Identity Is Important. Being Accurate When Thinking About It, Too

Indentities can be hazy (Photo by S. Zarev)Not long ago, I’ve been invited to an open lecture followed by a concert dedicated to Ukrainian art and poetry. The event took place in a well-known university and had a pleasant chamber-music quality.

Among the people on the podium, there was a Ukrainian singer-songwriter who has been living abroad for over thirty years. In between his masterly and heart-felt performance of Ukrainian folk songs, the tall beret-wearing man talked about the history of his homeland. What he said had a nice ring and seemed to make sense at first sight, but as a historian it made me feel uneasy.

His story was a straight-line narrative spanning a thousand years in which the Ukrainians had one single concern: liberty, liberty at any cost. In this hopeful tale, medieval princes of Kyiv, early modern Zaporizhian Cossacks and present-day citizens of Ukraine shared an imperishable spirit that somehow tied in with democratic values and the fight for all that is good and against all that is bad.

From the standpoint of a professional historian, a lot could be said about the simplistic nature of the argument. To be brief: such reasoning is by no means an exceptionally Ukrainian phenomenon. In some form it appears in almost any narrative inspired by nationalism. While most history scholars would recognize the distorting lack of detail in such accounts, politicians occasionally use them to pit “us” against “them.”

To his credit, the man onstage wasn’t pretending to be an historian. Neither did he want to peddle any kind of hatred or provoke violence. He just told a story about himself and his origins that he happened to believe.

But could it also be that he made himself believe this story over years?

I know too little about this man’s life to be 100 percent sure on that. It seems, however, at least possible that there is some deliberate construction in what he explained to the audience. It might have to do with his self-image as a freewheeling artist and the fact that he left his homeland as a very young man, at a time when it still was part of the Soviet Union, and not an independent country recognized by the United Nations.

In other words, he might be projecting his own background and desires on the country he identifies as his place of origin. Whether it’s true or not, is irrelevant here—ideas can turn into reality if there are enough people who believe in them and try to put them into practice.

According to neuroscientists, the processes underlying self-perception and self-identification are subject to extreme complexity. There is, then, no reason to assume that the formation of national identities involving hundreds of thousands of human beings is any less intricate.

Just as a human who tries to make sense of life’s ups and downs by telling herself a story that sounds coherent, groups of people create their versions of the past to grapple with the chaotic reality around them. In both cases it’s crucial to match real-world circumstances as accurately as possible.

Otherwise, surprises might follow.

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