The Birth of a Nation

February 26, 2015
Man holds up Ukrainian flag as he stands on Maidan, February 24, 2014. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP

Paul Goble writes the latest in our series on the anniversary of the Maidan Revolution and the birth of a new nation, Ukraine. Read the others in the series here.

The last twelve months have seen something remarkable in European history: the birth of a new nation not defined by blood or language or passport nationality, as so many are, but rather by a common political faith in democracy and freedom and a common set of aspirations to join other European nations so constituted and defined. That nation is Ukraine, and its emergence as a self-confident civic nation represents both the greatest triumph in its history and the greatest threat it has ever posed to Russia, a country that has had a state for far longer but that to this day has not managed to be a nation.

The relationship between state and nation, of course, is never a simple one: a state can form a nation, a nation can form a state, and of course the two can and do interact. But in those countries where the nation pre-exists the state or creates the state through an act of revolution, as the Ukrainians have over the last year, have far greater chances to become a free people with democratic institutions than do those where the state is everything and the nation is “created” not by the actions of the people themselves but by order of the state to serve its interests, not theirs.

Indeed, the very name of the Ukrainian nation-forming experience, the Maidan or “square,” immediately calls to mind the “public space” or “agora” where the Athenians came together in classical times and elaborated the principles of rule by the people that have informed the spread of democracy throughout the West and increasingly throughout the world.

Last week, a Russian blogger on Facebook suggested one way to get at this important distinction between state-defined nations and nation-defined states by offering a comparison of two unnamed peoples. One of them, the one in which the state defines the nation rather than the reverse, Karl Volokh writes, “deifies its leader, promises to die for him and forgives any of his sins ranging from the complete deprivation of its own elementary civil rights to an unprecedented history of theft.”

The other, in which the nation defines the state, he continues, often “does not recognize its leaders as leaders; instead, it considers them servants, constantly criticizes and curses them and periodically demands assurance that they really are leaders and that they are prepared to die for the people rather than the other way around.” Not surprisingly, the leaders of the first live in fear of the people and travel around only with hundreds of security men, while the leaders of the second “peacefully go into an enormous crowd without any guards and are even not afraid to take their families with them.”

It isn’t difficult to see that Russia falls into the first category and Ukrainians fall into the second, that what are called “leaders” in Russia are really bosses while those of Ukrainians are really leaders, and – and this is the most important thing – the existence of countries with nations of the kind that Ukraine now has represents more of a threat to the bosses of countries like Russia where no nation, civic or ethnic, exists. The example of what the Ukrainians have achieved in forming a nation could prove infectious: at the very least, it could lead some in Russia to ask themselves “Given that Ukrainians can do this, why can’t we?”

Indeed, the triumph of the Ukrainian people in becoming a nation has had perhaps its most serious consequence for Russia because it has highlighted precisely Russia’s greatest tragedy and that is this: In Russia, the state became an empire before the people became a nation, and as a result, the people have always been a state nation rather than their country being a nation state. In Ukraine, the people have shown that no one needs to remain in this unfortunate position if he has the courage to change.

But not surprisingly, many in Russia, precisely because they feel in their bones that they are not a nation, however much they insist otherwise, want to prove them wrong by destroying what Ukrainians have achieved. In this, Russia today is acting as the Soviet Union did a half century ago. At a meeting of the UN, Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev told the Greek prime minister that if Athens continued to follow the West rather than making concessions to the East, the USSR might at some point have to bomb the Acropolis.

The Greek prime minister calmly replied that Moscow might with its weapons be able to destroy the Acropolis but that it would never be able to destroy the ideas of democracy and human freedom that were born there. Ukrainians by their courage and determination, by their messiness and debate, have proved the Greek prime minister right and the dictator of a country that no longer exists wrong. Moscow can’t forgive them for that; the rest of us should support Ukraine in every way we can.

The last year since the Maidan has highlighted the deep divide between Russia and Ukraine not only over specific policies but also concerning their respective natures and possibilities. The great advantage of Ukraine is that a nation has emerged and taken control of the state, thus giving Ukraine the chance to become a normal European country, something that Russia at least in its current borders and with its past burdens does not have any chance to do.