EASTERN EUROPE: by Andrew T. KaniaNews Weekly
The historical roots of Ukraine's agony
, March 15, 2014
The Australian poet, Bruce Dawe, in The Not So Good Earth, provides his reader with an all too real and cynical perspective of Australians viewing major news stories from the distant comfort of their lounge rooms.
Protesters in Kyiv
building a barricade (February 2014).
In this poem we read of a family watching scenes of starvation and riots in China. The reader gets the distinct feeling that the family who are viewing these gory and horrific images do so in the same fashion as those who sit down to be entertained on a Friday evening by a Schwarzenegger film. The poem ends with the father of the family tripping over the television cord, thus ruining the ending of the “film”, as no one in the family then knows how the “show” finished.
One of the lessons that can be taken away from Dawe’s poem is that unless an individual can understand a situation, or at least find a degree of personal association with events, all they can ever do is look at a particular scenario as something surreal, or as mere entertainment. How could the family in The Not So Good Earth, be expected to look at China in any other light than as an action-motion picture, when what they were living and experiencing, in Australia, was so estranged from these far-off events?
Understanding leads to a greater chance of empathy. Hence, in a modern world that has become increasingly smaller due to rapid and mass communication, it is vital that we no longer plead estrangement, because we supposedly don’t know. We need to make it our responsibility to be informed. The world is not only at our doorstep — we are, and should be, a player in the world; and many who are victims of tragic world events turn to us in increasing numbers for support, or for refuge.
The present situation in Ukraine is a vivid illustration of this phenomenon. Over recent weeks Australians have seen a smattering of images from the chilly streets of Kyiv (please note the Ukrainian-to-English transliteration of Ukraine’s capital as distinct from the Russian, “Kiev”), with hundreds of thousands of protesters and police and army jostling in Independence Square and Kyiv’s snowy and icy streets; with barricades, tear gas, blue and yellow flags, and reports of death, torture and even a crucifixion, bombarding our sensibilities.
But, aside from “entertainment value”, none of this would have much effect on average television viewers in Australia, if they do not know what is being fought for, and over. Viewers need to know the context of this battle.
Essentially the crisis in Ukraine, is, on one side, a battle for self-determination for a majority of the Ukrainian people, and on the other side, a desire amongst a certain proportion of others in Ukraine for Moscow and Russia to keep her historic hold over the fledgling independent nation. In short, the issue is one as to whether Ukraine should be independent ofRussia or not.
The city of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, holds of course importance for Ukraine, but it also holds importance for Russians, who believe that they conquered Kyiv long ago, and absorbed all things Kyivian into Russian history as well. They see the idea of Ukrainian independence as an ironic jest, rather than a serious political reality.
For centuries, the great majority of Ukrainian people had been enslaved by the Russians, first under the tsars, and then under the Soviet regime. The end-product of this persecution was that the Ukrainian language and culture had been historically suppressed — a clever ploy by those persecuting the Ukrainians — for without language and culture, national identity and the process of self-determination become tenuous at best.
This linguistic suppression meant that some of the greatest minds in Ukrainian history have had to write in Russian in order to be published, for example, the father of the “Russian” novel; Myhola Hohol (Russian: Nikolai Gogol). Others yet still are termed as Russians because of the Russification of Ukrainian history, for example, the philosopher, Hryhorii Skovoroda — the so-called “Russian Socrates”. Up until the dawn of Ukrainian independence when the old Soviet Union was breaking up, the Ukrainian language in Ukraine was not permitted to be spoken during the Soviet era if one wished to obtain a government post.
Moreover, the reader should understand that religion is not the catalystof the crisis in Ukraine, but it is a key factor in how the battle has been waged, and is being waged. Since the baptism of Kyiv-Rus’ in 988, religion has been a vital factor in Ukrainian culture and politics.
Skipping over many centuries to the modern era, one can say that in the western Ukrainian nation, during the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a sense of self-determination grew with the greater freedom that was offered. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church became a bastion for education, cultural development and political free-thinking. The married Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy produced from within their educated families, not only future priests, but politicians, military leaders and cultural greats.
For this reason, when the Soviet talons pushed westward, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church became the greatest threat to Soviet communism. The Soviets had to eradicate the Greek Catholic clergy and the lay faithful, because the Church articulated to the people not only a dream of a national identity, but constructive ways that this dream could be realised. Both monumental Greek-Catholic Church leaders of the 20th century, Andrii Sheptyts’kyi and Iosyp Slipyj, encouraged Ukrainian self-determination.
In the eastern regions of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is predominant, Russian influence was historically all-pervasive, eventually forcing Ukrainian Orthodoxy under the Moscow Patriarchate and, as part of this process, murdering Ukrainian Orthodox Church leaders of the 20th century, such as Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkivsky, who were seeking to bring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under a Kyivian/Ukrainian Patriarchate.
Poignantly, at the time of the Union of Brest in 1595, Moscow had little influence over the Ukrainian Church, but subsequent political and military events saw Ukraine fall under Moscow’s yoke. Thus it was after the Battle of Poltava in 1709 that the Muscovite persecution of the Ukrainian people of the East truly stepped up. The town of Baturyn, where the Cossack leader Ivan Mazeppa had come from, was ordered by Tsar Peter I to be annihilated, every living creature to be destroyed, and the children crucified on the doors of their family homes. Ironically, although the Battle of Poltava was lost by pro-independence Cossack forces, the city of Poltava remains to this day, a cultural hub for Ukraine.
