Watching the coverage of Ukrainian protests last months, I found most Western media outlets a bit too eager: Yay!  Protest!  People on the streets!

The Russian state media has its own agenda, of which, I think, most readers of this blog are aware.

Some Americans writing for Kyiv Post have a tendency to whitewash the ugliest sides of Ukrainian nationalism.

I’ve seen some curious ideas on wiki, too: that Nazi collaborationist Stepan Bandera “fought for Ukrainian independence from Soviet Russia and Nazi occupation during World War II, and against all perceived enemies of a free Ukrainian state.” or that prosecuting Ukrainian WW2 criminals is an example of anti-Ukrainian sentiment (I believe this one is from Pat Buchannan’s playbook).  The bit about Bandera “fighting” reverberates through Western media.

I am an American citizen and a Jew, a native of Kharkov, a Russian-speaking city in what was, when I was growing up, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  I often get questions about Ukraine.  My short answer is, no matter who prevails, the outlook for Ukraine is pretty bleak.

The long answer is that Ukrainian history is both fascinating and disturbing.  Take the Cossacks, for instance.  They were semi-nomadic dwellers of Poland’s Eastern Borderland known for military prowess and probably runaway slaves. They were Eastern Orthodox, had a republican form of government with an administrative center in Zaporozhian Sich.

[Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth on the onset of Khmelnitsky uprising]

In 1648, lead by a minor Polish noblemen Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the Cossacks rebelled, and in the course of the rebellion eradicated the local Jewish population, slaughtered Polish landowners and priests and burned Catholic churches.

Initially allied with the Ottoman Empire, in 1654 the war-weary Cossacks signed a treaty with Muscovy.  The Tzars annexed the territory granting autonomy to Sich. Up until the Bolshevik revolution, the Cossacks served the Russian Empire, guarding it’s South-West periphery from Turkish and Tartar raids.

Today’s Cossack revival movement attempts to resurrect some of that tradition, for instance, a few days ago there was news about Cossacks guarding the Sochi Olympics: Come to Sochi for the pleasure of being detained by an authentic-looking dude in a furry hat.  Maybe he’ll show some cool tricks with a sword, too.

[Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire (1880-1891) by Russian painter Ilya Repin who was born in present day Ukraine. The painting is inspired by the legend about the Cossacks sending an irreverent, profanity-laden letter to the Turkish sultan]

In the second half of the 18th century, Catherine the Great annexed Crimean Khanate to Zaporozhia’s South, and when Poland was partitioned, its eastern part was incorporated into the Russian Empire.  Unlike the earlier incorporated slice of the Polish Commonwealth, this Left-Bank Western Ukraine, would remain opposed to Russification.

In 1775 the tzarina abolished Zaporozhian Sich, distributing the land to Russian and Ukrainian landowners.  Some Cossacks fled, other less fortunate former free-wheeling warriors eventually became serfs, most tending the fertile lands of the “Breadbasket of Europe”.  To Ukrainians of a more nationalist bend, particularly the ones who claim Cossack roots, don’t thank Catherine for expanding their country; she remains the personification of a despotic regime — and who can blame them?

Some conservatives believe that Ukraine’s qualms with Russia date back to Holodomor.  Not true.  Beginning with the reign of Peter the Great (late 17th-early 18th century) and ending with the demise of the Romanoffs, the tzars prohibited publications in Ukrainian and Ukrainian instructions in educational institutions.  Some linguistic blending occurred naturally: in the 18th century, Surzhyk, a hybrid dialect of Ukrainian and Russian emerged in Eastern Ukraine.  Nikolai Gogol, a 19th century Russian writer of Ukrainian descent, best known for novel Dead Souls, wrote parts of his novella Evenings on the Farm Near Dikanka in Surzhyk.  Gogol was first in a long line of Russian literary figures with ethnic and/or biographical connections to Ukraine.

20th century Ukraine was the stage of some of the bloodiest events in modern history.  First, a wave of pogroms followed Russia’s defeat in war with Japan in 1905.  During the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Ukraine plunged into chaos with multiple coups and several powers vying for control.

