The history department of the small Baptist college I attended did not offer every course every year. So a class I’d spotted in the catalog that I wanted to take as a history major did not get on the schedule at a time when I could enroll until the second semester of my junior year. It was taught by Dr. Clarice Maben, a fiftyish woman who had never married, except to the subject matter of the courses she taught, and this particular class, A History of Russia and Eastern Europe, was most definitely one of her favorites. Because the class was only offered every third year, and it was an upper division, four credit hour course, most of the history majors who would be graduating with me were in it.
It was a difficult course, as you would expect any college class to be when it is one of the professor’s favorite areas of study. But it was also difficult because the familiar names, places, and dates from Western Civilization and the Eurocentric history courses I’d had up to this point were missing from the history of this region. Few of the historical events had any reference points with the general history pre-requisite classes. On the other hand, the cultural development was extremely interesting and fascinating, and even more so is the development of nations and language groups. There’s a lot of common ancestry and culture, and yet the ancient hatreds between people who were most often only different because of the sides of borders where they lived make for some riveting, captivating study.
The history, culture, language and politics of the region of this particular area of Eastern Europe is most heavily influenced by Czarist Russia. It was a backward area, where feudalism and absolute monarchy held on for a long time after most of the rest of Europe had abandoned both. Russians and Ukrainians alike were affected by a society that kept most of its population in poverty, and where people were occupied as much by the search for a way out as they were by the way they made a living. The political boundary lines on the ground that created states like Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova and other monarchies of Eastern Europe were property lines related to the various levels of fiefdoms and the royalty that controlled them. Control passed back and forth between various lines of royalty, with Ukraine being geographically between Poland and Lithuania on the west and north, and Russia in the east. It’s rich, agricultural land made it especially susceptible to political changes from both invasion and influence of its neighbors.
The decline of Poland and Lithuania in the west created a vacuum into which Czarist Russia came sweeping in. So Ukraine has a distinctively Russian flavor to its language and culture. And when you are a smaller country next to a more dominant power, you tend to look at it with love and hatred. Love, because you are so much like it that you can relate to it, hatred, because it seems they dominate everything you do. Ukraine’s monarchy was eventually absorbed into the Czar’s family, and the politics of the country blended with that of Russia.
The province was devastated during World War II. Not only was it in the direct path of the German invasion, it was actually a target, and Hitler’s plan for Ukraine was to incorporate it into the Reich, and then more or less enslave its people to produce food for the Germans. At first, many Ukrainians thought of the Germans as liberators, but that idea quickly vanished as Nazi rule set in, and became even more cruel and destructive than the Soviets had been. The Jewish population, already persecuted and segregated, was virtually wiped out, and as the Germans were forced to withdraw in 1944, the fighting grew even more fierce than it had been during the invasion. Hitler ordered a scorched earth policy in retreat, and the cities and towns of the Ukraine bore the brunt of the destruction. It was so bad that the Ukrainians thought of the Red Army as liberators, and Communist control as liberation.
So Ukraine passed from Czarist to Communist to Nazi and back to Communist, seamlessly, if not without massive destruction and displacement. That has had a profound impact on the situation as it exists today. And it makes it difficult to understand why, after the Soviet Union fell apart, and it became an independent country once again, that there are still political, social and economic problems that seem impossible to resolve.
For one thing, even though the boundaries were drawn along historical lines, the population that fell within those boundaries was not all Ukrainian, and not all happy about being removed from Russia. The western third of the country was actually territory that had been part of Poland prior to the war, and one of the cities there, Lviv, which was almost leveled during the German withdrawal, had a Polish majority, and a Lithuanian and Russian minority. Over the years, a lot of Russians had moved into the eastern part of Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula, which had been made part of Ukrainian territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had a majority Russian population, and Russia’s only warm water seaport on the Atlantic side.
The country’s new leadership, while apparently happy to be free and out from under Communist rule, was never able to stabilize its leadership. It’s not been all that long since its modern formation as a nation, but like many Eastern European countries recently freed from Communist rule, it has found attempting to be a democracy as a tough road, especially when it comes to economic policy and development. And like most Eastern European countries, it has struggled with a tension between those who push it toward a closer alliance with Western Europe and the US, and those who still see its destiny tied up with that of Russia. The satellite mentality is still very much present.
This isn’t the 17th, 18th or 19th century, and it isn’t even the early half of the 20th. It is hard to see what interest Russia would have in contributing to enough unrest to cause Ukraine to unravel. Economic interest is probably at the top of the list, since Ukraine is still a rich agricultural production area, and Russia’s economy isn’t exactly thriving. But then, neither is Ukraine’s. Vladimir Putin does seem to be stuck in a cold war mentality, using Eastern European countries as satellites and buffers against threats from the west, though I doubt whether one actually exists. It could also be that an independent Ukraine, slowly but successfully becoming a democratic republic, represents a threat to a Russia that isn’t really making a lot of progress in that direction, because seeing a neighbor enjoy something they can’t have right now might make Russians find another government. And it can’t be easy trying to keep things under control in a country where there are such large pockets of people who are culturally and socially tied to the giant next door neighbor.
It is always important to understand history, lest you become doomed to repeat it. The United States does not have to become involved in every problem everywhere in the world. It is clear, from comments made on news shows, social media and blogs, that most Americans, including a number of members of Congress, have no idea what has transpired in Ukraine, and no idea how to resolve the problem. That also means that their evaluation of the actions of our government is uninformed and wrong. Let them work, and in this particular case, drop the search for political advantage. These kinds of decisions transcend the supposed importance of “our side has it right.”