Ukraine…and Stalin’s Long Shadow
It was my privilege to teach in a University in Donetsk, Ukraine a few years ago. Taking my small suitcase in hand, I left the USA alone, not knowing what would await me in this country. Feeling that this was a door God had opened for me to be of service to them in their English language program for the summer, I answered the call. I remember my first night there. Not knowing the language or Russian,(thankfully most spoke some English) I was a wakened to a very loud microphone shout that sounded in tone like “Come out with your hands up!” Pulling the covers over my head, I decided that they would just have to come get me…whatever it was! The next morning, asking about the commotion, I was told that it was the changing of the shift announcement at the local brewery.
Some information given about the brewery was only what one would expect in the old days of the Soviet Union under Stalin and his henchmen. The story goes that the owner of the brewery was told that certain men wanted to buy it. He refused and was later shot at his home. Other businessmen also found that they had similar strong-armed tactics. Just across from the brewery was a very high, walled compound. It had guards at the entrance…and if I was to walk that way, “Do not make pictures…as you will probably have your camera confiscated.” I definitely was “not in Kansas”…or Florida, where I live!
I mention all this because I turned on the news tonight and saw people breaking windows in the Donetsk downtown. Evidently, the unrest was spreading to Donetsk as well; as we have seen in Kiev. I also read that when Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president of Ukraine tried to flee, he also went to the Donetsk airport. Even though he tried to bribe his way through, not having the proper documents, the Ukrainians would not let him leave. He fled another way.
I have great concern for the wonderful people whom I met at the University and at the Christian orphanage near Donetsk . I think most people who hear about Ukraine do not understand how the long shadow of the former leader of Russia, Joseph Stalin, still casts its spell over a people trying to write their own destiny.
I read an interesting article which I am including here,in part, written by Julia Ioffe the senior editor at The New Republic. She explains some of the history of this area.
“…In the last tense months, the conflict in Ukraine has been described as a fight over Ukrainian identity—in terms of language, territory, and great-power influence. Maps on television and in newspapers show a country conveniently cleaved in half between Ukrainian speakers in the pro-Yulia Tymoshenko west and Russian speakers in the Yanukovych east. The former love Europe; the latter love Russia. The former have been oppressed for centuries by the latter, who want to see a return to the days of the USSR….. The real split is generational. ..Students (or people) born after 1991, in an independent Ukraine, see their country’s close relationship with Russia very differently than their older people…The younger a citizen of Donetsk, the more likely she is to view herself as Ukrainian. The older she is, the more likely she is to identify as Russian. And this is the crux of it all: What we are seeing today is the reverberation of what happened more than 20 years ago. This is still the long post-Soviet transition. And this is what it’s like to wander in the desert, waiting for the old generation to die off.
HOW LANGUAGE PLAYS A PART: Ukraine the country has existed for only brief spurts. In the nineteenth century, as nationalism spread through Europe, Ukrainian language and culture—as well as the new idea of independence—became fashionable in Ukrainian cities. Before that, the area was a fluid mix of languages and ethnicities. The Ukrainians, southwestern Slavs who escaped Tatar rule in the Middle Ages, developed independently of the Russians. (Their language, for instance, was heavily influenced by Polish, and their religious affiliation was, for a long time, partly Catholic.) Then it was absorbed into the creeping sprawl of the Russian empire.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, though, Ukrainian speakers were mixed throughout the country, and the language divide was more socioeconomic than geographic. For the most part, the Ukrainian speakers were the peasants, and the Russian speakers were the city dwellers, a blend of Russians, Tatars, and Jews. When industrialization came to the region, those who worked in the new factories were also mostly Russian.
To this day, language in Ukraine follows these same socioeconomic lines, rather than the east-west axis. A map produced by The New York Times, for instance, represents Ukrainian in orange and Russian in blue, and announces that it depicts a simple split between the speakers of these languages. And yet, the fault line is hard to see: There are heavily orange dapples in the west, and intense blue spots in Crimea and Donetsk, but most of the rest is a brackish mingling of the two. It would take a very talented surgeon to carve the two languages apart—or a charlatan to claim it can be done.
If we set aside Crimea, which was not part of the country until 1954, the much-advertised rift inside Ukraine originates neither in language nor in ethnicity. Rather, it is the bounty of the seed planted in the early 1920s by the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Josef Stalin.
