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 12 2014: Language certainly doesn't make a nation. As you correctly mentioned, Switzerland is an example for that. India, China and other Asian countries are even better examples.
    Neither is territory, because territory in the long run is ephemeral. How often did the borders already change in Europe for example ?
    Religion doesn't make a nation either. The big world religions are distributed all over the globe.
    As to history, we are all part of a global history. Picking just the history of one country is like taking just about one tile in a puzzle, ignoring the whole picture.
    I believe what holds a people together are:
    Shared identity
    Pride to be part of the nation
    Shared goals

    That's probably one of the reasons why the Ukraine is having problems. There is no common identity. There are apparently native Russians that feel more attracted to the "motherland", then there are the native Ukrainians and then the Tartars.
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      Apr 12 2014: Essentially, you repeat my words - there is no shared identity. But what makes up this "identity" that makes people say "I'm a Ukrainian or "I'm Austrian"? I guess, that's my question. E.g., do you consider yourself an Austrian or a Mexican and why? If an enemy attacked Austria, would you be willing to risk your life to defend it? How about Mexico?

      The Tatars are a very interesting case. They seem to consider themselves separate from either Ukraine or Russia. They also managed to preserve their national identity while in exile from Crimea between 1940s and 1980s. They tend to adapt to whatever power is trying to rule their land. This is why they were deported by Stalin. They did not give a damn about the Nazi or the Communist ideas and minded their own goals. They simply stayed on their land and tried to work with the current power - Germans, Communists, whoever. It's the same now. Although they don't like Russia, they don't cling to Ukraine either. They acknowledge the de-facto Russian rule and seem to be content with getting Russian citizenship. I guess, the emblem on the passport does not matter for them. I may be wrong, but that's the impression I got from reading about Tatar reaction to the recent events in Crimea.
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        Apr 12 2014: I'm probably not the typical example because I lived in several countries and traveled extensively to many more.
        I think that diluted my sense for national identity. Actually, most of the time I think global and not within the constraints of national identity. Answering your question, I don't know if I would risk my life to defend either Austria or Mexico.
        Like the tartars there are many other ethnic groups which don't care much to which nation they belong. What holds them together is there own community. We can see that for example also with the indigenous tribes in Brazil.
        While those ethnic groups don't care much about the nation they belong to, they still have a sense of identity but within their own group.
        What defines this common identity varies from group to group or nation to nation.
        In the US this sense of shared identity might be based on power (belonging to the strongest military power on earth), superior feeling based on economical and/or technological accomplishments, etc.
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    Apr 15 2014: Arkady my friend, I'll like to use Renan"s arguments for the basis of a nation,

    A nation according to Renan is based on principles of equality & freedom, that all governed must be by consent on equal terms as citizens The inhabitants of a nation must share a common past, united by joy ,grief,national sacrifices triumphs and travails in the past, these elements will bound people and advance them together as an entity, with a common goal for national existence (like the state of Israel).
    Now if people are willing to consolidate their past and perpetuate their unity and be governed together by consent, then they are a nation.
    Renan’s arguments are legitimate because they rest on the people’s volition. His definition of a nation can be compared to marriage. If two independent individuals are fine with each other’s personalities, differences and similarities, likes and dislikes, and if they agree to live together in the bond of love for the rest of their lives, then they can enter the lifelong contract of marriage. Likewise, according to Ernest Renan, a nation is an expressive agreement of the inhabitants who have a pre existing bond to live together upon their consent. Just as neither spouse is a slave to the other nor is venturing for someone else permitted, similarly, no group of people are unfairly subject to the other and seizing of other territories are forbidden.

    "A nation is a large scale solidarity..."
    Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains. A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation."-Ernest Renan (1823-1892)French theorist -Qu'est-ce qu'unne nation?

    Best regards
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      Apr 16 2014: This is a good definition.

      I guess, this is why America is so stable for so long. There is oppression in many senses, but, in general, individual freedom seems to be the cornerstone of American society.

      Found a good resource by searching Ernest Renan - Thanks.
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    Apr 15 2014: The people.
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        Apr 16 2014: On 9/11 the attack was perceived as coming from a totally different culture. In 1776, "we the people" was not as clear-cut. Many people felt British and didn't feel like fighting British soldiers at all. In 1861, all sides stood up for freedom. The North - to free the slaves. The South - to free their states from what they viewed as oppression of the federal government. Apparently, when South decided to secede, they did not want to associate with their fellow Americans in the North. What made them feel distinct?
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        Apr 17 2014: Things that *unite* one group of people also tend to *separate* these people from others. Sometimes, the feeling of unity is common to all people of the country, but often the same process tends to split nations.

