The history of Ukraine

Both the European Community and President Putin are making plays for Ukraine’s favours. Chris Bowlby looks at the republic’s varied history to explore its present dilemma

Pro-EU protests in Kiev - Getty Images

Anti-government demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square have been persistent since last November, prompting violent responses from riot police armed with truncheons and tear gas. Demonstrators have denounced what they see as the corruption and incompetence of the regime led by president Viktor Yanukovych. But this is much more than an internal Ukrainian affair.

The contest on the streets of Kiev is also a battle for influence between Russia and the European Union, both promising Ukrainians new forms of economic assistance and political association. Ukraine – which only achieved independence as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – is often portrayed as poised between Europe’s east and west.

Simple geography illustrates Ukraine’s pivotal position. As Europe’s second largest country, its territory reaches deep into that of modern Russia, but it shares borders too with several EU members, including Poland and Hungary. For historians, however, this tension is more subtle than simple ideas of east-west division, and concerns a lot more than, say, trade deals.

President Putin made headlines in December with his agreement to cut by a third what Russia charges Ukraine for gas. But Russia’s – and Putin’s – sense of linkage to its geographical neighbour runs far deeper. Geoffrey Hosking, one of the UK’s leading historians of Russia and its influence, points out that “the origins of both states lie in Kiev, and in the medieval state known as Kievan Rus”. This means that Russians “think of the two countries as being very closely related. It’s like England and Scotland.”

Putin sought to dramatise these deeper links last July when he visited Ukraine to join celebrations commemorating the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Christianity in 988, a key moment in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin spoke of the “spiritual unity” of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples: “in this sense,” he said, “we are, without a doubt, one people”. Dr Andrew Wilson, Reader in Ukrainian Studies at University College London, points out that this version of history is reinforced in Russian school textbooks and mass media.

But it’s important, argues Dr Wilson, to see Ukraine – both its territory and its identity – as more of a “shifting jigsaw” than a single coherent unit. While some parts retain genuinely close links with Russia, other parts still reflect in their voting patterns today that they were once under, say, Polish rule.

In the early modern period, Kiev and the lands around it were ruled as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, making them open to influences such as the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation. And Galicia in western Ukraine was ruled for a long period as part of the Habsburg empire. “You get a very strong current of Habsburg nostalgia there,” notes Wilson, symbolised by the revival of coffee shops in cities like L’viv (formerly Lemberg). “You can make the argument that this is a lost part of central Europe.”

This western part of Ukraine, adds Professor Hosking, has “had a completely different history”. Many of its people are not Russian Orthodox but belong to the Uniate church – the Greek Catholic church as it is often known – that conducts its rite in Ukrainian and acknowledges the pope as its spiritual head. Another part of today’s Ukraine with a very different past is Crimea, with its Greek and Tartar links, plus periods under both Ottoman and Russian rule.

In the 20th century, the Soviet Union made its own re-ordering of the Ukrainian jigsaw. Western Ukraine was taken by Stalin from Poland at the end of the Second World War. Crimea was transferred by Moscow to the Ukrainian republic within the USSR in the 1950s, but retains strong links with Russia, symbolised by the Russian Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol. And Soviet rule did bind Ukraine more tightly into Russian influence than ever, often at terrible cost. Millions of Ukrainians already part of the USSR in the 1930s died in famine engineered by Stalin.

However, Soviet Moscow never dominated Ukraine culturally. Economic, political and military decisions were imposed from the centre, says Hosking, but Ukraine “did have a certain autonomy” in culture and education. While Russian was the dominant language, primary school children learned Ukrainian, many books were published in the language and, in the second half of the 20th century, “a strong Ukrainian national movement grew up in the Soviet Union of people who had been through a Ukrainian education”.

Many of those nationalists now look towards western Europe for help. And the European response is also conditioned by deeper history. Poland has been especially active, says Andrew Wilson, reflecting its close links with Ukraine as well as its old strategic desire for buffer states between Poland and Russia.

Sweden too has also been prominent in EU diplomacy, an initiative that led Putin’s government to mischievously recall the defeat of Swedish forces by Russians at the battle of Poltava in 1709. Germany also takes a close interest; its involvement, though, is tempered by memories of the appalling suffering of Ukraine, above all its Jews, at the hands of Germans during the Second World War.

So all sides try to deploy history in the battle for influence in Ukraine. Protestors in Kiev argue that western links should shape Ukraine’s modern search for democracy and prosperity. President Putin combines the rhetoric of ancient spiritual bonds with warming winter offers of cheap gas and trade deals – a reminder to its citizens, especially those in the east of the country, that they have long been dependent on Soviet-style heavy industry. 

But while Putin preaches profound Russian-Ukrainian kinship, there is one link he wants to discourage. The Ukrainian protestors’ criticism of corruption, powerful oligarchs and authoritarian politicians is something he is desperate to keep as far away from Russian streets as possible. And President Yanukovych, prevented from taking office after a disputed election in 2004 when Ukrainians staged their ‘Orange Revolution’, also fears people power. Older history, suitably massaged, is much more to these presidents’ liking. 

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