What can history tell us about today’s unrest in Ukraine?


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MEGAN THOMPSON: As the accusations and warnings from both East and West mount…

As the pace of violence in Ukraine intensifies and the prospects of war grow…

People living in what is now Ukraine find themselves in a familiar, uncomfortable position – seemingly at the mercy of a much more powerful neighbor.

In this case, the Russians.

Theirs is a tangled relationship – sometimes close; other times strained, but rarely equal.

In fact, the connections between the two countries run deep. Through marriage. Religion. Culture. And language.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Can you walk me through all the things that have bound Ukraine and Russia together throughout history?

TIMOTHY FRYE: Well one is Ukrainian and Russian languages are quite similar. Many Ukrainians are bilingual. Television programs in contemporary Ukraine often switch back and forth between Ukrainian and Russian.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Timothy Frye is the director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. It is one of the leading Russian study centers in the nation.

TIMOTHY FRYE: There’s lots of Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language. And in a lesser case, there are many Russians who also speak Ukrainian. So language is an important part of the equation.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The ties between the two dates back to the establishment of a state known As Kievan Rus before the year 1000. The capital was in Kiev but the area extended all the way to Moscow.

ALEXANDER MOTYL: In its heyday, it was actually one of the most important, if not the most important, states within Europe.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Alexander Motyl is a political science professor at Rutgers University.

ALEXANDER MOTYL: Both nations refer to Kievan Rus as the place where they were born. And it existed for about 200, 300 years, give or take. And sort of in the middle of the 13th century, with the Mongol attacks, the place pretty much fell apart.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Motyl says once that happened, for the next several centuries parts of the area now known as Ukraine were overrun by foreign powers including the poles, the Lithuanians, the Ottomans, and then the Russians.

ALEXANDER MOTYL: Since around 1700, give or take a few years, the consensus view again is that Ukraine has been part of a Russian empire. To put a specific date on it, it was in 1709 with the battle of Poltava where Peter the Great defeated Charles the 12th of Sweden, who was then aligned to the Ukrainian leader of the so-called Cossacks. It’s from that moment, approximately, that Ukrainians virtually total incorporation into Russian empire occurs. And it’s at that moment as well that the consensus view is that Ukraine became the equivalent of a colony with all that that that means.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Then, in the late 1700s, an area in what is now in the southern and eastern portions of Ukraine, was taken by the Russians. It was called Novorossiya – the New Russia Putin referred to recently.

And it basically stayed under Russian control until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

That was the first time parts of the geographic area that is now Ukraine tried to declare independence. Historians still argue over the details.

But in the early 1920s the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was formed as part of the new Soviet Union, where it remained, side-by-side with Russia, for the next seventy years. Even then, relations were often fraught.

Stalin’s collectivization of Ukrainian farms in the 1930s led to a great famine and millions of deaths. This is an area which had long been known as the breadbasket of the region.

And during World War II, many in Western Ukraine sided with the Nazis, not the kremlin.

FRANZ-STEFAN GADY: A lot of people were very anti-Russian, anti-Soviet, anti-Communist because Stalin starved the Ukrainians. And that was something that nobody truly ever forgot.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow at the East-West Institute in New York.

FRANZ-STEFAN GADY: Germany in 1941 occupied the entire Ukraine. They immediately enslaved large portions of the population, with the help of Ukrainian auxiliaries, drove out almost the entire Jewish population of Ukraine, and sent a lot of forced laborers back to Germany to help work in the war industry.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But after the war, Ukraine – the second most populous Soviet Republic – enjoyed an almost special status within the 15 republics of the USSR.

TIMOTHY FREY: The relations between the Russians and the Ukrainians were– much closer than they were with any other ethnic group.

MEGAN THOMPSON: In 1954, the soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ceded Crimea to Ukraine, at that point a transfer within the Soviet Union.

And during much of the next nearly 40 years people from Ukraine were well represented in the soviet elite. Khrushchev rose to prominence as a Communist Party leader in Ukraine. And Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the Soviet Union for nearly two decades, was actually born in Ukraine.

