My fictional character Alexei N. Bukharin will always correct someone if they call him a Russian. He’ll usually say, “Now, I am an American, but I was Ukrainian.” He has a Russian name, after all, but that’s indicative of Soviet history. Once Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, its culture and language (though very similar to Russian) were oppressed in favor of all things Soviet. Russian was the official language of all the Soviet Socialist Republics. Alexei’s defection to the west in the early 1960s was his opportunity to embrace his Ukrainian culture, and he knew and understood that culture because of mother, Natalia Shevchenko. Alexei’s father, Nicholai Bukharin, came to the Ukrainian S.S.R. to the collective his mother’s family managed to learn their successful farming and management techniques. Nicholai fell in love with Natalia and never left Ukraine.
And that’s enough fictional back story. Except that back story follows the modern history of Ukraine.
A Brief History
The area that is now Ukraine has been inhabited by humans since 32,000 B.C. In the 12th Century, when Kyiv and the Kyivan Rus’ empire was at its height–stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and incorporating a chunk of what became Muscovy and later Russia–Moscow was a forested swamp and remained that way for 200 more years. By the 12th Century, Kyiv was a major European medieval and religious center with strong ties to the Byzantine Empire. The Kyivan Rus’ empire’s economy tanked when the Byzantine Empire fell, and close on followed the Mongol Invasion.
What became the Russian Empire under the Romanovs and what remained of the Kyivan Rus’ always had a testy relationship. As the Kyivan Rus’s cohesion unraveled, Tsarist Russia absorbed part of it and “gave” the other part to what was then Poland. It remained that way until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 when Ukraine was briefly independent as the Ukrainian People’s Republic. When the Soviet Union was consolidated in the 1920s, Ukraine became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and power was centered in Moscow among the ethnic Russians.
However, Russians and Ukrainians–both Slavic.
And the Ukrainian SSR chafed under Soviet Russian domination and had no love for their position in the USSR. Indeed, Stalin’s usual paranoia ramped up when it came to Ukraine. He considered the entire republic a hotbed of independence-minded peasants, backward and barely human, conveniently forgetting he was a Georgian peasant, I suppose.
Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party, the government structure, and the military in the 1930s are well-known among historians. I did a couple of papers on that myself. The concept of collectivization–the pooling of Soviet resources from all republics to be distributed equally within the Soviet Union–was also a weapon for Stalin to diminish Ukraine’s importance.
First, the concept of collective farms was anathema to Ukrainians, some of whom had lived on and worked the land for centuries, first as serfs then as landowners. And when it came time for that equal redistribution, the Ukrainian SSR, the largest republic besides Russia itself, came up short. The result was the Holodomor, a Ukrainian expression meaning “killing by starvation.” In 1932 and 1933, millions of Ukrainian peasants starved to death in an area called the breadbasket of Europe. Because the Ukrainians were nonentities to Stalin, there are few records of this–unlike his show-trial purges with court transcripts. Estimates place the death toll at between seven to 10 million on the high end and three to five million on the “low” end. As late as August 2021, a mass grave of Holodomor victims was found, and Ukraine today considers it genocide–by Russians against Ukrainians.
But is that true? Some scholars believe Stalin deliberately short-changed Ukraine to assure it would never be strong enough to be independent. Others blame collectivization. Others still simply think it was a fluke. But Stalin’s paranoia was all-consuming, and most of his policies stemmed from his need to eliminate anyone he considered a threat to him, including an entire country.
Remind you of anyone today?
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine was independent at last, but . . . Russia has never liked an independent Ukraine, mainly for its resources (agricultural and mineral) and its warm water ports in the Black Sea. Mostly, though, Ukraine made Russia and the Soviet Union more European than Asian. Without Ukraine, Russia is more an Asian power than a European one. (Something I’m sure the Chinese are not fond of.)
And when Russia’s leader has declared that the break-up of the Soviet Union was the biggest tragedy of the 20th Century, reuniting the old Soviet Union might be considered his legacy. Putin has a tactic of placing local politicians who are loyal to him, i.e., he’s paid them, in charge of former Soviet Republics. That was the case in Ukraine with Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych. On Putin’s instructions Yanukovych rejected an agreement to bring Ukraine closer to Europe, and, well, those feisty Ukrainians kicked him down the road and into exile in Moscow.
Putin chose that point in 2014 to annex Crimea and what’s called the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where a lot of ethnic Russians live. Under its current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, elected in 2019, Ukraine wants to be a part of Europe. It wants to join the European Union and become a member of NATO, something that Putin will not have. All along the border of Ukraine and the Donbas region and since 2014, Ukraine and Russia have fought a “not-quite” war.
On February 24, 2022, that became a total war. No, an invasion of a democratic country (Ukraine is working hard to live up to that) by an autocratic country (Russia has never known anything different).
And here we are.
Why Do I Stand With Ukraine?
Though my history study focused more on post-Revolution Russia, a big part of that included Ukraine and its suppressed culture. It’s where the Cossacks with their incredible horse-back riding come from. Indeed, horse tribes were all over what became Ukraine, and I love me some horse-lore.
Mainly, it was the fierce independence of its people, that desire to be its own country and not under someone else’s yoke. After all, the American Colonies took on the then biggest empire in the world and came out the United States of America. In that way, we Americans and the Ukrainians have common ground. We both stood up to bullies. The U.S. won; the Ukrainian outcome is unclear.
I stand with Ukraine because of the woman who confronted a Russian soldier and demanded that he and his fellow soldiers leave Ukraine. Despite his orders for her to stop talking, she tried to give him a packet of sunflower seeds. “Take these and put them in your pocket so sunflowers will grow where you die here,” she said. That gave me a chill, and I suspect that Russian soldier was a tad uncomfortable, too.
What was remarkable about that encounter was that the soldier didn’t touch her, didn’t aim a gun at her. He walked away. This was right around the time that a Russian warship in the Black Sea radioed 13 Ukrainian Border Guards on Zmiinyi Island and demanded they surrender. The 13 border guards conferred and agreed on their message.
“Russian warship, go f**k yourself.”
The warship bombarded the island, and all 13 border guards are presumed dead.
I stand with Ukraine because they are uniting to defend their capital not overrun it, because they are fighting oppression instead of whining about wearing a mask.
YA z Ukrayinoyu.