Ukraine from a Ukrainian perspective
As an American citizen of Ukrainian descent, whose parents escaped from communist Ukraine during WWII, I find myself watching the unfolding drama regarding the stolen Ukrainian election and the current widespread demonstrations with some anxiety and trepidation, mixed with some pride and hope. I'd like to enlarge on some comments I placed on The Belmont Club blogsite about my own perspective on this situation, and provide a historical background for anyone interested. Most people know very little about Ukraine and its history.
Please visit Belmont for excellent commentary and rundown of current events happening in Ukraine. (http://belmontclub.blogspot.com/)
There is some confusion as to the origins of the name "Ukraine". It has been referred to as "The Ukraine" for many years, but since independence the Ukrainian government has striven to strike the article from the name, as it implies that Ukraine is not a separate country, but merely a region -- like "The Midwest" or "The South". The origin of the name "Ukraine" or "Ukraina" is rather complex, but stems from the old Kievan empire which was called Kievan Rus, dating from around 900 A.D. It mostly referred to the southern territories of Eastern Europe. The northern parts were called Muskovy.
Peter the Great extended the name of Rus, or Russia, to the whole empire, which included the South, calling the southern territories "Malorossiya" -- or "Little Russia". (Hence the Tchaikovsky Symphony called the "Little Russian", which is based on Ukrainian folk songs -- needless to say, Ukrainians do not take kindly to being referred to as "Little Russians, and in the Russian language, the connotation is especially denigrating -- denoting more a sense of "sub-Russian" rather than the almost charming word "little").
The peoples of the Kievan Rus in the south saw themselves as a Christian bulwark against the Asiatic hordes and a means to protect Christianity and the European culture from invasion from the east. As time went on the area became known as "Ukrainia", which means "the borderland", to separate it from the northern Muskovite Rus. After a long and complicated history it finally officially took on the name Ukraine.
Although closely related to Russian,
Ukrainian is definitely a distinct Slavic language, with its own rich literature. I speak fluent Ukrainian and have read extensively in the literature, which goes back as a literary language, and not simply a spoken language of the people, to the 1500s, when there is a first translation of the Gospels into colloquial Ukrainian.
Already in the 14th Century, when Ukraine fell under the domination of Lithuania, Ukrainian along with Byelorussian became the official state language, and in 1566 the Lithuanian statute, which was the official code of the Lithuanian state, was published in Ukrainian. Modern Ukrainian literature dates to 1798, with the publication of Kotlarevsky's "Eneyida" or "Aeneid" -- a transposition of Virgil's story to a Ukrainian context in a humorous adaptation.
Ukraine has a long history of craving independence, with many periods in which they found themselves under the domination of various empires. They were variously under the Polish and Lithuanian empires, and eventually were dominated by the Russians. There has always been an independent streak in the Ukrainians, who are historically Greek Orthodox, having accepted Orthodoxy as the state religion in the year 988 by an edict of Prince Volodymyr.
Volodymyr was a pagan but felt that paganism was a religion of the past and could not be the basis of the unifying force he was seeking. On one day, by his decree, all the inhabitants of Kiev came out to the river Dneiper where they were baptized en masse by priests. The statues to the pagan gods were thrown into the river, also by his decree. The Orthodox church brought with it a higher culture, greater ideals, and moral values and also literacy and schools. Volodymyr built magnificent churches in all the large cities and Kiev became a majestic city whose wealth and beauty surpassed that of many capitals of Europe.
As a background to the current situation, the western portions of Ukraine, with the western capital being Lviv, were historically under the Polish empire and part of Poland until WWII. As such the people there had a much closer affinity for Western European values, and also were not under the communist yoke from the early part of the century as the eastern Ukrainians have been. As a result, the sense of Ukrainian language, culture, patriotism and identity is much stronger in the western regions. The eastern portions, including Kiev (spelled Kyiv now in the Ukrainian transliteration) and Kharkiv, are heavily Russified, with a large Russian population, and people who speak Russian in preference to Ukrainian in the big cities. This forms a rather strong cultural divide between the two regions, although many in the eastern portions are avidly pro-Western and pro-democratic and anti-Russian in their outlook as well. The majority of demonstrators are from the western regions of Ukraine.
Let me say here that the period of Tsarist Russian domination, followed by Stalinist and communist rule, has been devastating to the people of Ukraine. Under the Tsars, the Ukrainians were in bondage as serfs, and did not win their freedom until 1861, ironically coinciding with the struggles against slavery in our own United States. Ukraine's national poet, bard and the philosophical father of his country, is Taras Shevchenko, himself born a serf. His freedom was purchased by some noblemen who noticed the young boy's talent for painting and drawing. He was exiled for years to the Far East, denied both paper and pen, and died waiting for the Tsar's edict that would free the remaining serfs.
Under communism, Ukraine suffered the extermination of fully 7 million of its inhabitants, due to the artificial famine in 1933, engineered by Stalin as a way of forcing the land owning peasants into giving up their land to the State. My own parents and their families experienced this nightmare, when millions perished and bodies littered the streets. During the Stalinist years, and even beyond, the best and the brightest lights of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were systematically arrested, imprisoned, exiled and shot. After the era of Khrushchev, with the period of the Helsinki Accords, many Ukrainian intellectuals risked repeated imprisonment and punishment to publish their tracts secretly and to meet with other human rights activists. I have met many of these people who spent countless decades in prisons because they would not recant their desire for freedom and independence.
As to what is going on now, I find myself extremely anxious as I look at what is going on. The fact that Yanukovich has been officially declared the winner is not a good sign, as the Ukrainian government had been warned by the United States and by other Western European powers not to offically recognize the results of the election until investigations can be completed into the alleged fraud. The fact that they have done this indicates to me that they wish to force the matter as a fait accompli and dare the Western nations to do something about it. The fact that Russian Speznats (special) forces have been brought in, in the guise of Ukrainian forces does not bode at all well, and these are recognizable tactics of the Russian government.
Now I hear on Fox News from local sources, that the Kuchma government is busing in thugs from the eastern cities to confront the demonstrators. What they probably intend to do is "provoke" a counterdemonstration, with the union and worker type thugs, most of them drunk and ignorant, to attack the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators. The government will then have an excuse to wade in to restore order. Westerners hardly can understand the Byzantine ways of the East -- which includes, famously, the idea of "provocations".
I hope I am wrong, and I hope that the Bush administration and the Western powers can manage to wield some influence here. But I fear that this is Hungary all over again, and that the West will once again stand by and do nothing. No wonder Putin was so recently "rattling his sabers". He was sending a clear signal to stay out of his business. And he has obviously decided that it is his business to take Ukraine back into the Russian fold to once again re-establish his empire. I find that even though I wasn't born there that my heart is filled with anxiety and the old heartstrings are being strongly pulled by my countrymen struggling once again for independence. I pray for them today.
UPDATE as of 3 p.m. EST. Fox News is reporting that the Kuchma government has announced that civil war may result from th current unrest. Meanwhile Colin Powell and the government of Canada have announced that they do not recognize the results of the latest election and the elevation of Yanukovich to the presidency. Kuchma and Putin, meanwhile, have denounced "interference" in their internal affairs.
We watch and wait as history unfolds before us. With all eyes having been on Iraq and the American elections, this current crisis seems to have come completely unexpectedly, bringing with it old fears of the East/West confrontations of the Cold War era. Let's hope this is not the opening salvo in a new Cold War with an emboldened Russia. And there's always the French and Germans with their anti-Americanism. Could we see an unholy alliance with these groups to counter America's power and military might?
The stakes couldn't be higher.