Opinion: I never considered the importance of my Ukrainian identity – until now
Nothing about my campus life seemed to matter anymore. After all, how could he in the face of the destruction of my homeland? How could I sit in my dormitory, lined with photos of my childhood in Kiev, while the city and its surroundings were bombarded by Russian artillery?
I couldn’t live my life as anything else – a student, a friend – until I could exist peacefully as a Ukrainian. And so about a week into the Russian invasion, I left behind my “normal” student life at Stanford to stand up for what matters most: Ukraine.
I booked a flight to Krakow, Poland, to join my Ukrainian friends in the war effort. We have no shortage of things to do here – we help with humanitarian aid, work to protect cultural sites and help incoming refugees.
This war is no different.
Although I was incredibly lucky to have grown up in an independent Ukraine, I was not immune to Russia’s historical and cultural war on my identity. Most of the years I spent living in Ukraine I was deeply disconnected from my own history and culture. I hadn’t realized that my life in Kyiv was particularly unique — that the Ukrainian experience was something in itself.
I went through life not understanding that being Ukrainian meant anything. It didn’t help that when I moved abroad, a large majority of the people I met didn’t know anything about Ukraine. I found myself resorting to “it’s next to Russia” or “it was part of the Soviet Union”. It seemed to be the only part of my identity, of my nation’s history, that was recognizable to me.
As a teenager trying to figure out my place in the world, it was confusing. Who are the authors, artists, cultural and political personalities of my country? What were their accomplishments? And who, quite simply, are the Ukrainians today?
The search for Ukraine has become a process of self-discovery.
My big eureka moment came during one of my classes at Stanford – “Ukraine at the Crossroads”. Most of the course was about learning Ukrainian history, much of which was relatively familiar to me (although you can never learn too much about history). One week, however, I walked into class and the subject was the Ukrainian avant-garde movement. We discussed Kazimir Malevich, Ukrainian-born painter and founder of the Suprematist movement.
At that moment, I realized that Ukraine had been with me all the time – in galleries, bookstores, museums and theaters. I just couldn’t see past the Russian labeling of many of these Ukrainian-born cultural figures.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has once again challenged the idea that Ukrainians are a distinct people. And yet, today, with abundant access to information and historical truth, we have a better chance than ever to finally debunk Russian historical myths and cement Ukrainian sovereignty once and for all. Each of us can play a role.
Educational institutions, galleries, museums and cultural institutions can be a platform for Ukrainians and Ukrainian artists to have their voices heard and their stories properly told.
So, let’s have this conversation. Let’s start bringing Ukrainian culture and history out of the centuries-old imperial shadow. This is how we win the long war against Russia – cities may fall, territories may be destroyed, but Ukraine and its truth must prevail.