Plural Identity: Why Ukraine Is So Diverse

November 5, 2020

Ukraine is home to many ethnicities. Its identity is pluralistic, like a mosaic. Ukraine's citizens speak more than one language, namely Russian, Crimean Tatar, Karaim, Krymchak, Hebrew, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Belarusian, Slovak, Polish, and Greek.

Throughout history, other languages have been heard in Ukrainian lands. Among them are German, Yiddish, French, Polish, Latin, Lithuanian, Turkish, Serb.  But Ukrainian, as the state language, unites Ukraine's citizens. Almost 80% say it is a key element of Ukrainian statehood.

However, this diversity has another side. Ukrainian writer and lawyer Larysa Denysenko describes the difficulties of plurality in today's Ukraine in her essay "Majority as Minority" in Ukraine in Histories and Stories.

The problem is, Denysenko points out, that all key social, ethnic, linguistic groups in Ukraine, be it the Ukrainian speaking, the Russian speaking, or other parts of population, feel themselves as a minority, though often they are a majority.

Being bullied over your language, stigmatized for language - this is so simple, and so shameful

"Being bullied over your language, stigmatized for language - this is so simple, and so shameful," Denysenko says, adding that intolerance stems from the past traumas, the people's urge to protect their own language as "a key for self-identification."

Despite the legislation and the state policy, Ukrainians still have "to fight for the right to speak Ukrainian in private and public spaces, desperately searching for magazines in Ukrainian as well as for schools, kindergartens, environment, etc.," she says.

The humiliation of the Ukrainian language and culture, Denysenko emphasizes, is not always direct. It overlaps with messages that uplift a popular narrative of "how much greater the Russian language supposedly is." And such humiliations are as bad as those targeting Russian speakers in Ukraine. "Because the majority of us are able to understand a person who speaks Russian without translation. This should not be a reason to humiliate another person," she explains.

The bulk of xenophobic manifestations in contemporary Ukraine are caused by the fact that though Ukrainians became the majority, they still feel themselves a minority

"The bulk of xenophobic manifestations in contemporary Ukraine are caused by the fact that though Ukrainians became the majority, they still feel themselves a minority," Denysenko writes. The fact that the "majority is still made up of "Soviet people", or even people with inherited Soviet-ness" also explains why it can not ensure respect for the rights of any minority, she assumes.

Diversity of Ukrainian reality is an important asset, but it not always is free from problems and controversies.

This diversity is not only about language. Ukraine's religious identity is also pluralistic. All three monotheist faiths have deep roots here. Ukraine has important centres of Christian worship and culture. Many Ukrainian cities are home to rich Jewish cultural heritage, and Muslim culture is essential for the identity of Ukraine's Crimea, the homeland of Crimean Tatars. Even Ukrainian Christianity itself has several local denominations such as Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.

One can describe Ukraine's diverse identity as abundant; but also as incomplete and traumatized.

In his essay for Ukraine in Histories and Stories, Ukrainian writer Andrij Bondar focused on this specific "incompleteness" of Ukraine's history and present. It is a source of traumas but often a source of a hidden potential.

If you think of Ukraine as a metaphor, this will definitely be a metaphor of loss and lack.

"If you think of Ukraine as a metaphor, this will definitely be a metaphor of loss and lack. A loss of something/someone and a lack of something/someone; a loss in the past and thus a shortfall today, losses in the present caused by lacks in the past --- political, social, cultural, demographic, and economic," Bondar explains. The root of this, Bondar says, is that under various regimes that "have always been alien, imposed from above", the primary goal for Ukrainians "was to survive, to cling on to life". "A good government is the one that kills less", Ukrainians thought, and chose life." Bondar draws an assumption that this logic might be a reason why Ukrainians are torn between their identities and values that are linked both to the East and the West. This pluralism is hit with questions on self-identification, as the author highlights, "who are Ukrainians, and what do they want?", "who should be considered Ukrainian?".

"A good government is the one that kills less", Ukrainians thought, and chose life."

Although Ukrainians are often trying to explain their complexities digging deep into their history, analysing the dualism between Christianity and paganism, Bondar says any "search for [Ukrainian] losses and what [Ukrainians] lack will inevitably be distilled down to things that have no relation to "us" [Ukrainians] as we are today."

Bondar ends his essay, however, with a passage of optimism. Despite all that Ukrainians "lack", they do have something great to share, and to develop in the future. Bondar believes that Ukrainians possess a long list of valuable features. Among those are "a low level of aggression in society", "the ability to consolidate and unite efforts to attain a common goal", "religious tolerance and a generally highly tolerant society", "conflict-free bilinguality", and "a high level of openness to the world and willingness to conduct dialogue". All these traits, and more, have been key for Ukraine's ability to save its plurality and diversity against all historical turmoils. They also give hope for preserving this diversity by overcoming the traumas and growing respect for the rights of all national minorities in the future.

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