Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is, among other things, one of the world’s most gifted storytellers. And I mean that in the best sense.
Coming from a Jewish family and speaking Russian as his first language, he knows as well as anybody that Ukrainian-ness is a fraught identity, and a work in progress. But the same is true of other nationalities too — all others, as I’ll argue in this essay. National character, it turns out, ultimately rests neither on ethnicity nor on language, but on narrative. Zelenskiy understands that.
As Zelenskiy sees it, Vladimir Putin’s genocidal attack on Ukraine actually accelerated the process of Ukrainian nation-building. This outcome is, of course, the exact opposite of what the Russian president had in mind. In Putin’s narrative, Ukraine isn’t a nation at all, just a borderland (the etymological origin of the word “Ukraine”) of Greater Russia whose denizens became confused about their identity.
The powerful story Zelenskiy and Ukrainians have converged on instead is one of national rebirth.
In this telling, Ukrainians suffered for centuries inside of other people’s empires — Polish-Lithuanian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Soviet. At times — as during Stalin’s policy of deliberate mass starvation, the Holodomor — they even came close to extinction. In 1991, they reemerged as an independent state. But they weren’t yet fully formed as a nation.
The gestation that followed was a progressive emancipation. This was at once an incremental liberation from the Kremlin, an embrace of the democratic West and the European Union, and an assertion of Ukrainian uniqueness. Thus Ukrainians spontaneously rose up to kick out a corrupt Moscow-sponsored thug, Viktor Yanukovych, in the Orange Revolution of 2004, then again almost a decade later in the pro-EU Euromaidan uprising, which became known as the Revolution of Dignity.
That upheaval provoked Putin into his annexation of Crimea and infiltration of the Donbas in 2014, and last year made him attack the whole of Ukraine, including Zelenskiy personally. But the Ukrainian president didn’t flee. He was “tut” — here — as he said nine times in the first of his many inspirational video messages following the invasion. And Ukrainians were tut with him.
“We all changed,” Zelenskiy told his compatriots on their Independence Day in 2022, on day 182 of the war. Each of us “was born again. As a person, individual, citizen, patriot, simply as a Ukrainian.” From ancient roots in Kyivan Rus, a new nation had emerged on Feb. 24, 2022 at 4 a.m., Zelenskiy said: “Not born, but reborn.”
Such narratives of rebirth, often in the context of wars of independence, are one archetype of nation-building. As in other former colonies, from Africa to Asia and South America, they echo a Biblical pattern: Once upon a time we — our forebears — lived in a pristine state of communal purity and bliss. Then we lost our innocence, either to foreign conquerors, internal sin or both. But eventually we regained our boon, and that redemption affirmed us as the nation we are.
This rebirth trope can take other forms. Post-war West Germany settled on an atonement narrative. We Germans, this storyline went, committed the worst evils in history during the Holocaust. But then we accepted our guilt and built a new identity on being democratic, tolerant, peaceful, neighborly. This became official when, on the 40th anniversary of Germany’s defeat in World War II, its then-president — Richard von Weizsaecker, who had once defended his own father at the Nuremberg Trials — redefined that “zero hour” of German collapse as “a day of liberation.”
There are other types of national narratives too, and sometimes they compete. When unresolved, those can undermine rather than reinforce national identity and coherence.
The dominant version of American exceptionalism, for example, has long referred in one form or another to the image of a Shining City on a Hill, as Ronald Reagan put it in 1980. He picked up the phrase from John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, who had in turn taken it from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This emphasized America’s predestined and perennial ascension toward virtue and liberty.
This storyline, though, had important counternarratives. They included the memories of exclusion and genocide suffered by Native American tribes, and Black recollections of slavery and Jim Crow.
This latter narrative became the basis of the 1619 project. Named after the year in which the first ship carrying African slaves arrived in Virginia (one year before the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower), it in effect inverts America’s autobiography. Instead of a paean to freedom that contains a footnote to racism, it becomes an indictment of enslavement and discrimination with a subplot of liberty for one group.
Predictably, this account threatens the self-image of many Americans — the 1619 project provoked its own rebuttal in the 1776 Report, commissioned by former president Donald Trump.
At a time when many Americans worry about polarization and even another civil war, it’s worth remembering that national narratives can divide countries as well as unite them. In this singular sense, American nationhood currently appears more vulnerable than the Ukrainian kind.
The concept of nationhood is so recent in human history — dating back just about two centuries, and taking over the globe only since World War II — that it has long fascinated and flummoxed scholars.
One enigma is how nations invariably view themselves as ancient when in fact most are young. Another is how notions of nationality are universal — everybody is assumed to have at least one — even though each nation thinks it’s unique and exceptional. A third is the contradiction between the philosophical vacuity of nationalism and its awesome psychological power. Hardly anybody volunteers to perish for Marxism or Liberalism; many people die for their country.
Already in 1882, the French historian Ernest Renan rebuked notions that nations are based on a common racial heritage — after all, you can be American, French or Brazilian whether you’re white, Black or brown. He also ruled out language as the crucial factor — otherwise the Swiss, with their four official tongues, couldn’t form a single nation, while all the world’s English speakers would have to inhabit one and the same.
The core of nationhood, Renan argued, is rather a collective project of selective forgetting and remembering. A group of people looks at the past and cherry-picks certain events, traumas, heroes, martyrs, grievances and victories. Out of that selection, the nation spins a yarn that makes all members — rich or poor, noble or lowly — believe they have something important in common.
In that sense, Renan said, nationhood is not based on “history,” as a scholar would practice it, but on “story,” as Homer or the Bible might tell it. Because those two concepts, history and story, have the same word in many languages — including Russian, Ukrainian and German — that can cause confusion.
