What We Can Learn From Ukraine

There is power in defining what it means to love your country.

By Delphine d'Amora

Tagged nationalismpatriotismUkraine

This past summer, I spent five weeks in the capital of Ukraine. When I tell people this now, the second thing they ask—after an understandably startled why?—is what it was like. If they expect any particular answer, it’s probably the one I expected to give: that it’s scary and sad to be in a country at war. That was true, for the most part, although Kyiv was calm at that time, the danger less moment-to-moment peril than an ambient sense that at any moment things might suddenly change for the worse. (And to dispel the mystery: I was there with my husband, who is reporting on the Russian invasion.) But when asked, that’s not what I want to talk about. What has stayed with me most is not people’s fear or sadness, but their patriotism. It was fierce, unifying, and galvanizing, and I’d never experienced anything like it.

On his country’s Independence Day in late August, President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a speech in which he compared Russia’s February 24 assault to a referendum on Ukrainian independence—one made “not in the ballot, but in the soul and conscience.” And the results were clear. “We made a choice,” he said. “And we finally became truly one.” It was blistering rhetoric, suitable to a leader who, for all his flaws, seems to have been purpose-built for wartime. But it was also something I heard repeatedly from other Ukrainians, and polling bears it out. In a survey at that time, a full 97 percent of respondents said that, if asked today, they would support a declaration of Ukrainian independence. That’s up from just 62 percent ten years earlier. When asked what emotions they felt when they thought about Ukraine, 75 percent said pride.

Patriotism had long seemed suspect to me. The word evoked a flag-waving, slogan-shouting, military-loving valorization of all things American simply because they are American (and with an exclusionary definition of “American” besides). It suggested xenophobia, racism, conservative nostalgia, and a belief in American superiority and dominance. And once patriotism put on a MAGA hat, there wasn’t much more to be said.

But the version of patriotism I saw in Ukraine didn’t fit my stereotypes—or, rather, it fit only some of them. The Ukrainian flag and its colors are, it’s true, absolutely everywhere in Kyiv. (Did you know painted bollards can serve as a flag in a pinch?) “Glory to Ukraine!” is practically a greeting at this point, and the military is revered. But there the similarities with American jingoism stop. People may love their country, but I have yet to meet a Ukrainian who believes it is inherently superior to others. Patriotism doesn’t seem to have any relationship to hostility to outsiders (with one obvious exception). And Ukrainians are looking forward, not backward: More than three-quarters say that the country is united by “belief in a better future.”

Most importantly, Ukrainian patriotism is doing extraordinary things. Love for the country is part of what brought Ukrainians flooding back from abroad to fight; it inspired some who left in the tumult of the early months to return. As one young woman told me, describing her decision to move home despite having the option to stay in Western Europe: “It’s an easy choice, actually. Because it’s your heart.”

Patriotism also propels the volunteer movement that has been essential to the country’s survival. As Russian tanks bore down on Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, it was not just professional soldiers who leapt into action to defend the capital. One full-time volunteer described to me how a civilian network flashed into being across the city, delivering food, medication, and other necessary supplies to the military. “There are quite a lot of people like that,” she said. “No one asked them, they simply took that function on themselves.” Volunteers raise money, source first-aid kits, rebuild houses. They evacuate civilians and serve as medics near the front, at great risk to their own lives.

In short, I didn’t understand patriotism at all. Stripping away the stereotype, I wasn’t even entirely sure what the word meant. In simplest terms, and going back more than two millennia to its roots in the Latin word patria (fatherland), patriotism means something like love for and loyalty to one’s broader political community, be that the Roman Republic, the Italian city-state, or the modern nation-state. Simple, until it isn’t. We often take pride, a separate emotion, to be part and parcel with patriotism; meanwhile, patriotism’s much younger sibling, nationalism, stirs up even more trouble. The two often blur into each other and have at least since 1945, when George Orwell noted both how hazily the terms were used and how important it was to differentiate them.

With characteristic acuity, Orwell defined patriotism as “a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Subtracting “best in the world,” this sounded a great deal like what I saw in Ukraine. Nationalism, for Orwell, entailed an absolute identification with the nation or some other entity, “placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Patriotism was “defensive.” Nationalism was “inseparable from the desire for power.” (For the record, modern definitions of nationalism tend to echo Orwell’s while tacking on other, more positive meanings, like support for a nation’s independence.)

