Ukraine’s birth as a nation in 1991 out of the ruins of the Soviet Union came as a “great surprise,” according to a prescient book that identified the forces now threatening to pull the country apart.
There were “very real reasons why Ukraine was then considered to be an unlikely candidate as a new nation, given its pronounced pattern of ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional diversity,” wrote Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The first edition of The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation was published in 2000 and the most recent in 2009.
With Russia claiming Crimea as its own and putting pressure on Ukraine’s eastern provinces, the question of “what is Ukraine?” looms large. Wilson introduces readers to Stepan Rudnytskyi (1877-1937), a Ukrainian geographer who attempted to answer that question before the Ukrainian people had a nation to call their own.
Rudnytskyi offered both an ethnographic definition of Ukraine and a geographic one. He acknowledged that Ukraine “does not have good natural borders in the west, southeast, and east,” but he added: “As the northern littoral country of the Black Sea it has important features of integrity.”
Sadly for modern-day Ukraine, it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a follower of Rudnytskyi. Wilson wrote in his preface that “nationalists tend to see their nation as eternal,” noting that “one should never prejudge.” But he was careful to assert that Ukraine’s unlikeliness shouldn’t count against it: “An unexpected nation,” he wrote, “is still a nation—no more and no less than many others.”