Geopolitics: nationhood, conflict, and identity.

12 July 2023


Defiant freedom: Ukrainian identity and resistance

Reported by Patrick McAlary, CSaP Policy Assistant

Dr Rory Finnin, Associate Professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge and the Founding Director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, delivered an online seminar for CSaP Policy Fellows on the theme of Geopolitics: nationhood, conflict, and identity.

Dr Finnin explored the historical context of Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression and in doing so delivered a “riposte to a lot of disinformation narratives out there promulgated by people like Vladamir Putin that Ukraine first of all doesn’t exist or didn’t exist”.

Воля (‘volia’): Defiant freedom

Dr Finnin began the seminar by pointing out that in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there was a belief that Kyiv would fall in a matter of days and that any Ukrainian resistance was doomed. As the war continues today, this idea has proved to be a misconception and Dr Finnin situated the importance of resistance within the history of Ukrainian culture and identity, tying it to the concept of Воля (‘volia’).

“Volia might best be translated as defiant freedom; it is a freedom that fights against a kind of oppression

Volia, Dr Finnin explained, was a cornerstone of the Ukrainian national idea that united a diverse range of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. This was embodied in The Third Universal of the Ukrainian Central Council of 1917, a document that established the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The document — written in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish — presented volia (freedom) against Empire and it is the advancement of volia at home and abroad, rather than an ethnic or linguistic affiliation, that anchors the Ukrainian identity and sustains resistance against ongoing Russian aggression.

Dr Finnin articulated how Ukraine’s present-day fight for volia, for freedom, directly counters an extended disinformation campaign that has shaped how academics, policymakers, and the public have understood Ukraine and its place in the world.

“ extended disinformation campaign over centuries that has absolutely affected us here in the UK and I think that this full-fledged invasion is finally, and rather tragically, forcing us to see what should have been rather evident for quite a long time, but wasn’t due to the very skilful use of political force and soft power.

There is no reason to be surprised that Kyiv withstood, and continues to withstand, Russia’s advance: anti-Colonial resistance is an impulse embedded into Ukraine’s identity and present resistance is the culmination of a historical pursuit of volia.

Bringing the war to an acceptable end

Bringing the conversation from the past to the future, the seminar chair, Suzanne Raine, Affiliate Lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics, University of Cambridge, asked Dr Finnin how the war might be brought to an “acceptable end”. In his answer, Dr Finnin pointed out that we are seeing Europe’s largest country try to destroy Europe’s second largest country and its diverse culture: “[The] Russian occupation aims at genocide in Ukraine; the erasure of the Ukrainian nation as we know it”. He argued that this point must be acknowledged and borne in mind by news organisations and policymakers when talking about concessions from Ukraine — this is a story where Russian officials and figureheads openly proclaim their intention to take, destroy, and absorb a former colonial asset.

Here in the UK we need to be secure in our values, clear about our principles, and obviously defending the ideals enshrined in international legal instruments: the notion of territorial integrity and sovereignty in particular

The place of Crimea in Ukraine

Ms Raine then brought the conversation to the topic of Crimea, which was invaded by Russia in February 2014. The place of Crimea brought to the forefront a tension between our ‘cognitive’ map of Ukraine as opposed to the ‘geographical’ map that ran throughout the seminar. Dr Finnin opened the seminar with an image of one of the earliest descriptive maps of Ukraine by Guillaume Beauplan (a French military engineer) from c. 1648. In relation to Beauplan’s map, Dr Finnin highlighted that “audiences in Europe knew Ukraine better on its own terms than we do now”. On the topic of Crimea, Dr Finnin urged the audience to push aside their cognitive maps in favour of an actual map, pointing out that:

  1. Crimea has no natural physical connection to Russia
  2. Crimea is an extension of the Ukrainian mainland.

Dr Finnin explained that Russia would like to depict Crimea as a “jewel jutting out into the Black Sea with no thought given either to Ukraine or to Crimea’s indigenous people, in particular the Sunni Muslim Crimean Tatars”. He urged the audience to instead see Crimea as “a flower in the Black Sea with roots in that region of Southern Ukraine around places like Mariupol […] which have been at the centre of horrific occupation by Russian forces.”

Dr Finnin brought his talk to a close by emphasising that the peninsula of Crimea and the southern mainland of Ukraine are interconnected, and that the 2022 invasion of Ukraine is an implicit recognition that Crimea needed to be connected to the mainland to survive.

Our folly was succumbing to our mental maps and thinking Putin would stop, and could stop, at the Crimean peninsula

Image by Max Kukurudziak - Unsplash.

Patrick McAlary

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge