Experiences of Trauma and the Forging of ‘Ukrainianess’

By Nicholas Cosentino


“The Bitter Memory of Childhood.” Statue at The Memorial in Commemoration of Famines’ Victims in Ukraine, Kyiv.

Ukraine, O my dear Ukraine,

My dearest!

When I think of you, my homeland,

My heart can only cry…

Whither all the Kozaks

Whither their red coats?

Whither our good fortune

And whither blessed freedom?

(Taras Shevchenko, “Night of Taras”)[1]

There is a good reason why Taras Shevchenko is the declared the national poet of Ukraine, and it has little do with his poetic ability, though one should not disregard him as inadequate or unskilled in this regard. The reason has much more to do with how Shevchenko’s poems speak to the experiences of Ukrainians beyond the scope of his own historical context. There is, then, something uniquely Ukrainian to be found in Shevchenko, something that unites all those who we may call Ukrainian in the modern sense to those who have been called Ukrainian in all previous senses. For the purposes of this essay we will call this unifying element ‘Ukrainianess,’ which one can more aptly define as that descriptive aspect of identity that binds all those within the modern borders of Ukraine.  If one utilizes Shevchenko’s poetics as the guide, the most prevalent aspect of this ‘Ukrainianess’ appears to be trauma, that is, “psychological or emotional injury caused by a deeply disturbing experience.”[2] Typifying this is the loss of unique status that Shevchenko so often laments in his poems, and the melancholic tone that underlies his words. As Shevchenko’s poems make clear, more than other modern indicators of identity, such as ethnicity or geography, trauma has played the constitutive role in the formulation of ‘Ukrainianess.’

Why Not Ethnicity or Geography?

In articulating how trauma, more than any other element, has had the most pervasive impact on the formulation of ‘Ukrainianess,’ it might be instructive to explain why these other elements fail to be as pervasive.

Beginning with ethnicity, one should remember Serhy Yekelchyk’s admonition that viewing modern Ukrainians through an ethnic lens poses two pitfalls:

First, by tracing the history of ethnic Ukrainians backward, one risks imposing the modern notion of national identity on a premodern population, which identified instead in religious, regional, or social terms. Second, more than 20 percent of Ukrainian citizens today are not ethnic Ukrainians but Russians, Jews, Poles, Belarusians, Crimean Tatars, and others who have lived for centuries in what is now Ukraine. [3]

Indeed, it would be a mistake to attempt any analysis of what unites Ukrainian identity based in such terms, for to focus only on ethnic Ukrainians would force one to appropriate conceptions of identity that have not been shared across time. The result would be an analysis that is too narrowly focused, and one largely devoid of historicity. Additionally, such analysis would require one to ignore, completely, sections of the current population of Ukraine and their contributions to ‘Ukrainianess.’ To appropriate Yekelchyk, “they, too, should have a place”[4] in such considerations.

Moving then to geography, one again finds that viewing modern Ukrainians in such terms proves too shortsighted and inauthentic, perhaps even more so than considerations based in ethnicity. The geographic borders of modern Ukraine are political constructs of the Soviet period. While one cannot ignore the significance that these boundaries have had on Ukrainian identity since 1954 (when Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and thus created the state of Ukraine existent today), they provide little in the way of explaining Ukrainian identity that existed prior to that moment. Yekelchyk, again, provides one with an admonition that attempting to understand modern Ukraine and Ukrainians based on a view of historically continuous borders “would [inevitably] make for a catalogue of separate pasts, rather than a coherent analysis of historical processes.”[5] Limiting an analysis to geographic borders, then, would bring one no closer to a unifying conception of what has spurned ‘Ukrainianess.’

What should be obvious from the preceding paragraphs is that elements such as ethnicity and geography fail to delimit a common Ukrainian identity, a ‘Ukrainianess,’ because they are inconsistent measures of experience; they fail to contain within them a unity of Ukrainian experiences. It is perhaps also important to highlight that under the same logic, experience as such cannot be utilized as an effective bridge of Ukrainian identity over its existence, because the experiences of those within current Ukrainian lands have differed over time. Therefore what is needed, in order to fully grasp the importance and ingrained nature of ‘Ukrainianess,’ is an explanation of what unifies these experiences. As will be explained in the next section, this unity is best explained by trauma.

Ukrainian Traumas

Trauma presents as a mental injury, having as its cause an especially unsettling experience. Any cursory examination of the history commonly termed Ukrainian will reveal a plethora of trauma-causing experiences, a few of which I will highlight here. It should be noted that the selection here is not exhaustive, but it should provide a general picture of the extensiveness of trauma to the experience of Ukrainians.