A BRIEF HISTORY For five years, between the 1917 Revolution and the end of the Civil War, Ukraine had a brief and tumultuous experiment with independence, as did other former Russian colonies and future Soviet republics, like Georgia and Armenia. Those few years of independence gave Ukrainians a taste of national liberation that they would not soon forget and were marked, as now, by lengthy sit-ins in public squares, by rowdy parliamentary debate, and by diverse factions of Ukrainian society jockeying for influence. Then, in 1920, Ukraine—like the republics of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and others—began signing a series of vague military and economic treaties with Moscow that gave shape to what we would come to know as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Very quickly, though, the Union became a distinctly Russian entity. According to Soviet historian Geoffrey Hosking, this was no accident. Stalin “wanted to see a political framework which would give expression to the dominance Russia had assumed in the world revolutionary movement,” in which communist patriotism was sublimated into Russian patriotism. Vladimir Lenin was slightly horrified by all this, seeing it, correctly, as a revanchist moment and a return to the bad old days of imperialism. He even prepared a memorandum in protest and was to deliver it at the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923. He demanded that, in the new Union, some form of autonomy be returned to the various national republics.
But Lenin had his third and final stroke before he could go on record with his protest, and Stalin and Leon Trotsky had the memorandum suppressed. (It came out after Stalin’s death.) As a result, notes Hosking, “the new [Soviet] constitution embodied Stalin’s conceptions rather than Lenin’s.” Moscow and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic got to run the show, not just in terms of military and diplomatic matters, but in pretty much everything else. Ethnic Russians made up nearly three-quarters of the Communist Party, and official business all across the USSR was done in Russian. Which is all to say that, when the older respondents of Cherkashin’s poll in Donetsk say they are Russian, what they mean, mostly, is that they are Soviet.
VLADIMIR PUTIN Vladimir Putin fits Cherkashin’s paradigm nicely, too. Born in 1952, he came of age in an era dominated by Leonid Brezhnev and his neo-Stalinist policies. The policies were a comparatively toothless version of Stalinism, but they were Stalinism nonetheless. Not in the sense of mass repressions and genocide, but in the sense of a unified Soviet space that is, at its core, Russian. So when Putin and his surrogates speak about a larger Russian-speaking universe, they are talking about a Soviet universe.
Only 23 years have passed since this universe was carved up by Boris Yeltsin and regional party chieftains who wanted their own national fiefdoms. In the scheme of things, that’s not a very long time, just one generation.
UKRAINIAN UNDERSTANDING But notions of linguistic and even ethnic identity are highly malleable, politicized concepts, and they evolve with time. Cherkashin’s four young students, for instance, prefer to speak Russian over Ukrainian, but not one of them agreed with his idea that Ukraine is a fictional country. Their city is economically tied to Russia; they have family there. But it doesn’t mean for them that Ukraine should meld back into a resurgent Soviet Russia. Their generation has a profoundly non-Soviet understanding of nationality, one that is based on citizenship: “I was born in Ukraine, therefore, I am Ukrainian.” For their parents and grandparents, it is defined by language and ethnicity, and so many Russian speakers in Donetsk and the Ukrainian southeast may feel like they are living on islands, far adrift from the motherland. It is why a few dozen pensioners and middle-aged citizens stood guard by the statue of Lenin in the town square, though the irony of it surely escaped them.
THE FUTURE? If Ukraine survives this crisis intact, it will still have miles to go to a fuller embrace of its own independence. This standoff—with a Moscow that is itself still struggling with its own Soviet legacy—is just a step along the long road out of the Soviet Union. It will take more time still for this newer understanding of citizenship to become as firmly entrenched in eastern Ukraine as the old one was, for the old one to die away, for the Lenin statue to lose its emotional significance, for the old Soviet apartment blocks in Donetsk to crumble and for something newer and more distinctively local to spring up in their place—even if the locals still speak Russian.”
The Fordham Political Review stated the following about the possible future of Donetsk: “… Earlier today, a mass protest was held in the eastern Ukranian city of Donetsk, reminiscent of the protests that occurred in the weeks previous in Kiev. But besides sharing the classification of a “mass protest”, today’s protests are fundamentally different; while the Kiev protests were generally made up of ethnic Ukrainians protesting for governmental reform and the removal of the now-former president Yanukovych, the protests in Donetsk consisted of ethnic Russians crying out that they share “the aspirations of Crimea to rejoin Russia”. With Crimea now occupied by Russian military forces, it is not inconceivable that Russian president Putin could deploy his forces to do the same in Donetsk. In fact, I argue that it is likely that Russia tries to retake the Donetsk and its surrounding region, primarily because of Donetsk’s geographic location, high percentage of ethnic Russians, and high economic outlook. Moreover, the loss of Donetsk would be severely detrimental to the economic capabilities of Ukraine as a whole.In Putin’s Russia, geopolitical opportunity is everything. If Russia is looking to grab all it can from Ukraine, Donetsk may be next. “
God bless you, Ukrainians….the ones of you that I met in the University, in the orphanage, and in the shops and on the streets. You deserve better than what you are enduring. We pray you will seek God in this turmoil and reach toward the best for your people. Freedom has always been a struggle.
The slide presentation below is one that I made of the wonderful Ukraine that I knew…in happier days…the Opera house in Kiev, the churches, the architecture…and the people. How much of this is in ashes? What is the future of the wonderful people who live here?
Watch and weep.
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