Europe

What does it mean to be Ukrainian in 2016?

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Media captionSome Ukrainians say the divided nation is undergoing a makeover

As the country marks a quarter of a century of independence from the Soviet Union, what does it mean to be Ukrainian in 2016?

For many in Kiev, to be patriotic is to be cool.

White-and-black T-shirts with the Ukrainian trident, a national symbol, are commonplace in hipster bars and shopping malls.

Vyshyvankas, a usually white shirt or dress with a traditional floral pattern, are also in fashion.

Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flags are commonplace on the dashboards of vehicles.

And all of the above are particularly easy to spot now, as the country marks a quarter of a century of independence from the Soviet Union.

But what does it mean to be Ukrainian in 2016?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Ukrainian trident symbol is popular - seen here alongside graffiti that reads: "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!"

Journalist and civil rights activist Maxim Eristavi believes what Ukraine calls its "Maidan Revolution" sparked an "unprecedented quest" among many Ukrainians as they tried to fathom an answer to that question.

For Mr Eristavi, it is not about language or ethnicity.

He hopes Ukraine can forge an identity based on common "values", embracing the diversity of nationalities and ethnicities that live in the country.

Inevitably, Ukrainian attitudes have, to a large extent, been shaped by recent events in the country's history:

  • the continuing war against Russian-backed separatists in the very eastern tip of the country
  • Russia's annexation of Crimea
  • the idea that Moscow is vehemently opposed to - and actively working to prevent - Ukraine's closer relationship with the European Union

And at a Ukrainian scout summer camp for teenagers on a Sun-soaked tiny island surrounded either side by two prongs of the vast Dnipro river, north of Kiev, what it means to be Ukrainian is predominantly about the "I-word": independence.

Ukraine might have declared its independence on the 24 August 1991, but in the face of a resurgent Russia on the world stage, under President Vladimir Putin, many Ukrainians believe the country is again fighting to defend its sovereignty today.

Ukraine

Capital: Kiev

  • Population 44.9 million

  • Area 603,700 sq km (233,090 sq miles)

  • Major languages Ukrainian (official), Russian

  • Major religion Christianity

  • Life expectancy 64 years (men), 75 years (women)

  • Currency hryvnya

Getty Images

Olla, 21, says when she travels abroad she is happy to tell people that "Ukraine is not Russia".

"It is a country with its [own] history and mentality," she says with a wide smile.

For the captain of the scout camp, Ludmilla Dobrynina, being Ukrainian is "being proud" of her friends who have been killed in the war in the east of the country.

Several young Ukrainian scouts spoke of their sense of duty in the face of adversity, and of belonging to a wider cause.

While Ukraine's political class has been criticised at home and abroad over the depth and speed of its programme for change, Ukraine's civil society has been a beacon of hope for those who hope to truly change the country.

For Marina Shlyonska, the finance manager at a top Kiev hotel, the energy and drive of volunteer movements mean Ukraine has a bright future.

"To be Ukrainian is [to be] independent, self-confident and free," she says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Vyshyvankas - white shirts or dresses with a traditional floral pattern - are not just worn by folk singers

But for all the optimism of younger generations, some believe Ukraine is not on the right path.

Mikhail Pogrebinskiy, a political analyst and ex-adviser to former President Leonid Kuchma (in office from 1994-2005), says Ukraine's current elite has an unhealthy obsession with distancing the country from Russia.

"The main foundation [of Ukrainian identity]," he says, is "I'm not Russian".

He says this mentality has damaged the economy, and serves to create tension within areas of the country where people still have a strong affinity with Russia.

A recent poll, carried out by Mr Pogrebinskiy's organisation, the Kiev Centre of Political Research and Conflict Studies, found 25% of respondents favoured a union with Russia and Belarus.

The survey of 1,802 people was carried out across Ukraine but - crucially - not in Crimea or the eastern Donbass region, which borders Russia.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Ukraine has placed its army on combat alert close to the de facto border with Crimea

Here lies Ukraine's most intractable problem: reconciling its long-standing cultural and economic relationship with Russia after Moscow seized Crimea and - according to plenty of credible evidence - has been directly involved in the war in Ukraine's east. Although, Russia denies direct involvement.

Mr Eristavi says the "biggest danger" when it comes to shaping Ukraine's post-2014 national identity, is if Ukrainians simply paint themselves "as some anti-version of Russians".

He believes that Ukraine has to search for "more positive definitions" of what it means to be Ukrainian.

Twenty five years after independence, the process of shaping and defining Ukrainian identity goes on.

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