The Ukrainians as “Imagined Community” Nation

by Prof. Vladislav B. Sotirovic

The 2014 Euromaidan protesters in Kiev with the picture of Stepan Bandera – a leader of the WWII Nazi-Fascist movement in Ukraine

The 2014 Euromaidan protesters in Kiev with the picture of Stepan Bandera – a
leader of the WWII Nazi-Fascist movement in Ukraine

Ukraine is an East European territory which was originally a western part of the Russian Empire from the mid-17th century. Present-day it is an independent state and separate ethnolinguistic nation as a typical example of Benedict Anderson’s theory-model of the “imagined community” – a self-constructed idea of the artificial ethnic and linguistic-cultural identity. According to Anderson, “the nation” is an abstract and firstly subjective social construction that defies simple, objective definition yet have been for the last two centuries the crucial basis of conflict in world politics and international relations, through assertion of their expressed nationalism. However, nationalism is quite broad ideology which can be easily transformed into political movement. That became the case, for instance, exactly with the Ukrainian self-imagined ethnonational identity. Acting politically, in principle by all means, on behalf of its own nation usually encompass pretty much a large scale of political ideas and practices including and ethnic cleansing or/and genocide on particular other national groups that happened, for example, in the WWII Ukraine when the Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies (Roma) experienced the genocide committed by the Ukrainian Nazi-Fascist nationalists (the Banderists).
Before 2014 Ukraine was a home of some 45 million inhabitants of whom, according to the official data, around 77 percent of whom declared themselves as Ukrainians. Nevertheless, many Russians do not consider the Ukrainians or the Belarus as “foreign” but rather as the regional branches of the Russian nationality. It is a matter of fact that, differently to the Russian case, the national identity of the Belarus or the Ukrainians was never firmly fixed as it was always in the constant process of changing and evolving. The process of self-constructing identity of the Ukrainians after 1991 is basically oriented vis-à-vis Ukraine’s two most powerful neighbours: Poland and Russia. In the other words, the self-constructing Ukrainian identity (like the Montenegrin or the Belarus) is able so far just to claim that the Ukrainians are not both the Poles or the Russians but what they really are is of a great and endless debate. Therefore, an existence of an independent state of Ukraine, nominally as a national state of the Ukrainians, is very doubtful from both the historical and ethnolinguistic perspectives.
The Slavonic term Ukraine, for instance, in the Serbo-Croat case Krajina, means in the English language a Borderland – a provincial territory situated on the border between at least two political entities: in this particular historical case, between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the Republic of Both Nations (1569−1795) and the Russian Empire. The term is mostly used from the time of the treaty (truce) of Andrussovo in 1667 between these two states. In the other words, Ukraine and the Ukrainians as a natural objective-historical-cultural identity never existed as it was considered only as a geographic-political territory between two other natural-historical entities (Poland and Russia). All (quasi)historiographic mentioning of this land and the people as Ukraine/Ukrainians referring to the period before the mid-17th century are quite scientifically incorrect but, however, in many (pro)Western academic writing cases it is politically inspired and coloured with the purpose to present them as something crucially different from the historical process of ethnic genesis of the Russians.
Historically speaking, it was a Roman Catholic Vatican that was in fact behind the process of creation of the “imagined community” of the Ukrainian national identity. The political purpose was to separate the people from this borderland territory from the Orthodox Russian Empire. Absolutely the same, as a matter of comparison, was done by Vatican’s client-state Austria-Hungary in regard to the national identity of Bosnian-Herzegovinian population when this province was administered by Vienna-Budapest from 1878 to 1918. As it was the Austria-Hungarian government who created totally artificial and very new ethnolinguistic identity – the Bosnians, just not to be the (Christian Orthodox) Serbs, who were at that time a strong majority of the provincial population. Therefore, to be a Bosnian meant not to be a Serb with a final consequence to become a Roman Catholic what means the Croat. Similarly, in the case of Ukraine, to be a Ukrainian means primarily not to be a Christian Orthodox Russian.
A creation of ethnolinguistically artificial Ukrainian national identity, and later on a separate nationality, was a part of a wider confessional-political project by the Vatican in the Roman Catholic’s historical struggle against the Eastern Orthodox Christianity (the Eastern “schism”) and its churches within the framework of Pope’s traditional proselytizing policy of reconversion of the “infidels”. One of the most successful instruments of a soft-way reconversion used by the Vatican was to compel a part of the Orthodox population to sign a Union Act with the Roman Catholic Church and recognizing at such a way a supreme power by the Pope and dogmatic filioque (“and from the Son” – the Holy Spirit proceeds and from the Father and from the Son). Therefore, the ex-Orthodox believers became the Uniate Brothers or the Greek Orthodox believers became, in a great number later on, pure Roman Catholics who changed their original (from the Christian Orthodox time) ethnolinguistic identity.
It is, for instance, very clear in the case of the Christian Orthodox Serbs in Zhumberak area of Croatia who passed way from the Christian Orthodox Serbs to the Greek Christian Orthodox believers but later became the Roman Catholics and finally today are the Croats. Something similar occurred and in the case of Ukraine. On October 9th, 1596, it was announced by Vatican a Brest Union with a part of the Orthodox population within the borders of the Roman Catholic Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth (today Ukraine). The crucial issue in this matter is that today Ukraine’s Uniates and the Roman Catholics are mostly anti-Russian oriented having at the same time strong Ukrainian national feelings. Basically, both the Ukrainian and the Belarus present-day ethnolinguistic and national identities are historically founded on the anti-Christian Orthodox policy of the Vatican within the territory of ex-Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was in essence an anti-Russian policy.
The Lithuanian historiography writing on the Church Union of Brest in 1596 clearly confirms that:

…the Catholic Church more and more strongly penetrated the zone of the Orthodox Church, giving a new impetus to the idea, which had been cherished since the time of Jogaila and Vytautas and formulated in the principles of the Union of Florence in 1439, but never put into effect – the subordination of the GDL Orthodox Church to the Pope’s rule.”

In the other words, the rulers of the Roman Catholic Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the GDL) from the very time of Lithuania’s baptizing in 1387−1413 by the Vatican had a plan to Catholicize all Orthodox believers of the GDL among whom the overwhelming majority were the Slavs. As a consequence, relations with Moscow became very hostile as Russia accepted a role of the protector of the Christian Orthodox believers and faith and therefore the Church Union of Brest was seen as a criminal act by Rome and its client-state of the Republic of Two Nations (Poland-Lithuania).
Today, it is absolutely clear that the most pro-Western and anti-Russian part of Ukraine is exactly the West Ukraine – the lands that were historically under the rule by the Roman Catholic ex-Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later on by the former Habsburg Monarchy (Austria-Hungary). It is obvious, for instance, from the presidential elections voting results in 2010 as the pro-Western regions voted for Y. Tymoshenko while the pro-Russian regions of the East Ukraine did it for V. Yanukovych. It is a reflection of the post-Soviet Ukrainian identity dilemma between Europe and Eurasia – a dilemma that is of common nature for all Central and East European nations who historically played a role of a buffer zone between the German Mittel Europa project and the Russian project of a pan-Slavonic unity and reciprocity.
The fact is that the western territories of the present-day Ukraine are mainly populated by the Roman Catholics, the East Orthodox and the Uniates. This part of Ukraine is mostly nationalistic and politically pro-Western oriented. The East Ukraine is in essence a Russophone territory and subsequently “tends to look to closer relations with Russia”. By the Vatican policy of signing the union with the Christian Orthodox believers in the present-day West Ukraine from 1596 the necessary preconditions for de-Russification and Ukrainization of the local inhabitants were founded. Over the course of time, as a consequence of such policy by the Roman Catholic Church, Ukraine became sharply divided by confession, national feelings, economic development, linguistic identity and geopolitical orientation to such extent that Ukraine today is an example of the “failed state”. By scholarly definition, “a failed state is a state that is unable to perform its key role of ensuring domestic order by monopolizing the use of force within its territory”.

The 1994 Presidential election results in Ukraine according to historical regions

The 1994 Presidential election results in Ukraine according to historical regions

According to the 2001 census, out of Ukraine’s 45 mill. inhabitants, 17.3 percent were the Russians but 30 percent were speaking the Russian language. Subsequently, a great part of those who identified themselves as the Ukrainians recognized that their native language is, in fact, Russian. In addition, there were 83 percent of Ukraine’s inhabitants in 2008 for whom Russian was a chosen language as a lingua franca. There is, as well, a mixture of the Russian language and the Ukrainian language with a predominant Russian vocabulary spoken in the countryside – the Surzhik.
The Ukrainian authorities up today did not properly solve the problem of the official language in the country as it is officially fixed to be Ukrainian that is spoken in the western regions of the country while Russian is spoken in the eastern provinces of Ukraine and even used as a lingua franca by majority of the population. Therefore, an official bilingualism would be a matter of a real solution of many current ethnopolitical problems in Ukraine. If Belgium can be officially bilingual state, there is no any obstacle for Ukraine to be the same.


  • 1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition, London: Verso, 2016.
  • 2 On the Ukrainian self-identity construction, see [Karina V. Korostelina, Constructing the Narratives of Identity and Power: Self-Imagination in a Young Ukrainian Nation, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014].
  • 3 A German historical term for Ukraine would be a mark – a term for the state’s borderland which existed from the time of the Frankish Kingdom/Empire of Carl the Great.
  • 4 For instance, Alfredas Bumblauskas, Genutė Kirkienė, Feliksas Šabuldo (sudarytojai), Ukraina: Lietuvos epocha, 1320−1569, Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos centras, 2010.
  • 5 Лазо М. Костић, Наука утврђује народност Б-Х муслимана, Србиње−Нови Сад: Добрица књига, 2000.
  • 6 Arūnas Gumuliauskas, Lietuvos istorija: Įvykiai ir datos, Šiauliai: Šiaures Lietuva, 2009, 44; Didysis istorijos atlasas mokyklai: Nuo pasaulio ir Lietuvos priešistorės iki naujausiųjų laikų, Vilnius: Leidykla Briedis, (without year of publishing), 108.
  • 7 Zigmantas Kiaupa et al, The History of Lithuania Before 1795, Vilnius: Lithuanian Institute of History, 2000, 288.
  • 8 John S. Dryzek, Leslie Templeman Holmes, Post-Communist Democratization: Political Discourses Across Thirteen Countries, Cambridge−New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 114.
  • 9 Зоран Милошевић, „Друштвени процеси у самосталној Украјини“, Радови, Филозофски факултет, Источно Сарајево, 2005, 289.
  • 10 Andrew Heywood, Global Politics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, 121.
  • 11 Срђан Перишић, Нова геополитика Русије, Београд: Медија центар „Одбрана“, 2015, 273−275.


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Arhikles Salvador
Arhikles Salvador
Nov 21, 2016 2:11 PM

Very realistic and even brave article. Thanks for Off-Guardian to have you to read such true pieces of history

Nov 20, 2016 9:43 AM

It used to be said that “Money (or the love of it) is the root of all evil”. After reading this article, perhaps that should be changed to “Religion is the root of all evil”? When ever I discuss Eastern European and Balkan politics with people, I usually tell them to look at the map of the disintegrating Roman Empire to understand present-day divisions across Europe. The author refers to the Ukraine as a failed state – but it is not the first in Europe by any means. 100 years ago, the Austria-Hungarian Empire was disintegrating, as was the Russian Empire. 71 years ago, the Third Reich was completely destroyed. 27 years ago, the former Yugoslavia fell apart following the death of Tito and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Right now, the United Kingdom is experiencing similar pangs – though non-violent – and Brexit suggests that some existing member-states… Read more »

Nov 20, 2016 3:25 AM

This is an interesting article by Professor Sotirovic but it doesn’t explain why Ukraine remains the way it is with its 1991 borders still intact (with the exception of Crimea) when the country could have gone the way of Yugoslavia and split early on into two parts: a western, mostly Uniate / Roman Catholic part speaking Ukrainian, and an eastern, mostly Surzhyk / Russian-speaking (Ukrainian-accented) part, and the border following the Dnepr River and then dividing southern Ukraine (Odessa, Kherson, Mikolayiv oblasts), which would go with the east, from the west. Then there would have been two separate Ukrainian nations, both easy pickings for whichever Western nations (Germany or the US) wanted to exploit for their resources. But then I guess the eastern part of Ukraine – the more pro-Russian part – has the greater share of resources (black earth, oil shale and shale gas resources in the Yuzovka region… Read more »

James Carless
James Carless
Nov 19, 2016 10:37 PM

Lithuania is complaining that it has lost too many of it;s brightest and best youth to western emigration,making development of it’s own economy nigh impossible.
Meanwhile,the EU bureaucrats have decided to ignore the Netherlands referendum vote and allow Ukrainians visa free travel to the Shengen treaty countries………….there must be a shortage of russophobe fascists in Germany !

Nov 19, 2016 7:34 PM

It is difficult to see anything like a functioning state emerging from the present mess that is the Ukraine. To all intents and purposes, it represents Europe’s first failed state. This insofar as the central government cannot control the armed Banderist formations – Right Sector, Avoz Regiment, Patriots of the Ukraine, as well as the proliferation of oligarch private armies – from brazenly strutting around unchallenged. A normal state must monopolise the means of violence, in the shape of the police and army. Clearly this is not the situation in the Ukraine. In addition to the ultranationalist gun-toting paramilitaries, the ‘government’ is composed of out-and-out kleptocrats, whose main preoccupation is enriching themselves. The central government is, however, extremely weak: the Crimea has gone and so has de facto the Don Bas. The Don Bas was the industrial heartland and contributed more in terms of national output than any other area… Read more »

Nov 19, 2016 3:32 PM

My suspicion is that the current NATO sponsored government has the intention of imposing its language-‘Ukrainian’- on the population. In the meantime I have no doubt that, like their fellow ‘democrats’ in the Baltic states they will use the language question as a handy means of restricting the franchise to their own supporters.
Eastern Europe, since the ending of the Warsaw Pact has become increasingly racist and authoritarian. Not surprisingly so, either, as the ideology of capitalism has few popular elements in its largely anti-social content.
The EU can be seen as a vehicle designed to transform western europe, politically, into the same clerical-fascistic-imperialist swamp that we see emerging from Estonia through Poland to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It is the old Holy Roman Empire returning in modern garb and with puppet strings leading to Washington.

Nov 19, 2016 3:00 PM

Reblogged this on EU: Ramshackle Empire.