IIT’S HORRIFYING write about Ukraine now. Kiev, our capital, is facing missiles. News arrives that a close friend died defending him. Reports point to strikes in residential areas, hospitals and central city squares. We don’t know how long this reality will last. If you are staying in Kiev, Kharkiv, Chernihiv or other cities, you cannot be sure that you will be alive in a month.
It is important for the world to understand one thing: Ukraine is resisting and will continue to do so. He has an incredible spirit of independence. This spirit has been there for centuries but now shows itself fully. Freedom is the key feature of Ukraine’s identity as a political nation.
Ukrainian political culture is based on anti-tyrannical, democratic and republican values. Most Russians tend to approve of their Tsar; Ukrainians identify with his opposition. In politics, they see a social contract. It dates back to the early modern era, when the Ukrainian warrior class known as the Cossacks made agreements with their leaders that guaranteed recognition of their rights and freedoms. This way of thinking is deeply ingrained and impossible to eradicate. The Cossack, free warrior of the open steppe, is one of the symbols of Ukrainian identity.
Ukraine is also a political nation. It is not exclusively centered on a single ethnic, linguistic or religious identity. It is pluralistic. You can be a Ukrainian speaker, a Russian speaker or a Crimean Tatar speaker and be ready to defend Ukraine. You can be Ukrainian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish and stand together for this country. The Ukrainians have a Russian-speaking president of Jewish origin. When Russian President Vladimir Putin calls these people “Nazis,” he is showing his own bigotry.
Ukrainians are culturally different from Russians. The Ukrainian language is not the same (it has more words in common with Belarusian and Polish than with Russian), its culture is different, its music is different, its visual codes and national clothes are different. When Mr. Putin says that Ukrainians and Russians are the same, he is not only wrong. It goes beyond what Soviet propagandists claimed. They accepted the difference between Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians. Mr. Putin is more archaic than the Soviet Union. He returns to the Russian Empire of the 19th century with his idea that there is a common “Russian” nation encompassing “big Russians”, “little Russians” (Ukrainians) and “white Russians” (Belarusians). It is an illusion, in which he lives. It is a criminal delusion that drives him to declare war on Ukraine and to send missiles and airstrikes on cities like Kharkiv, where Russian is spoken more than any other language.
Unlike today’s Russians, Ukrainians have no nostalgia. The past is mostly a painful experience for us, which is why we don’t look back to a golden age. You can’t win elections with a slogan like “Make Ukraine Great Again”. “Again” is a big word for us: when we use it, it’s often to say “never again” about crimes of the past. We look more to the future than to the past.
Ukraine’s recent history is a story of values of dignity moving eastward. Dignity, a Roman word referring to the inalienable qualities of the upper classes, has gradually evolved throughout the Western world to encompass fundamental rights and freedoms. Today’s Ukraine is a country where the values of dignity for all are rooted. This causes horror in today’s Russia, which wants to restore authoritarian values, and where the only worthy person is the tsar or the dictator.
Our sense of Ukrainian identity has taken on greater intensity in recent years. Russian aggression since 2014 has helped solidify it among people who might previously have felt close to Russian culture or the Russian information space. Mr. Putin’s invasion will accelerate this process. When the Russians bomb residential buildings and destroy the central square of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, each shot diminishes the number of those who have sympathy for Russia. People who felt they belonged to the Russian cultural space ten years ago now feel a strong Ukrainian identity. They can speak Russian or attend the Russian-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church. But they are Ukrainians. Russia has lost the battle for their hearts and minds.
Finally, Ukrainians increasingly want to be with Europe. Some 86% support EU membership and 76% support NATO membership. Unlike Russians, many of whom see the West as their enemy, Ukrainians feel predominantly European and want to be part of the West. As the tanks swoop down on them, they bring new energy to European values and show incredible courage in defending them.
This remarkable transformation is not just a transformation of Ukrainian identity. It is the extension of European values towards the East. This is the story of the strength of the European idea, from which today’s Europe sometimes shirks. It is a story of European humanism, rooted in the philosophy of ancient Greece, through Roman republicanism, to the Italian city-republics, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the anti-Nazi resistance. By their resistance to Mr. Putin’s empire, the Ukrainians are showing that this humanist tradition has the strength, the energy and the courage to defend itself. ■
Volodymyr Yermolenko is a philosopher and editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, an English-language media.