A Ukrainian History – (Part 2)

Picking up where we left off, by the end of the 18th century Ukraine has been partitioned: the right bank was annexed by Russia while lands west of the Dnieper River were divided between Russia and Austria. And in 1783 Russia annexed Crimea and resettlement of Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula followed.

19th century

Tsarism pursued a policy of Russification of the Ukrainian population: strict limits were imposed on the Ukrainian language and culture. As a result of this policy, the number of Ukrainians in the east decreased substantially and many Ukrainian intellectuals moved to Western Ukraine (part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918). Others chose to embrace a Russian identity: many of the great Russian authors and composers of the 19th century – Gogol and Tchaikovsky to name just two - are actually Ukrainian.

Ukraine struggled for its independence throughout this period; culturally, many national liberation ideas were spread through literature and poetry. (Taras Shevchenko is the most revered of the Ukrainian poets whose works exerted unparalleled influence on Ukrainians.) Economic exploitation by the Russian monarchy was met with resistance by peasants and town dwellers and their refusal to work and armed uprisings became widespread. Universities began to churn out intelligentsia and the first political organisations (Marxist groups) appeared in the 1880s and 1890s.

The 20th century began with a marked increase in widespread unrest, culminating in the 1905-1907 revolution throughout the Russian Empire, spreading even to the military, particularly the Black Sea Fleet. (I recommend watching the 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin – several of the chief mutineers were Ukrainians, one a founder of the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party).

Between world wars

The impact of WWI on Ukrainians, caught between major adversaries, was devastating. About 3 million fought in Russia’s armies and over 250,000 served in Austria’s forces. Much of Western Ukraine suffered terribly from repeated offensives and occupations by Russian armies and Austrian armies.

Chaos reigned after the Russian Revolution, although there emerged an internationally-recognised Ukrainian People’s Republic for a brief moment. However, the Ukrainian-Soviet War 1917-1921 and the Ukrainian-Polish War 1918-1919 led to its demise. The Peace Treaty of Riga 1921 legitimised Poland’s annexation of Western Ukraine. The Ukrainian Bolsheviks created the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922; but in reality, the military, state and Party apparatuses were directed from Moscow. Nationalisation and requisitioning of farm produce led to the Famine of 1921-23 where it is estimated 1.5-2 million Ukrainians died. Stalin’s collectivisation policies led to the Famine of 1932-33 (the Holodomor, the anniversary of which is still commemorated each year on 25 November) where an estimated 7-10 million Ukrainians died. (Recommended reading: Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest). This was followed by the Great Terror in Ukraine during which cultural institutions were purged or abolished altogether and Russification was pursued.

World War II and beyond

With Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union, Ukrainians initially welcomed the Germans believing they would liberate them from their Polish and Russian oppressors. Ukraine was occupied by Germany from 1941-44; however as the Soviets retreated, Ukraine suffered considerably from the Soviet armies’ retreating ‘scorched earth’ policy where industries, government buildings, food reserves and railroads were destroyed, electricity stations blown up and mines flooded.

As a result of the war, the population of Ukraine had declined by some 10 million (25%): 6-7 million had been killed or died of hunger or disease, and the remainder had either been evacuated or deported as political prisoners to Soviet Asia, or as forced labour to Germany where they remained as displaced persons after the war. In addition, a sizable population of Tatars had been deported to Central Asia by the Stalinist regime in 1944. Smaller populations of Armenians, Bulgarians and Greeks were also deported, completing the ethnic cleansing of the peninsula.

In 1954, Krushchev inexplicably transferred Crimea to Ukraine. At the time it was said that it was to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine with Russia, a reference to the Treaty of Pereyaslav of 1654 (refer previous blog). [Modern historians dispute this justification on the basis that not only did the 1654 Treaty not bring about reunification, it also had nothing to do with Crimea, which Russia did not annex for another 130 years. Rather, the transfer was more likely about fortifying Soviet control over Ukraine given that some 860,000 ethnic Russians would be joining the already large Russian minority in Ukraine.]

As the Soviet Union slowly edged towards bankruptcy, Gorbachev’s economic reforms made it clear that political reforms would need to follow. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident and its mishandling by the authorities further undermined public confidence in everything Soviet: the disaster convinced even members of the Soviet elite that the existing political system and its corrupt leadership endangered the very survival of people.

Ukraine became independent again when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

There is much more that can be said about Ukraine’s more recent history, in particular the Maidan revolution of 2013 which followed when then-president Victor Yanukovych suspended preparations for the implementation of an association agreement with the EU. This decision triggered mass protests which resulted in the president’s ousting in 2014. In response, Russia annexed Crimea and now supports an evolving war between the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government and pro-Russian insurgents in the east of Ukraine.

But I won’t go down that path …..

I did warn you in the History Blog Part 1 that this was being written by a nationalist. But don’t just take my word for it. I recommend Charles Emmerson’s take on the Ukraine/Russia History Wars.