To be Ukrainian

When the ethnic fashion first caught on in Eastern Europe, the Russian tsar was able to keep a pretty good lid on it in his vast and ethnically fragmented Empire. In Ukraine, slowly the Ukrainian language and other uniquely Ukranian traditions started to be recognized and studied, for example in the University of Kiev, where a Ukrainian society was formed. However, the language of the university and of government remained Russian.

Througout Europe, but mostly in Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution changed people’s lives dramatically in the 19th century. This triggered the Romantic era, in which artists and writers wanted to go back to a simpler time. It also sparked interest in folklore, and through it, ethnicity.┬áThis caught on in Eastern Europe, partially for political reasons.

The large empires slowly started to loose their grip on power and the lives of their subjects. It was the Ottoman Empire in Europe that started to crumble first, the Austro-Hungarian Empire followed at the beginning of WW1, and towards the end of that destructive conflict the Russian Empire experienced its famous revolution.

As we’ve seen before, it was quite difficult to determine what it meant, exactly, to be Ukrainian. The earliest history of the country doubles as the earliest history of the Russian Empire, its language is a not very distant relation of Russian and the elites had Russified, because that had been good for their careers. For the same reason, Ukraine’s most famous authors (like Gogol) wrote in Russian.

It was among the peasantry that Ukrainian language and tradition were strongest, but in the beginning of the Ukrainian ethnic movement the uneducated peasant classes were largely ignored by the leaders of the movement. In the rest of Europe the ethnic movement quickly turned into nationalism, sparking a war in the Balkans even before the beginning of WW1. In Ukraine, the nationalist movement gained momentum as well. After a first stab at liberalism and representation for Ukrainians, the tsar got scared of these growing movements and put a stop to it, by repressing it quite violently. For the time being, Ukrainian nationalism was safest when practiced far outside the realm of politics, sticking with literature, folk songs, and other seemingly innocent things a nation does.

The picture is by George Pankewytch of a Ukrainian easter egg or pysanka.

This post is part of a series about the history of Ukraine.

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