May 11, 2019

A post-nationalist Ukraine?


The people of Ukraine have spoken. By an overwhelming majority, they have rejected the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko, and elected Volodymyr Zelensky, an entertainer with no political experience and only the vaguest of programs. Their vote is widely understood as a protest against corruption, in which many, if not most, have themselves participated. They also seem to be emulating the politically advanced American people, voting for “change” without much regard for the kind of change, and looking to comedians for political wisdom.

Some see the result as a defeat for nationalism. Certainly it looks like a repudiation of the traditional type of nationalism based on ethnicity, language, history, culture and religion. That is the “old” nationalism of President Poroshenko – and most of our diaspora – parodied as a Kozak-whiskers-and-embroidered-shirts patriotism in one of Mr. Zelensky’s campaign videos. By contrast, Mr. Zelensky and his many youthful supporters are focused on cleaning up corruption, establishing the rule of law, and building a modern European state. All this is commendable, and necessary. But is it enough to sustain a nation?

In “What Does It Mean to be Ukrainian Today?” (April 17) journalist Bohdan Nahaylo contrasts Mr. Poroshenko’s old-fashioned nationalism with Mr. Zelensky’s promise of modern economic and administrative reforms. But isn’t this a false dichotomy? Must Ukraine choose between nationalism and a well-run state? 

Nationalism is generally defined as the notion that a state should be founded upon a nation, and that a nation’s identity involves not only a territory but a consciousness of language, custom and culture (see Roger Scruton, “A Dictionary of Political Thought,” s.v. “Nationalism”). We are not speaking, of course, of Nationalist ideology, which a radical fringe (or, if you prefer, a leading elite) of Western Ukrainian society adopted in the 1930s and pursued through violent means. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky condemned it at the time, contrasting it with Christian patriotism. Nor are we speaking of the aggressive kind of nationalism we see in today’s Russia, and which liberal commentators constantly criticize in Poland and Hungary. This kind of nationalism is commonly associated with authoritarianism, populism, racism and xenophobia, as well as economic autarchy. These are all aspects of “illiberalism,” opposed to globalism, free trade, porous borders and democracy. Since all are seen as connected with Russia, even politically conservative members of the Ukrainian diaspora find that they are “liberals despite themselves.”

One of Ukrainians’ staunchest friends, journalist Anne Applebaum, has strongly condemned contemporary East European nationalism (“A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come,” The Atlantic, October 2018). She laments the disintegration of Poland’s “Solidarity” consensus, criticizing the PiS party (Prawo i Sprawedliwość) which, like Hungary’s Fidesz, has allegedly brought corruption, social division, anti-Semitism – and Russian influence. But she understands that Ukrainian nationalism is a different matter. It is, after all, a bulwark against illiberal Russia. 

What we mean by nationalism, and what Mr. Poroshenko stood for, requires both a stable democratic state and a commitment to preserve the titular nation’s cultural heritage, including its language, historical consciousness and religion. Could Ukraine survive with just one of these two basic features? Let us imagine that Mr. Zelensky has succeeded in curbing corruption, streamlining the economy and upholding legality. Let us imagine that at the same time, he has neglected Ukraine’s national culture. The Ukrainian language has yielded to the global lingua franca of English, Ukrainian history and culture have been reduced to the stuff of theme restaurants and amusement parks, and religion has been relegated to private devotion. Would such a Ukraine resist the overtures of a transnational economic union, promising greater prosperity in return for reduced sovereignty and removal of all financial, cultural, media and propaganda barriers? Would such a Ukraine amount to much more than a geographical unit? And at that point, would anyone care whether the economic union was based in Brussels, Beijing, Moscow – or some combination of those? 

Yet Mr. Zelensky’s popularity with young Ukrainians suggests that nationalism does not interest them. Like much of Euro-Atlantic youth, they seem more concerned with personal freedom, affluence and an “open” society with as few legal or moral barriers as possible – than with preserving and protecting language, culture and religion in a sovereign state. They oppose Russia precisely because it represents traditional nationalism, backed by authoritarian rule and mobilized to recapture the patrimony of Kyivan Rus’. 

In the liberal understanding of global politics, Ukrainian nationalism is justified only so long as Russia threatens it. It has no independent reason for existing. Russian nationalism keeps Ukrainian nationalism alive. Most likely, both will endure for a while yet. But if liberalism succeeds in toppling the former, it may also crush the latter. 

As a liberal, Ms. Applebaum favors free-market competition and a fluid society open to talent over the rigid categories of conservative nationalism. But she admits in her conclusion that “the principles of competition, even when they encourage talent and create upward mobility, don’t necessarily answer deeper questions about national identity, or satisfy the human desire to belong to a moral community.” 

Can a post-nationalist liberal regime answer questions about “national identity” or nourish a “moral community”? Speaking about America, Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism,” would say no: “…liberal principles provide no resources for maintaining institutions such as the national state. …At this point, liberalism is widely accepted as a substitute for tradition, wisdom and empiricism – which is another way of saying that it has replaced competent reasoning as well.” (“Conservative Democracy,” “First Things,” January 2019, 19-22.) If this is true for America, it is probably true for Mr. Zelensky’s Ukraine.

Where, then, can Ukraine find the resources for a morally grounded modern nationalism? Delving into our cultural and religious past is only a start. We need to go back to the beginning, with Aristotle, seeking the purpose of the state itself. Meanwhile, as Ernest Gellner predicted over 35 years ago (“Nations and Nationalism,” 1983, pp. 118-22), nationalism will most likely endure. And so, of course, will Ukraine.