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The Spectator – on 400 years of unease between Ukraine and Russia

27 February 2014

5:03 PM

27 February 2014

5:03 PM

Ukraine declared independence from the USSR in 1991, but Moscow has made sure it’s remained heavily involved in Kiev’s affairs ever since. That has been relatively simple. Soon before independence, Anne Applebaum described how Russia’s ruthless annexation of its neighbour had left Ukraine without much identity of its own.

‘It took 350 years of Czarist domination, several decades of Stalinist purges, two collectivisation-induced mass famines, two world wars, and the refusal to teach Ukrainian children how to speak Ukrainian, along with the systematic elimination of anyone who might be thought a leader, an intellectual, a capitalist, or even a wealthy peasant. But they did it. The Russians have managed to rob 53 million people of their culture, to impoverish an economy which supplies one-third of the Soviet Union’s food and one-fifth of its industrial products, and in effect to destroy the largest nation in the world without its own state.’

Two years later, Ukrainians were gripped by fear that Russia would try to take away their new, hard-won freedom. An MP Applebaum spoke to cited the 17th century as evidence of the untrustworthiness of the Russians: 

‘If you know about 1654 [when Ukrainian rebels defeated their Polish overlords then were cheated out of their freedom by Russians], then you know that we cannot ever sign treaties with Russians, because we will always be cheated.’ He stared at me fiercely, moustaches quivering. ‘They want to bring our independence to an end. It has happened before, and it will happen again.’ 

The original bone of contention for this year’s protesters was a decision by Viktor Yanukovych to abandon a trade treaty with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia. The same argument played a part in the 2004 Orange Revolution when Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by Viktor Yushchenko after a controversial election. Radek Sikorski (who is Anne Applebaum’s husband and now Poland’s foreign minister) outlined Putin’s strong-arm tactics to get Yanukovych into power: shameless propaganda, tactical power cuts, a suspected poison attack on Yushchenko. Ten years ago, Ukrainians in the east supported Yanukovych while people in Kiev voted for the Europe-friendly Yushchenko.

Many Ukrainians in Crimea agree with Moscow’s position that this week’s revolution was brought about by fascists. Pro-Russian activists have been holding rallies against the revolution and appealing to Moscow to defend them from fascists. Neil Barnett reported on a similar sentiment last time President Viktor Yanukovych was forced from power. In Donetsk in 2004, one old man said:

‘If Yushchenko wins, the Nazis will return. I was in the west of Ukraine recently and saw columns of foreign troops, fascists. If war comes, I will fight until the last cartridge.’

Viktor Yanukovych threw in the towel this week and disappeared into the night. He’s on the run from the new authorities who say he’s wanted for the mass killing of protesters – more than 100 died in Kiev’s Independence Square last week. Soon before Ukraine became independent in 1991, Stephen Handelman reported that state-sponsored troops had attacked Stepan Khmara, who was becoming more and more popular for struggling against the KGB and a corrupt court system.

‘It calls to mind a certain Ukrainian folk tale. Once upon a time, the tale goes, the animal leaders of the forest called a council among them- selves to decide how to end the bullying, murderous career of a particularly obnoxious bear. Rejecting both force and diplomacy, they conscripted the Fox, who travelled to the Bear’s den with the news that a beast equally mighty and ferocious lived in a nearby well. The annoyed ursine tyrant went to look. Seeing a reflection of himself growling in the water, the bear jumped in to fight his rival, and drowned.’

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