In recent decades, political psychology has offered another useful paradigm: two unique strains of patriotism associated with radically different political attitudes and behavior. “Blind patriotism” is similar to Orwell’s nationalism in its unquestioning loyalty and deep identification of self with the group; it is “rooted in symbolic attachment to an idealized image of the nation” and hostile to criticism. By contrast, “constructive patriotism” is both loyal and questioning, a kind of commitment that acknowledges harm done and sees critique as essential to the group’s improvement. Research finds that it is associated with greater civic participation. Crucially, both forms involve attachment to the country—but only one, blind patriotism, pairs that love with negative attitudes toward outsiders.

When thinking about these polarities, I couldn’t help but think also of the profound differences between Ukraine and the country that has unleashed all this savagery upon it. I happen to know Russia well; I moved to Moscow in late 2011 and lived there for four years. Over that time, I witnessed the same perilous dynamics in Russian political culture that are now contributing to consistently broad support for the war (or “special operation,” as the Kremlin insists on calling it). What I saw was bewildering and seemingly contradictory, a jumble of fervent nationalism of the sort Orwell defined and the lethargy that comes when, accepting powerlessness, you distance yourself from politics entirely.

In the early days of the Russian assault, two economists looked at data stretching back nearly two decades in an attempt to predict whether Russians would come out forcefully against the war. Unlikely, they concluded. Among 15 countries, Russia had historically ranked first or second on a telling measure for blind patriotism: agreement with the idea that “people should support their country even if it is wrong.” More recently, researchers from the Levada Center, a venerable independent pollster, dug deep into public opinion on the war and identified several distinct groups that mirror the different strains I saw: true believers who parrot the party line and emphatically support the invasion; people with doubts who hew to the official version anyway; and those who, as the researchers write, “support the government’s actions because they believe the government knows best.” Not much constructive patriotism to be found there.

Of course, the Russian state’s noxious propaganda and vicious crackdown on dissent were crucial to creating an environment in which an unexpected and unjust war could be immediately accepted. There was a time when it seemed as though it might be different in Russia. Most of the people I met in Moscow—Western-leaning youth who read independent media—opposed Putin. There was a small but active opposition movement. But the government has put leading opposition figures in prison or forced them into exile; independent media organizations and respected NGOs have been forced to shut down or go abroad; peaceful anti-war protestors are arrested and beaten. One can see in all this the brutal elimination of every opportunity for constructive patriotism, alongside the cultivation of its more compliant alternative. It is not surprising that the Putin regime has prioritized so-called “patriotic education,” or that these efforts have escalated since the full-scale invasion. There’s power in defining what it means to love your country. And lest we doubt which form the Russian authorities have chosen, one new required lesson for high-school students says it all: “Genuinely patriotic people are prepared to defend their motherland with a weapon in their hands.”

To be clear, I don’t think, as some do, that we should try to model ourselves after Ukraine (though I’ll go out on a limb and say that we can probably agree not to emulate Russia). It frankly doesn’t make sense. Our countries’ situations are too different. The threat that Ukrainians face is brutal, physical, and literally existential. The war has drastically simplified the meaning of patriotism: As the celebrity poet Serhiy Zhadan said even back in 2019, when the war was still a more limited conflict in the east,  “In Ukraine, ‘patriot’ is a synonym for a person who is on the side of our soldiers on the frontlines—someone who supports our country.” Ukrainian patriotism is also bound up with a focus on rediscovering national history and culture, something that I, for one, think a counterproductive enterprise here. And it need hardly be said that national unity may be a bit out of reach for us at the moment.

What I see in Ukraine is not a template, but rather an imperative to revise our own understanding of patriotism. It evidences just how powerful love for one’s country can be and proves that there are versions very different from the one that looms large in our own culture. And truthfully, I didn’t have to look elsewhere to find that proof. As historian Michael Kazin and law professor Jedediah Purdy point out, our own history is brimming with movements that married penetrating criticism of American reality with appeals to ideals yet unrealized: abolitionists, feminists, champions of civil rights, and the list goes on. They exercised constructive patriotism before we had a name for it. James Baldwin put it best: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

In the end, it isn’t complicated. Collective love and devotion have a purpose. They bolster us through adversity; they help us to do better and hope for better. And at a moment when the very conditions of our most imperfect democracy are breaking, we need all the help we can get. 

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Delphine d'Amora is the associate editor at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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