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Arkady Grudzinsky


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What defines a nation?

I am closely watching the events in Ukraine these days. I think, Ukraine struggles to define itself as a nation. Some people in Ukraine have identity crisis. They were born in Ukraine, lived in Ukraine their whole life, but don't speak Ukrainian and identify themselves as Russians. Others strongly identify themselves with Ukrainian language and culture and feel closer to Europe than Russia. For the past 20+ years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine struggles to define its internal and foreign policy independent from external influences. However, there is still no political force inside Ukraine able to unite the country without pulling it to one side or the other and polarizing the society.

To form a nation, people must have something in common to hold them together. My question is, what is it that makes you identify with a nation?

- Language? Then what defines multilingual Switzerland or Canada as nations?

- Territory? Some nations are dispersed all over the world. Some nations have been forced to move from their historic land yet preserved their national identity.

- History? What is meant by that? Every region or city has its own history.

- Religion? Most large countries are have multiple religions.

I'd like to understand what holds a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious countries together, if anything. What creates a national identity?


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    Apr 14 2014: A nation could be viewed as just a really large "community." Perhaps it would be enlightening to look at what defines a community of much smaller scale and then consider what changes and what stays the same as the size of the community is scaled up.

    So, a community can be just some portion of a city, or perhaps a whole town. Or it can be a rural community consisting of a scattered collective of people perhaps with a central post office, gas station and general store. There may be great uniformity or great diversity among these community members as to language, religion, social status, employment, economic status, political or governmental preferences. Some communities have been completely disrupted and displaced due to disasters or land use changes. Have they survived or have they vanished as a result of this? If they survived in a new location, what held them together through the move and resettlement? If they dispersed and individuals became integrated into different communities, what were the dynamics of that, and how were their new adopted/adoptive communities similar to or different from their previous community?

    Counties, states, regions, territories, countries, nations are all larger "communities" that are more or less defined by something, or perhaps several things. How do the defining characteristics remain or change at these different scales? How do the dynamics of changing communities remain or change at these different scales?

    Another point to consider in all of this is whether the people in a nation, or in any community, are there by choice or by accident or by force? Also, do they have an option or a choice to change their situation by moving to or identifying with a different nation or community?

    I suspect all of these considerations may well result in more confusion rather than greater clarity towards arriving at any simple (simplistic?) answer to the question "What defines a nation?". At the same time, they may provide for deeper understanding.
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      Apr 14 2014: On a nation level, I don't see much in common between people other than having the same government - being subject to the same laws, getting the same benefits/services from the government, using the same currency, being protected by the same military, etc. I guess, the country exists as long as people agree to these conditions.

      What I see in Ukraine is that Western people do not want to accept a government acting in the interest of the East, and the Eastern regions seem to be unhappy with any government associated with the West. It has been so for years now. There was 0 progress on anything because of this confrontation.

      I'm trying to understand if Ukraine is one nation or, actually, two nations.
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        Apr 15 2014: "On a nation level ..."

        So, what do you mean, here, by "nation"?

        It seems you're using some definition that excludes some possibilities, such as the "Sioux Nation" or "Chippewa Nation" for a couple of examples where there is much in common among the people of each, and where "government" is more complicated, considering they govern themselves, yet within the governing of the USA Federal Government, but also somewhat separately.
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          Apr 15 2014: I think, in the context of what I said, I used "nation" as people inhabiting one country.

          Google defines "nation" as

          "a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory."

          If you think of people inhabiting the U.S., there is a great diversity of descent, history, culture, and languages. The only thing in common is the country with its government.

          Much like Indian nations, having some self-governance, are subject to U.S. laws, the U.S. is also subject to international rules and laws.

          You have a point. The whole reason I posted this question is because I am confused. I'm trying to understand the meaning of the word "nation". What makes a large group of people feel distinct from another group of people to the point that they feel they need a separate government?
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        Apr 15 2014: So, my next question is: Do we need a single definition for the word "Nation" that applies to each and every use of that word? I think not.

        Consider that many words have multiple definitions and that one particular word can be used in a variety of ways, yet reasonable and knowledgable people will know its meaning well enough from context to be able to effectively communicate.

        The problem I see cropping up much of the time is that people often get too focused on words and, because of that, they miss out on the real meaning.

        I like to think of words as being pointers - they point us or direct our attention towards something, like the finger pointing at the moon. If you focus on the finger, you'll never see the moon - and miss seeing the eclipse. So, communication requires looking beyond the words, the phrases, the sentences and paragraphs to see what the real meaning is that the speaker/writer is trying to convey. And in order to be able to see that meaning, there must be some overlap of experience, knowledge and understanding between the speaker/writer and the one processing the message.

        Dwelling on what "nation" means in a general sense becomes distracting to our ability to actually see who the different groups in the Ukraine are, how they might self-identify, and why they might embrace or fear various changes of government and boarders. Individuals might be categorized according to DNA analyses, race, language, family history, political leanings, social status, material wealth, etc. But self-identification will hold sway over any and all of those, and that is what will determine how they will respond to current events: which government they will reject or support, which country they will flee or remain in.
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          Apr 16 2014: Good analogy between words and a finger. However, to understand each other, it's best to know the meaning of words. In Ukraine, both sides of the conflict call each other "fascists". Ukrainians draw analogies between Putin annexing Crimea on pretext of "protecting Russians" with Hitler annexing Czechoslovakia on pretext of "protecting Germans". Whereas Russia refers to Ukrainian nationalists collaborating with Germans in the 40-s in their fight against Stalin's occupation of Western Ukraine.

