Memory and national sentiment in Ukraine

First and foremost, a battle of memory is being waged between Russia and Ukraine. What part has history played in the reconstitution of a Ukrainian national feeling since independence was regained in 1991?
Musée national du mémorial aux victimes du Holodomor
Musée national du mémorial aux victimes du Holodomor. DR. © DR‎

Despite regaining independence in 1991, the emergence of a new national sentiment in Ukraine has been long, sometimes ambiguous and often difficult. In its desire to appear as a driving force in the process of national reconciliation, the Ukrainian state has had to find a way between divergent memories if it hopes to achieve its initial goal: to embody a new-found, asserted sovereignty. This necessity is all the more justified given that it is at the heart of a memorial battle with Russia. Indeed, since the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukrainian memory and national construction have been peremptorily and reductively associated in Russian propaganda with the extreme right, if not with "fascism". This strategy of discrediting, which intensified with the war, has no other aim than to reduce Ukrainian history to the simple experience of collaboration and the horrors of the Final Solution in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. More than ever today, this memory appears as a watermark of Russian politico-strategic ambitions, which are reflected in the discourse of "denazification".

Is this an impossible task or a forced construction benefiting only a few actors from the margins of the political field? In this article, we propose to explore the origins and challenges of the construction of this Ukrainian memory, in order to understand the successes and pitfalls of the emergence of contemporary Ukrainian national sentiment. After several centuries of domination, Ukraine decided to reclaim its national memory after gaining independence in 1991. Once confiscated, if not obscured, this rediscovered memory was nonetheless imperfect. Seeking to formalize its definitive separation from Russia, and to valorize the nation's age-old resistance, Ukraine has seized upon the powerful figures and symbols of its tormented history. While considered heroic, some of these figures are nonetheless controversial. In the image of Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, they clash with memories hitherto downplayed in relation to the horrors of communism or considered alien, as was the case for the Holocaust or the Great Patriotic War. Competing in this way, these memories play into the hands of Russia, which not content with staging a new memory praising the USSR and its victory over fascism to arouse popular fervor, has since 2014 been working to use it with a view to reconquering and dominating a Ukraine once anchored to its sphere of influence.

The construction of an autonomized memorial history

At Ukraine's independence in 1991, the question of an official history distinct from Russia is at the heart of memorial issues. A doctrine of national rebirth began to take shape, with the desire to Ukrainize legislation, institutions and identity in order to emerge from Russian influence and unify the Ukrainian population (Yurchuk, 2017, p. 113). To this end, Ukraine, although marked by official Soviet historiography, is seeking to develop a national narrative detached from that of Russia, placing greater emphasis on the suffering undergone by both Hitler's and Stalin's regimes (Kravchenko, 2015) and rehabilitating events that help to singularize national history: the horror of the crimes committed by the USSR and Ukrainian resistance in the face of its historical oppressors.

Paysans affamés dans une rue de Kharkiv en 1933.
Paysans affamés dans une rue de Kharkiv en 1933. Source : © DR‎

Over the post-independence years, Soviet history is progressively presented as that of an imperialist foreign occupation of which Ukraine was a victim, and this even before the formation of the USSR (Himka, 2008). But one of the major traumas that particularly stands out is that of the Holodomor of 1932-1933, having "the most important position in Ukrainian national martyrology "1 (Kravchenko, 2015, p.459). A famine organized by the USSR, described as "extermination by starvation", the Holodomor2 led to the deaths of several million Ukrainians and crystallized the memory of a country that was a victim of Soviet totalitarianism, an event totally ignored - if not denied - by Russian historiography.

