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King of Ukraine (6): Nation of Choice
Some Ukrainian history as we contemplate a Russian war
As we contemplate a Russian invasion of Ukraine, let us begin from the people who are most concerned, the Ukrainians, and with what they have to lose. About twenty-five miles from the Russian border lies Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. The last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014, it staged a rebellion in the city, which failed. Its supporters charged the opera house, mistaking it for town hall. This time, Kharkiv would very likely be stormed in the first week of the war by the regular Russian army.
Last fall, Kharkiv premiered “King of Ukraine,” an opera based upon the true story of a modern aspirant to a Ukrainian throne. The libretto was written by Serhyi Zhadan, a poet and novelist who was hospitalized with head wounds after the attack on Kharkiv in 2014. He was severely beaten after refusing to kneel and kiss the Russian flag.
In a series of six posts (this is the sixth and final one), which draw from my book The Red Prince, I will tell the true story of the man who once wished to be king of Ukraine. Its lesson: a nation is what you love, not what you inherit.
In 1945 the Red Army defeated Nazi Germany in eastern Europe. The Soviets liberated Vienna, and shared the task of the occupation of the city -- once the Habsburgs' imperial capital, then capital of a small alpine republic, then a provincial city of the Third Reich -- with its western allies, the Americans, the British, and the French.
During the Second World War, Wilhelm had befriended two Frenchmen who worked for an airplane factory near Vienna. They were agents of the French resistance, and Wilhelm (despite his recent ill treatment by France) helped them to collect information. During the war he also befriended Ukrainian music students in Vienna, who put him in touch with the Ukrainian underground. As the war ended Wilhelm put some Ukrainians in touch with French military intelligence.
The Soviets treated Vienna as a terrain to be cleansed of dangerous elements. On 13 September 1947 Wilhelm told his landlady that he was going out to lunch, and was never seen in Austria again. He was abducted from a platform of the Südbahnhof by officers of SMERSH, the notorious agency of Soviet military counter-intelligence. They flew him east to Soviet Ukraine. In Soviet prison he was tortured and interrogated.
Asked which language he would like to speak in his interrogations, he chose Ukrainian, although he knew that this could not help his cause. His answers were translated into Russian for the official version of the protocol. He was beaten and tortured. For his contacts with Ukrainian political activists and French intelligence he was sentenced to twenty-five years in a prison camp. The sentence was never carried out. He died in a prison hospital in Kyiv on 18 August 1948.
Wilhelm's choice of his own nation reveals the possibility of individual choice within larger trends. No one can avoid national identity in the modern world, but some people can select the community to which they belonged. His death in illustrates the friction between the dream of national freedom and the reality of the powerful state. In a sharp form, he embodied the dilemmas of a world that combines ever more options with ever more constraints. He chose to work for French intelligence, he chose to speak Ukrainian to his Soviet interrogators, but he did not choose to be tortured to death.
No one knows just where Wilhelm is buried, as "enemies of the people" in the Soviet Union were denied this basic dignity. Though he has no headstone, his Soviet death certificate did record both of his names: Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg-Lothringen, and Colonel Vasyl' Vyshyvanyi. Wilhelm's choices in life were less odd than this double identity might suggest. The imperial families that ruled most of Europe before 1914 were of no nationality as such; the world of 1918 required that these families make national choices. Some families understood this in advance, and melded the traditional flexibility of rulers to a modern understanding that the day of the nation-state had come. Wilhelm's was one such family. His father, brothers, and sisters, after all, also chose a nationality into which they were not born, in their case the Polish.
Other major figures in Wilhelm's story also chose their nationality as young adults. The Ukrainian metropolitan who baptized Wilhelm, Andrei Sheptyts'kyi, was himself a convert, hailing from a Polish Catholic noble family. The Ukrainian Count Vasylko, who introduced Wilhelm to Austrian politics, was also of Polish noble origin. A Ukrainian colonel called Vsevolod Petriv, one of Wilhelm's allies in occupied Ukraine in 1918, had been a Russian until that very year. One of Wilhelm's opponents, the great Ukrainian political Vyacheslav Lypyns'kyi, argued that Ukrainian kings must be of Ukrainian lineage. Lypyns'kyi was himself born a Polish noble, choosing Ukrainian identity in adulthood. The philosopher Lypyns'kyi was a major influence upon the Ukrainian historian, Ivan Rudnytsky -- who, on his mother's side, was Jewish. Rudnytsky, the most influential Ukrainian historian in North America in the twentieth century, made a persuasive case in his work that nationality was a matter of politics and the future rather than of myth and the past.
In all of these cases, as in Wilhelm's own, nationality was a choice. Led by the case of Wilhelm to the politics of the nation, we see an interesting aspect of the history of Ukraine. It is not a matter of an ageless ethnicity oppressed by foreign powers, but of a complex struggle in which personal identity was a political commitment. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Western and Russian commentators alike were obsessed with language and ethnicity, as though these could assign a destiny. As Vladimir Putin showed then, and is showing again now, people who talk about blood ties are preparing to shed blood, and people who talk about brotherly nations aspire to be Big Brother. Meanwhile Ukrainians themselves generally chose sovereignty, not because of their origins but because of their experiences: with Soviet rule and then with corrupt authoritarianism.
Americans should understand that nations involve transformations, belonging as we do to a nation with a tradition of revolution, slavery, civil war, and immigration, where in one way or another every citizenship is and has to be a remaking. Though Ukraine has faced the greater trials, like the United States it was a political nation from the start, founded by men and women who were raised in an empire but wished to belong to a nation. Seen in this way, the history of the nation slips from the cold hand of the ethnic, the lives of individuals escape the demands of families, and the struggles of nations to be free become comprehensible. The emergence of Ukraine was a political choice rather than a result of some ethnic fate.
That history is particular, but the lesson is general. To be born in a time and place is not to join a national destiny. Independence must be declared again and again, generation after generation, individual by individual. Wilhelm's kingdom was one that he chose; he lived and died for it because he wished to: freedom is made not born.