        E.g. in Ukraine, people in the West are united in their aspirations for an independent country, free from corruption and from Russian influence associated with the Soviet past and dating back centuries to Russian Empire. But this also separates them from the people in the East who feel nostalgia about the former greatness of the Soviet Union and want closer ties with Russia.

        There are people in Ukraine who believe, Ukraine must be a unitary state, and there are people who believe that Ukraine must be a loose federation.

        So, my analogies with the struggles for Independence and the Civil War in the U.S. are not really "the past". In Ukraine, this is present-day reality. Same struggles with independence of the whole country from an imperialistic power and with independence of regions inside the country from the central government within the country. Different centuries, different parts of the world, same problems.
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        Apr 18 2014: We'll see about Ukraine. I'm sure, in 1861, it was not quite clear whether the United Stats will remain united. Mentality of Russian and Ukrainian people is different than American mentality. So, the resulting state will, for sure, be different. However, I do hope, Ukraine will remain united.
  • Gail G3

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    Apr 12 2014: I will answer as an American, because I am intimately acquainted with its history and the pre-history of this "nation" even though I know that our history is founded in the European model.

    The core belief about nationalism is that nationalism is an essential part of your security--a lie. The lie tells us that we need military might to defend us, and that calls us to coalesce under patriotic banners--a dangerous state of affairs.

    This is further inculcated in us by mandatory public schooling. If you understood the history of mandatory public schooling, you wouldn't even ask the question. When I realized that the total of all that I learned about early american history was nothing but lies and myth taught as themes, I came out of my delusion. I know that this holds true now for almost all countries. The Nazi model of schooling is now the predominant way of creating adults who are not able to conceive anything that the national government does no want the graduate to conceive. Schooling was meant to strip us of our free will to think.

    If you speak or read German, a look at Johann Fichte's works about schooling will prove enlightening. (One of his speeches has been translated into English, and that one is appalling. He's a hard one to read because he rambles so, but he founded the global mandatory public educational model. Governments who want to retain the feudal government model insist on using it. Education is not about education. It's about schooling in a particular type of thought that governments want you to think.

    What makes a nation a nation? The people's LEARNED willingness to kill and destroy life in all forms in defense of imaginary borders.
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      Apr 13 2014: "What makes a nation a nation? The people's LEARNED willingness to kill and destroy life in all forms in defense of imaginary borders."

      I, largely, agree with you that state borders are imaginary. Cultures and human relations have no borders. I also agree that government propaganda creates an illusion of threat, instills fears, and creates an illusion that people need protection. This justifies taxes, military spending, police, and the existence of politicians. This is exactly what is happening in both Russia and Ukraine now.

      Does this mean that when a foreign power attacks a country, people should not defend their territory? Does it mean that Ukraine should not fight to protect its integrity and give away Eastern regions to Russia if Russia chooses to take them? Your arguments seem rational. But when your country is under attack, the irrational emotion called "patriotism" seems to take over. And that's when this irrational sense of national identity suddenly comes out.
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    Apr 25 2014: well, it does seem that the word "nation" comes from the word "natural," which makes me think a nation has a lot to do with natural boundaries, such rivers and mountains.
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      Apr 25 2014: Latin root "Nat" has to do with birth. Natural, nation, prenatal, native, name Natalia all have the same root. I don't think, boundaries have to do with etymology of the word.
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        Apr 25 2014: wonder why natural and birth have the same root. Is it because nature is always giving birth?

        Well, you would agree that natural boundaries have a lot to do with defining a nation? For example, aren't the United States and Mexico separated by some river, maybe the Rio Grande? Then of course oceans separate nations. I believe at least part of the boundary of the United States and Canada is the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence river.
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          Apr 25 2014: "Natural" is an interesting word. It has all kinds of meanings. Death, perhaps, occurs in nature as frequently as birth. I think, the common denominator between birth, death, and nature is existence.

          On the same accord, rivers, perhaps, connect people as much as they divide them. If you go across the river, it's a barrier. If you go along the river, it's a connection.

          Speaking of connections. Perhaps, what makes communities and nations is not barriers, but connections. Natural barriers that you mention can affect connections between people, but sometimes they don't. To build a nation, people need to build connections, not boundaries.

          Thanks for an interesting thought.
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        Apr 25 2014: climate might be a part of nature that helps unite people in a nation. Maybe all the people in Canada want to live in a colder climate. Americans want temperate. Mexicans are shading toward desert. Central America is getting a little more jungle. And so on.
  • Apr 25 2014: Nation is an artificially created entity. They came to exist in various ways often by natural lay of the land, wars, treaty, conquest. But they are men made entity. Once made boundary changed by war or treaty and consent of people are not necessary. But nation once create can split or join to male a bigger nation.

    Boundary created by wars or force often have unhappy people left. That creates Ukraine and islands claim by China and Japan and many other places.
  • Apr 16 2014: A nation is defined by a language? Can UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and NZ be defined as The English nation?
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      Apr 17 2014: "Albeit, some of us are more equal than others."


