Editor’s Note: Catarina Buchatskiy is a student of international relations, with a focus on security, at Stanford University. She is also the co-founder of The Shadows Project, a Ukrainian cultural organization. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Up until February 24, 2022, I was a lot of things – a student at Stanford University, a friend, a roommate, a classmate, a music lover, an arts fanatic. Being Ukrainian was just one descriptor among many. But after that day, when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, that part of my identity became the most important descriptor.
None of my life back on campus seemed to matter anymore. After all, how could it in the face of the destruction of my homeland? How could I sit in my dorm room, plastered with photos of my childhood in Kyiv, while the city and its surrounding areas were being bombarded by Russian artillery?
I could not possibly live my life as anything else – a student, a friend – until I could exist peacefully as a Ukrainian. And so about a week after the Russian invasion began, I left behind my “normal” student life at Stanford to defend what matters the most – Ukraine.
I booked a flight to Krakow, Poland, to join my Ukrainian friends in the war efforts. There is no shortage of things for us to do here – we help with humanitarian assistance, work to protect cultural sites and assist incoming refugees.
This fight for existence is at the heart of today’s Russian war on Ukraine. Beyond territorial conquest, geopolitics and alleged “denazification,” this is a war challenging the very existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians as an independent, sovereign people. It’s also a continuation of a centuries-long Russian war on every single one of us.
One of the earliest attempts at the russification of Ukraine began in the 17th century, after the signing of the Pereyaslav Articles of 1659 between the Ukrainian Cossacks and the Russian Tsar. The treaty restricted Ukrainian autonomy by forbidding the Ukrainian colonels from being elected or from conducting their own foreign policy without the prior consent of the Muscovite government.
In 1720, Russian attacks on the Ukrainian language began, with a ban on printing books in Ukrainian in some cities. Alexander I’s educational reforms in 1804 prohibited the Ukrainian language in schools, both as a language of instruction and as a subject.
Every century since then, Russian leaders have continued the efforts to erase Ukrainian identity by attacking the use of the Ukrainian language, banning Ukrainian literature, persecuting Ukrainian cultural leaders and destroying any attempt Ukrainians have made to preserve their heritage.
This war is no different.
Russia’s brutal attacks on the Ukrainian civilian population and cultural and historical sites make it clear that, yet again, this is an attack on the Ukrainian people and their identity.
Even though 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 didn’t realize that my life in Kyiv was particularly unique – that the Ukrainian experience was something in and of itself.
I moved through life not grasping that being Ukrainian meant something. It didn’t help that when moving abroad, a vast majority of the people I met didn’t know what Ukraine was at all. I found myself resorting to “it’s next to Russia,” or “it was a part of the Soviet Union.” That seemed to be the only part of my identity, of my nation’s history, that was recognizable to me.
As a teenager trying to understand my place in the world, this was confusing. Who are my country’s authors, artists, cultural and political figures? What were their accomplishments? And who, simply put, are Ukrainians today?
The search for Ukraine became a process of self-discovery.
My big eureka moment came during one of my classes at Stanford – “Ukraine at a Crossroads.” Most of the course consisted of learning about Ukrainian history, much of which I was relatively familiar with (though you can never learn too much history). One week, however, I came into class and the topic was the Ukrainian avant-garde movement. We discussed Kazimir Malevich, a Ukrainian-born painter and founder of the Suprematist movement.
Malevich is one of the most iconic artists in history. I had seen his paintings extensively discussed, studied and revered. And yet I didn’t know he was Ukrainian-born. I didn’t know he was ours.
At that moment, I realized Ukraine had been with me the entire time – in galleries, bookstores, museums and theaters. I just hadn’t been able to see past the Russian labeling of many of these Ukrainian-born cultural figures.
The more I studied about Ukrainians who had their heritage erased, the angrier I became. Russia builds monuments to our great leaders in their cities, claiming them as their own cultural heritage. They write about our most iconic artists, as if they were their own.
How could Russia take this away from us? How could Russia deny me all of the reasons I had to be proud of my country? How could Russia make me believe that Ukrainians didn’t have an impact or a voice around the world?
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Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has once again challenged the notion that Ukrainians are a separate people. And yet today, with the abundant access to information and historical truth, we have a better chance than ever to finally debunk the Russian historical myths and cement Ukrainian sovereignty once and for all. Each one of us can play a part.
Educational institutions, galleries, museums and cultural institutions can be a platform for Ukrainians and Ukrainian artists to have their voices heard and their stories told correctly.
So, let’s have this conversation. Let’s start bringing Ukrainian culture and history out of the centuries-long imperial shadow. This is how we win the long war against Russia – cities may fall, territory may be destroyed, but Ukraine and its truth must prevail.