Every time I travel abroad and hear the question ‘Where are you from?’, I’m embarrassed and give an immediate and quick reply: Ukraine.
The unease I experience comes from the fact that there is an eternal conflict between my response and something deeply rooted inside me. I see this as the problem of finding my identity. And while trying to answer it each time, I realise that at the individual level, this issue goes much further.
I was born and raised in Galicia, which is a region in Central-Eastern Europe, also known as western Ukraine.
The history of this land is as beautiful and grandiose as are the buildings in Galician cities. From the establishment of monarchy, enjoyment of Magdeburg rights, autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, creation of Western-Ukrainian People’s Republic during WWI to massive armed and literary uprisings against the Austrian, Polish, Nazi, Soviet and contemporary Ukrainian governments.
Galicians were the first to present a political party to Ukrainians and the last ones to give in to the Soviets. The partisan war against the Soviets led by Galicians continued long after the end of WWII. At the same time, many Galicians chose expatriation in the 19th century because of extreme poverty. Also, a great number of prominent Galician intellectuals collaborated with the Nazi government and expected Hitler to support them in their struggles for the independence of Galicia. But as Hermann Hesse wrote, ‘History is as it has happened. Whether it was good, whether it would have been better not to have happened, whether we will or will not acknowledge that it has had “meaning” — all this is irrelevant.’
Galician history is as it has happened, but what matters is how it has shaped the identity, which comprises of norms, views and narratives, of people living there.
When I moved to Kyiv four years ago, it felt like I was abroad, for people around me were speaking a different language and held completely opposite views on culture, history, and their importance. Many of the words I used and traditions I celebrated were alien to my Kyiv peers. Yet the most striking thing was their negligence in response to my deep sympathy for Galician history and culture. They had been taught a completely different narrative and their views and norms had been shaped accordingly.
Dissimilarity doesn’t mean hostility. It means diversity.
When we as humans experience hardships, and when we cannot find our identity, the state causes enormous harm to its citizens, when there is a misalignment between power and identity. Since the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine hasn’t managed to elect a president and other officials which would have managed to satisfy the needs and expectations of different identities within its territories. Some presidents supported the west of Ukraine, while others backed the worldviews of the other parts.
One of the brightest examples to demonstrate this is the presidency of Victor Yanykovych. He had sympathies for the East but decided to take Ukraine to the European Union, in accordance with the opinion of pro-European Galicia. Later, when he discovered this decision was unpopular among the citizens of other regions, he changed his mind. He chose a pro-Russian path to development. This step is what caused the Maidan Revolution of 2014.
Now that I can say with all my heart and soul that ‘I am from Galicia, not from Ukraine’, I want to stress a short conclusion: it is as important to raise the question of identity in order to reconcile controversies within us as it is crucial to decentralize a country, containing any number of identities over its territory.