Monday, February 24, 2014

Russia and The Ukraine

Russia is not done in the Ukraine, not by a long shot. This is where the land of Rus was founded. This is where the Russians picked up their Orthodox faith. The memories of the splendors of Kievan Rus are still a point of pride to Russians today. When some of our Anglo-Saxon fore-bearers were still wallowing in filth, and London was a nondescript hell-hole of 10,000 souls Kiev was one of the jewels of the medieval world. It all came to naught with the Mongol onslaught, but the memory still shines to this day.

The loss of the “near abroad” in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the loss of Central Asia, much of the Caucuses and the Ukraine were a bitter blow to the Russians pride. The loss of Ukraine, the “little brother” of the Russians was especially hurtful. With the recovery of Russia via Petrodollars and other natural resources exploitation Russia, and especially Putin, wants to recover what is rightfully theirs, at least in the minds of Russia and Putin.

A little history here. With the fall of Kievan Rus the Ukraine became a borderland. From the west Catholic Poland, or to be historically accurate, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, gained primacy. From the east came the Cossacks, Orthodox Christians who could fight the Mongols on their own terms. And from the north, came the ethnic Russians, attempting to escape the yoke of Muscovy and serfdom. With the Russians came the Russian Empire, which was not about let a all those valuable surfs get happy feet and shirk their responsibilities to the Tzar. The Russians found a way to strong-arm the Ukrainian Cossack leaders in to joining the great Orthodox brotherhood. After a few nasty revolts, the Russians got back to the business of putting the yoke back on the surfs until Alexander II. Alex was not keen on serfdom, had no real use for it, found it an embarrassment, and got rid of it. But he kept the Ukraine. Meanwhile, Poland, remember them?, former overlords of  the Ukraine, got absorbed by Russia, well at least the part of Poland / Ukraine  that concerns our history. And then came the Soviets. Uncle Joe and the Soviets took this ethnic mix of Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, random Mongols and Turks still floating about, etc. and made an unholy mess of it.

The unfathomably brutal rule of Stalin, the mass killings, the gulags, the ethnic cleansing, the shear horror and insanity of it all, impacted all of the peoples of the Soviet Empire, but except for maybe the Chechens, the Ukrainians got the worst of it. The epic disaster that was collectivization fell on the Ukrainians the hardest. It was so bad that there is a very special word for it, Holodomor (Голодомор) Hunger-extermination, and it ranks right up there with the butchering of the Armenians by the Turks and the Extermination of the Jews by the Nazis as one of the great crimes against humanity.

Then came WWII , the collaboration with the Nazis by some, and the eventual reconquest of Ukraine; which was just as ugly as modern warfare and ideology could make it. Lets just say Uncle Joe was not happy when so many Ukrainians bolted from the Soviet Union and then took up arms against the Worker’s Paradise. There was a ferocious guerrilla war in the Ukraine that went past the end of the Nazi occupation, well past VE and VJ day and only sputtered out in the late forties.

The upshot of WWII is Poland got moved west and all the pesky non-Poles got kicked out, the Ukraine got moved west and all the Pesky Poles got kicked in to Poland, the Russians stayed put and the the ethnic Germans got tossed all the way to either to the gulags or East Germany.

 Uncle Joe finally died, there was a brief flurry of reform and general madcap misadventure under Khrushchev until he got tossed out for being a little bit too unruly. The Soviet Union then got down to the serious business of slowly rotting away under Brezhnev and his cronies. This gets us to the present rule of Putin and the Oligarchs, with an independent but with deeply divided Ukraine now front and center.

To really understand what is going on in the Ukraine, it helps to go not only into the deep past but into more recent history of the Stalinist era and the horrors of the “Great Patriotic War” which for the Ukrainians is a very dark and bloody chapter indeed. The ethnic Ukrainians have many unresolved grievances with the Russians especially for the crimes inflicted upon them by Stalin.

So into this mess both the EU and Russia have now embroiled. Russia is deeply invested in the area for reasons of pride, history and the ethnic Russians now residing in the area. The EU is also tied to the area if only by the affinity of the western part of the Ukraine to Western Europe. It was not that long ago, 1939 to be exact, that parts of the Ukraine were Poland. And it is to a place that was once part of Poland I will look to now.

Before the present rioting made a mess of things you could stroll Lviv and still marvel at ( and be heartbroken for) the ancient city Lwów. When you think of it Lviv is the Ukraine in a nutshell. Lwów, in 1939, was Polish, but it was so much more. It was the beating heart the Pale of settlement for one. Yiddish was lingua franca here. The high and low culture of the Jewish Despora, grown in the hothouse of Lwów was a marvel not only of Eastern Europe but the whole of Europe. It was a culture grown in rich soil and allowed to flourish, mostly unmolested, for centuries. But when it became Lviv, that part, with so much else, was gone. The cosmopolitan, East European infrastructure built by the Poles and Russians was still there, but the Jews and that glorious culture, with so much else, had been wiped out. By design. Lviv remains, as a part of the the whole, a confused sliver of Ukrainian history. It is a city founded by the Poles, inhabited by Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians,   gifted–by fiat at the end of a bloody war –to the Ukraine. It is a very mixed bag. It is anchored in the west but it also looks to the east, a part of the east, a part of the west, and part of neither. It is a place deeply steeped in history, but uncertain of its future. It is a place that has known the worst kind of tragedy and if we are not careful this beautiful city along with the nation of Ukraine could know tragedy again.
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