OhOn February 24, 2022, Russian tanks entered Ukraine from Belarus. Their goal was to capture Kyiv. The armored columns moved openly, crossing a landscape of forest and swamps. The Kremlin expected a quick victory. The project failed spectacularly in Bucha, a pleasant suburban town 24 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital.
A group of volunteers went to the barricades. They included a musician in a university orchestra, a family therapist who taught Argentine tango, a recreational hunter and a gas station attendant. For four weeks, these civilians resisted the powerful Russian army. They used bulldozers to build defenses and warmed up around a fire in a bombed building.
As Yaroslav Hrytsak points out, no one told the volunteers to fight. Similar acts of popular resistance took place in other Ukrainian cities in response to Russia’s massive invasion. “The whole of Ukraine was seized with a spirit of initiative,” he wrote. This spontaneous behavior contrasted strikingly with the passivity of the Russians, who awaited orders.
Hrytsak is a liberal historian, intellectual and professor. He teaches at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. His book Ukraine: The creation of a nation is a bestseller in the country and was published a few months before Vladimir Putin’s all-out attack. It places Ukraine’s past – “soaked in violence”, but also one that inspires optimism – in a global context.
Why, asks Hrytsak, did Ukraine retaliate? He compares his fight against Russia’s imperial machinations to Greco-Persian Wars. An alliance of democratic Greek city-states resisted and successfully defeated the larger Persian Empire. Like Herodotus, the father of history who wanted to understand the causes of Greek resilience, Hrytsak moves freely, jumping from era to era.
It considers Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492, European Romanticism, and the invention of the modern state in the 19th century. It also examines Ukraine’s perpetual struggle against Moscow’s domination. Its leaders include the Cossacks; Ukrainian nationalist groups during World War II; and a dissident movement of poets and journalists in the 1960s.
The book constitutes an elegant critique of Russian chauvinist thought. And bad historiography. In 2021, Putin published a notorious “essay” justifying his impending invasion. He claimed that Ukraine had never been a nation. Instead, it was part of a civilizational and religious space with Russia, dating back 1,000 years. According to this logic, Putin is not a brutal aggressor but a sacred restorer, of something lost and indivisible.
Previous Russian historians have made similar arguments. They claimed that Kievan Russia – the 9th-century principality centered on kyiv – was a precursor to today’s Russia. Hrytsak rejects this idea. “Calling Russia a nation-state is like calling a wooden abacus the first computer,” he sniffs. Kyivan Rus existed in what he calls an “anational world.” It began as a river trading society, centuries before the concept of statehood and borders existed.
With its fertile soil and Black Sea coastline, the region has always attracted settlers. The Scythians who appear in Herodotus Stories were probably proto-Iranians. The founders of Russia arrived by ship from Scandinavia. They coexisted with Slavic tribes. Next came the Ottomans. Hrytsak describes the Eurasian steppe as a multicultural highway. No group lived there. Russia’s exclusive ethnic claims are “dangerous political fantasies”, he believes.
kyiv was founded long before Moscow and had its own political culture. This can be explained by the persistence of Polish influence, Hrytsak suggests. Until the 18th century, much of modern Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a place of religious tolerance. Its nobility voted for a monarch. This consensual political system was linked to Western Europe. This influenced Ukrainian identity.
The Cossack warriors who guarded the borders of the Commonwealth had a similar democratic culture. They chose a military leader, or hetman. After each election, they threw him out with trash “so he wouldn’t get too full of himself,” Hrytsak reports. The Cossacks enjoyed autonomy. For over 100 years they had their own state, until 1764, when Catherine the Great made Cossack territory part of Imperial Russia.
Hrytsak’s book is full of vivid metaphors. He compares Ukraine to a “bumblebee” – it should not be able to fly according to the laws of physics, but it does – and to a butterfly. There is a fascinating chapter on language. Russians use the derogatory term khokhol for Ukrainians, a reference to the single lock of hair worn by steppe peoples. Ukrainians call Muscovites Katsapy, or goats. These old insults testify to long-standing differences.
The issue of Ukrainian “separatism” – as seen by Moscow – was closely linked to publishing and language. Russian authorities have repeatedly banned Ukrainian. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks authorized the teaching of Ukrainian in schools. In the 1930s, Stalin reduced it further. “The policies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union clearly constitute linguistic genocide,” Hrytsak writes, noting that “physical genocide” often accompanies it.
One of the reasons Putin gives to justify his war is the need to “save” the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine from so-called “neo-Nazis.” Hrytsak emphasizes that language and national identity are not necessarily linked in Ukraine, a bilingual country. Most Russian speakers consider themselves Ukrainian. Kherson’s Russian-speaking population protested when Russian soldiers seized the city in 2022 and rejoiced when the Ukrainian army expelled them.
Ukraine paid a high price for its independence. Its emergence as a sovereign state – beginning in 1914, according to Hrytsak – coincided with a period of extraordinary bloodshed. It was a civil war so chaotic and confusing that it “resembles the plot of Verdi’s opera.” Seller». Around 4.5 million Ukrainians died in Stalin’s famine of 1932-33. The peasantry was broken; the intelligentsia was wiped out.
Ukraine was at the center of further violence during World War II. Hrytsak estimates that 1.5 million of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust died in Ukraine. The Nazis executed 34,000 Jews in a single day, September 29, 1941. There were waves of what he calls “interconnected violence”, with massacres carried out by Ukrainian partisans against Polish villages and terrible pogroms.
Against all odds, Ukraine became a democracy in the late 20th and 21st centuries. According to Hrytsak, it has become a civic nation in its own right. The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish. His new Defense Minister, Rustem Umerov, is Muslim. There are “defensible” reasons for hope, the historian believes, even as Putin continues to bomb Ukrainian homes in search of an elusive victory.
Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival by Luke Harding, shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, is published by Guardian Faber
Ukraine: the creation of a nation by Yaroslav Hrytsak (translated by Dominique Hoffman) is published by Sphere (£25). To support the Guardian And Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply