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 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

In this connection, Stalin’s collectivization policy of the early 1930s is often cited as proof of Stalin’s particular hatred for the Ukrainian people.9 The sense of victimization has also been reinforced, understandably, by the huge losses suffered during World War II by the Ukrainians. According to one historian, over three million were killed by the Nazis, with an additional 2.4 million dispatched for slave labor to Germany.10


The “Ukrainian national myth” is evidently a mixture of historical fact and questionable generalizations, at once of reality and fiction, of just grievances and special pleading. Many nations, especially those whose aspirations were suppressed or ignored, stake their claims in similarly extravagant terms, but the Ukrainian national myth strongly affects political realities in Ukraine today, and is worth close examination.

As I have noted, the word “Ukraine” does not even appear until the sixteenth century; and few non-Ukrainian historians take seriously the claim that modern Ukraine is the direct, indeed exclusive, heir to Kievan Rus.11 It is true that Stalin’s collectivization drive was more destructive in Ukraine than anywhere else, and, apart from the starvation in China between 1959 and 1961, his monstrous man-made famine of 1933 and 1934 has no parallel in contemporary history. It is arguable, however, whether Stalin was prompted by a particular hatred for Ukrainians or by the paranoia that feared the peasant’s attachment to his land and any vestige of nationalism as mortal threats to dictatorial control.12

Two phases of Ukrainian history in particular have been enlisted in the Ukraine’s cause: the Cossack and peasant rebellions that began in the sixteenth century, and Ukrainian nationalism during World War II. From the sixteenth century on, peasant uprisings were a regular occurrence in the borderland territory that later became known as Ukraine and that was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The rebellions were not caused by “national” grievances: the peasants were hardly aware of any common identity except their Orthodox faith. They were inspired by hatred of their perceived oppressors: the Polish or Polish-Lithuanian nobility (szlachta) and Jews, who acted as the landlords’ estate agents, usurers, and innkeepers, these being among the few occupations they were allowed to practice. Since the peasants were obliged by royal decree to spend a certain proportion of their small earnings on vodka, they saw the Jewish tavern-keepers and estate administrators (arendars) as directly exploiting them.13

The Cossacks who lived in the Dnieper River Valley—called Zaporozhian Cossacks—used the peasant revolts to settle their own scores with the Polish nobility, the Tatar Khans in Crimea, and the tsars in Moscow. Largely brigands, freebooters, and mercenaries, the Cossacks had their own elite group—“registered Cossacks”—who were at times in the pay of the Polish kings and szlachta, while the poorer Cossacks, known as the chern (rabble), tilled the “registered” Cossacks’ lands and followed their masters in their armed campaigns. They did not take part in “Ukrainian” uprisings any more than the peasants did: they fought in their own interest, that is, to obtain for themselves the same privileges as the Polish szlachta, including the right to own serfs. Nor were they out to protect the Orthodox peasants from their Catholic overlords (as some Ukrainian historians maintain), though frequently they would be asked to do so.14

The largest Cossack-peasant uprising was headed by Bohdan Khmelnitsky in the mid-seventeenth century. For many years loyal to the Polish king, Khmelnitsky became enraged when a Polish count raided his estate, killed his son, and abducted the woman he was about to marry. Supported by his loyal Cossack troops and then by thousands of peasants who loathed the szlachta and saw in Khmelnitsky the protector of their Orthodox faith, the Cossack hetman launched a war against the Polish nobles and eventually against the king, Wladyslaw IV, and his successor, Jan Casimir. The war was marked by hideous atrocities, including massacres of the Uniate priests loyal to Rome (which Ukrainian historians usually pass over in silence), and of Poles and innocent Jews, of whom, it is estimated, between 50,000 and 100,000 perished.

In 1654, Khmelnitsky, unable to regain the favor of the Polish king, threw in his lot with the Russian tsar, Aleksei Mikhailovich, who recognized Khmelnitsky as the hetman of an autonomous region called “Malorus,” which he would protect in return for the Cossack chieftain’s loyalty to Moscow. Not only was serfdom not abolished, as the peasants had hoped, but it was in fact strengthened.

