Ukraine’s dangerous Viking history
The country’s Scandinavian heritage has always been a contested legacy
A few years back a news report about the war in the eastern Ukraine featured interviews with young men who had travelled from across Europe to fight the Russians. One cheerful-seeming Scandinavian, asked whether he was frightened of death, coyly laughed and replied that if he was killed he would then go to ‘Valhalla’.
He seemed like a nice enough guy, and I hope he’s still on Midgard, but some of the elements involved in Ukraine’s war even then seemed a bit unsavoury; and Putin’s argument that the country’s most active fighters are somewhat right-of-centre is not without foundation.
Valhalla, as part of Norse mythology, often seems loaded by the discredited racial ideas of the early 20th century, yet in this case it may have had more to do with the strong pull that the Vikings have on Ukrainian nationalism. This includes Viking imagery on military badges and even a Viking-style military haircuts — testimony to how these terrifying and fascinating people still influence culture and politics today.
It is hardly surprising that modern Ukrainians might identify with their Scandinavian forebears, since Vikings lie at the heart of the controversy over the national issue. That historical resonance seems to have grown as the country fights a 21st-century war of independence, which is writing a new chapter in its national story.
Both Ukrainians and Russians claim descent from the Rus’, the Norsemen who settled along the Black Sea in their pursuit of riches in Constantinople and the Islamic world. And hanging over this conflict is the figure of St Volodymyr, a man whose momentous decision would have huge repercussions down the centuries — and whose feast day is today.