Twenty-five years ago, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, adopting an Act which established it as a separate state. Since then, August 24th has been celebrated in Ukraine as Independence Day, marking a significant event in the political life of the country.
In light of the 25-year anniversary, several students from this year's Harvard Ukrainian Summer School class have offered their reflections on what the commemoration means, how Ukraine has changed, and where it's heading.
It is clear now that Ukraine did not become independent in 1991. With the old Communist elites still in power even today, having worked all this time to dismantle the country, we are now more than ever politically and economically dependent on Russia.
If there has been a positive change during these twenty-five years, it is the Ukrainianization of our school curricula. Born after 1991, I learned the Ukrainian language that my parents, having been schooled in Soviet Eastern Ukraine, did not even have the opportunity to learn. I read Ukrainian literature that they merely skimmed. I also learned a revisionist history of Ukraine that differs strikingly from the Soviet narrative in which they were schooled. I discovered that Kharkiv played a prominent role in Ukrainian nationalism; that Left-Bank Cossacks, essentially, invented Ukraine. My schooling has thus allowed me to discover the Ukrainian past of my home region, Eastern Ukraine, that underwent heavy Russification processes for three hundred years. This, in turn, has helped me to stay on guard against the Russian propaganda machine.
Of course, our history and literature curricula are far from perfect, as my classes at HUSI have shown me. Post-independence history has also been Marxist in its methods, in its belief in a historical teleology leading to independence, proceeding from the idea that Ukraine has always existed and needed to be redeemed. However, by exposing the heavily ideologized Soviet version of Ukraine’s past and present, these curricula have at least revealed the complexity of our country’s history and literature. My Ukrainian history teacher has always emphasized historical complexity. Thanks to her, in my mind, Mazepa and Bandera became complex personalities that cannot be easily draped in patriotic colors. In addition, independence has allowed us to shed light on certain indisputable facts like the Holodomor and Stalin’s purges. We have at least uncovered some truths, even though it will take some time to put these truths in a more objective, de-ideoligized perspective.
In sum, independece has just started undoing the Russification processes that lasted for three hundred years in Eastern Ukraine, and slightly less, in the rest of the country. Although we have far to go to improve the humanities, to de-mythologize Ukraine’s past, the achievements of the past twenty-five years have started making a change in people’s mindset. There were Russian speakers on the Maidan; Kharkiv is still Ukrainian. In 1921, Ukrainianization produced a class of Ukrainian Nationalists who worked, ever since, to dismantle the Soviet regime from within. Seventy years later, a new wave of Ukrainianization embarked on a similar job, raising youth in a spirit of awareness about the past. And we, these young people, will continue the task of bringing Ukraine to its true, de-facto, independence.
Between the declaration of Ukraine’s independence and its commemoration today, I see contrasts. There is Ukraine's major achievement of sovereign independence in 1991, while in 2016 there is a continuing crisis of moral and intellectual failure in taking responsibility for the problems that come along with being independent. I am not sure Ukraine is taking responsibility for everything that has happened in Ukraine since 1991. The Ukrainian Government seems more interested in pointing fingers than solving problems. Ukrainian intellectuals seem focused on analyzing long-simmering historical reasons for Ukraine's current problems. Yet even during some of those historical times, Ukrainians were able to find a solution or two to ameliorate their situation with direct and independent actions that surprised the world.
Independent countries have always had problems. There are countless examples where the years after formal independence did not dissipate problems, but created more! But which of these countries continue to blame "former regimes" for their problems? Timor-Leste, for example, (which has been independent since 1999) is not endlessly blaming its past. Though still very dependent on aid and goodwill from its neighbor countries for its economy and security, Timor-Leste is forging ahead with its own vision of its future, and is not afraid to challenge even its friends for the needed space to exercise its economic and sovereign rights.
Unless Ukraine can wrest a full independence from thought-patterns and cultural behaviors rooted in its long legacy of victimhood, of blaming external forces, invaders, or non-Ukrainian troublemakers for its own problems, its formal independence will mean all the less. Ukrainian responses to ongoing issues that have simmered before, during, and after independence seem to get confused with an endless discussion of what or who is "Ukrainian enough,” coupled with a superficial ‘correction’ of language and vocabulary. Ukraine's language and culture have many irreversible borrowings from neighboring peoples. Its independent national character therefore must acknowledge these borrowings.
One challenge for Ukrainians is to accept responsibility for the kinds of politicians they elect to power. Their ability to do so will be based on whether they want to hear the same old excuses for Ukraine's problems played over and over again. The "next phase" of independence will start when the songs of past victimhood are no longer part of the popular political repertoire. The accumulated issues and problems that came with independence in 1991 will dissipate only once this happens. Defending one's independence against internal and external forces for 25 years is tiring. But other nations and peoples have done it. Ukraine must learn to acknowledge its problems and its responsibility to solve them. I think I see signs this is happening here and there...
This year, as it was last year, Independence Day is considered an important commemorative date in Ukraine. But it was not like that before the war with Russia started. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, August 24 was first and foremost an additional day off, and then a holiday for Ukrainians.
Ukrainians used to (and still do) go to the countryside on this day, to dig out potatoes on their small plots. That has been a widely shared practice for every family, especially in difficult 1990s. In Central Ukraine, where I am from, you would hardly hear any special greetings on Independence Day. People from my region did not gather for celebration. Instead, parents often went shopping with their children, because school starts the next week, on September 1. August 24 was treated as an official holiday, not a family one, so citizens used to spend it as any other day off, except perhaps for watching a parade on TV and (in some cities) fireworks in the evening. That is understandable; the date did not evoke any emotions in citizens, while the Soviet dates were indeed remembered and widely celebrated everywhere except in Western Ukraine.
This changed almost overnight after Russian invasion in Crimea. At the same time, the form of celebration has not transformed but remains Soviet. The government appropriates this holiday, using it as the tool for legitimation of its power. It holds prayers, military marches, and parades, where ordinary men take on the role of entourage. Like during any other state holiday, the authorities order employees of state institutions to participate in the parades or other activities, as do the schools. The central and local authorities also organize patriotic exhibitions and concerts, all to ensure the expression of patriotism and national belonging.
But as I said, after 2014 there have been slight changes on the part of civil society. Some Ukrainians voluntarily fly a national flag on the balcony of their apartment building, dress up in national Ukrainian shirts (which have become very fashionable), and raise a toast for Ukrainian independence. This year the majority of Ukrainians will celebrate and honor this date not as a part of must-be holiday, but as a part of their personal experience.