Faced with this painful history, that of resistance to these multiple oppressions enables us to claim Ukrainian historical singularity. Two frames of reference in particular are highlighted. Firstly, the claim to Cossack heritage, which can be found even in the national anthem. A nebulous group of small Russian Orthodox peoples who had fled the harshness of their condition as peasants, the Cossacks represented a complex society based on a system of warrior assemblies called Sitch. They lived and thought of themselves as free men. Thus, for Maxime Deschanet (2014) "the Zaporogues3 Cossacks effectively crystallized the discontent of a population under foreign domination" (p. 31) by conveying the imaginary of a people fighting against external oppression. Their political project of building a form of state known as the Hetmanat4 became an ideal of protection for the peasantry, freedom and independence. This myth was particularly influential during the Maïdan revolution of 2014, when the organization of the square was compared to the sitch of the Zaporogues Cossacks (Goujon and Shukan, 2015), the defensive units described as sotnia (squadrons) and their fighters as sotnyky (idem; Kasianov, 2015).

Secondly, there is the controversial question of the rehabilitation of nationalist figures from the interwar period and the Second World War: Stepan Bandera and, more broadly, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN/UPA). These figures were forces of resistance to Soviet oppression. However, this struggle led them to collaborate with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. At the time of the German invasion in 1941 (Himka 2013), they thus participated in exactions against the Jewish and Polish populations through major massacres in a logic of ethnic cleansing (Gomza 2015; Yurchuk 2017).

Stepan Bandera Avant 1934.
Stepan Bandera Avant 1934. Source : © DR‎

The OUN and the UPA

During the interwar period, Ukraine found itself, as historian Timothy Snyder describes in Terres de sang (2012), at the heart of the power struggle between Hitler and Stalin. Formed in 1929 in Vienna under the aegis of Yevhen Konovalets, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists brought together radicalized youth who refused Polish and then Soviet domination of Ukraine. Ideologically, the organization positions itself as an Ustashi or para-fascist movement (Zaitsev, 2015), in other words, an ultra-nationalist movement that borrows certain elements from fascism, such as the cult of the leader and national palingenesis (rebirth) (Griffin, 1993). While the OUN sought to create an independent Ukrainian state, it was extremely divided on the overall strategy to be followed. Since 1938, the OUN has been without a leader, Konovalets having been assassinated by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB and FSB). Conflict broke out within the Organization between Andriy Melnyk, who sought to continue Konovalets' work and brought together the movement's old guard, and Stepan Bandera, around whom the radical youth had gathered. As a result of this rivalry, the OUN split into two branches in 1940: OUN-M and OUN-B.

In contact with the German Reich since 1939, the OUN began to collaborate actively with it. The idea, as in many countries that believed in German victory, was to preserve Ukrainian independence in the Nazi Europe of tomorrow. On June 22, 1941, still euphoric from a German invasion seen as a liberation from the Stalinist yoke, the OUN-B proclaimed a Ukrainian state in Lviv, headed by Yaroslav Stetsko. The proclamation took the Germans by surprise, as they intended to colonize the Ukraine as part of the Lebensraum. The government was immediately dissolved, and Stepan Bandera was deported to Sachenhausen, where he was released at the end of 1944. In 1942, while Ukraine was plunged into Nazi murderous madness, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was formed in the Volhynia region. Led by Dmytro Klyachkivsky and Roman Choukhevytch, this guerrilla movement numbered some 200,000 men and set out to protect Ukrainian villages from German atrocities. Although it resisted the Nazi occupiers, the UPA carried out ethnic cleansing in north-western Ukraine, in the Volhynia region, which was home to a large Polish minority. The result of rivalry between the Polish, Soviet and Nazi regimes, these massacres claimed 100,000 victims. Faced with the Soviet advance in 1943, the German army sought to renew ties with the OUN and UPA. Courted after his liberation, Stepan Bandera refused to compromise, believing that German defeat was inevitable. Only a few collaborators supported Germany until the last days of the regime, such as the SS Galicia, made up of Ukrainian volunteers who, far from necessarily adhering to National Socialist ideology, were seeking to build a new national army. Fighting autonomously against the Soviets, the UPA ceased its activities in 1950, when Roman Shukhevich was murdered in Lviv by an NKVD agent. Four years later, Stepan Bandera met the same fate in Munich.
Despite their chaotic history and complex itinerary, the OUN and UPA are part of Ukrainian history. Like the Cossacks, the UPA is a powerful symbol of Ukrainian nationalism through the armed struggle for independence, and a mirror for all the sovereignist temptations that have been expressed since.

