Do we have to have wars in order to learn history? The current war in Ukraine has occupied so much of my thinking since it began that I’m exhausted by it – and I’m not there, not fighting, not doing more than donating to some new charities. The only good thing about it is that I’m belatedly learning some important history of eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
The main thing I’ve learned is that history is messy, very messy. It’s also fascinating. I think I’d study history if I could do college all over again. Unlike North America, Ukraine has been the wild west for millennia (think Sythians (from Iran), Goths, Huns, Mongols, Tatars, Vikings, all players). When pressures or desires elsewhere led people to look for opportunities outside their own back yards, the “emptiness” of Ukraine often captured their imagination. It turns out that the Europeans who settled the east coast of North America were not the only people ever to describe a sparsely populated part of the world that was new to them as empty.
Vikings, yes Vikings, aka “Rus” actually pushed into Ukraine from the Baltic Sea following the Dnieper River, perhaps out of curiosity, but also eager to trade. One of them, named Halvdan, carved his name in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 9th Century. They brought the name Volodymyr, as in Zelensky, Putin, and Volodymyr the Great (who ushered in Christianity in 988) and were part of the creation of the Kievan Rus medieval state.
Over time, the people of Ukraine coalesced and broke apart, were annexed and freed, created alliances and were subdued, yet rose again until they succeeded in creating a viable independent democratic nation when the Soviet Union fall apart. Ukraine has always been multi-ethnic due to the many people who have come to settle or passed through on trading routes. Their language is distinct from Russian, despite what Putin says, but because of the dominance of Russian during Soviet rule and because of the presence of many ethnic Russians even today, Russian is still spoken as a first language by many.
In the 1930s, Stalin starved millions in Ukraine and other parts of Russia in his efforts to collectivize agriculture, an event referred to as the Holodomor. Following the famine, he purged a large number of professionals and intellectuals in Ukraine. (Please do not take my word for any of this. Ukrainian history is far too complex for me to summarize.) World War II brought immense damage and death to Ukraine, and I imagine there are Ukrainians today who remember that carnage while they survey the damage from today’s war. I read recently that there is an effort today to remove any living Holocaust survivors from Ukraine to protect them. If there is any good news from today’s war, perhaps it is that these people are in danger today for being Ukrainian, not for being Jews, and yes, that is good news.
After WW II, Ukraine amended its constitution such that it could participate as a founding member of the United Nations while still being part of the USSR. Thus a national identity was forming while it was developing institutions that it would need as a truly independent nation after 1991. Nothing about the creation of the USSR or its dissolution was easy. Ukraine’s status in both eras was contested from within and without. It’s recent history as a democracy is amazing in many ways. I want it to succeed as a modern, western-facing, secular, multiiethnic state. Perhaps it will serve as a model for the US.