The “Hetman state,” as Ukrainian historians call the Cossack political regime that came into being in 1654, was neither a state nor a triumph of Ukrainian nationhood.15 After Khmelnitsky’s death in 1657 came what Ukrainians call the “period of ruin” during which internecine wars among the Cossack hetmans, uprisings against the tsar, and pestilence and starvation devastated the land. Yet such is the need for historical heroes that Khmelnitsky has come to be regarded as the Simon Bolivar of Ukraine, with parks, squares, streets, and even a city named after him. A visitor to Ukraine soon learns—as I did—that to question the myth of Khmelnitsky is virtual blasphemy, except among some liberal intellectuals and Jews.

Khmelnitsky is romanticized even by historians who acknowledge his savagery. In Professor Orest Subtelny’s exhaustive (and in many ways excellent) history of the Ukraine, for instance, the 1654 treaty between the Moscow tsar and Khmelnitsky, which was signed in the town of Pereiaslav, is described in language appropriate to a socialist realist screenplay. Professor Subtelny even avoids mentioning Khmelnitsky’s bloody suppression of a rebellion by Cossacks who opposed his decision to accept the sovereignty of the tsar. “It is difficult,” he writes,

to overestimate Khmelnitsky’s impact on the course of Ukrainian history…. Most important, in a society bereft of self-confidence and a clear sense of identity, he instilled pride in itself and a will to defend its interests.16

Since the reign of Khmelnitsky and his successors led Ukrainian society into a state of ruin while serfdom steadily grew, one wonders whether that society found the hetman’s reign all that uplifting.17 In her book Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in Sixteenth-Century Ukraine, the American historian Linda Gordon perceptively writes:

As the Soviets have reduced or at best assimilated cultural struggle to class struggle, so the [Ukrainian historians] have…projected nineteenth-century populist Ukrainian nationalism backwards in time, ahistorically, and have often failed to examine aspects of cossack aspirations that did not fit this model.18


A second instance of rewriting history concerns the record since the 1930s of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and of its armed forces, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army), especially of one of its principal leaders, Stepan Bandera. The OUN was a proto-fascist organization. It was founded in 1929 in Poland, whose government had allowed its five million Ukrainian citizens to form organizations and have their own press, but refused to give them wider cultural and administrative autonomy, and banned Ukrainians from holding any government positions. The OUN aimed at creating a one-party state; it glorified “will” and violence over “reason,” practiced individual terrorism, and was organized on the Führerprinzip—the unquestioning authority of a single charismatic leader. The main enemy of the OUN was Russia, and so in 1939, when Poland was invaded from the west and the east, the OUN with Stepan Bandera as one of its principal leaders fought the Soviet army.

Much as moderate Ukrainian nationalists today deplore the fascist character of the OUN and of Bandera himself, his struggle for the nation’s independence makes him something of a hero in the eyes of many Ukrainians, especially in Galicia. This is why Ukrainian historians have kept silent about some of Bandera’s and OUN’s reprehensible activities, including their collaboration with the Germans and the help they gave the Nazis in carrying out the extermination of the Jews. One well-known and prolific Ukrainian historian, Taras Hunczak, describes the UPA as a “nationalist force fighting for the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state,” which is rather like saying that Stalin established the Gulag in order to provide millions of Soviet citizens with jobs.19 In another essay, “Ukrainian-Jewish Relations during the Soviet and Nazi Occupations,” published in Ukraine during World War II—History and its Aftermath,20 Mr. Hunczak even claims—in spite of all the evidence to the contrary—that “neither the Ukrainian underground movement nor any other organization [!] cultivated anti-Semitic programs or policies.”

Another contributor to the same volume, Myroslaw Yurkevich, in “Galician Ukrainians in German Military Formations and in the German Administration,” acknowledges that many Ukrainians served in the SS and other Nazi military units, but argues that “their motive was anti-Soviet, not pro-Nazi,” which would have been news to the Jewish and other victims, who had assumed that their executioners were sympathetic to the Nazis. Yet a third contribution, by Peter J. Potichnyj (“Ukrainians in Military Formations”), glosses over the role of Bandera and the OUN in helping the Germans to organize the notorious SS Galician Division, which was so popular with Ukrainians that it couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to join it.

The extent of collaboration between Ukrainians and Nazis must be kept in perspective. Millions of Ukrainians were killed by the Nazis, and many Ukrainian peasants risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians served in the Soviet armed forces, and many formed anti-Nazi partisan units. But there can be no justification either for suppressing the truth about the Nazi collaborators or for the ignorance about Bandera’s activities that one finds in Ukraine today, even among university teachers—the result, in large measure, of the distorted Ukrainian historiography on this subject.21


When Ukraine proclaimed its independence in August 1991, it thus began with a mixed legacy of justifiable grievances, myth-making, and a bitter hatred of Russia, which it held responsible for the imposition of Communist rule in Ukraine. The effect of these tendencies can be seen in the history of political dissent in Ukraine over the past four decades, most strikingly in the evolution of Rukh, since late 1988 the country’s largest opposition movement.

Rukh (“movement” in Ukrainian) was founded in 1989, mostly by leaders of the small opposition groups that had sprung up and then been repressed in the 1960s and 1970s. As the earlier groups emerged during Khrushchev’s “thaw,” so was Rukh made possible by Gorbachev: indeed, its full name was originally Ukrainian Popular Movement for Perestroika.

When Rukh first appeared, its leaders said their main goals were democracy, economic reform, the rule of law, and Ukrainian sovereignty—by which they meant autonomy within “a renewed Soviet federation.” In March 1989, during the parliamentary elections that took place throughout the USSR (the first in Soviet history), Rukh won about 100 seats in the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, and in alliance with other, smaller parties it controlled about one third of the close to 400 seats; it would have had more if the Communists had not rigged the party registration procedure so as to exclude Rukh and others from running in 55 percent of the polling units.22

Rukh’s strength forced the ruling Communist Party to shift some of its positions. To curry favor with voters, the Party gradually accepted the idea of “state sovereignty” (not independence) and in July 1990 joined with the opposition in Parliament to proclaim that Ukraine was in fact sovereign. With real independence in sight, however, the tone of Ukrainian politics began to change, and Rukh with it. Strident nationalism and anti-Russianism spread. The same people who only a year or two ago warned against any form of national hatred started expressing views that antagonized not only many ordinary Russians inside and outside Ukraine, but also the Russian members of Rukh. In Kiev this summer, I talked at length with Ivan Drach, a well-known poet, one of Rukh’s founders, and since last February one of its co-chairmen. “Russian democracy,” he told me,

stops where Ukrainian independence begins. The Russians have the mentality of a ruling nation. The most wretched Russian has always felt superior to the richest Ukrainian, and even the rich Ukrainian felt inferior to any Russian.

The literary critic Ivan Dziuba, another likable intellectual who wrote one of the classics of the Ukrainian dissent movement of the 1960s, Internationalism or Russification?,23 has often written in favor of tolerance and against ethnic prejudice, but Russia is an exception. Why, he asked me, can’t the United States see that Russia has always been an imperial power, and that its territorial ambitions are bound to reassert themselves once its present economic difficulties are overcome? Washington, he said with some heat, “is in fact helping the resurgence of an imperialism that one of these days will be just as dangerous to the West as the Soviet version of imperialism.”