      I'd say, the larger half of Americans are less equal than the other half.
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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. 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. 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.
  • Apr 14 2014: I think some of all the things you identify, and a lot of what Harald mentioned. I think It has to do with the commonality of values, beliefs, and desire for independence from those that do not share the values and beliefs. Part of it is a belief that a particular way of life offers the greatest chance of survival and happiness for individuals and their families. This would include surviving local hostile groups and neighbors. The compromise of values to achieve this survival and happiness may lead to seed for change and evolution of the country, but the desire to survive is the cohesive force. Ideologies, religious beliefs, opinions, and political systems can all change if survival is assured. Survival includes providing opportunity for citizens to obtain needs for survival (food, shelter, and clothing). This may require developing trade with neighbors to get needed resources not available in the area associated with a country's boundaries, developing a human resource skill base, and building adequate national defense resources to defend against other countries that you cannot make peaceful relations or that are aggressive towards your people. The balance in all of this that is determined to be required for survival is the cohesive element that builds a nation.

    Perhaps the choices made in the various areas you mention and the ones I suggest, along with the natural resources and other natural occurrences and attributes of the area chosen for settling, might be the influences that form a national culture and eventually a national identity.

    My answer presumes a long period of time for development, and the relative equal parallel development of neighboring countries. However in the real world, these developments are not always equal or done in parallel. Development often gives one country a decisive advantage over another. This development is a strategic advantage that can be used by aggressive countries to inflict their will on less developed neighbors.
  • Apr 13 2014: Nation is a collective identity/ego. From the basic insecurity of ego springs the desire of nations to conquer others, to raise over the ruins of one nation's defeated otherness the symbolic flag of another nation's triumphant ' self'.
    It has been happening since the human history began, it is happening right now. For how long can we afford it ???
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      Apr 14 2014: It seems to me that as long as people are guaranteed basic rights (life, security, justice) and decent life, most would not care about the color of the flag over the local government building.
  • Apr 13 2014: I think the tribal history is quite important to a nation.
  • Apr 12 2014: The willingness of enough other powerful political entities to accept its existence. Consider the Baltic States. When Russia, in typical Russian fashion, invaded and annexed them, the rest of the world (except for Russia's lackeys) refused to accept it. And now the Baltic States are back. No matter how many lies Russia told, the Baltic States existences as nations did not cease. The same is true in the present day. It doesn't matter how much Russia will lie.
  • Apr 12 2014: I'd say Harald definitely nailed it. But I also think that there is more to it. Language is to a point. if you have many languages in a country, then for efficiency one language is going to be dominant thanks to trade. U.S. gets its language from Britain, but that in it of itself tells a history aspect. Although we have had some questionable times in our past, I think many U.S. citizens are proud of their history and heritage.

    Growing up in America at this time we find religion not to be a big deal, but equality towards all people and all religions didn't used to exist. In Europe the Ottoman Empire was the only place you could practice Islam freely. In all other places you would be persecuted or an outcast otherwise.

    Territory helps keep a smaller diversity group too. U.K. is a group of islands where you would have to take boats over, though not too far they were more isolated than say the Balkans.

    Then you also have your own personal experiences that influence how strong of a nationalist you are.

    With a shrinking world, world trade being exceptionally profitable now, and no goal for the country, it gets harder to see the borders, and believe that you live in the greatest country in the world.
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      Apr 12 2014: Regarding territory, why does Scotland feel the need for self-determination, after centuries of sharing the island with other people?

      You seem to imply that the more people have in common (language, religion, territory), the more united is the nation. It's hard to imagine a separatist movement in Japan, for example. That's understandable. But there are very diverse and huge nations (India or China, for example). What holds them together?

      Are all people equally proud for their country? In some countries, there are dissidents who feel shame for their government. Yet, they feel love for their country which is not the same as the love for the government.

      Perhaps, it's just a fuzzy emotional feeling.

      But I think, the economic factor is closer to truth. When people rely on each other economically, they tend to tolerate the differences and stay together.
  • Apr 12 2014: A nation is defined by it's tax collecting organisation, centralised wealth re-distribution mechanism.
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      Apr 12 2014: Interesting opinion. I guess, this is an issue in most federations - where the money goes. Perhaps, this is one of the key questions in Ukraine. Eastern regions contribute for the largest portion of the GDP. Perhaps, this is why they want autonomy (to keep the money) and this is why Ukraine won't allow them autonomy. This is also why Russia wants them badly. You make me realize that language/religion/culture are just superficial pretexts. The real beef about "rights" is, perhaps, in the money.

      By this logic, to create a united nation, the state needs to make all regions interdependent and not allow any region to be economically self-sufficient. This is a genius point, actually.