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Not So Free At Last


August 24 of this year was the first anniversary of the independent state of Ukraine—the new state proclaimed a few days after the failed coup in Moscow and approved by all but a small minority of Ukrainians in December 1991. Many Russians are still bewildered by the loss of so important a territory. Covering nearly 240 thousand square miles, Ukraine stretches from the Pripet marshes in the north-west to the Black and Azov seas in the south. It is a country of 52 million people, of whom 40 million call themselves Ukrainians. Of its 10 million Russians, many have lived together and intermarried with Ukrainians for centuries. In addition there are two million Poles, Jews, Belorussians, Tatars, Germans, and others.

Ukraine was, after Russia, the largest republic in the USSR, in population, territory, and economic importance. It accounted for about 25 percent of the Soviet GNP, and over 17 percent of the USSR’s national income. Its rich black soil produced 21 percent of all agricultural output in the Soviet Union, including grains, livestock, and more than half of its granulated sugar.

In addition to its size and relative wealth, Ukraine occupies a strategic geographic position linking Eastern Europe and Russia. Thus its secession was bound to become one of the most contentious problems facing Moscow during the frenetic months that preceded the final collapse of the Soviet empire. Indeed, Ukrainian claims to independence provided the nail that sealed the empire’s coffin.1 But many issues remain unresolved between Russia and Ukraine, among them territorial disputes: control of the Crimean peninsula with its largely non-Ukrainian population of some two million people, for example (see “Whose Crimea?” on page 63), or the disposition of the Black Sea Fleet. This consists of some three hundred aging vessels, with Moscow alternately claiming that they belong to Russia or to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), while the government in Kiev, now in control of over 80 percent of the Black Sea’s coastline, maintains that the fleet—formerly Soviet—rightfully belongs to it. Bitter wrangles have also been taking place over what will happen to Ukraine’s nuclear weapons.

The tensions between Russia and Ukraine, however, go deeper than disagreements about territorial or military matters. They are rooted in the acutely different perceptions that the two nations have of each other and their history.


The secession of Ukraine was a bitter event for Russians to accept. The Baltic countries, for instance, were formerly independent countries that had been forcibly absorbed by Stalin, and many Russians found their desire for independence understandable. But Ukraine was different. Except for a brief period between 1917 and 1920, it had not been an independent state. As a prominent Russian sociologist, Yuri Levada, said to me in Moscow last June:

For many Russians, Ukraine is part of Russia…. The thought that its transportation network, its economy, its schools would all be cut off from Russia, was simply unimaginable. Now this unimagined reality stares them in the face, and they don’t know what to make of it.

Militant Russian nationalists like the openly racist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a candidate in 1991 for president of Russia, have reacted by opposing the idea of Ukrainian autonomy, let alone independence. Other Russians, perhaps most of them, take a milder yet essentially patronizing view of Ukraine as no more than a region of Russia whose culture derives from their own. They no longer call the Ukrainians “Little Russians” (Malorusy), a term coined in the eighteenth century to distinguish them from the “true” or “Great Russians” (Velikorusy), but they still tend to regard them as younger members of the Russian family. Their literature is often dismissed as “insignificant,” and the Ukrainian language as a “dialect of Russian.”

Such assumptions are not justified. The term Ukraine (from the word okraina—borderland) as a geographic designation first appeared in the sixteenth century, and by the seventeenth it was used to describe a region covering much of the same territory as contemporary Ukraine. The idea that Ukrainians are an ethnic group arose in the first part of the nineteenth century largely as a result of the efforts of literary scholars, ethnographers, and historians to establish a Ukrainian national identity.

The various distinctive dialects that were the sources of modern Ukrainian emerged by the sixteenth century. Derived from Russian, with many borrowed words from Polish and (via Polish) German, they were standardized during the nineteenth century by Ukrainian writers and scholars, many of whom were inspired by the life and work of Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), Ukraine’s leading romantic poet and painter, who was a member of a Ukrainian nationalist society and bitterly opposed to tsarist rule and to serfdom. The language, particularly its vocabulary of science and technology, was enriched by later borrowings from other languages.2 The standardization of the Ukrainian language produced a strong literary tradition. Recorded Ukrainian literature and folklore go back at least to the fifteenth century and include epic narrative ballads called dumy, lyrical folksongs, and folk tales.

During the nineteenth century the tsarist government regarded any attempts to express Ukrainian national identity as a threat to its imperial central rule, and periodically banned publications and theater productions in the Ukrainian language. Nonetheless, the sense of a separate nationality took hold among city and town dwellers in Ukraine, and to a lesser degree among peasants. Political aspirations developed more slowly. While there were small groups of intellectuals (bratstvos) who discussed politics in the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until after the 1905 revolution that Ukrainian political parties—though tiny and with little popular support—came into being.

The situation was radically different in Galicia, Ukraine’s westernmost province. Once an independent principality, it fell under Polish rule and by the end of the eighteenth century was part of the Habsburg Empire. After the Second World War, it was “absorbed” by the Soviet Union (except for the western part of Galicia, whose population is overwhelmingly Polish). Under the Habsburgs, Ukrainians in Galicia had many freedoms: they spoke Ukrainian in government offices and courts and had their own organizations, schools, and a vigorous press. Even in the Habsburg army some knowledge of Ukrainian was required of all officers and NCOs, whenever 20 percent of the soldiers in their units spoke Ukrainian.3

All of this encouraged the growth of national aspirations, which eventually spread to Russia as well. With the outbreak of the March 1917 revolution, a group of Ukrainian left-wing nationalists in Kiev established a Ukrainian Central Council (Rada) and after the Bolshevik coup of November proclaimed Ukraine independent. Between late 1917 and 1920, during the bloody civil war,4 Ukraine had three successive governments. After the war, Galicia and the province to the south of it, Volhynia, were given to Poland by the Allies, and Moscow retained eastern Ukraine, which was eventually converted into a “Soviet Socialist Republic” with the purely formal right to secede from the USSR.5

During the 1920s, the Soviet government actively encouraged the growth of Ukrainian schools, theaters, and press in an effort to win the Ukrainians over to the Communist cause. As a result of the korenizatsia (nativization) policy followed throughout the Soviet republics, nationalist sentiment grew, even among prominent Communists, some of whom became enthusiastic advocates of korenizatsia.