So the scholarly consensus is that nationalism pretends to be about the past and heritage, while actually being about the future and destiny. And storytelling connects the two. As the historian Benedict Anderson famously put it in 1983, nations are “imagined communities” — of millions of people who’ve never met one another and never will, but who nonetheless choose to face the world together, owing to the way they narrate it.
Precisely because national storylines are so powerful, it matters hugely whether they are — for lack of a better word — healthy or unhealthy.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia (a state with weak narratives), its various communities went their separate ways, armed with new stories. Some chose to “remember” traumas and humiliations from centuries earlier to justify hatred in their own time. Leaders like Slobodan Milosevic harped on the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which Ottoman Muslims vanquished Serbian forces. Milosevic used that narrative to seek “vengeance” — that is, to commit atrocities — against Kosovar Albanians and others.
China has its own variant of a revenge narrative, in which scholars espy a problematic mixture of inferiority and superiority complexes. It’s called the Century of Humiliation, and refers to the period between the First Opium War and the Maoist Revolution, when Britain and other Western powers corrupted and disgraced the Middle Kingdom.
Generations of Chinese school children have been raised on the belief that the West forever means to bully and oppress China. By convenient extension, only the Chinese Communist Party can — and therefore must — stand up for the nation’s honor and restore China to its rightful primacy in world affairs. This epic Chinese grudge plays a large part in today’s tensions, from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea and beyond.
But the most dangerous national narrative of our time is Russia’s, as used and abused by Putin. I’ve been corresponding about it with James Wertsch, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who’s studied this mental universe for decades. According to Wertsch, specific Russian stories about the world are variations on an ingrained narrative template he calls the “Expulsion of Alien Enemies.”
In Act I of this template, Russians and their culture are pristine, pure and innocent but come under attack from malign foreign forces. These might be Teutonic Knights, Mongols, Poles, Swedes, Turks, Napoleon, Hitler, NATO, LGBTQ+ communities, liberals or what have you.
So the alien threat can be military but also spiritual. As the Soviet Union lay in its death throes, Russian intellectuals reinterpreted Marxism as a nefarious Western import that had to be rejected and expunged. Similarly, thinkers who’ve influenced Putin regard Western materialism, sexual liberation, secularism and democracy as corrupt, un-Russian and indeed downright Satanic.
In Act II, Russians heroically fight back and, at huge cost and sacrifice, prevail against the foreign evils. The greatest specific storyline in this template is of course what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
To Putin, World War II didn’t start in September 1939 with the joint attack on Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — mentions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are suppressed in Russia as heretic. Instead, it began on June 22, 1941, with Hitler’s attack on the USSR.
So the narrative barely mentions Pearl Harbor or D-Day, but dwells on the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin, according to Wertsch. If the celebrations of Soviet victory every May 9 only extolled the heroism of the Red Army and included the many Ukrainians, Balts and others who fought in it, that would be healthy remembrance. But Putin has turned the occasion into something ominous — at once jingoistic and quasi-religious. To Russia’s neighbors, it feels menacing.
In the process, Putin and his propaganda apparatus wantonly invert history and reality. In Putin’s telling, the Red Army didn’t occupy Eastern Europe but liberated it. Balts, Poles and others beg to differ. In Putin’s story, moreover, Russians fought fascism once and are destined to fight it forever, so that anybody he considers an enemy — Ukraine, NATO, the US, even the Jewish Zelenskiy — must also be fascist. To Ukrainians and much of the world, of course, Putin is the one waging wars of aggression and genocide — meaning he’s the fascist.
Putin wants Russians to keep seeing him, as in that classic story template, as expelling alien enemies from Greater Russia. But to Russia’s neighbors, from the Caucasus to the Baltic, Moldova and of course Ukraine, Putin himself is the Alien Enemy Who Must Be Expelled.
Such is the power of narrative. What some observers might dismiss as a victimhood complex or paranoia, others may well deem incontrovertible truth. So it is with many stories. The result is what Wertsch calls a “mnemonic standoff” — a confrontation of competing realities. Especially when the opposing sides have nukes, that can get scary.
In writing about nationalism and narrative, I may sound like an atheist talking about religion. If you happen to be a nationalist, in whatever country, you’re likely to be offended. You’ll probably find other peoples’ stories interesting, if weird. But your own is, as you’ve heard since kindergarten, simply true. So you won’t like my suggestion that there’s an arbitrariness to storytelling, and therefore to nations.
You’ve got to wonder, though. Why is Belgium still a country, whereas Czechoslovakia no longer is? We can explain, or rationalize, in retrospect why, say, Sudan and South Sudan were destined to split, or Pakistan and Bangladesh, or indeed both of the latter two and India. But we can’t predict the storylines and nations of the future. Will the European Union one day have a master narrative as compelling as those of its member states? If so, will it become the United States of Europe? Could Palestinians and Israelis one day form a nation as warring Franks, Saxons and Swabians did from 911 when they founded the first Kingdom of Germany?
I’m not making the case against narratives per se. Storytelling, as science has now accepted, is the only way human brains can make sense of a confusing world — both in their own lives and in those of their nations. Narrative, in short, is inevitable.
My plea is rather to strive for healthy stories and to reject unhealthy ones. The latter genre includes populist fare that’s simplistic and meant to stoke resentment. Stories in the healthy category are complex, open-ended and inclusive, and positive in exhorting people to become better.
The story Zelenskiy and Ukrainians are telling is of that healthy and positive kind. It is defiant in the face of an enemy and uplifting in that it prophesies ultimate victory. But Zelenskiy goes beyond the mere negation of Putinism. In his story, the Ukrainian nation must use victory to clean up corruption at home, to rebuild, to become the open society at the heart of Europe that it aspires to be — and in that sense, a Shining City on a Hill. Amen to that. And Slava Ukraini.