          People invoke symbols and associations from deep past. Russians in Ukraine use the orange-and-black ribbons to identify themselves. The ribbons come from the Order of St. George established by the Russian emperess Katherine II as the highest military award and is associated with the Russian military glory and the victory of the Soviet Union over the Nazi Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribbon_of_Saint_George. Pro-Russian folks take pride in that history and, in their turn, associate Ukrainian insignia with anti-Soviet and anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist movement whereas Ukrianian insignia date back to ancient Kievan Rus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Ukraine Ukrainian coat of arms was seen on the coins of king Vladimir who converted Rus to Christianity. Now, among the Ukrainian people, the St. George ribbons gained anti-Ukrainian connotation. It's fascinating to watch how words and symbols change their meaning, depending on what side you look at them.

          Ukrainians in the West associate Russia with Soviet occupation and oppression and the West - with acceptance into the developed world and prosperity. In Russia, Putin cultivates a strong sense of Russian national identity and resists any kind of influence and pressure from the West, even if it is a pressure to change for the better - improve democracy, human rights, fight corruption, etc. Any move of the neighbor countries towards the West, Putin views as a threat to Russia.
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          Apr 16 2014: All this play with words and symbols seems superficial and vain. In his speech after annexing Crimea, Putin mentioned how "dear" it is to Russians. King Vladimir who converted Russians to Christianity was himself baptized in Crimea. It was funny to hear that because Vladimir was a king of Kiev. The same fact could have been used as an argument why Crimea is "dear" to Ukraine.

          So, all these reasons of how people choose to identify themselves seem vain and superficial to me. I'm questioning if the whole concept of patriotism, nationalism, and allegiance to one's country even makes sense. Is there anything in it beyond irrational emotions? Somehow, these sentiments seem to be linked to the sense of justice. And, of course, social justice and national identity are the leading themes in religions.
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        Apr 16 2014: Yes, we need to know what words mean, but the dictionary definitions are only hints, clues as to what their pointing at. Beyond individual word meanings, there is context. There are also intonation, emphasis, volume, cadence, energy and body language. All of these, together, point towards what a person intends his/her words to mean.

        When people are upset and angry about something involving politics, government, nationality, economics, they like to throw their favorite words at each other as though they were profanity, even if more than four letters long - fascists; socialists; communists; bolsheviks; etc. - even if they don't know what those words really mean historically. Just slinging verbal mud, sticks and stones.

        What would be best, but I'm certainly not going to hold my breath waiting for it - would be for all political boundaries to be abolished so everyone could be a citizen of Mother Earth. And, at the same time, everyone would become aware that we are all in this together; that we are all intimately and inextricably interconnected and interdependent. Then we could all start treating each other with respect and taking care of our home, Mother Earth, as we should have been doing all along.

        Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the strongest, toughest most dominating, it means survival of those who understand how to live most harmoniously with each other, with all beings, with Nature.

        People become attached to whatever they become attached to, usually setting themselves up for some sort of disappointment in the long run. We need to become more attached with each other in peaceful unity of purpose.
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          Apr 17 2014: In other words, you suggest to abolish the ideas of national identity and treat each other as fellow citizens of the world. Good idea. Might work in the paradigm of abundant resources.

          But when resources are perceived as scarce, people become protective of their land and property. They start to draw borders and form unions to protect themselves, their resources, and their interests from the outsiders.

          Tribalism and nationalism seem to be the ideas which naturally come out to justify the irrational desire to separate from others. Whereas, the cause for these sentiments could be simply the perceived scarcity of resources or a perceived external threat.
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        Apr 17 2014: I don't know that the ideas of "national identity" can be abolished - meaning declared by some authority to be null and void. Trying to impose and enforce something like that on people would only cause them to cling all the more to their national identity - because that's a significant part of how many people identify themselves.

        The only way this can come about in a peaceful and harmonious manner is to help people understand that we truly are all in this together and that acting together is in the best interests of all individuals, all groups, all communities, all nations, and the whole world.

        As for resources, all of Earth's resources "belong" to each and every one of us, individually, and to all of us collectively. In spite of this, a few have claimed them and exploited them, always at great expense and only some benefit to everyone else. And at great cost to Mother Earth in terms of environmental quality, which also costs us in terms of health and well-being. Our benefit would be access to the resources we all need, and our challenge would be to use our resources responsibly - meaning being responsible for maintaining our environment for all beings - not just for humans, but for all living entities.

        So, somehow the current perspective on resources needs to evolve to one of complete sharing. That, too, requires that everyone, or at least those in power, need to realize that we are all in this together. With just and equitable sharing of resources, I think we'd find that there are plenty of resources for all and realize that all "scarcity" has been artificially manipulated for personal and corporate profits.

        I think groups of common interest, including tribalism, could exist within a global community of Earth citizens, and the various tribes could live either harmoniously intermingled or in separate areas or territories - as long as they are always willing to share and share alike all of our resources so the essential needs of all are adequately met.

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