Following on from my previous post, I have been reading lately about Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. One book I have re-read is Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev, a fascinating first-hand account of the events, written by a local writer living close to the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, which is at the heart of the action. From his apartment, Kurkov can smell the burning barricades and hear the sounds of grenades and gunshot.
The diary portrays the horrific violence perpetrated against many innocent victims, the powerful sentiments of injustice felt by the protestors and the fears generated by an ever-changing political climate, interspersed with the mundane day-to-day trials and tribulations of family life.
It also sheds light on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of that year and on the ongoing conflict in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine, the heartland of then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
This week in 2014 marked the climax of events in Kiev. On 18 February, violence broke out during a peaceful march on parliament in which protestors demanded a change to the constitution to limit the powers of the president. “And then, about two o’clock, the situation suddenly worsened. Activists invaded the Party of Regions headquarters and set fire to it. The Berkut [riot police] threw grenades and fired rubber bullets, from the ground and from the rooftops,” Kurkov writes in his diary entry for that day.
Still on 18 February, he mulls: “What will happen next? The dissolution of parliament, the announcement of new elections in six months, the lifting of parliamentary immunity for opposition deputies and their arrests? This country has never had such a stupid president before, capable of radicalising one of the most tolerant populations in the world!”
The following day, 19 February, he writes “In Kiev, they are counting the dead, the wounded and the disappeared…The hospitals are overflowing right now. But many of the wounded are in hiding, from their friends as well as from strangers. They are afraid of going to hospital because the police have often abducted injured protesters from there to take them to the station, without offering them any medical care.”
And here is an insight into the sharp divide between the European-oriented western Ukraine that Kurkov inhabits and the Russian-dominated east of the country exemplified by the industrial city of Donetsk: “Hatred is overflowing. It is born from a simple dislike of a Donetskian government that is both strange and foreign; a dislike that, by perhaps growing too fast, has become hatred, and is currently raging through western Ukraine, in Odessa, Cherkasy and other places. Meanwhile Crimea is once again calling on Russia to take it back.”
The following day, 20 February, Kurkov writes: “Today a lecturer from the Catholic University in Lviv was killed, along with several dozen other people. Snipers are shooting even at young nurses…There are rumours everywhere, each one more disturbing than the last, but the reality in this country is already horrifying: today, in St Michael’s Square, two policemen were killed. Why? Who needs that? It is obviously the hand of Moscow, pushing us into a state of war…”.
And on the 21st: “In Kharkiv, the regional governor is assembling a congress of deputies from the south and east of Ukraine to study the possibility of separating from Kiev. The country is trembling all over – it is close to being torn apart – but Yanukovych doesn’t see this.”
On 22 February Yanukovych fled, having earlier that day signed an agreement with the opposition to make the constitutional changes demanded by the opposition and setting out plans for a presidential election by the end of the year.
The diaries continue through to late April, by which time Russia had annexed Crimea following a hastily arranged referendum in March and the conflict in the east of the country was beginning. Russians were infiltrating eastern Ukraine to organise pro-Russian rallies, their troops and military apparel massing at the border, all of which President Putin denied, and armed separatists were occupying government buildings. “What frightens me is a possible Russian intervention in the east and south of the country. It would be wonderful not to have to think about the possibility of a war, but a day has not passed without that possibility crossing my mind,” Kurkov writes on 24 March.
That war has gone on to take the lives of more than 10,000 people. More than 2 million have been made homeless.
Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev by Andrey Kurkov is published by Harvill Secker, London, 2014.
This month marks the fourth anniversary of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, which led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, and later, the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass.
The seeds of the revolution were sown when the president failed to sign an association agreement with the EU in November 2013, having initially agreed to do so. People took to the streets in protest, setting up a base camp in the Maidan, Kiev’s central Independence Square.
After weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations, a march on parliament on 18 February turned violent. Police fired rubber bullets and used tear gas and grenades. The protestors fought back with makeshift weapons. Two days later, police began firing live ammunition, including automatic weapons and sniper rifles. Some 80 people were killed. Despite concessions from President Yanukovych, the protests continued and the demonstrators took control of much of Kiev. The president fled and new elections were called.
The Euromaidan Revolution is remembered as a conflict between pro-Europeans (mostly in Kiev, the west and centre of the country) and pro-Russians predominantly from Ukraine’s east. I have been reading about the history of Ukraine, which – apart from a brief stint in 1918 during the Russian Civil War – had never existed as an independent country until 1991, to make sense of recent events.
The country’s very name, Ukraina, means border, or edge. This region of flat, fertile steppe land was always on the edge: the edge of Europe, the edge of empires, the edge of Russia. A large swathe of western Ukraine belonged to Poland for much of its history; some formed part of Lithuania, while other areas were in the Hapsburg or Ottoman Empires. Much of the territory became part of the Russian Empire. The western fringes were a true borderland, endlessly invaded and conquered, the frontier between nations ever shifting. Ukraine as we know it today is a very recent concept.
The capital Kiev developed owing to its position on a trade route between the Baltic and the Black Seas along the River Dnieper, and became a sophisticated trading centre in medieval times, with links to Constantinople. It is known to historians as Kievan Rus.
Both Ukrainians and Russians believe their ancestry derives from Kievan Rus, Russians claiming that their descendants moved away from the Dnieper region to found Muscovy, several hundred miles to the northeast, bringing the culture of Kievan Rus with them. This helps to explain why Russians feel such a strong connection to Ukraine, and why any move by Ukraine’s leadership towards rapprochement with Europe at the expense of Russia provokes hostile feelings.
Ukraine’s position as ‘Little Russia’ dates from a deal between Cossack leader Khmelnytsky and the Russian Tsar in 1686. The Little Russia narrative was promoted under Catherine the Great a century later, when Russia experienced waves of expansion and large swathes of present-day Ukraine – including the areas with a large Jewish population that became the Pale of Settlement – joined the Russian Empire as a result of the partitioning of Poland.
Further east and south was a Cossack stronghold, while the east was largely unpopulated steppe until coal-mining began in the late nineteenth century. Russian peasants were attracted to eastern Ukraine during its industrial revolution and again during Stalin’s industrialisation drive, populating the growing towns and cities. Today the majority of population of this region, the Donbass, still aligns itself with its Russian Motherland.
As for Crimea, while the annexation of territory by another country is clearly deplorable, Crimea’s historical links to Ukraine are tenuous. Although parts of Crimea entered into the territory of Kievan Rus, the area was for much of its history a Tatar land ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was won by Catherine the Great in 1783, becoming part of the Russian Empire and later the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was not transferred to the Ukrainian SSR until 1954. Its population at the beginning of the twentieth century was a mixture of Crimean Tatars as well as Russian newcomers, Ukrainians, Germans, Greeks, Jews and others, mainly attracted to the region by its fertile land.
So Ukraine was never a homogenous entity. Its depiction as Little Russia may have accurately characterised parts of the future nation, but this was largely an artificial notion, a process of Russification imposed from above by both the tsars and the Communists that resonates more with Russians than Ukrainians. Likewise the rise of Ukrainian nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is celebrated by a large and vocal right-wing nationalist movement today, also was representative of only a small section of society.
For an excellent insight into the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, I recommend Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov. Anna Reid’s Borderland provides a highly readable and entertaining discourse on Ukraine’s history.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.