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The origins of 'Slava Ukraini'

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In early March 2023, a video surfaced online showing the execution of a Ukrainian prisoner of war. The unarmed soldier’s last words were “Slava Ukraini” – a Ukrainian national salute that means “Glory to Ukraine” – before he was shot multiple times and collapsed to his death.

Ukrainian officials condemned the POW’s murder as a war crime. The Ukrainian people were horrified and indignant at yet another blatant display of the Russian military’s cruelty.

Even before he was identified, Oleksandr Matsiievskyi became a hero with his softly-spoken yet defiant last words, embodying the resoluteness of the Ukrainian people in the face of Russia's all-out war. Artwork sprouted up online and offline, etching him into eternal memory, while many civilians and public officials took to social media to celebrate his bravery.

His last words, “Slava Ukraini,” is a more than century-old slogan deeply tied to Ukrainian identity.

What are the origins of the phrase?

Ukraine’s detractors have long attempted to depict the phrase “Slava Ukraini” as something nefarious, yet it has been a patriotic rallying cry among Ukrainians for generations, akin to “God save the King” in the U.K. or “Vive la France.”

The phrase can be traced back over a century and is tied to Ukrainians’ efforts to build an independent state, most notably in the face of enduring Russian aggression. A similar historical slogan, “Žyvie Bielaruś!” is also used today by the Belarusian democratic opposition in their struggle against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose nearly three decades in power has been backed by Russia.

While the single phrase “Slava Ukraini” is commonly heard or seen around the world today, it is actually part of a call and response: “Slava Ukraini” is accompanied by the response “Heroiam slava!” (“Glory to the Heroes!”), often followed by “Slava natsiyi — smertʹ voroham!” (“Glory to the nation – death to the enemy!”), and ending with “Ukraina — ponad use” (“Ukraine — above all!”)

Multiple follow-ups existed in years prior, including "Glory to all around the world!” by progressive, left-wing student groups in Kharkiv at the turn of the 19th century, as well as “Glory to the Hetmanate,” “Glory to the Cossack Army,” and “Death to the enemies of Ukraine” during the Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917 to 1921.

The notion of “glory” is also prominent in Ukrainian literature; many believe this influenced the slogan.

For example, Ukrainian historian Ivan Svarnyk has pointed out how in Taras Shevchenko’s poem “To Osnovianenko” (1840), the phrase “glory of Ukraine” is used:

Our epic and our ancient song
Forever shall remain,
And that is where our glory lies,
The glory of Ukraine.

(translated by С.H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell)

The poem is addressed to Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko (1778-1843), a distinguished poet, playwright, and prose writer who played a pivotal role in promoting the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian cultural identity. During Kvitka-Osnovianenko’s time, most of the territory of modern-day Ukraine was under the control of the Russian Empire, which imposed harsh Russification policies that aimed to assimilate Ukrainians forcibly.

The bravery of the fiercely independent and military-oriented Cossacks, a group originally composed mainly of serfs who had fled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was a theme in some of Kvitka-Osnovianenko’s work.

The Cossack Hetmanate, or Cossack state, existed from the mid-17th century until it was destroyed by Russia during Catherine II’s rule in the late 18th century.

Shevchenko, known today as Ukraine’s foremost poet, mourns the demise of the Cossack Hetmanate in the poem “To Osnovianenko.” Shevchenko also expresses the desire to see Ukraine prosper as it did during that time.

Similarly, the phrase “Glory to you, Ukraine!” was used in Mykola Kostomarov’s poem “Children of Glory, Children of Glory!”

Kostomarov helped found the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a secret society that existed in Kyiv from 1845 to 1847. Its members, which some believe included Shevchenko, advocated for the abolition of serfdom and a Ukrainian linguistic revival.

They also envisioned the Russian Empire being transformed into a harmonious federation of coequal Slavic nations, in contrast to the hierarchical order of the empire where Ukrainians and other non-Russians had lesser rights.

However, the tsar’s authorities disbanded the secret society and sentenced its members to internal exile or short-term imprisonment.