Kimberly Marten is a political science professor at Columbia University and Barnard College.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: There’s also no question if you just sort of go through who the personnel were at various times at top ranking positions in both sort of the politics of the Communist Party, but also in terms of who were the industrial leaders, who were the military leaders, who were the leaders in the arts… people who came from Slavic backgrounds, so Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians certainly had a disproportionate level of being favored at the top.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Frye says this was particularly true when it came to culture.

TIMOTHY FRYE: They had easier access into cultural institutions. And Ukrainian high culture was really prized in the soviet period. So what’s interesting culturally is this this mix between Russians kind of looking down on the Ukrainians as their little brothers. At the same time, celebrating the high culture particularly in the Soviet period.

MEGAN THOMPSON: When the Soviet Union came apart in the early 1990s, Ukraine became an independent country.

By then the ties between the Ukrainians and Russians had only deepened.

TIMOTHY FRYE: In the Soviet period lots of people studied in Moscow. They would meet spouses there and put down roots. And this was a very common way for Russians and Ukrainians, given the similarities in the language, to intermarry and to have lots of familial ties.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Many Russians and Ukrainians share a faith in Orthodox Christianity. And because of their similar languages, many read each other’s literature as well.

In fact, a 2001 census showed that Russian was native language for a majority of people in Crimea, Luhansk, and in Donetsk, where much of the recent violence is occurring.

Even so, despite the language and ethnic differences throughout Ukraine since independence, there had been little strife between Ukrainians and Russians.

TIMOTHY FRYE: We have to bear in mind that for all the cleavages between east and west in Ukraine, for 23 years, Ukraine managed to govern itself not very well with lots of corruption and very poor economic performance. But without violence, without separatists movements. And it’s only in this last three months that we’ve seen violence on scale that we are currently seeing.

 MEGAN THOMPSON: First with huge pro-Western rallies in Kiev that sparked the pro-Russian government’s violent crackdown, leading to the ouster of Moscow’s ally, the elected president, Viktor Yanukovich.

Followed by Russia’s seizing of Crimea.

Weeks later those pro-Russian separatists occupied government buildings in cities in Eastern Ukraine, where they remain today. Some of the armed, masked men reportedly have close ties to the Russian military and special forces.

If Putin’s behind all this, what’s motivating him?

MARIA SNEGOVAYA: To get into Putin’s mind, read what he reads.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Maria Snegovaya is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. She wrote a piece in The Washington Post on how early 20th century Russian nationalistic philosophers may be influencing Putin’s actions… writings she says he’s actually assigned to Russian regional governors to read.

MARIA SNEGOVAYA: They say that Russia is a historically, very powerful civilization that has this very specific goal of preserving its traditional values and defining itself against the aggression of the West. And also Russia has to protect the neighboring countries, the cultures of Russia’s traditional influence, such as Ukraine for example. And we can see that Putin is following that suggestion pretty closely. He’s offering this new idea of the Russian world, where this kind of unifying feature would be the Russian language, and people with the Russian culture. And this Russian world is something that he’s trying to recreate.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Which is in line with what President Putin reportedly told former president George W. Bush in 2008: “you have to understand, George. Ukraine is not even a country.”

That also fits closely with Putin’s recent remarks on a nationally televised call-in program.

VLADIMIR PUTIN : I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the Tsarist days Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows?

MEGAN THOMPSON: Marten says Putin’s use of the term “New Russia” to describe an area that includes part of Ukraine is an alarming change.

KIMBERLY MARTEN: That’s just one small point in historical background that he’s bringing up, but it seems to be a justification to the Russian people about taking further aggressive actions. When you start talking about Novorossiya on top of everything else that’s just a completely new ball game and I think it’s really sort of unclear what Putin’s next plan is going to be.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Including the biggest question of all: whether those tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border will invade or not.

Like they have throughout history, Ukrainians will have to wait to see what a more powerful nation will do.

FRANZ-STEFAN GADY: Ukraine in one way or the other was always a pawn between great powers throughout its history. And that I think is something that’s not going to go away. And now it’s somewhere in between the European union, western Europe, NATO and Russia and I think it’s a question of national identity. Where does Ukraine belong?

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