It is at the foot of the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the 19th century writer, champion of Ukrainian independence, that Myroslav Marynovytch usually meets. In the center of Lviv, on Liberty Avenue. The former Ukrainian dissident spent seven years in prison, in the 1970s and 1980s, sentenced to the Russian gulag for his human rights activism.
“Thirty-five years later, we are fighting for freedom and democracy against the authoritarian Russian regime. Putin wants to rebuild the empire, and without Ukraine there is no empire, says the vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University. Never in its entire history has Ukraine been as united as it is today. Putin helped us unite and strengthen our identity. »
In less than two weeks, Russia’s war in Ukraine has shattered the cliché of a binary opposition between a “nationalist West” and a “pro-Russian East”. For a long time, Galicia and the Donbass formed two opposite poles, based on a different Soviet memory, fought or glorified.
“The war put an end to our quarrels. All regional, linguistic, ethnic or religious contradictions have passed into the background, notes Nataliya Haletska, deputy of the Lviv regional council, for the liberal party Holos (Voice), founded in 2019 by the ex-rock singer Sviatoslav Vakartchouk. TheUkrainian partisan scene remains very fragmented but, during the war, the political combat stops. It is the sacred union. All elected officials have become volunteers for the national cause. Russia is the enemy and that is true for all Ukrainians. »
A struggle of centuries
It has been a long road for the assertion of Ukrainian identity, a struggle of several centuries, under different empires. In Soviet times, promoting Ukraine as a separate entity was a dangerous business that often ended in labor camps in Siberia. Official propaganda described Ukrainian culture as a folk curiosity.
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After the collapse of the USSR and the declaration of independence in 1991, Ukraine remained under strong Russian influence, a relationship of domination and dependence perpetuated by economic, cultural and political ties. The war is accelerating the process of separation from Moscow, which began in 2014 with the “Maidan”, when the “dignity revolution” brought down President Viktor Yanukovych after his decision, under pressure from Moscow, not to sign the association agreement with the European Union.
“When the Russians bomb residential buildings and destroy the central square in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, each shot decreases the number of those who have sympathy for Russiaunderlines the philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko. People who felt they belonged in the Russian cultural space ten years ago now feel a strong Ukrainian identity. They may speak Russian or attend the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (linked to Russia), but they are Ukrainians. Russia has lost the battle for hearts and minds.»
The far-right minority
In Lviv, Ukrainian nationalism is embodied in the public space through street names, commemorative plaques and monuments. But in the elections, the inhabitants prefer to vote for the National Democrats and the Liberals rather than for the heirs of Stepan Bandera, the former leader of a faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), assassinated in 1959 in Munich by a Soviet agent.
From the 1998 election, the myth of Lviv, bastion of radical nationalism, was dissipated. Far-right organizations were defeated, while centrist and reformist parties won the majority in parliamentary and municipal elections.
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“Electoral support for the far right in Ukraine is very low, recalls historian Oleksandr Zaitsev. In the last legislative elections, the nationalists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party obtained 2.15%, below the threshold necessary to be represented in Parliament, and 5.5% in the Lviv region. The “denazification” of Ukraine claimed by Putin is nothing but a propaganda lie. »
Solidarity inside and rupture outside
At number 6 Bohomoltsia Street, the Center for Urban History has launched a collection of private photographs on the routines of war: preparing sandbags, staying in the air-raid shelter, volunteering activities, fixing windows with adhesive tape… An important material for understanding the impact of conflict on daily life.
“We are living a transformative experience, of solidarity inside, and of breaking with Russia outside, analyzes sociologist Sofia Dyak, the director. This war also tests the responsibility of our elites. I hope society survives and then we have a national debate about rebuilding the nation and the promise of a new social contract. »