What Vladimir Putin misunderstood about Ukrainians

Before the invasion, did you struggle to understand Ukraine? Could you place it on a map or picture its people? Perhaps it existed on the periphery of your imagination, a bleak suburb of Greater Russia, which Vladimir Putin claims doesn’t really exist. You wouldn’t be alone. Until recently I had little comprehension of the country – and I was born there.

It’s easy to see why Ukraine confuses people. To the uninformed outsider, it confounds all ideas of what makes a nation. Most people are casually bilingual. It contains many histories simultaneously: the Russian, Soviet and Austro-Hungarian empires, Poland, Romania and, of course, Ukraine itself. This lattice of historical narratives has made many in the West feel as though the country is not quite real.

Now people are more clued up. The world has found its hero nation. Its Jewish president, a one-time comedian who matured into a younger, more empathetic Churchill. The elderly women taunting Russian soldiers. The hipsters picking up machine guns. The distraught yet articulate mothers with their sparkling children sheltering underground. The beauty blogger on Instagram bombed in a maternity ward.

Ukrainians have reminded us what freedom means – a word that for many in rich democracies had long ago curdled into platitudes. The resilience of the population has impressed the West and surprised the Kremlin. It shouldn’t have. For the past few years I’ve been trying to unlock the secret of Ukrainian identity by talking to Ukrainians. Through my research project, Arena, based originally at the LSE and now at Johns Hopkins University, I’ve worked with Ukrainian journalists and sociologists to find ways of strengthening democracy. My team has interviewed thousands of adults across the country. Our fieldwork shows that the response to Russia’s invasion has deep roots in Ukrainian history.