Ukraine’s national anthem, based on a 19th-century poem, also conveys the country’s aspirations for glory in its struggle for independence. Written by Pavlo Chubynskyi in 1862, the poem's opening line is “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor its freedom or glory.”

The use of “Slava Ukraini” as a political slogan initially surged during the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-1921) when different groups attempted to seize upon the Russian Empire’s collapse and forge an independent Ukrainian state.

Ukrainian historian Yuri Yuzych wrote that “Slava Ukraini” was even used by Poles, Armenians, and Georgians to express their solidarity with Ukrainians during that time.

The Soviet Army would go on to conquer most of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established as part of the USSR in 1922. However, the phrase “Slava Ukraini” did not lose relevance, nor did the fight for Ukrainian independence.

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Is ‘Slava Ukraini’ a far-right slogan?

Ukraine’s detractors claim that “Slava Ukraini” is an inherently far-right slogan because it was also used by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a radical group established in Vienna in 1929 that counted Stepan Bandera among its ranks.

The vying factions of OUN regarded Poland and the USSR as the greatest threats to the cause of Ukrainian independence, particularly the latter, which led them to join forces with Nazi Germany.

Without excusing the role of some OUN members in Nazi war crimes, it should be noted that the Nazis viewed Ukrainians and other Slavic peoples as “racially inferior” and essentially used OUN as a means to an end when fighting against the Soviets.

As the OUN-B – the younger, more extremist faction led by Stepan Bandera – began to push harder for the cause of Ukrainian independence, they were suppressed by the Nazi leadership. Bandera and other members of OUN-B were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany from 1941 until 1944.

The members of OUN were originally influenced by the work of figures like Dmytro Dontsov (1883-1973), who eschewed the Marxist doctrine of his youth in favor of the idea that Ukraine should be an ethno-nationalist state.

However, there is little to suggest that Ukrainians universally accepted Dontsov’s ideas as gospel, and in contrast to Dontsov’s ethnonationalism, Polish-born political figure Vyacheslav Lypynsky (1882-1931) promoted the idea that Ukraine’s struggle for independence relied on the contributions of all members of Ukrainian society, regardless of their background.

The historian Ivan Rudnytsky (1919-1984) also believed that Ukrainian society was pluralistic and that the nation was, to quote the American historian Timothy Snyder during one of his lectures on Ukrainian history, “a fundamentally political act directed toward the future.”

Snyder has argued it is this approach that prevailed in modern-day Ukraine. After all, it is common today to hear about the important role of Ukraine’s minority groups, such as the Crimean Tatars, in nation-building.

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Resurgence of ‘Slava Ukraini’

The use of “Slava Ukraini” started to reenter Ukrainian society following Ukrainian independence in the 1990s. Still, its popularity was not truly rekindled until the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, which led to the downfall of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukraine would honor the more than 100 civilians, known today as the Heavenly Hundred, killed by the Berkut special police force during the revolution.

Shortly after, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula by force, causing many people to flee or face imprisonment on trumped-up terrorism charges for opposing Russian rule. Following the peninsula's takeover, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region and attempted to destabilize other eastern and southern regions.

“Slava Ukraini” became the official greeting of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Police in 2018. It would go on to feature prominently in mass culture as well. For example, "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!" was inscribed on the Ukrainian football team’s kit for the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship – not without Russian propaganda outlets trying to stir up controversy, though.

The slogan became firmly entrenched in mass culture when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

“Slava Ukraini” has also become a globally recognized form of greeting and an expression of solidarity with Ukraine, as it was over a century prior. World leaders and sympathizers have embraced it, albeit sometimes using the mixed-language variation “Slava Ukraine.” In March 2022, Nancy Pelosi, then-speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, welcomed President Volodymyr Zelensky’s video address to Congress with the words “Slava Ukraina," another slightly incorrect version of the salute.

In Ukraine, public speakers, especially top officials, end their speeches with “Slava Ukraini,” the best-known example coming from Zelensky himself. President Zelensky, following in the footsteps of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” during WW2, has been addressing the Ukrainian public nightly to convey the latest news about the war.

He concludes each address with the slogan “Slava Ukraini!”

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