Whence Nationalism Studies? Some Reflections on Russia’s War in Ukraine

Anti-war poster at the Embassy of Russia, náměstí Borise Němcova street, Prague. By Jiří Sedláček February 26, 2022
In the days and weeks following Russia’s February 2022 invasion and military occupation of Ukraine, scholars with expertise on the region weighed in on the ongoing crisis. Their meditations, insights, and professional experiences are collected here as the “Ukrainian Dispatches.”

 

On March 4 protesters gathered in cities across Europe in support of Ukraine. In Prague, they filled the entirety of Wenceslaus Square, one of the city’s largest public spaces and a traditional gathering spot for protests, including those that brought about the fall of Communism in 1989. Organized by Million Moments for Democracy, whose own mass protests and grassroots organization recently helped to unseat autocrat-to-be Andrej Babiš, as well as Stand with Ukraine and Pulse of Europe, the event began with a parade of speakers. I watched it later on YouTube. At 24:25 of the video recording, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined via Zoom. He spoke of those fighting for “our Ukraine, our Europe, your Europe.” He stilled the crowd, twice, as he called for moments of silence to remember those killed by the Russian army. “Vilnius, Frankfurt, Tblisi, Bratislava, Prague, Lyon, Paris all of you are Ukrainians today, and thank for you this,” he declared as he raised his fist with a stern smile, waited for the translator to provide the English translation. He then left the chair from a bare-boned office. The camera feed turned to the stage in Prague. Marie Bolechovska, a Ukrainian singer, sang a hymn to her country’s soldiers. The crowd went silent again; it was hard not to cry, alone, as I stared at my laptop between classes, thinking of so many people who had died and would die in the days to come.

From that moment on I knew that I would never write about nations and nationalism in Europe in the same way. I have never been to Ukraine, but I have spent the better part of my career studying nationalism and nation movements in the Habsburg monarchy and its successor states, as well as in East-Central Europe more broadly. The war in Ukraine presents a challenge to me and other Anglo-American scholars of nationalism in East-Central Europe. Given the remarkable ability of Ukrainian nationalism to mobilize behind a noble cause, and the prominence of Ukrainian flags on our Twitter handles, what will become of a field inherently skeptical of nations and nationalism? What are we to do now?

Following the horrors of WWII, emigre scholars from Prague—Hans Kohn, Karl Deutsch, and Ernest Gellner, to name just a few—and their colleagues laid the foundation for a field that understands the nation as “constructed” and “invented.” They portrayed nationalism, for the most part, as a defining phenomenon of our time rife with destructive potential. After the fall of Communism, I and so many historians of East-Central Europe built upon these traditions, focusing on “amphibianism,” “national indifference,” and other hopeful examples that spoke to the moment. Speaking for myself, I was thrilled to find examples of self-proclaimed “Czechs” who declared themselves to be “Germans” in a different context, and vice versa. I was horrified by the Yugoslav Wars and eager to believe that European Union accession would diminish nationalism’s attractive forces. Imagining a future without—or with much less—nationalism seemed necessary and possible.

Those days seem long ago now. The powerful draw of nationalism and national belonging has not faded. As Milada Vachudova writes, ethnopopulists throughout Europe have manipulated and repurposed national rhetoric for political gain, demonizing groups that are targeted as culturally harmful including Muslim refugees and cosmopolitan, pluralist Europeans.

Vladimir Putin is, tragically, drawing upon a well-worn nationalist playbook as part of his disinformation campaign. His amateur romp through Russian and Russian imperial history in his February 21 speech before the subsequent invasion diminished Ukrainian nationhood while justifying the occupation of the country. He has claimed, falsely, that he is protecting ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine from genocide—a claim that he began making shortly after the Maidan revolution in 2014. Drawing upon tropes from the Soviet era, as Juliane Fürst describes so well on this same weblog, Putin has declared the need to “de-Nazify” the country’s leadership and, by extension, the country itself. Russia’s attacks on civilian targets, summary executions, rape, and deportations in Ukraine recall twentieth-century European horrors that made the study of nationalism, for many scholars, imperative.

