This text is based on a lecture given at the opening of the Ukrainian Free University discussion club in Odessa, February 16, 2011.
“Who are Ukrainians and what do they want?” is one of those great questions which, by its very nature, cannot have a single satisfactory answer. The worst thing to do with these questions is to try and find that answer. For example, a century ago the situation of peasants and Jews in Eastern Europe were precisely these kind of issues. Stalin tried to resolve the first issue by driving the peasants into collective farms, and Hitler unleashed the Holocaust as a final solution to the second. Both solutions were 'final' and resulted in the deaths of several million people. Yet the questions did not disappear, but took on different forms: in the first instance, the problem of land ownership after the fall of communism and, in the second, the difficulty of achieving peace in the Middle East.
Right from the start, we should agree that there is no single answer to our question. Several possible answers arise depending on who asks the question or answers it, as well as the setting, the audience and the speaker's aims. In this case, it would be more accurate to consider a range of possible answers. We find a negative answer at one end of the scale: there is no separate Ukrainian nation at all. It is a nefarious invention (a “conspiracy”) of the Poles, Jews, Germans, Soviet communists and, most recently, even the liberal West. And at the opposite end of the scale, we find that Ukrainians first emerged in the Trypillian era (4800-3000 BC), and were striving for independent statehood even then. Just like Ostap Vyshnia, one can only laugh at them, and I don't take either view seriously.
As sociological surveys show, most Ukrainians rarely choose one extreme or the other. Ukrainians gravitate toward answers between these polar opposites, and the majority chooses this answer. After all, we are who we choose to be. As the historian Ernest Renan puts it: “A nation is a daily referendum.” Using Renan's metaphor, we can check whether Ukrainians are a nation via the results of the December 1, 1991 referendum, which, asking whether voters supported the Declaration of Independence passed on August 24, 1991, lay the foundation for Ukraine as an independent state. Polls show that, if a similar vote had been carried out at any point over the last 20 years, the result would have been the same – albeit with different figures, lower than 1991.
Public support for Ukrainian independence, 1991-2008 (Percentage of adult population over 18)
Here is the first and approximate answer to our question: Ukrainians want independence. As surveys show, these Ukrainians make up the majority of the population in the majority of regions over time. In addition to the 1991 referendum, other evidence suggests that one's homeland is no laughing matter for Ukrainians. In 2005-2009, more than 75% of Ukrainians surveyed considered themselves patriots of Ukraine, 56% felt pride because they were Ukrainians, and 63% were even ready to fight for Ukraine if, God forbid, war should break out....