One hears such sentiments throughout the republic. In Lvov, the capital of Galicia, a lovely city whose Italian palaces and Gothic and Baroque churches testify to its Austrian-Polish-Ukrainian past (the once thriving Jewish community was destroyed by the Germans together with the Jewish quarter), a young American scholar from the University of Michigan told me of an opinion survey she had made showing that Ukrainians and Russians are increasingly hostile to each other, which she attributed to Ukrainian “chauvinism.”24 A Russian woman who teaches literature at Lvov University told me that although she has lived all her life in Lvov, recently many Ukrainians have taken to calling her a Moskal—the pejorative word for Muscovite. In Taraspol, capital of the “Trans-Dniester Republic” near the Moldavian border, the head of the local Shevchenko Cultural Society told me that she finds it difficult to maintain good relations with her fellow Ukrainians in Lvov. “They keep sending me gross and offensive anti-Russian literature,” she said.

The anti-Russian attitudes are part of a growing xenophobia that offends other ethnic groups as well. In Lvov, I spent an evening with a Polish family, all of whose members speak perfect Ukrainian and wouldn’t think of leaving their native city: they complained that recent guidebooks say nothing of the Polish contributions to the city’s history and architecture, and that Polish plaques had been removed from buildings built by Poles. In Kiev, Aleksandr Burakovsky, chairman of Rukh’s Council of Nationalities and a Jewish activist, spoke about the rising incidence of anti-Semitic articles in the press. “What is most distressing,” he told me, “is not any officially inspired anti-Semitism. That’s over. What is bad is that the political authorities say nothing against it, including my friends in Rukh.”

Perhaps the most disturbing manifestation of this new nationalism is summed up in the word “Ukrainization.” The term tends to elicit protests from Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians, who point out that not a single Ukrainian paper is published in Crimea. But of course Ukrainian newspapers in the Crimea close down as soon as they are founded since hardly anyone wants to read them.

The first language law passed by the Ukrainian—and still Soviet—parliament in 1989 stipulated that Ukrainian was to be the only official language in all of Ukraine, which meant that about one third of the population would be forced to learn it. The law was amended in November 1991 to permit the use of Russian for “inter-ethnic communication” and to allow parity between Ukrainian and the language of a national minority in regions dominated by that minority.25 But by that time the harm had been done: many Russian speakers took the original law as proof of the Ukrainian government’s intolerance, and they can point to more than a few signs of “creeping Ukrainization.” In Lvov, for instance, the only Russian-language television program has been dropped. In Kiev, where most of the population speaks Russian (I hardly heard any Ukrainian spoken when I was there), the Russian service has been allocated the weakest TV channel; all others are in Ukrainian. Elsewhere Russian television cannot be seen at all.

As of the current academic year, Russian literature is to be incorporated into a course on world literature and taught in Ukrainian, an absurd way to teach Tolstoy in a country in which virtually everyone reads Russian. The high schools that hope to be upgraded into the more prestigious lycées or Gymnasiums will get government support only if they teach in Ukrainian. In the department of philology at Kiev University, Russian language and literature will hence-forth be taught in Ukrainian. “Can you imagine anything more ridiculous?” a literary scholar in Kiev, himself a Ukrainian, asked me.

Ironically, these measures are reminiscent of the “Russification” policies denounced in the past by the Ukrainian opposition, which were shaped not so much by contempt for Ukrainian culture as by the Soviet Communist drive for centralized control on the one hand and the fear of nationalism on the other. But Russification encouraged the revival of old-fashioned Russian chauvinism. Most destructively, it degraded Ukrainian language and culture. Ukrainian (and other non-Russian) parents sent their children to Russian schools less because of direct pressure by the authorities than out of concern for their children’s career prospects: Russian was the language used in most technical schools, in the armed forces, in all government offices throughout the empire. Virtually all Ukrainians can read and speak Russian, although this may be less and less true of young children.

Russification policies were so much harsher than anything the new government is doing that it would be absurd to claim they are equivalent. But there are some disturbing parallels. The effort to overcome the years of Soviet Russification is understandable, as is “affirmative action”—that is, creating conditions favorable to the growth of the Ukrainian language and culture, establishing higher technical schools (vuzy) in Ukrainian, and making it easier for parents to send their children to Ukrainian schools. But “Ukrainization” as it is now being pursued threatens to become a tool of Ukrainian hegemony, much as Russification was a tool of Soviet centralism.