Nearly all of them unleashing a wave of pogroms, but the worse came from Symon Petlura’s Ukrainian People’s Army that murdered an estimated 16,000 Jews. Petlura’s otaman (general) Andriy Hulyi-Hulenko is believed to have had made up his own version of the Protocols of Elder of Zion, a fake Trotsky speech.

Petlura-lead short-lived Ukrainian National Republic is interesting as a democratic predecessor to modern Ukrainian state.  The Republic had a constitution and various political parties, including Jewish parties, were represented in Central Council (Rada).  But UNR’s grip on power was tenuous, and Petlura’s name today is synonymous with pogroms.

Wiki being Wiki, the discussion of pogroms on Petlura’s page is all but whitewash.  To be sure, there is no evidence that Petlura ordered pogroms, but Wiki editors insist on guarding Ukraine’s hero plausible deniability of knowledge of widespread atrocities committed by his troops, claiming that once he found out, Petlura did make some (inconsequential, I must say) moves to curb them.  Per Wiki, Petlura was not personally anti-Semitic, because, being a prolific writer, he left a large body of work, and there is nothing anti-Semitic there.

But by the same token they are not pointing to any philo-Semitic work (not that he’s required to produce it) or showing him being particularly troubled by violence perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists under his command against 9% of the country’s population.  Petlura was assassinated (“slain” as Wiki puts it) by a Jewish anarchist in 1927.

In 1932-33 Joseph Stalin reinstituted serfdom via collectivization.  Collectivization campaign saw fierce resistance by peasants, particularly wealthy peasants, or kulaks in official Soviet lexicon.

The Soviet regime confiscated crops and deported many kulaks to the GULAG, resulting in artificial famine Holodomor.  The exact number of perished is difficult to estimate, but it’s probably between 6-7 million in the whole of the USSR and over 3 million in Ukraine, most ethnic Ukrainians.

The ethnic dimension of Holodomor is hard to deny.  Andrei Sakharov is quoted as saying that Stalin suffered from Ukrainophobia: The dictator was keen on breaking the backbone of Ukrainian nationalism, and the areas most affected by Holodomor were the ones that most resisted Bolshevik occupation a decade earlier.

[Holodomor in Kharkiv, 1933]

In 1939 Hitler and Stalin concluded a pact dividing central Europe.  Stalin annexed what is now the Western-most part of Ukraine from Poland, proceeding to execute up to 22,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia. The territory annexed by the Soviets had a 60% Ukrainian majority, but the city of Lviv , an important Polish cultural center and probably the most beautiful Ukrainian city today, was, according to a 1931 census over 50% Polish with Jews, the largest minority, comprising over 30% of the population.

The pact didn’t save Stalin from German invasion during which the Nazis recruited the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) led by Ukrainian terrorist in Poland Stephan Bandera into their police and military forces.  Bandera was anti-Polish and anti-Russian (not to mention an anti-Semite), and the alliance with Nazi Germany was a natural one.  He fancied himself a Ukrainian dictator, but the Nazis, who had other ideas, sent him to a concentration camp shortly after the invasion.  Bandera’s followers launched pogroms and participated, on Bandera’s orders, in the Holocaust.  Equally important is the UPA campaign of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against ethnic Poles.  Between 1942-1944, with the goal of creating Ukrainian Lebensraum, UPA massacred around 100,000 ethnic Poles.

When the tide of war turned in 1943, UPA regrouped as a partisan army.  They did fight the Soviets, bitterly, and well into the 1940s.  They lost hundreds of thousands, with survivors deported to Siberia.  Other Ukrainian nationalist fled with retreating German forces; some ended up in the United States.  Bandera himself remained in Germany where he was assassinated in 1959 by the KGB.  In 2010 the outgoing “pro-Western” President Yushchenko bestowed the honor of Hero of Ukraine on Bandera.  Incoming pro-Russian Yanukovich immediately nixed it.

