Since the onset of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in February this year, there has been an upsurge of interest in Ukrainian history. And in the midst of a conflict over national sovereignty, there has been an upsurge of interest in simplistic versions of Ukrainian history. But the history here is very complicated.
The narrative typically presented in the U.S. and the West goes like this: the idea of Ukrainian statehood emerged in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, but following a brief period of independence, free Ukraine was occupied by the totalitarian Russia. The USSR starved, murdered, and deported millions of ethnic Ukrainians. During the Second World War, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN/UPA) fought both Stalin and Hitler, but after the war, the country fell to Soviet occupation again.
The beautifully simple narrative, focused on a Russian occupation of Ukraine, was advanced for instance this past March in an article in Smithsonian magazine. Inside Ukraine itself, this same story line is promoted by the Institute of National Memory, a government-funded outlet notorious for Holocaust revisionism and the denial of pogroms. Facts like the Holodomor, the purges, or the existence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic are indisputable, of course. But the story itself, however compelling, is not that of Ukraine, the country, but only of Ukrainian nationalism.
The popular Western narration of Ukrainian history relies heavily on a simple language trick. For decades, the words Russian and Soviet were used interchangeably. For instance, it was said that the Russian Khrushchev, the Soviet general secretary, slammed his shoe on the podium, and the Russian army took Berlin in 1945. But inside the USSR, even if the country had a clear majority of ethnic Russians, we knew that it was made up of many tightly managed ethnic groups. And among those ethnic minorities, Ukrainians, the fellow Slavs living in a relatively warm, wealthy land and sharing a long common history with Russia, were the most prominent.
I realize that what I have to say is more Putin than Zelensky, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The idea of a Soviet occupation of Ukraine is contemporary revisionist history designed to forge a Ukrainian identity entirely separate from Russia.
The Bolshevik Revolution ushered in a civil war, much of which was fought on territories soon to be shaped into Soviet Ukraine. To say that it was a confrontation between the Reds and Ukrainian nationalists would be a gross distortion. The half a decade long conflict drew in myriad parties, including foreign armies, forming complex alliances.
The Ukrainian People’s Republic, under the command of Symon Petlura, was able to assemble 100,000 men—about the same number as the Blacks, or the Ukrainian anarchist force under Nestor Makhno. The Blacks generally allied with the Reds, but ideological differences remained. Consequently, Makhno sometimes took up arms against them and at the end, the Cheka rooted out the anarchists. Towards the end of the conflict, Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry, formed mostly out of the Ukrainian-speaking Cossacks, drove the Ukrainian nationalists-allied Polish forces deep into the heart of Poland, paving the way for the eventual Bolshevik victory. The horrors inflicted by the legendary fighters on local populations are described in Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.
The Bolsheviks’ most formidable opponents were not nationalists but the Whites, a million-strong army representing a wide spectrum of anti-Bolsheviks, from the Black Hundred to liberals. At one point it formed an alliance of convenience with Petlura, but it also had ethnic Ukrainians and Ukraine-born Russians among its ranks. The Kiev-native writer Mikhail Bulgakov gives a perspective highly unsympathetic to nationalists in his novel The White Guard.
It should be noted that at the time Ukrainian cities were majority Russophone with the largest minority language being Yiddish, and the sympathies of urban population were divided. Even if the countryside was predominantly Ukrainian, to say that Ukrainian People’s Republic represented essential Ukrainianness is a stretch. To be sure, it’s hard to say who did—most people simply wanted to be left alone. But what they got was forced industrialization, purges, and the Holodomor: the government-engineered famine that swept the peasant population of the USSR, hitting Ukraine and Kazakhstan especially hard. The Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia was targeted in the 1930’s purges, along with other enemies of the people in the USSR. However, to declare Ukraine an occupied territory because some of the purged had nationalist sentiments would be to miss the bigger picture.
The World War Two experience is instructive. The nationalists of the OUN/UPA has become a flashpoint in the contemporary Ukrainian historical narrative. Rebuked by the Nazis who wanted to rule Ukraine directly, OUN members nonetheless joined the S.S., participated in the Holocaust, and slaughtered up to 100,000 Polish peasants. But that was largely a regional pathology of the western-most tip of Ukraine. Although collaborationists existed in every region, most Ukrainians fought for the Soviet Union. The First Ukrainian Front of the Red Army that took Berlin was majority ethnic Ukrainian. Initially called the Voronezh Front, it was formed inside Russia but recruited the locals as it passed through Ukraine towards Poland and Germany.
