Putin Succeeded in Unifying Ukraine

civil war freedom ukraine unified war world war influences Mar 15, 2022

Portions of the following are based on an interview with SIETAR USA members Tatyana Fertelmeyster and Olga Collin on March 12, 2022.

You might notice that the title of this article does not contain the word “the.” When speaking about Ukraine Russians used to say “Na Ukraine” which translates as “On Ukraine.” You could have a friend who lived “On” Ukraine but now they would say “In” Ukraine. What is the difference? The meaning of “On Ukraine” in Russian is the equivalent of using the in English and implies that the country is at the edge and part of something else—the else being either Russia or the West. After gaining independence, Ukrainians prefer that their country is called “Ukraine.” It has its own language, its own people, its own government, its own distinct culture, its own art and music, and its own complexities.

Ukraine has always had its own unique identity, however historically, Ukrainian territories were either a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, or later the USSR. The etymological meaning of the word “Ukraine” is believed to come from the Old Slavic term for “borderland.” The country was considered to be inferior by Russians who interpreted the name Ukraine to mean a piece at the side of Russia. However, Ukrainians always had an independent streak. When in the end of the 18th century Tsarist Russia tried to impose the system of serfdom on Ukrainian territories it only fueled the struggle for self-determination even further. Once Ukrainians gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, they relished the ability to decide their own fate, to determine what they wanted to be, what language to speak. Whereas once many of the people thought of themselves as Russians living in Ukraine, that is no longer the case. Their identification as Ukrainian has been strengthened by the recent Russian invasion. Internal squabbles between different cultural groups and regions (that all countries experience) have ended as the Ukrainians fight for their lives and their life as a unified country. Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times (March 1, 2022) that “Putin’s attempt to seize Ukraine appears to be predicated not just on his belief that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian nation, but also on the assumption that the Ukrainians themselves can be persuaded to consider themselves Russians.”  Putin was wrong.

The history of Ukraine is of a complex crossroads of many ethnicities and cultures. The southern portion in particular was a major trading route throughout the centuries. The Tartars, Turks, Mongols, Poles, Germans and so many others left pieces of their cultures and themselves as they settled in and traveled through Ukraine. Olga who was born in Askania-Nova, a unique nature reserve in southern Ukraine, proudly said that in modern times, Ukraine has the reputation as the breadbasket of Europe, shipping grains to many places in Europe and beyond. It has been in the top five countries providing barley, rye, wheat, corn, potatoes, and sunflower oil. Among many implications, the recent invasion will result in a shortage of wheat and other grains in many countries around the world. 

Olga told of a pre-pandemic trip in which she and her then 11-year-old daughter went to Spain and Portugal before heading to Kyiv to visit family living there. When they arrived, her daughter observed that it seemed similar to the other European cities they had visited. Born in the United States and thoroughly American she felt very comfortable there. Indeed, the western portion of Ukraine has tended toward Western ideas and institutions. East of the Dnieper River is where people leaned more toward Russian culture. The Eastern city of Kharkiv was one of the first Ukrainian cities attacked by Putin’s forces who were surprised by the level of resistance. There is enormous complexity in the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Ask any Russian or Ukrainian!

Like so many countries, the two World Wars influenced Ukraine’s path in history. After World War I there was a fierce drive toward independence throughout Russian-held territories such as Ukraine, resulting ultimately in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There may not be anyone left who experienced Hitler’s decision in World War II to detour to Kyiv on his way to Moscow, culminating in a fierce defense of that city that slowed down the German army’s progress so that they didn’t reach Moscow until the brutal winter of 1941.The devastation of Kyiv lives on in the DNA of their descendants as does the Holodomor (1932-1933), a Soviet inflicted famine in Ukraine that caused mass starvation. Tatyana reminds us of one of the largest Holocaust events outside of Europe which was the killing of more than 33,000 Ukrainian Jews in just two days that took place at Babi Yar (1941). That was surpassed only by the massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in Odessa. Putin is not after the Jews but the techniques he is using to “take back” Ukraine has parallels to what has happened in the past. He is convinced they should not be independent. Re-activization of the continual trauma is now affecting Ukrainian people throughout the world. Many Jews were driven by pogroms from Ukraine to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century, and ongoing emigration continued. These events still feel fresh to the diaspora whose parents and other family members lived those years in a war zone. Celebrations honoring the terrible human sacrifice annually take place in Ukraine.

Tatyana commented that she is “sad for Russia but terrified for Ukraine.” The most brutal wars are civil wars and while what is happening there now isn’t a civil war there are many close connections between Ukraine and Russia. Intermarriages mean that almost everyone has family connections on both sides. In addition to family, friends from school days, colleagues from work are just part of the many personal connections between the two countries. She is also concerned that Putin is turning Russia into a Gulag. The world is effectively isolating Russia in response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine. The Russian propaganda machine is feeding uninterrupted misinformation to its people that the Ukrainians need to be protected from their “Fascist” government. Anything not approved by Putin is labeled fake news. Olga said that when her Belarussian and Russian friends in the United States call parents back home, they are reluctant to say anything for fear that their phones are tapped.

Ukrainians found out how it feels to be free, which presages a long resistance and hopefully eventual victory. While it will remain fresh for them, there is danger that our attention to their torment will fade. Tatyana commented that the refugee situation is in a honeymoon period as we see coverage of heart-warming welcomes and caring for the over 2 million Ukrainian refugees. There is a wishful expectation that all this will be over in a few more days, but Putin will not back down. He doesn’t admit to making mistakes and he feels that he can go wherever he wants, take whatever he wants. It won’t be over soon, and refugees’ feelings of relief will soon turn into a wave of anger at what has happened to them. It is also one thing to take someone into your home for a week or two but quite different when it turns into months or years.

We are also in a honeymoon stage, willing to pay a higher price for gas and other items. How long will that last? The whole world needs patience, but it seems in short supply at least in our polarized country. Putin may have unified Ukraine, but protesters are evidence that he is polarizing his country. E.J. Dionne Jr. asks in the Washington Post (March 9, 2022), “how long is our attention span?” We must not let Ukraine fade from our minds.

Sandra M. Fowler, Editor