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.