This is the kind of national rhetoric that I know all too well: exclusionist, violent, hateful. Yet this is only part of the story of nationalism. Looking back, from my first year of graduate school (1995) to the present, it’s striking how few of my colleagues in the Czech Republic shared our research agenda on nationalism. Instead, Kateřina Čapková, Petr Roubal, Radka Šustrová and Lubomíra Hédlová, Veronika Pehe, Michal Kopeček, and so many others have provoked public debates about their nation’s history, seeking to bring to light evils of the past while encouraging a productive dialogue in regard to Czech history. In this respect, they have been following in the tradition of the Czechoslovak dissidents who, lacking access to the archives, composed samizdat essays about the postwar expulsion of the country’s Germans and other spots left blank by official Communist history writing and school textbooks. By the 2000s, a generation equipped with new methodologies and concepts, European contacts, and access to archives challenged dominant national histories of World War II and, especially, the Communist era and the post-Communist eras, respectively. As in Poland and elsewhere, theirs has been a national project, and one that, it seems to me, played an active role in constructing and re-inventing the very concept of “the nation.”

In Ukraine, events on the ground have also encouraged a re-imagining of the nation and notions of national belonging. As Olga Onuch has recently written, popular mobilization has been a defining characteristic of Ukrainian nationalism, exemplified by the 2014 Euromaidan protests in which approximately a tenth of the country’s population took to the streets, albeit for a variety of reasons—including the horror of seeing police shoot peaceful protesters. Since then, polling done by Volodomyr Kulyk, Nadiia Bureiko and Teodor Lucian Moga, Lowell Barrington, Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme B. Robertson, and other social scientists in the region have found that, following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the persecution of war in the Donbass region, Ukrainians, regardless of whether they consider Ukrainian or Russian to be their first language, have rallied around notions of homeland, citizenship, and what might be called civic nationalism, rather than a sense of national belonging based on ethnicity. As Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel wrote just before the Russian invasion, time after time Putin’s decisions from 2014 to today vis-à-vis Ukraine have only served to strengthen Ukrainian national solidarity. Images from Ukraine, horrific and inspiring, as well as Zelenskyy’s masterful speeches to fellow Ukrainians, which typically end with a list of heroes, appear to have crystalized Ukrainian nationalism while creating memories that will live long in popular imagination and in school textbooks. This has become an imagined community, as Benedict Anderson famously pointed out, that people are willing to die for.

The post-World War II generation shifted historians’ and others’ relationship to nationalism. Before, historians constructed the nation. Their supporters in the English-language world, such as Hugh Seton-Watson, sought to elevate national histories for an audience that was woefully ignorant of the region and its history. After 1945, scholars, first drawing upon the tools of social history sought to “objectively,” and at a distance, study nationalism as a global phenomenon, often through a Eurocentric lens. My generation, and our immediate predecessors, have taken a more regional approach. We have studied various forms of national mobilization. Much of the focus has been on a surprisingly vibrant Habsburg civil society and the “hard work” of creating nations and nationhood. A skepticism of nationalists and their projects is typically just beneath the surface. So what now? Shall Anglo-American historians of the region continue to keep their distance? Does a skepticism of nationalism, and a fear of its destructive potential, still fit the moment? Is it even our place to be engaged, at all, in the construction and continued re-invention of other people’s nations?