As a general rule, it can be said that the further that one travels east, support for an independent Ukraine decreases; and, in like manner, the further one travels west from Kyiv, the more support one feels for the existence of an independent Ukraine.
What confuses some Western onlookers is that although they may have a knowledge of some of the oppression of the Ukrainians by the Soviets, they in some way think that life under the tsars had been better. What should be made clear is that whether it was the rule by the tsars or by that of the Soviets, Ukraine’s plight was the same — subjection to Moscow.
Under the Tsars, Ukraine was “Little Russia”, a people dis-empowered and ridiculed. Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, was exiled for his passionate literary expression for the ideal of Ukrainian nationhood; and countless other artists and intellectuals were sent to Siberia, in the era of tsarist rule.
Under the Soviets, Ukraine existed as a republic, but in name only. The Russian language was the official language of the Ukrainian SSR.
Further still, no more tragic example of the suffering of the Ukrainian people under communism can be illustrated than in the Holodomor (1932-1933), the deliberate starvation of eastern Ukrainians, that led to a demographic loss of what is recognised by modern scholars today to have been 10 million people. Aside from this drastic loss of human life, Ukrainian self-determination was also dealt another insidious heavy blow, in the aftermath of the Holodomor, with Soviet sponsored “repatriation” of ethnic Russians to fill the population vacuum in eastern Ukraine.
Thus in light of what has been said, an interesting subsequent dynamic began to develop, a demographic dichotomy — to the west a pro-Ukrainian independence movement, that became ever more fervent with the persecution of the predominately Ukrainian Catholic populace; and to the east an increasing number of Russian speakers “naturally” aligned to Moscow.
Generations later, and after Ukraine gained its independence in 1990, these demographic forces would play out in a series of election results that tipped narrowly one way and then the other, according to pro-Western or pro-Russian sentiments. Two decades of Ukrainian independence have played out also against the background of the 2004 Orange Revolution, the poisoning of a pro-Western president, Victor Yushchenko, and the imprisonment of a pro-Western opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Important to note in all this political chaos, is the steadily growing support by the youth of Ukraine for Ukrainian self-determination. The Orange Revolution began in the lecture halls of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and was taken to the streets by the students.
So we come now to the present situation in the streets of Kyiv.
The now former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, drew much of his support from eastern Ukraine, where Russian is the first language. In fact, Yanukovych admitted in 2002 to Russian being his language of choice. Yanukovych was also at one point the speaker of the United Russia Party, hence indicating his true political stripes.
What initiated the recent protests in Kyiv was Yanukovych’s surprise decision to reject Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, and instead establish closer economic ties with Putin’s Russia. To the pro-Ukrainian forces, Yanukovych’s decision harks back to the days when Ukraine was ruled as a Russian satellite, with appointments made by Moscow to oversee the “Little Russians”. Western Ukrainians would consider Yanukovych’s turning away from the EU proposal as the initial steps toward a slippery slope leading to subjugation once more to Moscow. Alternately, Moscow and Russia, and her supporters in Ukraine, would consider Ukraine’s prospective move to the EU as a betrayal by Ukraine of her “special” subordinate status as “Little Russia”.
In short, the current battle in Ukraine strikes at the heart of identity, and on whether Ukraine is a nation or a mere dream, a barely plausible political fiction. Officially, Ukraine is recognised as an independent nation in the eyes of the world. But whether Moscow fully accepts or realises this, or whether the majority of people themselves of Ukraine know it, is at issue.
After more than 20 years of being independent, the same questions still come back to haunt Ukraine: what is her future relationship with Russia going to be? Can Ukraine see herself as being independent of Russia? Can the Ukrainian people manufacture out of such a traumatic history a sense of identity that is capable of making her a confident and democratic nation? What does it mean to be a Ukrainian?
These are serious, critical questions — the answers to which will reveal Ukraine either as a political reality or as a dysfunctional marionette, waiting for yet another puppet-master. What is playing out in Kyiv is not a mere street fight, but the prospective life or death of Europe’s geographically-speaking second-largest nation. This drama poses the question as to whether Ukraine is indeed a nation or a geographic location consisting of a polarised populace. In Ukraine’s favour is the country’s growing number of young leaders who have a vision for the future. But the question remains: will they be given the time, and adequate support, to make these visions of nationhood a reality, before others currently in power sell the nation out?
Evidently, in the downfall of the Yanukovych regime, high-level corruption has come to light. In a nation where the majority of citizens live in poverty, the ruling oligarchs covered themselves in opulence. Moreover, a government that ordered snipers to murder scores of protesters is most likely not a democratic government at all. All citizens of the world should take heed of what has occurred in Kyiv, for a democracy can only exist with the citizens’ constant vigilance.
We should all hope and pray for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine, for, caught as it is between the East and the West, this nation has the precarious potential to be, if it remains destabilised, a tinderbox for Europe.
Andrew T. Kania, PhD, is director of spirituality at a Catholic boys’ college. Before his current appointment, he lectured at the University of Notre Dame Australia and for the Catholic Institute of Western Australia at Edith Cowan and Curtin Universities. In 2007, he became a visiting research scholar, then, in 2008, a research fellow, at the University of Oxford. He has delivered papers and published numerous articles, both nationally and internationally.