The Vicarious Ukrainian Nationalism of the Liberal Elite

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a joint session of Congress Wednesday. Never has one man united the political elite in such admiration. Zelenskyy’s video message drew standing ovations from lawmakers and effusive praise from journalists. His message to American lawmakers: intervene, even if it leads to World War III.

The rapturous reception to Zelenskyy demonstrates a curious phenomenon. Many Americans, particularly liberals, have embraced Ukrainian nationalism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of them. She introduced Zelenskyy before his video address and demanded her colleagues shout “Slava Ukraini!” before he began. The patriotic slogan—meaning “Glory to Ukraine”—is one of the many sights and sounds in Ukraine-crazed America. Millions of Americans changed their social media profiles to include the Ukrainian flag. Some made sure to add a sunflower emoji as well, which alludes to a popular internet meme about dead Russian soldiers serving as flower beds in the after-life. Ukrainian flags hang on highway overpasses and pro-Ukraine demonstrations draw in thousands of people in the United States. Many members of Congress waved Ukrainian flags during Joe Biden’s State of the Union, and a few even dressed up in blue-and-yellow outfits for the occasion. 

It seems that the Left has found a nationalism it can support. It’s just not American.

Both the Left and the Right are guilty of vicarious nationalism through Ukraine. To the Left, Ukrainian nationalism is fighting on behalf of a tolerant, multicultural democracy against an evil, white fascist empire. Some leftists even see Ukrainian nationalism as an outgrowth of anti-colonialist resistance. It isn’t like icky Trumpism. Ukrainian nationalists are totally not racist and are down with the latest ideological trends from the West. Many conservatives, particularly of the NeverTrump variety, share this view of Ukrainian nationalism as well.

Other conservatives fawn over Ukrainian nationalism simply because they see the plucky Slavs as fighting for their homeland and independence against a foreign power. There isn’t much else to the adoration. That rationale makes sense on the surface.

But, for whatever reason an American decides to adopt a Ukrainian AVI, they’ve adopted another country’s nationalism. That’s very weird, especially since many of these Americans are uncomfortable with their own country’s nationalism. They’re triggered by the phrase “Make America Great Again” and feel contempt for our own nation’s history. The same people who shriek “Slava Ukraini!” want the “1619 Project” taught in every public school so no child ever feels pride in his own country.

While American fans of Ukraine claim their new-found nationalism is free of “problematic” characteristics, reality paints a different picture. Ukrainians insist they’re a completely different people from the Russians on ethnocultural grounds. Ukraine is not just an idea—it’s a unique people with a particular culture, heritage, and language. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with believing this, but if any Westerner asserted anything similar for his own country, these same Ukraine fans would call that person a racist and xenophobe. Ethno-nationalism for thee, but not for me.

Westerners happily ignore the aspects of Ukrainian nationalism that may upset them. The nationalist militias such as Azov which proudly display questionable symbols are defended in the media. Official Ukrainian accounts tweeting about the racial purity of the Ukrainian people go unnoticed. The state suppression of the Russian language is dismissed as Russian disinformation. The tolerant Ukrainian nationalism in liberal minds remains untainted.

Ukrainian nationalism is not multicultural or based on democratic principles. It’s concerned entirely with a particular ethnic group’s determination to stay independent of a foreign power. There’s something admirable in that. The issue comes with the Ukrainian people exploiting the goodwill of the American people to initiate World War III over a conflict that has little to do with the American people. 

The Ukrainian flag, whatever the intentions of the Ukrainian people, now stands alongside the pride flag and the Black Lives Matter flag as symbols of American liberalism. The Ukrainian flag certainly means something different to the people it represents, but not to the Americans who suddenly began flying it outside their homes. As the official Ukraine Twitter account stated:

That laundry list of clichés and platitudes is what the Ukrainian flag represents to liberals. It gives them a country to root for uncritically and to imagine as their own. America, in their eyes, will always be haunted by its racist past and racist founders. That’s why some liberals openly admit they see the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of white supremacy. American nationalism is something perverse, suitable for the rubes they hate. Meanwhile, Ukrainian nationalism upholds everything they love, minus the associations with their political enemies.

It’s a nationalism perfectly suited for them. They would much rather shout “Slava Ukraini” than “God Bless America.” 

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About Paul Bradford

Paul Bradford is a Capitol Hill refugee now earning an honest living.

Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times, Pool via Getty Images