In 1928 Stalin’s “counterrevolution” marked the end of the relatively liberal New Economic Policy (NEP) and the beginning of the furious drive for industrialization and forced collectivization “Nativization” was replaced with a brutal assault on “bourgeois nationalism” (i.e., nationalism that did not accept Communist dogmas and the Party’s dictatorship). Again, these policies applied throughout the USSR, but they affected the overwhelmingly agricultural and increasingly nationalistic Ukraine more severely than any other region of the USSR. Leading Ukrainian intellectuals were arrested and executed on rigged charges, and almost all the Communist Party leaders there were killed in the Great Terror. Some devoted Communists committed suicide. Among them were the Ukrainian commissar of education, Mykola Skrypnyk, and the writer Mykola Khvylovy, who in the 1920s had coined the korenizatsia slogan, “Farther from Moscow, closer to the West!”6

In the countryside, six million peasants—men, women, and children—prevented from leaving their villages to get food in the cities, were condemned to die of starvation. This ghastly policy was carried out by internal security troops and by Komsomol (Young Communist League) activists, who accepted the Party’s doctrine that workers “building socialism” must be fed, and not the “petit bourgeois” peasantry.


It should be clear, then, that Ukraine, far from being a part of Russia, is a distinct nation, with its own language, culture, customs, and historical traditions; that it has been seeking independence for well over a century; that Ukrainians have been very badly treated by the regimes imposed on them; and that like the members of other nations, large or small, young or old, they have a right to self-determination.

However, so reasonable a view is too dry and legalistic for many Ukrainians. It lacks the grandeur, the martyrology, and the moral and historical sanctification that national myths are made of. And so Ukrainians have turned to a different source—the theories developed by Ukrainian scholars in the nineteenth century and then generally accepted by successive generations of Ukrainian historians. According to their account, the Ukrainian people are direct descendants of “Ukrainian tribes” that lived around the Azov Sea and the Dniester and Dnieper rivers as early as in the sixth century AD. The earliest East Slavic political entity, the Kievan Rus of the tenth to thirteenth centuries, is the direct ancestor of modern Ukraine; the Russians, descendants of the Muscovite state that arose in the thirteenth century, have no claim to it. The Ukrainian language today, Ukrainian customs, characteristics, and beliefs all date from the same early medieval period.

Such characteristics include an individualism and “love of freedom” that has clearly set the Ukrainian nation apart from the Russian people.7 This love of freedom explains the various “Ukrainian uprisings” against their rulers throughout the centuries, and was expressed most vividly in the traditions of the Ukrainian Cossacks—originally peasants who had fled from Russian serfdom to the steppes of southern Russia—and their struggles against Poland and Russia, especially in the uprising headed by the Cossack chief, or hetman, Bohdan Khmelnitsky in the mid-seventeenth century. Khmelnitsky is Ukraine’s principal national hero, having fought—so the official histories claim—to create “a Ukrainian state.”

Enemies are central to any national myth, and for Ukrainians the enemy is to some extent Poland, but to a far greater degree Russia itself—from the Russia that first limited Cossack autonomy, and then obliterated it, to Russia under Communist rule. As some Ukrainian historians see it, tsarist policy toward the Ukrainian nation was not merely to subject it to Russian rule, but to rob it of its “historical memory,” its sense of being “a distinct nation”—a policy in effect carried on by the tsar’s Soviet successors.8

  1. 1

    I discuss this problem in detail in “The Road to Minsk,” The New York Review, January 30, 1992.

  2. 2

    The august Russian Academy of Sciences belatedly affirmed in 1908 that Ukrainian was a language in its own right, rather than an offshoot of an all-Russian (obshcherusski) tongue. I am indebted to Professor Edward Stankewicz of Yale University for assistance on this subject.

  3. 3

    István Deák, Beyond Nationalism—A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918 (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 99.

  4. 4

    For details see John S. Reshetar, Jr., The Ukrainian Revolution, 1917–1920: A Study in Nationalism (Princeton University Press, 1952).

  5. 5

    A small part of Ukraine, known as Bukovina, went to Romania and yet another small province, known as “Transcarpathian Ruthenia,” to Czechoslovakia.

  6. 6

    For details, see Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History (University of Toronto Press, 1988).

  7. 7

    According to Michael Hrushevsky (1866–1934), the dean of modern Ukrainian historiography, one of the early “Ukrainian” tribes, the Antae, “loved freedom and resented serving others or being subject to another’s authority.” Hrushevsky, A History of Ukraine (Yale University Press, 1941), p. 28. According to another historian, Mykola Kostomarov (1817–1885), “the Ukrainians are characterized by individualism, the Great Russians by collectivism.” The Ukrainians are by their very nature “very democratic,” unlike the Russians, etc. See the article by Roman Szporluk, “The Ukraine and Russia,” in Robert Conquest, editor, The Last Empire: Nationality and the Soviet Future (Hoover Institution Press, 1986), pp. 164–165.

  8. 8

    Szporluk, in The Last Empire, p. 155.

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