These different historical references provide a strong impetus for the narrative of independence and autonomy from Russia. This perspective of national unity is reminiscent of France's post-war "resistancialism "5 . After the Second World War in Ukraine, part of Ukrainian public opinion was already part of this approach, and historian Alexander Motyl (2010) refers to it in no uncertain terms:

"The postwar nationalist resistance movement enjoyed widespread support among the Ukrainian population of western Ukraine precisely because it represented opposition to Stalinism and symbolized the cause of national liberation [...] The demonization of the nationalists by the Soviets fostered and created an image of a band of cutthroat savages with no political or ideological agenda except for death and destruction (p. 8)."

Since then, in post-Soviet Ukraine, while the official policy of remembrance pursued under the Kravchuk (1991-1994) and Kuchma (1994-2005) presidencies has been cautious in associating a power that remained in the hands of the former Communist elite with a facade of national symbols promoted by national-democratic groups, the Yushchenko years (2005-2010) have nevertheless accelerated the "banderization" of national memory. Emphasizing his patriotism, national solidarity, self-sacrifice and idealistic commitment to common values and goals (Riabchuk, 2010), the Yushchenko administration posthumously named Stepan Bandera, as well as leading OUN members and theoreticians, "Heroes of Ukraine". In 2006, a campaign was also launched to have the Holodomor officially recognized as genocide by a vote in Parliament, while at the same time seeking to destroy all symbols of the Soviet past (Kasianov, 2015). These measures are certainly symbolic, but demonstrate the logic of nationalism in Ukraine on sensitive memorial issues deemed a priority. The Maïdan revolution and the war against separatism in the Donbass have only completed this reappropriation of memory. In these contexts, the history of collaboration with Nazi Germany is becoming a major issue in national memory policies.

The challenge of remembering the Holocaust: gradual recognition

During the Second World War, Ukraine was the scene of the massacre of Jews, particularly in what came to be known as the "Holocaust by bullets". 1.55 million Ukrainian Jews were exterminated between 1941 and 1944 (Ackerman and de Lara, 2018), and between 30,000 and 40,000 Ukrainians are said to have taken part in these murders (Dieter Pohl, quoted by Himka, 2013). This participation in the Nazi genocidal enterprise is downplayed by official memory, which must pursue a necessary effort to "come to terms with the past" (Yurchuk, 2017, p.108). Indeed, a traditionalist fringe of the national narrative refused to acknowledge Ukraine's responsibility for the Holocaust so as not to taint the country's history. Their opponents, however, were committed to rehabilitating the memory of the Holocaust. Several policies have been instituted, notably at the Babi Yar site where 33,771 Jews were killed on September 29 and 30, 1941. In the aftermath of the Maidan, against a backdrop of war, the Symonenko so-called "decommunization" laws of 2015 provided a further example of this desire to break free from the Russian memorial yoke by condemning the totalitarian crimes of both Nazism and the USSR, banning both their symbols and certain organizations that claim to be part of this heritage, such as the Communist Party of Ukraine.

Memorial de Babi Yar à Kiev (2003).
Memorial de Babi Yar à Kiev (2003). Source : © DR‎