Still more disturbing is what one Ukrainian observer recently called an inexorable (obrechionnyi—literally, doomed) slide into “totalitarianism.”26

“Totalitarianism” is too strong a word, but many Ukrainians I spoke to were worried about officially inspired authoritarian tendencies. Unlike Russian television, for instance, Ukrainian television is state-owned and, as the Moskovskie novosti correspondent in Kiev writes, largely devoted to “propaganda for the president, the Prime Minister, or the idea of Ukrainian independence.”27 People critical of the government rarely appear on TV. Press censorship has formally been abolished, but the government, as the sole owner and distributor of newsprint, maintains a strong hold over publications of every sort. Last August for example, the Ukrainian journalist and television reporter Mykola Kniazhytsky was dismissed from his job, apparently because of his outspoken views, although no reason was given. On August 24 he referred to “idiots in the government” in a Kiev Russian-language paper, and since then he has been interrogated by officials of the Ukrainian public prosecutor’s office who have asked him to say whom he had in mind. Kravchuk in a press conference said he approved of this questioning, and in September Kniazhytsky was charged under a recent criminal statute with “causing harm to the interests of Ukraine.”

Unfortunately, the new authoritarianism has been supported by many in Rukh, whose change in ideological direction shows itself not only in the resurgence of traditional nationalist cant in Rukh publications and deep anti-Russian animus, but also in the emergence of a menacing concept of “independence.” Of course it was predictable as the Soviet Union collapsed that Rukh would advocate “independence” instead of “autonomy.” But as one leader of the Party of Democratic Birth (now part of an opposition coalition called New Ukraine) put it to me:

What is at issue is the difference between the emphasis on the individual and his rights on the one hand, and on the nation and national independence as the highest goal on the other. Independence itself is not an adequate goal for us. The national idea has to be transmuted into a democratic revolution.

The transformation of Rukh into a movement aimed at achieving state independence above all other goals has estranged some of its earliest supporters. But the same tendency allowed Rukh to make its most important alliance—with Leonid Kravchuk, the then chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet and since December 1991 president of the republic.

The fifty-seven-year-old Kravchuk had been a faithful Communist official since he was a young man; by the age of twenty-nine he had become the head of a department in the Chernovtsy (Chernowitz) regional committee of the Communist Party. Six years later he was an official of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party, where in the words of one critic he excelled in “closing churches and exposing ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists.”28 In 1979 he was put in charge of the agitation and propaganda department of the Ukrainian Communist Party. In 1988, he was promoted to be chief of the ideology department, and in the summer of 1990 he became chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

Even Kravchuk’s admirers call him a khitryi lis, a wily fox, because of his skill in looking after his own future. Throughout the former USSR one finds born-again “democrats,” but Kravchuk’s conversion has been a triumph of calculation. From 1989 on, he alternately praised Rukh’s “patriotic spirit” and criticized it for failing to recognize the “leading role” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In July 1990, he steered the Parliament into supporting Ukrainian “sovereignty.” On August 20, 1991, the second day after the Moscow coup, Kravchuk still supported the “Emergency Committee” that had organized it.29 A day later he strongly condemned the conspirators. Shortly thereafter, Kravchuk resigned from the Party and then dissolved it. (The Party promptly renamed itself “Socialist.”) Kravchuk maintains, without a shred of evidence, that he had in fact resigned from the Party on the first day of the coup; he also says he didn’t know about Stalin’s massacre of peasants in the early Thirties, or about the repressive efforts of the Party’s postwar policies—policies he himself carried out.

