Donetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk—is what a land without nationalism actually looks like: corrupt, anarchic, full of rent-a-mobs and mercenaries. For the most part, the men in balaclavas who have assaulted Ukrainian state institutions under the leadership of Russian commandos are not nationalists; they are people who will do the bidding of whichever political force pays best or promises most. And although they are a small minority, the majority does not oppose them. On the contrary, the majority is watching the battle passively and seems prepared to take whichever government they get. Like my friends in L’viv, these are people who live where they do by accident, whose parents or grandparents arrived by the whim of a Soviet bureaucrat, who have no attachment to any nation or any state at all.
Thus do the tiny group of nationalists in Ukraine, whom perhaps we can now agree to call patriots, represent the country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment.
And this should be no surprise: In the nineteenth century, no sensible freedom fighter would have imagined it possible to create a modern state, let alone a democracy, without some kind of nationalist movement behind it. Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf.
In truth, you can’t really make “the case” for nationalism; you can only inculcate it, teach it to children, cultivate it at public events. If you do so, nationalism can in turn inspire you so that you try to improve your country, to help it live up to the image you want it to have. Among other things, that thought inspired the creation of this magazine 100 years ago.
Ukrainians need more of this kind of inspiration, not less—moments like last New Year’s Eve, when more than 100,000 Ukrainians sang the national anthem at midnight on the Maidan. They need more occasions when they can shout, “Slava Ukraini—Heroyam Slava”—“Glory to Ukraine, Glory to its Heroes,” which was, yes, the slogan of the controversial Ukrainian Revolutionary Army in the 1940s, but has been adopted to a new context. And then of course they need to translate that emotion into laws, institutions, a decent court system, and police training academies. If they don’t, then their country will once again cease to exist.
Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and has acted as editor at The Economist, and a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.