There is much more to Ukrainian involvement in World War Two.  Ukrainians served in the Soviet Army, and half of the partisans in the country fought against Hitler.  Many risked their lives to save Jews.  Nazis ideologues had elaborate ideas for Slavic people; the occupiers treated Ukraine as a slave plantation and deported 2 million Ukrainian Untermenshen to labor camps.  For some reason this history doesn’t figure in Wiki’s entry on anti-Ukrainian sentiment.

[WW2 Ukrainian laborer’s work book]

After the war’s end, the Soviets finished ethnic cleansing of Western Ukraine, transferring about a million Poles from Ukraine Belorussia and Lithuania into Western Poland (another quarter million left after Stalin’s death).  Stalin moved a lot of people at that time, among them Crimean Tartars.  Crimea was repopulated by ethnic Russians, and in 1954 Khrushchev “gifted” it to Ukraine.  Russian nationalists today believe that Crimea should be rightfully theirs and that while they are at it, why don’t Ukrainians return Lviv to Poland?

Unlike Stalin, Khrushchev was a ukrainophile, with biographic connections to the “republic” (and so was Brezhnev who followed him, and Gorbachev who was part Ukrainian).  In the post-war years the Soviet Union was heavily invested in industry in Ukraine.  There was little indication of Russian-Ukrainian discord in the Eastern Ukraine where I grew up.

The population of my native Kharkov was mixed Russian-Ukrainian, and, it seemed to me, most people were a little bit of both.  The schools taught Ukrainian as a second language, and if we ever heard anything resembling Ukrainian on the street, we’d assume the speakers were from out of town.  We were a big second world industrial hub and the third largest university center in the Soviet Union — for all intents and purposes a Russian city in “the Ukraine”. I heard wild stories about Ukrainians in the West not liking Russians, but where I lived, I was the other.

[Ukrainian chic (if anything that touches Khrushchev can be considered chic): Soviet head of state (center) wearing a Ukrainian shirt with his dress suit]

There are many good reasons why after the breakdown of the Soviet Union Anti-Semitism in Ukraine generally didn’t live up to expectations; one of them is that Ukrainians have bigger fish to fry.  Ukraine undertook a nation-building project, meaning making Ukrainian the language of instruction in schools and defining Ukrainian identity against Russia through emphasis of historical events like the destruction of Zaporozhian Sich, Holodomor and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Still, Ukraine today lacks unifying identity with about half of the population speaking Russian as their native tongue (that includes, judging by videos I’ve seen online, a good number of protesters on Euromaidan).  This Russophone Ukraine celebrates cultural connections with Russia and regards not Holodomor but World War Two as a key event in 20th century.

As an American, I see that our foreign policy goal should be curtailing Russia’s imperialism, and we should ally ourselves with moderate nationalists.  I can see it their way: they remember serfdom and death coming from the east and want to ferment the flowering of Ukrainian culture through use of the poignant and melodic Ukrainian language.  I’m not sure about Ukrainian political culture, where leaders’ personalities triumph over substance and every politician promises heaven on Earth and fails to deliver.

After Yushchenko’s humiliating defeat in 2010 the shadier nationalists are on the rise.  The chauvinistic “Svoboda” (“Freedom”) party gained over 10% of the vote in 2012.  Svoboda, who are known to be anti-Semitic (and anti-American) are, for the most part, anti-Russian.  They are now in coalition with the mainstream nationalist parties “Fatherland” and UDAR.  One doesn’t need to squint to see Svoboda activists waiving half red/half black UPA flags at the Maidan protests.

It might just be that the age of moderate nationalists in Ukraine is over.  On the other hand, Svoboda antics can easily backfire in a country where so many ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian.

Although Euromaidan protests are on-going, they are no longer on the front pages in the West.  I’m sure Ukraine will be back in the news, and next time Svoboda might be part of the story.


This is a guest post by the author of the blog Sitting on the Edge of the Sandbox, Biting My Tongue.


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