Thus, the Shoah is not denied by the Ukrainian national narrative, but tends to be placed on the same scale as the crimes suffered by the USSR. Such an equivalence may come as a surprise, especially in Western European countries that did not experience communism and its horrors. As Emmanuel Droit reminds us: "The memory of the Shoah represents a criterion of inhumanity to which the modern conscience refers whenever it fears going astray. On the other hand, the new Eastern European members of the European Union put forward the painful memory of the Soviet occupation embodied by the Gulag as their yardstick. The West sees the Holocaust as the central memory of Europe, while this perspective is criticized by Eastern Europeans who feel that Westerners are relativizing communism. In return, Westerners denounce the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europeans, because questioning the singularity of Nazi terror is seen as a relativization of the Shoah" (2007, p.120). Considering itself a victim of both Nazism and Stalinism (Kravchenko, 2015), Ukraine finds itself on two memorial fronts. Failing to privilege one of them, it includes them in a single continuum of national catastrophes, of which the Stalinist crimes are the acme. It is worth noting that these laws have been criticized by many specialists in Ukrainian history for not going far enough in designating and banning Ukrainian extremist movements. However, Ukraine's responsibility and the importance of its collaboration have been strongly extrapolated by the Russian narrative to fuel the idea of a historically fascist Ukraine. This is based on the idea that Ukraine would deny this part of its history. In a long twitter thread dated March 18, 2022, Anna Colin Lebedev explains that "the vast majority of Ukrainian soldiers fought the Nazis in the Red Army (over 4 million). Around 200,000 fought on the side of Nazi Germany. That's a maximum of 5% pro-Nazi among combatants". She denounces the extrapolation according to which the whole of Ukraine is collaborationist, and points out that "intellectual debate is open in Ukraine, and society is working on its past". This amplification effect enables Russia to mobilize an anti-fascist narrative of the Great Patriotic War, abusing the collaborationist episode to justify the unjustifiable: the massive invasion of Ukraine.

The Great Patriotic War, Russia's memorial myth to justify the unjustifiable

Faced with a West-European memorial narrative that gives a central place to the memory of the Shoah and the fight against its denial, and an Eastern European (including Ukrainian) memorial narrative aspiring to recognition of the atrocities committed by both the USSR and Nazism, official Russian history, for its part, insists on the narrative of the "Great Patriotic War", which claims a monopoly on anti-fascism (Galai, 2019). From the time of High Stalinism6 (1945-1953) onwards, this heroic World War II narrative of the USSR as the fighter against Nazism made it possible to insist on the superiority of its political system, while not allowing any criticism (Yurchuk 2017, p. 108). In this way, it contributed to a twofold concealment. Firstly, that of its crimes, including state terror and the Holodomor. But also that of the USSR's ethnocultural multiplicity: the soldiers of the Red Army were above all Soviet, as were the victims of Nazism. With the advent of Vladimir Putin and the revival of Russian nationalism following the annexation of Crimea, this discourse is once again an integral part of the contemporary Russian narrative.

Russia makes extensive use of this anti-fascist narrative to challenge any attempt to distance Ukraine from its sphere of influence. As early as 2004, the Orange Revolution and the Ukrainian leadership were labeled "fascist" (Yurchuk 2014, 2017). Motivated by issues of distinction in the political field and aspiring to an easing of tensions with Russia, Yanukovych's Ukrainian Presidency (2010-2014) was thus marked by a return to this myth in opposition to previous Ukrainian memorial policies. The president asserted that the Holodomor was not genocide, and sought to withdraw the titles of Hero of Ukraine from Bandera and Shukhevych (Kasianov 2015). Finally, following his dismissal in 2014, this anti-fascist narrative largely influenced the perception of separatists, openly echoing the Kremlin's rhetoric. The association of Ukrainian power with fascism became a major tool for destabilizing the country under attack. The idea of fighting a "genocide" being perpetrated in the Donbass and the objective of "denazifying Ukraine" are direct echoes of this narrative of the Great Patriotic War in order to manipulate opinion and justify its aggression. However, the confrontation between Putin's army and the Ukrainian resistance today shows Russian forces that they have not come to liberate the country they are attacking. It's a far cry from the jubilant scenes of liberation during the Second World War. This shows the discrepancy between the instrumentalization of memory by the Russian authorities, with their belief that anything that supports an autonomy movement in Ukraine is fascist, and the political reality of the country they are attacking. What is ultimately denied by Russia is the very existence of a Ukrainian identity and nation7 (Arel 2022).

Thus, to support its denazification discourse, the Kremlin proceeds with the same shortcuts as those equating World War II collaboration with the whole of Ukraine by exaggerating the importance of the contemporary Ukrainian radical far right. This importance is largely fantasized, and constitutes the "drop of poison" that Anna Colin Lebedev (2022) refers to in a Ukraine that is building itself in a lively political pluralism. Above all, nationalism cannot be linked solely to the extreme right and, in these historical and contemporary contexts, takes on a plurality of meanings, far removed from that which might be generically attributed to it in our Western societies.

