A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Identity and Power in Ukraine

By Buzz McClain, BA '77 on September 12, 2014


At the time of the publication of Mason professor Karina Korostelina’s book, Constructing the Narratives of Identity and Power: Self-Imagination in a Young Ukrainian Nation (Lexington Books, 2013), Ukraine had stepped to the forefront of the world’s news as the power struggle between the country, independent since the early 1990s, and Russia’s subsequent usurpation of Crimea grew violently hostile. The director of the Program on History, Memory, and Conflict at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Korostelina is the ideal author for a book about the region: not only is she Ukrainian, she hails from the Crimean capital, Simferopol.

What does the book specifically address?

Karina Korostelina

Karina Korostelina

The book has two purposes. The first is to create and verify a structural functional model of national narrative, which provides us ideas of how people structure national narrative and how they use history to justify the use of power within the society. When a group takes over another group, it’s important for them to create a narrative of power that legitimizes inclusions and exclusions of different groups. The idea of the book from one side is to produce a picture of how competing narratives of national identities lead to justification of particular power relations in a society.

The second purpose was to actually give people an opportunity to understand Ukraine in depth because usually people see Ukraine divided into groups, but there is no study that shows the diversity of narratives within Ukraine and how that diversity is structured.

Is a national identity something we’re born with or we learn?

You learn it. It’s a socialization process. And this is an issue as there are no static national identities, even in countries with long-standing national identities such as Germany and France. The concept of national identity is shaped through socialization processes and political processes. In fact, every single official agent of the nation shapes and legitimizes a particular nation.

Do you offer solutions to the conflict we see now?

I really believe the only way for Ukraine to escape this continuous modern situation of going from one side to the other is to create agonistic dialogue, a shared society, and a shared government—but unfortunately we won’t see it today. The prevalence of one side in the government, especially radical and nationalistic groups, is used by Vladimir Putin to justify annexation of Crimea as protection of Russian-speaking population.

The international community should impose requirements for the Ukrainian government to establish shared power and open negotiations with Putin to return Crimea to Ukraine with some form of joint protectorate that will give him the opportunity to “save face” symbolically.

How do you teach national identity? Is it an easy concept for students to get?

That’s interesting. Almost all my students tell me I changed the way they see life because now they see identity in every aspect of their lives. Because it’s a very fundamental way of how you see the world. You have your own perception of the world, you have your own ways of assessing the world, you see an independent point of view, and to you, you are not part of a group. But at the same time, if you are not part of a group, you are not protected—no one will come to protect you or support you if you don’t have a group to be involved in.

When you are in a group you pay for the support and security by your own freedom because to have the group protection, you have to be loyal, accepting the views and beliefs of the group. You are looking at life through the lens of the group identity; as soon as you become a member of the group, you see the world through the lens of the group. There’s this interesting dynamic between security and freedom—how much do you need security, how much do you need freedom? Social identity is an answer for this existential dilemma.

In the United States, we have 50 states, 50 identities, but one nation.

And in the United States, we have a lot of different narratives. There are a lot of theories to explain this; for example, the theory of optimal distinctiveness. We need to be connected to a bigger identity to have more freedom, but we also need to be connected to smaller identities to feel more loyalty and support.

People in political parties have completely different ideas. They still speak about the Founding Fathers and liberty and democracy, but the meaning of them will be completely different because they have to justify their power and ideas.

We imagine the book was the result of many things on your mind at this time.

It was going to be a small report in the beginning to understand the major ideas and major narratives in Ukraine. But it turned into a book because the material was so rich and interesting and I had the opportunity to develop the structural-functional model of national identity. I present these ideas to understand the components of a national identity, how people create competing narratives of national identity.

What was your hometown of Simferopol like? What do you think is different now?

Simferopol always was a very multicultural town with a high level of interethnic tolerance. Manipulations of the pro-Soviet government in response to the return of Crimean Tatars provoked communal tensions but never led to violent conflict. Peaceful co-existence was always an important value for residents of Crimea but diverse loyalties to Russia and Ukraine shaped social boundaries between populations.

Many Crimeans saw unification with Ukraine in 1954 as a mistake and never developed strong ties to Ukraine. But this longing for cultural connection to Russia impeded the real assessment of totalitarian and imperial nature of this country today.


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