March 2, 2014

A Brief History of Ukraine

An excerpt from, "Ukraine: The Search for a National Identity." Edited by Sharon Wolchik and Volodymyr Zviglyanich. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2000. Pg. 11 - 13. [Source].
"Ukraine is by no means a new nation. With a millennium-long history, a distinct language, literature, architecture, and church institutions, together with bouts of short-lived independence, the Ukrainians rank among the oldest peoples of Europe. Despite its rich history, however, Ukraine, by virtue of its size, geographic location, and misfortune in having powerful, better-organized neighbors, has found it difficult to mold a unified national identity. Because Ukraine was a large country partitioned by its neighbors early on, long before the appearance of nationalism, it failed to develop into a polity with a continuous elite that could sustain the idea of a state. As a "non-historical" state, modern Ukraine is not a continuation of the Cossack state of the seventeenth century, and even less of Kievan Rus, sacked by the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

The partitions left several profound scars on Ukraine's national identity that persist to this day. The mere fact that Ukraine endured several colonial experiences simultaneously has made it more difficult for Ukrainians to define who is the "other" to Ukraine's national identity and to define the essence of a Ukrainian identity altogether. In western Ukraine, dominated by Poland, religious differences and the mutation of the Polish policy from one of the most tolerant in Europe to one of the most profoundly affected by the Counter-Reformation resulted in the relatively early emergence of a strong Ukrainian identity. This identity was bolstered in the nineteenth century by the relative freedom of the Hapsburg empire, bringing about an explosion of Ukrainian writings and institutions, and drawing Ukrainian intellectuals from all of Ukraine. The bulk of Ukraine, however, was dominated by tsarist Russia, and its religious affinity with the Russian Orthodox Church enabled the Russian regime, long before the onset of nationalism, to co-opt Ukraine's elite, who ironically were far better educated and westernized than their Russian counterparts and provided Moscow, and later Saint Petersburg, with successive generations of secular and church administrators. This combination of systematic co-optation and russification of Ukrainian elites, along with the repressive nature of the tsarist regime, which among other things banned the Ukrainian language under the Emskii Ukaz (1876), resulted in the transformation of Ukraine within two centuries from one of the most enlightened parts of the Russian empire to a backwater entity of quasi-literate peasants whose world horizon ended with either their village or their parish. The long-term impact of three centuries of partition has left a chasm in Ukraine's national psyche from which the country has yet to recover.

One consequence of the partitions is the diversity of Ukraine's population. Reacting to very different stimuli and existing in very different milieus, the Ukrainian nation found it painfully hard to agree on the essence of Ukraine's "other," and therefore failed to establish a definitive pantheon of national heroes representing the aspirations of all the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, albeit a true Ukrainian national institution, by virtue of its confinement to the western rim of the country, could not play the role that the Catholic Church of Poland, Ireland, or Quebec assumed. Even the Cossacks, perhaps Ukraine's most internalized national symbol, remain problematic heroes: not only was the Cossack Sich a strictly east-Ukrainian phenomenon, but even more disturbing, the Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky's Ukrainian uprising of 1648 resulted in the brutal massacre of western Ukraine's Greek Catholics as well as its Jews.

The division in the Ukrainian national consciousness spilled over into the twentieth century. Eastern Ukraine's fear of Russian hegemony and Galicia's preoccupation with the Polish domination of the people of western Ukraine contributed to the inability of Ukrainians overall to formulate a united position within the international system. Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura's willingness to cede eastern Galicia to Poland in April 1920, in exchange for Polish support of independence for "Russian Ukraine," created a sense of betrayal in Galicia, which also fractured Ukraine's national identity and sense of nationhood. Ukraine's weak national identity was further undermined by a bitter debate during the 1920s and 1930s over the entire issue of the "Ukrainian idea." In western Ukraine, in part owing to continued Polish repression and the rise of fascism across the continent, Ukrainian nationalists embraced the integralist ideas associated with Dmytro Donstov, envisioning Ukraine as a community bound by ties of "blood" and "nation." In central and eastern Ukraine, national identity remained closely tied with the views of the writer Panteleimon Kulish, the intellectual Mykhailo Drahomanov, and historians Mykola Kostomarov and Mykhailo Hrushevsky in seeking greater avenues for cultural autonomy, socialism, and pan-Slavism.

Perhaps the most divisive legacy in Ukrainian national consciousness comes as a result of World War II. In western Ukraine the war was perceived as an opportunity to free Ukraine of both German and Russian domination, as well as by some integralists as an opportunity to "ethnically cleanse" Ukraine of its Polish and Jewish population. Eastern Ukrainians, however, not only provided the Soviet Union with millions of soldiers, but in addition made up a disproportionate share of the high command of the Red Army, playing a key role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Thus, in western Ukraine Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), who fought valiantly against German domination and later continued a guerrilla war against Soviet rule until the early 1950s, are viewed as the embodiment of the Ukrainian love of freedom and determination to attain liberation, whereas the Soviet marshals, even if they are ethnically Ukrainian, are perceived as brutal oppressors. Outside western Ukraine the view tends to be diametrically opposed: World War II remains the epic "great patriotic war" and the defining experience of a generation of Ukrainians, whereas Bandera and the OUN are fascist collaborators.

The contemporary configuration of Ukraine dates back only to 1954: a country with enormous cultural and psychological diversity, with few collective experiences and little "usable history" that could serve as a matrix for the future. The emergence of Ukraine in 1991 as an independent state was as sudden as it was unexpected. Governed for seventeen years by the willful Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, Ukraine became one of the most conservative and repressive republics of the Soviet Union. As a result, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policies of perestroika and glasnost, Ukraine lagged far behind the spirit of liberalization, as compared with developments in the Baltic states and Russia. In Russia the policies of glasnost forced many hard-line Communists to resign, but in Ukraine the policies had the opposite effect, as the nomenklatura used the chaos in the center to consolidate its position. It was events beyond the control of Ukrainians, however, that gave the impetus for Ukrainian independence. The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, together with Moscow's clumsy handling of the crisis, awoke among many Ukrainians the sense that Ukraine was being treated in a colonial manner."