Nationalism(s) in a nation under construction

National construction has remained complicated within the strict Ukrainian framework. Dominated by Russian influence and repression after the German occupation, Ukraine struggled to build a cultural community strong enough to see the emergence of a temporal and territorial consciousness. This is why Ivan Rudnytsky (1963) describes Ukraine in "The Role of Ukraine in Modern History" as a "non-historical" nation, and Taras Kuzio (2002) speaks of a "colony", all the more so as Polish, Russian and then Soviet elites encouraged Ukrainians to passively adopt their identity and values through acculturation and repression. Given the weight of history and these multiple external influences, until 2014 Ukrainian nationalism was divided into four major trends. The first was chauvinist, defended by the far right and based on Ukrainian "ethnicity". A second, post-Soviet and neo-imperial, rooted in a pan-Slavic vision close to that defended in Russia by Alexander Douguin's original neo-eurasist movement and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's liberal-democratic party. A third, centrist version, inherited from the Kuchma period, in which the nation is civic, but endowed with an ethnic particularism on which the oligarchs relied during his presidency from 1991 to 2005. And finally, a Western, civic version, oriented towards Europe and democracy. Before the outbreak of war in the Donbass, this division was rooted in an internal division of the Ukrainian territory, with a pro-Ukrainian, Greek-Catholic pole in the West, committed to preserving the Ukrainian language; an Orthodox, Russian-speaking pole in the East, mostly attached to its Soviet past; and a "swamp" in the center of the country, torn between these two poles. It is in this territory, moreover, that the populations and nationalisms of the two previous poles largely mix.

Assimilating Ukrainian nationalism with the far right is therefore a hasty approach. It is as protean as the entire Ukrainian political spectrum. A resurgent idea following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, nationalism in the post-Soviet space is a complex, little-understood phenomenon, with many chapels and currents that are still difficult to inventory. According to Marlène Laruelle (2007), nationalism in the post-Soviet space reveals "not only the establishment of a typology and terminology specific to each author, but also the underlying political commitment of some of them" (p. 1). Even if the researcher sees this as an extension of twentieth-century Soviet nationalism, she implies that the degree of radicality can be used to differentiate between movements. This radicality is defined according to the place occupied by "the national theme" and thus, quoting P.-A. Taguieff, by the importance of "identity-based self-defense" (p. 2) within it. From the poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), regarded as one of the spiritual fathers of Ukrainian identity, to Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), perceived, depending on one's point of view, as a great patriot or a Nazi collaborator, there is a whole range of nationalisms.

Ukrainian nationalism is therefore protean, a kaleidoscope of influences, references and ambitions. The war in the Donbass, the annexation of Crimea and the creation of new self-proclaimed territorial entities in the East (the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics) have made it even more complex. These violent events thwarted the central Ukrainian state's plan to unite the members of a single nation. They unleashed the most diverse nationalisms, and profoundly transformed the paradigms of Ukrainian nationalism. It became civic rather than ethnic. Indeed, in the course of the war and the rebuilding of the state, the barriers between nationalisms were rapidly eroded. There are no longer "good" and "bad" nationalisms. At the same time, Ukrainian political parties have refocused on a nationalist discourse, with the aim of uniting and mobilizing the people and voters around the war effort. Hitherto the monopoly of far-right parties such as the Pan-Ukranian Union "Freedom" and Right Sector, nationalist rhetoric has been taken up by other parties such as Samopomitch, Bat'kivchtchyna and even Ukrayins "Ke Ob'yednannya Patriotiv (UKROP). The latter even went so far as to put forward candidates for the 2014 parliamentary elections from the ranks of the army and volunteer battalions, such as Aïdar with Nadia Savtchenko. Their aim was to show that they were fully integrating the fight against the separatists and the Russians into their political approach. Nationalist ideas thus became the mainstay of the traditional Ukrainian parties, with the risk of distorting ideals and outbidding. This was visible even in part of the new left, which shifted some of its stances towards nationalist rather than internationalist issues (Ishchenko 2020), while remaining true to its liberal aspirations. Against this backdrop of aggression, nationalist discourse spread to the rest of the political sphere and civil society. These ideas gradually became mainstream. In the end, a common base emerged: that of a civic nationalism underpinned by defensive patriotism in the face of Russia. The massive invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army from February 24, 2022 onwards helped to reinforce this phenomenon, uniting the population around a shared desire to recognize Ukraine's sovereignty and national existence. In this context, where the Ukrainian nation must be redefined because it is being called into question, formations such as the Azov regiment, with their far-right ideas and representations, tend to be more visible. Azov's path to politics therefore seems unsurprising, but no less difficult in view of the very broad spectrum of Ukrainian far-right and nationalisms.


