Decolonisation in practice: reconceptualising Ukrainian nationalism

Ukrainians tend to be categorised reductively as either 'bad' ethno-nationalists or 'good' civic democrats. Lena Surzhko-Harned argues this simplistic division is harmful to Ukraine and its defence against the Russian empire, which is eager to manipulate, divide and conquer

We are now almost two years into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I am a scholar of Ukrainian politics and society, and during these past two years, I have read much academic discussion on decolonisation. This discussion, however, is failing to have a constructive impact on discourse about Ukraine’s nationalism and national identity.

The unhelpful dichotomy of ethnic versus civic

The idea that we can typologise nations neatly as either defined by shared ethnicity, language, and ancestry (ethnic nationalism) or by shared political identity and values (civic nationalism) is facing increased scrutiny. Yet observers frequently divide Ukrainians into these categories. I argue that such binary classifications are problematic – and potentially harmful.

The civic / ethnic dichotomy limits our understanding of – and fails to paint an accurate picture of – Ukrainian society and government policies, both before and after the full-scale 2022 invasion. Moreover, Russia can exploit these simplistic definitions to justify aggression, or to set unrealistic expectations.

There is much academic attention on 'decolonisation', but inadequate focus on Ukraine’s internal decolonisation processes, which we cannot usefully perceive through ethnic or civil lenses. If we view Ukraine’s nationalism as anti-colonial, however, we free our intellectual endeavours and analysis from unnecessary intellectual acrobatics and moralising about Ukraine's defensive policies. More importantly, we can better resist Russian propagandist narratives.

The framework of dichotomous civic / ethnic nationalism has served Russian propagandists well. There is a narrative that demonises ethno-romantic nationalism in Ukraine, based on the manipulated evidence of far-right actors, Neo-nazi groups and policies that supposedly oppress cultural and linguistic minorities. This narrative has found its way into the wider world. Russian officials portray Ukraine’s language policy, or its limitations on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, as casus belli evidence of Kyiv’s 'Nazism'.

Even in wartime, Ukrainians exhibit overwhelming support for democracy. Yet, Ukraine is far from a tolerant, liberal, democratic utopia

A justifiable knee-jerk reaction to these blatant manipulations is to flip the narrative onto Ukraine’s inclusionary civic nationalism, which is more aligned with liberal democracy. Ukraine is multicultural and multidenominational. Even in wartime, Ukrainians exhibit overwhelming support for democracy. Yet, Ukraine is far from a tolerant, liberal, democratic utopia. Those who defend Ukraine’s policies from a civic nationalism perspective face a nigh-on impossible task: to justify seemingly illiberal policies, and reconcile them with the picture of Ukraine as a heterogeneous civic democracy.

We have reached a point when these ethnic and civic categories are superfluous.

Ukraine’s anti-colonial nationalism

Viewed through an anti-colonial nationalism lens, Ukraine's policies on language, church, and media make perfect sense. Anti-colonial nationalism has one aim: resisting the power that aims to conquer and subjugate. In this case, nationalism is a tool of resistance (see Frantz Fanon). Moreover, many policies aimed at decolonisation do not fall neatly into ethnic and civic categories.

Since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, Ukrainians have woken up to Russian neo-colonialism. This revolution was, in essence, a decolonisation catharsis. It cut across cleavages, and changed Ukraine’s post-soviet political landscape.

Emily Channell-Justice analysed perceptions of what it means to be Ukrainian among left- and right-wing activists. She observed, poignantly, that all of them wanted to preserve Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Activists demanded Ukraine's autonomy to make its own political choices, independent of Russia. Anti-colonial nationalism had taken broader political hold.

Russia's (neo)colonial activity is more than just military. Russia also uses its language, culture, and the Russian Orthodox Church as tools of colonial policy

Following Crimea's annexation, Russia embarked upon a hybrid war. Ukrainians were rudely awoken to brutal Russian (neo)imperialism, and to Ukrainian anti-colonial nationalism. This also meant recognising non-military tools of Russian aggression in Ukrainian society, some of which might appear benign to an outsider. For example, Russian language, culture, and the Russian Orthodox Church are as much tools of (neo)colonial policy as are the occupation of Crimea and parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, energy policy, military operations, forced passportisation and child abductions.

