Politics & Policy

In The “Borderland”

The struggle for Ukraine.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 27, 2004, issue of National Review.

“They won: decisively, irreversibly, and unconditionally.” That is the reaction of the Russian daily Izvestiia to the decision of Ukraine’s supreme court to annul the results of the recent presidential election and hold a new one. The “they” in that sentence are the supporters of Victor Yushchenko, who, according to all observers, had been deprived of victory by blatant electoral fraud perpetrated by Yushchenko’s main opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, and his backers, namely outgoing president Leonid Kuchma and Ukraine’s Russian minority. Never before have events in Ukraine attracted so much attention abroad, and rightly so: They represent a genuine democratic revolution with potentially explosive consequences for all the states that once made up the Soviet empire, Russia included.

Ukraine is a young country with a recently matured sense of national identity. Until the middle of the 19th century, she was “Little Russia,” a region and a people whom the Great Russians considered an intrinsic part of their own nation. Russians viewed with deep suspicion Ukrainian claims to independent nationhood, so much so that in 1876 the czarist government forbade the printing of works in the Ukrainian language. The center of Ukrainian nationalism subsequently moved to Galicia, then under Austrian rule.

Russia’s claims to Ukraine rest in good measure on the historical fact that the first Russian state was located in Kiev, today’s Ukrainian capital. That state was destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 13th century, following which Russia’s population and statehood shifted to the forest zone in the northeast, with the capital in Moscow. What had been the Kievan principality passed under Polish rule in the 14th century, where it would remain for some four centuries. (“Ukraine” is derived from the Slavic word for “borderland,” which explains why its name was traditionally–and in my opinion correctly–preceded by “the,” as is the case with “the Netherlands” or “the Low Countries.”)

Ukraine’s long experience of Polish rule had a variety of consequences, leading to political and cultural developments that differentiated her from Russia. Unlike Russia and her autocracy, Poland was a constitutional monarchy dominated by the nobility, with parliamentary institutions and extensive civil liberties. Through Poland, literate Ukrainians became acquainted with the West. A large part of Ukraine’s population consisted of runaway serfs from Muscovy: These formed anarchist Cossack communities of freebooters who recognized no external authority. All this resulted in a libertarian tradition quite different from the austere and isolated regime prevailing in Russia.

Russia acquired Ukraine gradually, beginning in the 17th century and ending in the mid-20th, when–as a result of the Stalin-Hitler pact–Ukraine’s last remaining outpost, Galicia, then Polish, passed under Soviet rule. Lenin had granted Bolshevik Ukraine the status of a Soviet republic, nominally sovereign but in reality subject to control by the Russian Communist party. Under Stalin’s rule, the region suffered terrible depredations, including a man-made famine in the early 1930s in the course of which between 7 and 9 million Ukrainians perished.

When the USSR dissolved in December 1991, Ukraine declared her independence, a decision acknowledged by Russia’s new president, Boris Yeltsin. But a large majority of Russians found it psychologically impossible to adjust themselves to the loss of Ukraine, the richest of the one-time Soviet republics and one inhabited by a kindred people (the two share a common ancestry from Kiev). Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin–who closely follows public-opinion polls and adjusts his policies accordingly–began on assuming office to apply pressure on Ukraine and other nations of the so-called “near abroad” in order to bring them back into the fold. To this end he has employed a variety of devices, including economic and military intimidation, the military form exerted through Russian army contingents which Moscow, in violation of its pledges, refuses to withdraw. In some regions, notably Georgia, such imperialist policies have led to enduring tension.

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