Not So Free At Last

Leonid Kravchuk
Leonid Kravchuk; drawing by David Levine


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…

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