For many Rukh leaders, Kravchuk’s political somersaults are less important than his determination to make Ukraine strong, independent, and invulnerable to the pressure of “Russian imperialism.” In an interview published in Izvestia, Kravchuk said his main concern was “not even the well-being of the people…[but rather] to safeguard the real and long-term independence of the country.”30

“To safeguard the real and long-term independence” has meant holding on to most of the Black Sea Fleet, Moscow’s objections notwithstanding. (This June, Yeltsin and Kravchuk agreed to shelve the issue for three years, which simply means keeping it alive. By mid-September new arguments broke out over the control of two naval academies in Sevastopol, with both sides claiming jurisdiction over them.) It meant persuading the United States last May that Ukraine should keep its nuclear weapons for at least seven years instead of three, and retain full control over conventional arms.31

For Dmitry Pavlychenko, a highly praised poet, one-time Rukh activist, and now an adviser to Kravchuk, these are incomparable achievements. The only trouble, he told me, is that the US press fails to understand Kravchuk’s “greatness,” having virtually ignored him during his trip to the States in May. The Rukh leader Ivan Drach, who is reported to have said that he would “never join the opposition against Kravchuk,”32 told me that now was the time to concentrate on creating a strong state: without it, everything else will be at risk. Statehood, he said, comes before democracy.

The co-chairman of Rukh, Vyacheslav Chornovil, used to disagree with such chauvinism. In the presidential elections last December, Chornovil ran second to Kravchuk, on a platform calling for a “federal” rather than a “unitary” state—that is, one in which the various regions of Ukraine would be to a large extent self-governing. He told me this summer that he was still in favor of a federal system as a long-range goal; but a few weeks later he angrily denounced the Parliament’s resolution giving new powers to the Crimea as “a devastating blow to Ukrainian statehood” (see “Whose Crimea?” on page 63). Chornovil remains opposed to Kravchuk but not, apparently, to Kravchuk’s main goal of building a strong, unitary state.

The enthusiasm for Kravchuk seems to be widespread among Rukh’s leaders. In Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, Valentin Tamboltsov, the youthful head of Rukh, put it bluntly: “As part of Rukh, we fulfill all of Rukh’s policies as well as those of our president, Leonid Kravchuk.” At least for Mr. Tamboltsov there seems no difference between the two.


When Kravchuk became president last December, he could rely on a safe, loyal, and pliable parliamentary majority, and within a few weeks after his election, he proceeded to construct a “strong executive”—i.e., to enlarge his personal power—on the theory that local government had become “alienated from the people,” and that the task of building an independent state required new institutions. Furthermore, the president said, the time has come for political groups “to put aside all their differences,…to rise above petty matters and see one and only one thing—an independent Ukraine.”33

Kravchuk dislikes criticism of any kind. Recently, in August, he told a group of visiting Ukrainian émigrés that he would expel any foreigner—whether or not of Ukrainian origin—who made “open attacks” on him or his government.34 But in February 1992, only a few months after winning the presidency, he tried to pacify his opposition by appealing for cooperation, and the strategy worked. In March of this year, the legislature approved a law giving the president the power to appoint his own “plenipotentiaries”—namestniki—to the highest local executive positions. These officials are charged with carrying out legislation and presidential decrees, as well as issuing instructions to lower government bodies and economic enterprises. The legislation caused some strong protests. Chornovil, for one, objected to the appointment of “some of the most reactionary and undesirable” people to powerful positions.35 But other members of Rukh kept silent, and the law remained on the books.

“The most reactionary and undesirable” people are, of course, the backbone of Kravchuk’s obedient apparat. The visitor to Ukraine continuously has the overpowering sense of déjà vu—the same florid faces, the same false smiles, the same nauseating rhetoric that only a few years ago rhapsodized over Brezhnev’s “real existing socialism” and that now praises Kravchuk’s policies. In Kiev, the minister for nationality problems passionately denounced to me the Soviet Russification policies of the past; in his previous job as minister of culture this same man had faithfully put into effect the very policy he was now attacking.

In Lvov, the journalist Hanna Steciv told me:

The director of our local stock exchange is the former secretary of the district Party committee. All the heads of banks are former Party apparatchiki. The same goes for all the directors of enterprises. They all cut profitable deals for themselves. One of them said to me: “You know why privatization doesn’t work? I’ll tell you why: because we are still not fully prepared to take over all the enterprises. Once we do it, we’ll have privatization.”

