Lysiak Rudnytsky’s prescience: Ukraine’s political turbulence and trauma of a “non-historical” nation

If we look at the past three decades in the history of Eastern Europe, Ukraine may safely be placed at the top of the chart of “unstable” states. First was the student-led Revolution on Granite in the 1990s. The outcome of that revolution was a resignation of entrenched high-ranked Soviet officials under the pressure of public opinion. Then, if we skip the 1999 anti-Kuchma protests, the next big upheaval was the Orange Revolution in 2003–04. It led to a rerun of the presidential election and eventual reboot of the government. Finally, the massive and blood-soaked EuroMaidan, or Revolution of Dignity, happened in 2013–14—which, once again, led to a drastic change in Ukraine’s ruling elites. All three revolutions were of unprecedented regional magnitude and became a factor in the foreign policy of the EU, Russia, and US.

Remarkably, these developments were anticipated in the 1960s by a Ukrainian historian, Professor Ivan Lysiak Rudnytsky. He portrayed the forthcoming waves of political nonconformism as an outcome of the historical gaps in Ukrainian national awareness and statecraft. He defined Ukraine as a “non-historical” nation: “‘Nonhistoricity,’ in this meaning, does not necessarily imply that a given country is lacking a historical past, even a rich and distinguished past; it simply indicates a rupture in historical continuity through the loss of the traditional representative class.”

Reading Lysiak Rudnytsky’s article “The role of … Ukraine in modern history” today, one is struck by its relevance in explaining the processes occurring in contemporary Ukraine. It is hard to believe that the article appeared more than half a century ago.

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What is taking place in Ukraine today is an attempt to define and institutionalize numerous visions of justice and order that often collide. All three recent revolutions are related to the fact that people and elites-in-formation have been striving to develop an indigenous Ukrainian tradition of governance, but they do not understand clearly how to do it or what they are aiming for.

In other words, contemporary Ukraine is still undergoing the processes of formation of its national uniqueness and a feeling of state. These processes are painful, uneven, and chaotic. One reason for this is Moscow’s belief in its right to meddle into Ukrainian affairs along with Kyiv’s lack of ability—or even an unwillingness—to eliminate that meddling. Another reason is the divisive cultural heterogeneity of Ukrainian society, whose members have yet to learn the meaning of being a political nation. In the 1960s, Lysiak Rudnytskystated that “the central problem of modern Ukrainian history is that of the emergence of a nation: the transformation of an ethnic-linguistic community into a self-conscious political and cultural community.” This statement is relevant even today.

Cultural heterogeneity has always influenced Ukraine’s national identity and statecraft. Throughout history, Ukraine’s geographic location in the “corridor” between Europe and Asia naturally contributed to the decentralization of governance and to social diversity. In this light, Lysiak Rudnytsky emphasizes the varied political and economic experience acquired by different regions of Ukraine under the rule, at one time or another, of Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and Muscovy. He also points at the variable historical development of Ukraine’s different regions; for instance, the Black Sea steppes became populated only in the early eighteenth century, which made their political culture different from that of both Right-Bank (Polish-ruled) and Left-Bank (Russian-ruled) Ukraine. Finally, he highlights the connection—or relative absence—of the Ukrainian national elites to the common people, the collision of “nationalist” and “populist” political thinking, Cossack[1] liberties and the serfdom experience, and other diversifying factors. All of these had their own particular significant influence on the academic discussions of Ukraine during Lysiak Rudnytsky’s time in the 1960s. And as of today, they continue to underlie Ukraine’s lack of “feeling of state.”