When discussing the specific characteristics of some group of people, it is problematic to avoid the question of identity. However, in recent decades so many social and cultural events and processes have been defined, described, and explained with and through this term that its meaning has lost its former certainty. It is often necessary to clarify what exactly this or that author means when he or she uses the word “identity,” and what meaning does it carry. In general, there is a problem typical of social disciplines, which many terms born in a narrow circle of social theorists could not avoid, but which is widely used in public discourse with some unexpected shades of meaning. Among many examples is the term “legitimate,” which in Ukraine has become an ironic reference to Viktor Yanukovych, who once called himself by that word during Euromaidan protests.
The situation with identity is much more complicated, since the term has, among other things, pushed ideological issues and the discussion of the meanings and values of social life to the periphery. Like the term of “mentality,” which was widely discussed in the 1990s and 2000s, it has become a universal category, a kind of universal explanans. The discussion of national identity today has also significantly transformed national-democratic discourse, which has long been preoccupied with the search for a national idea. In contrast to the latter, national identity is still a universally recognized and relatively comprehensible term, although enthusiasm for it has now noticeably waned.
The experience of “identity’s” use in Ukraine is largely related to the processes of state-building and the formation of a new vocabulary of self-description by a new society. Therefore, in such case we mainly talk about national identity and the affirmation of the socio-cultural identity of Ukrainians who associate themselves with it. A particular emphasis is usually placed on distinctive features that contrast Us to the identity of representatives of other ethnic groups, primarily Russians. However, in this particular case it is difficult to avoid the discursive trap, somewhat ornately defined by Jonathan Friedman as some “translation of the identification of specificity into the specification of identity” . In other words, it is that by emphasizing differences from the Other, we tend to think of these differences as Our defining characteristics, even though they are relevant primarily in the act of comparison, not understanding of ourselves. At the same time, other characteristics that often point to similarities with this Other and that are defining characteristics for Us as well, go unnoticed.
The problem is not only that by fostering cultural differences, we risk a renewed internal political split on a number of grounds (language, collective memory, confessional affiliation, etc.), which has already costed Ukrainians dearly. The fact is that support for the Ukrainian language, changes in confessional jurisdictions, and the celebration of Stepan Bandera are perfectly compatible with corruption, embezzlement, and disregard for the rule of law. And it is this fact that is fundamentally important to our partners, especially in the West. Our national identity is not only what we think of ourselves, but also how we are perceived by others. And the difficulty is that for others some neglected our features seem to be more important. That is why our differences from Russians sometimes pale against the background of our similarities with them. Undoubtedly, a pro-Russian course in Ukraine today seems unlikely, and voluntary association of the two countries is simply unrealistic. — But what is going on with Ukraine’s rapprochement with Europe? How important for EU member-nations are our differences from Russia, when our similarities with Russia are so visible? In our relations with the West, we find ourselves in a somewhat intermediate position—we are no longer part of the “Russian world,” but we have not yet learned to live by different, Western rules.
1. Friedman J. (1994) Cultural Identity and Global Process. SAGE Publications Ltd, p. 208.
The design uses an element of a painting by A. Roitburd from the series «If there’s no water in the tap…» (2015; source: PinchukArtCenter).