I do not have the answers. I do know that nationalisms, including American nationalisms, typically require an enemy, especially at times of national mobilization. I know that many manifestations of nationalism, including some strands of Ukrainian nationalism, have ugly, violent tendencies. I know that there is a long history of Eastern Europeans fearing that their imagined nations might disappear from the map and that we must acknowledge the powerful emotions that nationalism can stoke within this fraught contexts. I know the nation is not going away. But I know, too, that Zelenskyy’s praise for the protesters in Prague was more than just a plea for aid, and the threat here, today, is not just to the nation but to its people. It was in praise of popular mobilization and civil society as well as a call for Europeans to imagine Ukraine as part of the European community of nations. It laid the groundwork for his criticism of Viktor Orbán just before the Hungarian elections in April. I know that we can do much more to amplify the voices of scholars from the region, such as Bozhena Kozakevych, Andrii Portnov, and Olena Palko, which should complement laudable efforts to support Ukrainian scholars in the years to come.

I do wonder if, similar to so many scholars based in the region, we might focus on imagining nations, including our own, in ways that reflect our values. We might adopt an ironic tone that acknowledges that nations aren’t going away, that every nation is a work-in-progress, and that there is much work for scholars with a conscience to do. There must be room for a synthesis of the pre-World War II historian-as-nationalist and the post-World War II historian-of-nationalism, even as we remain tethered to scholarly truthfulness. Imagination, again recalling Benedict Anderson, strikes me as the key word here. Imagination, what philosopher Richard Kearny calls the “power to convert absence into presence, actuality into possibility, what-is into something-other-than-it-is,” is not only crucial to nation-building but to the historian’s craft. Imagination is also precondition for the creation of a decent future. We might forge the tools necessary to imagine a nation that, while still bounded and largely defined by the nation-state, promotes inclusivity, civic responsibility, and a shared sense of belonging. How we do that, I don’t know, but the project seems worth imagining, even as we help Ukrainians and do everything possible to end Russia’s horrific war against Ukraine.

 

Chad Bryant is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Prague: Belonging and the Modern City.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for these important thought. This is not the first time that Eastern Europe has shown scholars the positive face of nationalism. It was Solidarity and Adam Michnik that drew me to study Rastern Europe almost 50 years ago, and yet now in Poland PiS is firmly entrenched. Speaking as someone whose intellectual interests took led me to study Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalism, the civic nationalism that has emerged there is heartening, but a Ukrainian victory that emerges with a new and understandable hatred of Russia could just as well take us down a road of enforced national uniformity. We will have to see, but it is nationalism’s Janus face that means it will provoke debate for a long long time.

  2. Thank you for this excellent and important essay Chad. It raises many critical questions for a lot of us and it helps us to approach them in an effective way. My own (preliminary) opinion is that these events don’t change my views of nationalism much, since I believe that its “qualities” or “dangers” are based on situational factors. I don’t think there’s an elusive “good nationalism,” especially because nationalism is oriented around ideas of managing differences, and these too change according to situations. Current Ukrainian nationalism as a valiant response to a brutally horrific invasion of one state by another has effectively rallied a society. I’m all for that. But I’m not for arguments (often heard outside Ukraine) about “clashes of civilization” or “Europe vs. Asia,” or that the defense of a sovereign state has to be justified by a “nation’s long-enough history of existence.” Many of these kinds of arguments are made specifically to counter the insane claims about history and nationhood made by Putin to justify an unjustifiable war. One has to recognise that situational necessity as well.

  3. Many thanks for both of these comments. Hugo, I share your fears, and I agree with Pieter that there is no resolutely “good” form of nationalism. (The reference to Hans Kohn and then the use of the term “civic nationalism” might have given a false impression.) I completely agree that nationalism is situational – another innovation that followed post-World War II social science approaches to the study of nationalism.Your reading of the discourse around the war is so very insightful, Pieter. My larger point is that our writing about nationalism as also situational, and that we have an ethical responsibility to think about how we participate in discourses about other people’s nationalisms. The nation is here to stay, no matter what we do and write. (And if by some miracle it did cease to exist, another way of organizing societies would arise.) So, as an American-born historian at a US-based institution, should I actively engage national discourses, destabilize them, or keep a scholarly distance from societies and cultures to which I will never belong? Or is the previous sentence a false dilemma?

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