Yet, after 2014, academia missed an important opportunity to start a robust conversation about Ukraine's decolonisation. This has allowed outdated tropes of civic / ethnic divisions to persist. Google Scholar reveals over 28,000 searches between 2014 and 2023 for 'nationalism in Ukraine'. In the same period, there were 1,700 for 'civic nationalism', 5,000 for 'ethnic nationalism' but only 264 for 'anti-colonial nationalism'. Of course, this is far from a thorough analysis. However, we can, and must, do better.

Putting decolonisation into practice

Ukraine, as a postcolonial society – even post-2014 – remains vulnerable to increasing pressure from the Russian Federation. Ukraine has embraced democratic principles and set its course towards European integration. Yet, the requirement for openness and a failure to heed the genuine (neo)colonial threat left Ukraine vulnerable to Russian Trojan horses. The persistence of dichotomous ethnic / civic tropes also meant that any expression of Ukrainian nationalism tended to be misunderstood as the 'bad' ethnic type.

The persistence of dichotomous ethnic / civic tropes means that any expression of Ukrainian nationalism tends to be misunderstood as the 'bad' ethnic type

In Ukraine, domestic decolonisation processes are unfolding at great speed. Zelenskiy’s electoral campaign, for example, focused on economics and modernisation, not nationalism. Now, his Ukrainian language skills, nearly nonexistent before 2019, are beyond reproach. Kyiv has banned pro-Russian TV channels and political parties, and placed restrictions on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. These are vivid examples of anti-colonial nationalist policy at work. Recently, a socially conservative, formerly openly pro-Russian Ukrainian MP announced his support for legislation approving same-sex unions because 'it will make Ukraine different from Russia'. This is anti-colonial nationalism in action.

Truly accepting Ukraine as a country of anti-colonial nationalism means putting decolonisation into practice. Ukrainian society is already there. Now the rest of us need to get on board.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Lena Surzhko-Harned
Lena Surzhko-Harned
Associate Teaching Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Public Policy Initiative at Penn State University, Behrend College

Lena is an author of publications dealing with issues of nationalism, identity politics, trade policy, European integration, electoral politics, comparative democratisation, and mass political behaviour in Eastern Europe.

Post-Soviet Legacies and Conflicting Values in Europe Generation Why LENA SURZHKO-HARNED AND EKATERINA TURKINA

Her 2017 book with Ekaterina Turkina, Post-Soviet Legacies and Conflicting Values in Europe: Generation WhY, examines the within (generational) and between societal conflicts in cultural values influenced by European integration, and lingering soviet legacies in modern Russia and Ukraine.

Lena's current research projects focus on the ideology of Russki Mir and its influence on Russian policy in Ukraine, dynamics of decolonisation in Ukrainian politics and society, politics and religion in Ukraine and Russia, and nationalism and identity in Ukrainian society, particularly among self-described Russian-speakers.


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2 comments on “Decolonisation in practice: reconceptualising Ukrainian nationalism”

  1. That's not anti-colonial nationalism; it's simply nationalism. If it were a genuine anti-colonial movement, Russian-speaking Ukrainians wouldn't be afraid to speak Russian in public. Such a movement would liberate people from the notion that Russian is exclusively Russia's, suggesting instead that it could also be Ukrainian. Stifling oppositional parties and media does not represent anti-colonial nationalism; it's just authoritarianism, which should not be acceptable in any European democracy.

  2. MC's comment ignores the long history of state-sponsored Russianisation in the territories that comprise present-day Ukraine. During the course of the 19th century, the use of Russian as the exclusive language of higher education and officialdom gradually turned the cities of eastern Ukraine into Russian-speaking islands surrounded by a sea of Ukrainian-speaking villages. For the most part, the present Ukrainian language policy is one of decolonialisation, of reversing the Russification of previous centuries.
    But there are ethno-linguistic minorities in Ukraine whose ancestors never spoke Ukrainian: principally the ethnic Russian settlers of the eastern Donbas, and the ethnic Hungarians whose ancestors found themselves living in the Soviet Union as a result of the First World War. More sensitive handling of linguistic minorities might have served Ukraine better, but there are abundant precedents for language policy as a tool of nation-building (not least in France!)

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