So the thing that most of us thought was unthinkable is now a reality. Russian tanks are entering Kiev, missiles are falling on cities across Ukraine, and the government is handing out weapons and giving instructions for making petrol bombs to its citizens in an attempt to defend the country from Russian domination.
For those few Ukrainians with memories long enough to recall the last time foreign tanks rolled into Kiev, the Russian invasion must bring back terrible memories of the summer of 1941 after Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa. The German invasion of the Soviet Union brought to an abrupt end the non-aggression pact between the two great twentieth century dictators Hitler and Stalin. Tens of thousands of people fled Kiev, heading east to safety in the Urals or Central Asia.
Today’s refugees from Kiev and other cities are fleeing to the west in an attempt to escape a war inflicted by the twenty-first century’s great dictator, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has more than a whiff of Joseph Stalin about him. Like Stalin, he views the outside world as a hostile and threatening place and brooks no dissent. Stalin subjected his opponents to show trials, found them guilty on trumped-up charges and had them shot. Putin’s methods are more varied – poison for Alexander Litvinenko, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Skripal. Boris Nemtsov was shot while walking across a bridge, Mikhail Khodorkovsky imprisoned for a decade.
Those are not the only similarities between the two dictators. Putin appears to be emulating Stalin in building a personality cult around himself, using propaganda and mass media to create a patriotic image of a heroic leader for the nation to glorify. Stalin, more than any other Soviet leader, was responsible for transforming the Soviet Union from a peasant backwater into a superpower to rival the United States. Today Putin calls the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. If the worst-case scenario is realised, his invasion of Ukraine could represent the first step in an attempt to recreate the Soviet empire. It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin’s record after decades of condemnation.
What Putin fears most of all is freedom: a free press, freedom of speech and expression, freedom to choose one’s own leaders or overthrow unpopular leaders. Freedom in Russia could bring about the end of Putin. And freedom in Ukraine has prompted the Ukrainian people to reject Russia in favour of the West. Ukrainians care passionately about their freedom, for it was hard won – in not one, not two, but in three revolutions, all centred on Independence Square in central Kiev, better known as the Maidan.
The Revolution on Granite in 1990 was a student demonstration and hunger strike in open defiance of the Soviet establishment, part of a wave of dissent that helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s emergence as an independent country the following year. One of the students’ demands was the scrapping of a proposed union treaty with Moscow.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians back to the Maidan to protest about a presidential election claimed by the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych that was marred by corruption, fraud and voter intimidation. The events of that winter are best remembered for the grey, pockmarked face of his poisoned opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, who eventually prevailed when the protestors’ demands were met and the election was re-run. Yushchenko believes the assassination attempt was ordered by Moscow when he attempted to steer Ukraine to closer integration with Europe.
But the roots of this week’s Russian invasion can be found in Ukraine’s third Maidan revolution, the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-14, better known in the West as Euromaidan. Tempted with carrots and goaded with sticks from Putin, President Yanukovych (yes, the same one, back in power since 2010) turned his back on a long-awaited agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
What started as a peaceful student demonstration ended, three months later, as war. Protestors in motorcycle helmets carrying makeshift shields fought in the streets, using Molotov cocktails and fireworks against riot police armed with water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades and metal truncheons. In the final days of the conflict, the firearms changed to rifles and semi-automatic weapons, taking the lives of more than a hundred protestors. In the end, the Maidan won and Yanukovych fled, making him one of the few world leaders to be overthrown twice.
But Ukraine paid a terrible price for the victory, not only in the lives lost during the conflict, but in the revenge taken by Putin for the country’s pivot away from Russia and towards the West. Within days of Yanukovych’s departure, the Russian president began preparations to annex Crimea. Weeks later, he was stirring up pro-Russian sentiment and providing arms to separatists in the Donbas, fomenting a war that never ended and has killed around 14,000 people, some 3,000 of them civilians.
Part two of this article, on Putin’s goals and the West’s response, will be published on my website tomorrow.
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. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.