In fact, the law on privatization which was passed some months ago is a dead letter. In July the Ukraine Supreme Soviet tacked on an amendment to the law granting special leasing and purchase rights to the “working collective” (trudovoy kolektiv). Every economist I talked to believes that the amendment, which supposedly enables rank-and-file workers to become property owners, in fact makes it easy for managers to become the owners of privatized enterprises. They are the ones who will know how to manipulate the new regulations to their advantage, and they will do so.

Not coincidentally, the one man in the government who had tried hard to introduce market reforms in Ukraine—the first deputy prime minister, Volodymyr Lanovoy—was fired by Kravchuk just when the amendment to the privatization law was passed. Lanovoy is a forty-year-old economist who has considerable academic experience and “pro-market” views. In March of this year, he was appointed as deputy prime minister and minister of economics, and soon criticized the official government economic reform program, drafted by Aleksandr Yemelianov, the head of the Economic Commission of the State Council, the country’s highest policy-making body. Kravchuk had promised after his election that he would carry out radical changes encouraging privatization, but Lanovoy charged that the principal aim of Yemelianov’s plan was to build a new command economy. He also criticized as self-destructive the speed with which a new currency consisting of “coupons” was to be introduced to replace the ruble and the assumption that Ukraine could thus secure a better position in world trade.

Lanovoy’s criticism, and that of the recently formed group he represents, “the New Ukraine,” was obviously anathema to Kravchuk. The coupons, introduced last spring as a step preliminary to a new currency, have proved a fiasco: traded at about four rubles per coupon in January, they had fallen by the summer to around 0.6 ruble a coupon. As an article in the London Financial Times put it:

Russian experts have warned Ukraine that the moment Ukraine introduces a separate currency Russia will demand that Ukrainians pay world prices for oil. This threat underscores Ukraine’s structural vulnerability in the trade with Russia.

In fact, the article concludes, “Trade between Ukraine and Russia—72 percent of trade within the old Soviet Union—is grinding to a halt as the political link which sustained it breaks down.”36

Lanovoy’s position reflects that of many economists, both in Ukraine and the West, who believe that the new currency was introduced mainly for political reasons—to score a symbolic victory over the ruble. It also calls into question a belief cherished by many Ukrainians—namely, that Ukraine had always been regarded by Moscow as a colony to be exploited. It is true that Ukraine’s share of USSR investment tended to be less than its share of USSR production; but at world prices Ukraine had a large trade deficit with the other republics, which Moscow had financed. David Marples, an economist with deep sympathies for the Ukrainian cause, has written:

Ukraine cannot survive alone as an independent state; whether or not this would have been possible in the recent past is debatable. The debate taking place on economic sovereignty would be enhanced by more input from those who have advocated a very close trading relationship with Russia proper, because herein lies the real key to independent survival.37

Lanovoy was one of those who advocated such a close trading relationship. Kravchuk dismissed him in July, and replaced him with Valentyn Symochenko, former mayor of Odessa and a crusty old apparatchik, on the ground that Lanovoy is a member of an opposition group, and could therefore not both work for the government and at the same time criticize it. This was an obvious pretext—the minister of environment, Yuri Shcherbak, is also a member of New Ukraine—and it was seen as such. Greta Bull, director of the Kiev office of Harvard University’s Project on Economic Reform, said that Lanovoy’s dismissal “…is a sign that Kravchuk and the old Communists will undertake only nomenklatura reforms.”38

The story of how Lanovoy was hired and fired is a good example of Kravchuk’s foxlike methods, and of how Ukrainian legislators had allowed themselves to be outwitted. As an article in Nezavisimaya gazeta39 pointed out, Lanovoy’s appointment last March was a sop to Kravchuk’s potential critics, and neither the president nor his apparatchiks had any desire to adopt his proposals. But the tactic worked: the deputies, without giving it much thought, voted for the namestniki measure, which was craftily submitted by Kravchuk at precisely the same time he appointed Lanovoy. “When I asked on that very day the opposition deputies how they could vote for the namestniki,” writes Nezavisimaya’s correspondent, “not one of them came up with an explanation.”