As the main vector of cohesion, history remains important in the elaboration and structuring of the Ukrainian national idea. In times of crisis, the mobilization of the historical narrative as a common reference point for a people enables them to exalt their patriotism with a view to overcoming the hardships they have endured. Despite their Janus-like appearance, it was above all because the OUN and UPA had been anathematized by the Soviet Union that they were rehabilitated by the Ukrainian regime. Ukraine has built itself, not without difficulty, in opposition to this Soviet past, rehabilitating everything that might have shown this strength of resistance to its historical oppressor. Its responsibility for the collaboration is not denied, despite Russia's accusations. But the history of the Shoah is placed on the same scale as the horrors of the USSR. While the Maïdan revolution did not make this difficult issue of post-Soviet memory structures disappear overnight, it did mark an acceleration in the rejection of the stereotypes inherent in the nationalism of the 1990s. With its Western Europhile aspirations, it is seen as a renaissance and even a rediscovery of Ukrainian national sentiment. In 2014, in parallel with the assertion of Ukrainian identity - through the use of national colors, the national anthem and patriotic slogans - the Leninapad (the destruction of Lenin statues) was revived, even in the eastern regions of the country. In response, the separatist republics of the Donbass quickly mounted a counter-offensive, using Soviet imagery and dialectics built around the image of the Donbass as a proletarian paradise supported by the local population throughout the USSR. For the separatists, this propaganda was aimed at the emergence of a distinct national idea. In return, the state could only adopt a similar approach to federate Ukrainians as a whole, through strong figures who above all symbolize the idea of long-term resistance (antidotes to any desire for fragmentation). As historian Eric Hobsbawm (1983) puts it, the invention of traditions and historical narratives, by establishing continuity between a past, a present and a future, legitimizes a nation's power and control, and establishes social cohesion. This reappropriation of its past helps to make it clear that Ukraine is writing a decisive chapter in its national novel at this very moment.

Bertrand de Franqueville and Adrien Nonjon
Bertrand de Franqueville is a doctoral student at the Chair of Ukrainian Studies and the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.
Adrien Nonjon is a doctoral student in History at Inalco's Centre de Recherches Europe(s) Eurasie (CREE).


1. In English in the text: "the most important position in the Ukrainian national martyrology". Translation by the authors.

2. The "extermination by starvation" of Ukrainian kulaks orchestrated by Joseph Stalin between 1932 and 1933.

3. The Zaporog Cossacks were a Cossack community settled upstream on the Dnieper River. The term "Zaporogue" literally expresses "Beyond the rapids" in Ukrainian.

4. The Hetmanat is a Cossack territorial, political and military organization. It is headed by Hetman (chief) elected by the Cossack warrior assembly: the Sitch.

5. Term coined by historian Henri Rousso to highlight the will of memorial policies aimed at developing the myth of a unanimously resistant France.

6. A period when Joseph Stalin's personal power was at its height, and the USSR was able to compete on equal terms with America.

7. This denial of Ukrainian identity is fueled by a historical revisionism that seeks to describe the medieval heritage of the Kiev Rus as common - and therefore necessarily Russian - at a time when contemporary nations did not exist. This instrumentalization of history is almost comparable to what might be a French claim to Aachen.


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Article head illustration: National Memorial Museum to the Victims of Holodomor (2018) - Source

Published in, May 17, 2022