The earliest periods of settlement in what is now Ukraine included such experiences as the growth and expansion of the Kyivan Rus state in the 9th century (the first state entity established on modern Ukrainian land), the integration of the western lands into the Mongol empire beginning in the 13th century, and the integration of the eastern lands into Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and Moldavia in the same period. For its part, the southern lands were ruled by the khanate of the Crimean Tatars over this period, though they were ostensibly subservient to the larger Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Union of Lublin in 1569 between Poland and Lithuania creating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth further reorganized a region already by then well known for its changing political boundaries. The rights of those within current Ukrainian lands during this period were severely limited, being granted little more than serf status within larger political and ethnic state entities. [6]

This early period is also noteworthy for the growth and empowerment of the Cossacks, a uniquely Ukrainian social group that by the mid-17th century had consolidated into a potent social force. Their dissatisfaction with a “limited [social] register” and their ignored “recognition as a distinct social estate with guaranteed rights and freedoms” pushed them to revolt against the Commonwealth. Under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky the uprising Cossacks were able to establish their own “autonomous Ukrainian Cossack state,” or Hetmanate from the name of Cossack leaders (Hetman). This project would be short-lived, however, and the loss of this first Ukrainian state became the impetus for many of the poems by Taras Shevchenko, including the lengthy poem “Haidamaks,”[7] whose title is a reference to the uprisings of Cossacks that led to the establishment of the Hetmanate. Shevchenko was writing during a period when Ukrainian lands were parceled out once again, this time between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Empire. The content of his poems depicts events of triumph and glory, of fighting for and achieving freedom from oppression and control, but always within a mood of mourning that such times are long past. This mourning, this lamentation, showcases the trauma that befell many Ukrainians in the wake of their failed state experiment. One can make such estimations of the power and pervasiveness of Shevchenko’s words as indicative of the feelings of his contemporaries because, as Yekelchyk notes, “Many Ukrainian intellectuals considered Shevchenko the ‘father’ of the Ukrainian people”[8] and he became in many ways “the symbol of new Ukraine.”[9]

As a way of summation, while the revolt of Ukrainian peoples resulted in the achievement of a state that was uniquely Ukrainian, the tragedy of its failure and the subsequent splitting and absorption of Ukrainian peoples within larger state entities fostered in many a great sense of trauma. This trauma is most evident in the poems of Taras Shevchenko.

This sense of trauma would again arise during the Soviet period, in which the Ukrainian lands united under the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) in 1919 and absorbed into the burgeoning Soviet Union by 1921 underwent the horrific experiences of the Holodomor (1932-33) and the Chornobyl nuclear accident (1986).

Taking them in order, we will begin with the Holodomor. The Holodomor (terror-famine), otherwise known as the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933, has been characterized as a genocide, most notably by Norman Naimark in his Stalin’s Genocides. As Naimark contends, “There is a great deal of evidence of [Soviet] government connivance in the circumstances that brought on the shortage of grain and bad harvests in the first place and made it impossible for Ukrainians to find food for their survival,”[10] and thus concludes that the Holodomor was indeed a genocide. The Holodomor was essentially a period of forced, and violent, collective requisition of grain from the Soviet Union’s agricultural base in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) by the central Soviet authorities in Moscow. The quotas of grain demanded by the Soviet authorities exceeded the amount Ukrainian grain farmers were willing to hand over, owing largely to fears that little would be left to feed themselves and their families. The response of the Soviet authorities to such reluctance was severe, resulting in mass deportations and the deaths of between 3 and 3.5 million people within the Ukrainian SSR, according to estimates cited by Yekelchyk. The psychological impact of such a horrific experience would be felt by Ukrainians who lived through it even decades later. As Marfa Pavlivna Honcharuk, an eyewitness, stated in 1991, “In 1933 I was nine years old; I remember everything perfectly…We begged and begged our mother for something to eat,”[11] but their begging came to naught, and the starvation that ensued claimed the lives of many members of her family. The trauma that was caused by her experience, and the Holodomor in general, is encapsulated by the fact that despite the distance of decades she could not “forget how people suffered in 1933.”[12] Testimonials of other survivors express a similar message of extreme suffering and loss, and the traumatic psychological pain that has remained with them since their experience. Sadly for these survivors, the Holodomor would not be the last trauma-inducing event to befall them and their Ukrainian neighbors. The horrific experience of the reactor meltdown at the Chornobyl nuclear plant in1986 and its aftermath would once again tear at the psyches of Ukrainians.