As for Lanovoy, he was never given a chance to present his ideas before Parliament or on television. His proposals were referred to committees of “experts,” who would then return them for more suggestions.

The economic situation is deteriorating at a catastrophic rate. Combined agricultural and industrial production—including Ukraine’s output of iron, steel, and chemicals—has dropped by 25 percent over the past eight months. Inflation has reached 20 percent a month, and both unemployment and crime are rising. Of course, similar developments, no less disturbing than those in Ukraine, are taking place in other post-Soviet republics, especially in Russia. But as an economist with the World Bank specializing in Eastern Europe told me:

At least Yeltsin is trying to accomplish something, although he faces criticism from the nationalists who accuse him of “selling out to the capitalists,” and from the industrial managers’ lobby, which wants to protect itself against the effects of rapid privatization. Kravchuk has done nothing except pay lip service to reforms.

In Russia, too, the old nomenklatura is holding onto its privileges, and minority groups (such as the Chechens and Volga Tatars) demand sovereignty if not outright independence, while Russian chauvinism is on the rise. But in Russia Yeltsin has at least attempted—though with mixed results—to break with the Party apparat, whereas Kravchuk continues to rely on it and to strengthen it. Instead of seeking rational economic relations with his oldest and strongest neighbor, he followed policies presumably designed to increase Ukrainian economic independence, but in fact making things much worse in the end. So far the price of independence has been an economic debacle, national tensions, and growing popular, disillusionment. The popular mood should be of intense concern for Kravchuk, but even more so for those who oppose him.

Organized political opposition in Ukraine remains weak. A large number of Rukh members, Drach among them, broke away from the organization to form a new “Congress of Democratic Forces,” in effect a party committed—as its leader said recently—“to protect the office of the elected presidency” (as if the office as such is under threat). In the meantime what is left of Rukh, now under Chornovil’s leadership, has recently taken a tougher stand against Kravchuk, demanding (along with other opposition groups) new elections to the Parliament, on the legitimate ground that the present one, elected in March 1989, is not representative.40

The most prominent opposition comes from the New Ukraine, a new movement which has emerged only during the past year. For Vladimir Grinev, one of its leaders, and deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet (Parliament), Kravchuk is little more than a cynical politician who allied himself with the mainstream of Rukh—indeed, had adopted much of its program, particularly full independence—in order to build “an authoritarian state and preserve the power of the old ruling apparat.”

“We reject the notion that one must concentrate on first building the state, and that democracy is of secondary importance,” he told me. “With that attitude, God only knows the kind of state—authoritarian, even fascist—we may end up with.” He criticized Drach for having said on several occasions that “the interests of a nation are higher than those of an individual.” “This,” said Grinev grimly, “comes close to the ideas subscribed to by the OUN.”41

What distinguishes the New Ukraine movement is its emphasis on immediate economic reforms as essential for a functioning democracy, and on a federative system rather than a unitary, centralized state. Ukraine is a land with large ethnic minorities, some of whom live in their own communities. “If they are not granted full administrative freedom,” says Grinev, “the national and regional tensions, already seething today, may erupt into a real hell.”42 When I spoke to him in early September, he told me that Kravchuk may be forced into a de facto recognition of a federative system, since other regions in Ukraine have also raised demands for greater administrative and cultural autonomy. The growing demands of different national groups combined with unrest caused by shortages of food and consumer goods may yet, he implied, force Kravchuk to make drastic changes in his policies.

Perhaps Grinev will be proved right. If not—that is, if the opposition remains weak and ineffectual—this will undermine the legitimacy of Ukraine and the prospects of its citizens. The only beneficiaries will be, as in other post-Communist countries, to cite the words of a British observer, the “battalions of ‘New Men’ (and ‘New Women’), no longer marching toward a Communist future [but]…scrambling for possession and power, the bastard offspring of Marxism.”43

This Issue

October 22, 1992