When a few months ago the Western Ukrainian town of Chernovtsi demolished its monument to the Red Army soldier—a standard Socialist Realist fare seen in the former Soviet population centers—it demolished the memory not of an occupational force, as Soviet soldiers are often seen in Central Europe, but of its own ancestors. For their valor, Stalin rewarded Ukrainians with Eastern Galician territories, ironically, the OUN/UPA stronghold, out of which all Poles were promptly expelled. A decade later, in 1954, as the USSR celebrated the 300-year anniversary of the Bohdan Khmelnitsky uprising, which culminated in the union of Ukraine and Russia, the Soviet Ukraine expanded once again.
My mother, a Holocaust survivor, recalls pageantry staged in her grade school to mark the occasion: all the kids dressed in Russian and Ukrainian national costumes. Since she had dark features, she couldn’t pass for a Russian, but Ukrainian…well, maybe from afar, so she was given the Ukrainian dress. Our own relationship with Khmelnitsky was never mentioned in Soviet textbooks. The Cossacks of Chimel the Wicked annihilated the Jewish population of what is now the Right Shore Ukraine. My mother learned that history many years later.
It was Nikita Khrushchev who gave Crimea to Ukraine, as a token of undying friendship on the anniversary of Russo-Ukrainian reunification. Khrushchev was born in a Ukrainian-speaking region of Western Russia, spent his formative years and started on his Communist path in Ukraine, married a western Ukrainian woman, and proudly wore vyshyvankas, the Ukrainian peasant shirts. He also sent tanks to Budapest. Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev sent tanks to Prague. Brezhnev was an ethnic Russian by passport, but with dark hair and prominent eyebrows, like a Cossack. A native of Ukrainian countryside, he spoke with a heavy Ukrainian accent—not an unusual speech pattern for the Politburo.
In the pre-war years, apparatchiks launched careers in the resource-rich, rapidly industrializing Ukrainian SSR. Ukrainians happened to be in the right place. A blessing to some, but a curse to peasants and many others who saw their lives destroyed and families executed. But none of that turns the Soviet regime into a Russian occupational force in Ukraine. Although latent separatist tendencies existed, particularly in the western parts of the country, the dissident underground was urban and Russophone, centered in Kharkov, Kiev, and Odessa. The countryside was restful.
As a child, I spent summers in three places: a town near Tartu, Estonia, the village of Sanzhary in the Poltava Region, and the Crimea. Estonia was an occupied country. The locals pretended not to hear us when we addressed them in Russian. Nor did they care to know that we were from Ukraine, or that we showed solidarity. Poltava Region, the birthplace of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, is considered the Ukrainian heartland and is famous for hospitality. We rented rooms from a local family whose matriarch spent her days in the anteroom, spinning yarn by hand. I begged her to teach me her amazing skill, but as much as she tried, I just didn’t have the touch. I now realize she was a Holodomor survivor, but back then I thought she had only lived through a world war.
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Me and my cousin from Moscow played discos with local girls, dancing to ABBA and the Soviet divas Alla Pugacheva and Sophia Rotaru. We never detected any hostility towards Russian speakers. Why would we? Americans assume that, in Ukraine, there exists an ethnic Russian community separate from a Ukrainian-speaking ethnic Ukrainian community. But most city dwellers were of mixed Russo-Ukrainian heritage and spoke Russian, albeit often with heavy southern “gs.” Crimea was probably the only place where a Ukrainian accent was a rarity.
A Ukrainian identity existed through Soviet era and a version of it was promoted from top-down. Like Belarusians, Ukrainians were encouraged to think of themselves as a people distinct from Russians, but made out of the same stock. Considering, for instance, the tenacity with which all of them defended their motherland in World War Two, this view, even if it was KGB-approved, is not incorrect. Even today, after three decades of independence, mandatory Ukrainian in schools and workplaces, and during a war with Russia, many Ukrainians continue thinking of themselves in these terms and go on speaking Russian. Ukraine recently fined the mayor of Kharkov, the city hard hit by Russian shelling, for conducting official business in Russian.
I am sympathetic towards Ukrainians trying to fashion a pro-Western identity. At the same time, Russia has a storied Westernizing tradition, much longer than anything that Ukraine, save for its Greek Catholic corner, can boast. Moreover, the current attempt at national consciousness is not much of a grassroots effort. Rather, it is passed top down by nationalists from Galicia and Kiev. Teaching young people that their grandparents lived in an occupied country, even if their grandparents’ suffering was uniquely horrendous, is not serious history. And it is doubtful that a 21st-century national consciousness can be based on partial truths.