On April 26, 1986 human error combined with faulty designs led to an explosion and the destruction of one of the reactors at Chornobyl. Though the blast was deadly in its own right, the true impact of the event would come in the form of radioactive material spewed into the atmosphere and spread across a wide geographic area within the Ukrainian SSR. As Yekelchyk describes it, “the ruined reactor discharged into the atmosphere a large cloud of radioactive dust containing ninety times the amount of radioactive products released during the bombing of Hiroshima.”[13] “2.4 million Ukrainians [currently] reside in regions that experienced some degree of radioactive contamination,”[14] Yekelchyk continues, emphasizing how widespread the incident truly was. The trauma induced by the Chornobyl meltdown was of a different kind than previous instances, but it was nonetheless pervasive and straining. Indicating its uniqueness in the history of traumatic events in Ukraine (and the world generally) Sarah Phillips highlighted in a 2011 article that “Chernobyl made conscious what has already been true for a long time: not just in the nuclear age, but with the industrial universalization of chemical poisons in the air, the water, and foodstuffs as well, our relation to reality has been fundamentally transformed.”[15] From this perspective, Ukrainians who suffered because of Chornobyl were faced with a truth of modernity that challenged their understanding of the world up to that point. Phillips also contends, “For some Chernobyl is an important (if not the) defining event of their lives,”[16] and that for these Ukrainians their lives have been split into “pre- and post-Chernobyl.”[17] For many others, Chornobyl provided the impetus for “Chernobyl-inspired poetry, literature, visual art, theater, film, and even the more recent gaming culture of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. generation.” Thus, even for those with no direct connection to the incident, Chornobyl carries meaning. And once again one can see the power of traumatic events in furthering Ukrainian identity.


As noted above, the list of historical experiences included here is by no means exhaustive. Important traumatic incidents and periods such as the immediate aftermath of the UPR’s integration into the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet 1990s have been elided here for reasons of space, but should not be considered any less important in the history of Ukrainian trauma. The list of events and periods that does appear here, however, showcases that the peoples of Ukrainian lands have suffered consistent traumatic incidents, spanning from the 17th through 20th centuries.  Under such circumstances one can see that the Ukrainian identity that has survived over these hundreds of years, ‘Ukrainianess,’ is one that was forged under an intense flame of psychological strain.

Ukraine today is a modern, diverse conglomeration of voices, evidenced by the images of Ukrainian protesters in Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary film Maidan (2014). Though these Ukrainians represent, at times, opposing views politically, socially, or economically, they gathered together to protest Russian aggression. What united them in one voice was not simply a common dislike for Russia, though, as protests occurred even in areas of Ukraine largely Russian-leaning; what truly united them was their common ‘Ukrainianess.’ Understanding how this sense of identity came into existence, and what has spurned its continuation over centuries, is essential to grasping the gravity of the protests for Ukrainians. Understanding the differences between Ukrainians, which has been the task of many scholars including John-Paul Himka[18] and Georgiy Kasianov[19], is important because it helps one understand why identity formulation in Ukraine has been difficult in the post-Soviet period. However, such efforts often do not provide us with a better understanding of why such voices are able to coexist largely without incident despite their differences. It has been the aim of this paper to showcase that such coexistence relies on a common identity rooted in similar mentally adverse experiences, that is, trauma.

[1] (Shevchenko 9)

[2] (“Trauma”)

[3] (Yekelchyk 5)

[4] (Yekelchyk 5)

[5] Ibid., 6

[6] (Yekelchyk 18-24)

[7] (Shevchenko 34-79)

[8] (Yekelchyk 42)

[9] Ibid.

[10] (Naimark 74)

[11] (Honcharuk 1)

[12] (Honcharuk 2)

[13] (Yekelchyk 179)

[14] (Yekelchyk 180)

[15] (Phillips 4)

[16] Ibid., 2

[17] Ibid., 2

[18] (Himka)

[19] (Kasianov)

Works Cited

Himka, John-Paul. “The History behind the Regional Conflict in Ukraine.” Kritika: Explorations In Russian & Eurasian History 16, no. 1 (Winter2015 2015): 129-136. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2015).

Honcharuk, Marfa Pavlivna. “Eyewitness Testimony of Marfa Pavlivna Honcharuk.” Niihka. February 11, 2015. http://niihka.miamioh.edu (accessed April 27, 2015).

Kasianov, Georgiy. “How a War for the Past Becomes a War in the Present.” Kritika: Explorations In Russian & Eurasian History 16, no. 1 (Winter2015 2015): 149-155. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2015).

Naimark, Norman. Stalin’s Genocides. Princeton: Princton University Press, 2010.

Phillips, Sarah. “Chernobyl Forever.” Somatosphere. April 25, 2011. http://somatosphere.net/2011/04/chernobyl-forever.html (accessed April 27, 2015).

Shevchenko, Taras. The Complete Kobzar: The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko. London: Glagoslav Publications Ltd., 2013.

“Trauma.” Dictionary.com. The American Heritage Science Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/trauma (accessed April 27, 2015)

Yekelchyk, Serhy. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Nicholas Cosentino is a senior at Miami majoring in political science.

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