moments like last New Year’s Eve, when more than 100,000 Ukrainians sang the national anthem at midnight on the Maidan. They need more occasions when they can shout, “Slava Ukraini—Heroyam Slava”—“Glory to Ukraine, Glory to its Heroes,” which was, yes, the slogan of the controversial Ukrainian Revolutionary Army in the 1940s, but has been adopted to a new context. And then of course they need to translate that emotion into laws, institutions, a decent court system, and police training academies. If they don’t, then their country will once again cease to exist.

Indeed. And to do this in a country that has yet to emerge from the intellectual and moral ruin that was the Soviet Union will, as the last two decades have shown, be profoundly difficult. Applebaum notes the experience of many in Ukraine (and a number of the other Soviet successor republics) writing that “they felt no pride in gaining or regaining national sovereignty, only confusion” and contrasts the experience in Poland and Estonia.

This “confusion” was not shared by everyone in Ukraine, of course, far from it: Despite the worst efforts of Hitler, Stalin and history, there were those who had preserved a distinct sense of national identity, no easy task when their country had enjoyed (if that’s the word to describe those chaotic times of invasion, civil war and revolution) only the briefest period of very tenuous independence before finally succumbing to Soviet rule at the beginning of the 1920s. By contrast, Poland reestablished its independence in 1918 and preserved its identity as a state (albeit one under tight Soviet control) during the communist years after the war. Further reinforcing Poles’ notion of nationhood was a long and (in contrast with Ukraine’s complicated history) distinct period of statehood before the partitions of the late 18th century. Even Estonians (and other Balts) could, at least, point to two decades of independence between the world wars, a period that not only confirmed their sense of themselves as nations, but, after re-independence in 1991, saturated their societies with a determination to rebuild what totalitarian occupation had taken so savagely away.

Their task was not easy, but Ukraine had, and has, a far steeper mountain to climb.  


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