How did people imagine Ukraine before Feb. 24, 2022? If pressed, some might have conjured mail-order brides and shaven-head gangsters roaming one big post-Soviet Chernobyl. But most probably didn’t think even that; instead, they didn’t imagine Ukraine at all. The country popped up on most people’s radar only in connection to Western political scandals and Russian war making. Few Westerners visited it, and those who did might have concluded — as one Western journalist confessed to me recently — that “Ukraine was just like Russia but without all the crap.”
How do people imagine Ukrainians today? As brave fighters who are standing up to a bully, perhaps, defiant modern-day Cossacks in their colorful embroidered shirts, a bit wild but still safely European. Ukrainians are the ultimate underdog, righteous warriors winning an unequal battle. Pretty much everyone now knows two things about Ukrainians: that there are lots of them, some 40-odd million, and that they are nothing like the Russians.
These before and after images of Ukraine have more in common than we might think. They are both caricatures based not on knowledge of the country or the people who inhabit it but on mythology. In Ukraine’s case, this mythology is shaped in relation to Russia. Whether people think of Ukraine as just like Russia or nothing like Russia, many still don’t know what Ukraine really is. After centuries of imperialist repression and decades of Soviet subjugation, Ukraine has a profound story to tell about the meaning of freedom.
According to Vladimir Putin, Ukraine doesn’t exist. Before he started his murderous full-scale invasion, he repeatedly denied the country’s existence in pseudohistorical essays and speeches. He is just the latest in a long line of Kremlin rulers who have tried to deprive Ukrainians of their subjectivity. For a man so obsessed with history, he should have worked out that centuries of unsuccessful attempts to destroy the Ukrainian nation show that Ukraine very much exists.