President Yanukovych’s arbitrary decision to nullify an economic agreement with the European Union (EU), with few strings attached, and accept a $15 billion aid package from Russian President Vladimir Putin was viewed with horror and revulsion. The specter of life under Russian influence and control surfaced, and this is a life that the majority of Ukrainians will never willingly accept again – something they will fight to the death before being forced once more down the road to serfdom.
From the first day of acquiring most of Ukraine from Poland, under the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), Russian Tsars sought to destroy any sense of national identity in the Ukrainian people. In 1876 Alexander II actually banned books from being published in Ukrainian and speaking Ukrainian in theater plays.
Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s first major poet (1814-1861), synthesized urban and rural linguistic usages with Church Slavonic to articulate a full range of ideas and feelings. Shevchenko railed against the autocratic Russian state in the name of “this land of ours which is not ours”. His nationalist verses reassured literate Ukrainians that they were at least a potential nation.
The Ukrainian people have never forgotten the millions of peasants who were murdered during the 1919 de-Cossackization of the Don region, they have never forgotten the 10 million Ukrainians who were starved to death by Stalin’s regime between 1932 and 1934, and they remember the forced exiles to Siberia during 1944-45. Their resentment and hostility towards Russia and communism/authoritarianism has remained into the present, and, in large part, this explains the anger Ukrainians felt towards the corrupt Viktor Yanukovych and his cozy arrangement with the former director of the KGB, Vladimir Putin.
Ulrich Speck of Carnegie Europe (New York Times) recently pointed at Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Romania as EU success stories, and declared that “the protest movement… centered in Kiev’s Independence Square, has won,” although many others declare that Ukraine will not find real freedom within a European Union economic stricture and the immigration burdens that accompany the EU’s open borders policy; however, the initial EU deal was simply an offer of economic aid, a loose association and a free trade agreement, and EU membership was not offered. But no matter how one views the EU, the Ukrainian people are obviously in desperate need of assistance, and perhaps an effective joint economic aid plan will soon be managed by the U.S., the EU and the International Monetary Fund, with mutually beneficial terms included.
Of course, the big pink Russian Bear’s reaction remains to be seen, as Russian military “maneuvers” are now occurring along Crimea’s border. Right or wrong, Ukraine, “Little Russia”, has been seen as critical to Russia’s national security, because it was the breadbasket of the old Soviet Union and it was also used as an invasion route by numerous past enemies, including Napoleon and the Nazis. Russian technological advances in missile delivery and other armaments negates this as a serious concern. But, no one should be overly hopeful that Putin will follow Boris Yeltsin’s declaration that “The Russian state…will never be an empire…It will be an equal among equals.”
At Putin’s urging,Yanukovych intensified the use of force against the Maidan protesters, resulting in 82 people dead. Since then, Putin has questioned the legitimacy of the recent actions by the Ukrainian Parliament. And, with a heavy imprint in the Crimea (eastern Ukraine) from decades of “russification” programs, Putin’s pure naked desire, thinly veiled in a proposed Eurasian Union, to reconstruct the old Soviet Union may result in an Ossetia-style Russian intervention, despite Obama’s warnings and Putin’s assurances to the contrary; or, at the very least, this means several more months of civil strife and turmoil, since pro-Russian protesters were flying Red Communist flags in Donetsk on February 23rd, and armed men occupied all the government buildings in Simferopol (Crimea) on February 27, 2014 (Reuters).
On Sunday, February 23, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions abandoned him and accused him of facilitating the deaths of the protesters and betraying his country. This same day, Yanukovych appointee and military chief of staff, Yuriy Ilvin said, “As an officer I see no other way than to serve the Ukrainian people honestly and assure that I have not and won’t give criminal orders.”
To the heart of the matter, Serhiy Sobalev, a member of Parliament from the Balkivshchyna Party, stated: “We will come out of Maidan either free or as slaves. But we don’t want to be slaves.”
After Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Russian parliamentary committee that deals with former satellite states, exclaimed, “They are trying in every possible way to tear Ukraine away from Russia” (Interfax), the world should have asked, “So?” – Russia’s claim to the Ukraine has always been illegitimate, and the Ukrainians have never wanted to be integrated into Muscovy. Doesn’t Ukraine have a natural right to self-determination and their own independent state? History says “Yes.”
Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov, Petro Poroshenko – opposition member of Ukraine’s Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama all agree that Ukraine’s territorial integrity must be preserved. Each has a different understanding of this term “territorial integrity.” Just as in the 1950s, today some Ukrainians in the Orthodox east and south still long for the Russian state, while in the west, with its Hapsburg and Polish traditions and its strong Uniate Church, Ukrainian nationhood is understood as inherently anti-Russian.
Recently, Yulia Tymoshenko, former Ukrainian Prime Minister, announced she would run for the presidency, even though much of her former appeal has been tarnished by being seen as part of a corrupt power structure. In many respects, Tymoshenko was much closer to Putin thanYanukovych could ever have hoped to be. But she did herself and her country proud, when she tearfully told a crowd on February 22, “After what you did, Ukraine is yours.”
In the years leading up to 1917, Ukraine was torn through national and social upheaval and embroiled in chaotic violence, much like Ukraine after the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Trans-Dniester Republic in 1991, much like present day Ukraine. Professional people, rural cooperatives and officers from the imperial army convened a Ukrainian Military Congress, which proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic in November 1917, and it was immediately challenged by a Soviet government in Kharkov and supported by many of the workers and peasants in eastern Ukraine. But, the memory of their national independence from 1917 to 1921, no matter how brief, precarious and embattled, generates a powerful longing for fulfillment in the modern day Ukraine.
I would like to leave you with two of the most poignant thoughts I received from two young activists, as I communicated with them on the 23rd and 24th of February:
4:45 pm Sunday 23rd/ Galyna Kolodkevych, Professor of Ukrainian literature in Kiev, asked, “What is the way forward now?” She continued, “Maidan has become (the) opposition now and (the) new authority has to listen to the people of Maidan, but not to the West or Russia. Our politicians receive the power but then forget us…We demand full lustration of official power, without previous communists, party of regions, (and) (Yulia) Tymoshenko. So, Maidan hasn’t won yet. People will stand until the murderers are punished.”
4:37 am Monday 24th/ Yevgeniya Goncharuk cried out, “There is a pain in my heart. Ukraine (is) washed with tears. Many different and difficult thoughts are in my head. Fear to forget. Fear to allow politicians to forget what happened. There is no feeling something great was achieved. I do not see a clear plan for how to remove the old politicians, judges and policemen. But I know that people have to learn by new, normal rules – moral law. The main thing is to remember all the mistakes and lies of every person, who worked in the government. The criminals have to sit in jail. How long will they avoid punishment? …There is hope….Ukrainians are great, they are beautiful people. They surprised themselves. Suddenly they show that they are brave, desperate and they deserve a better life.”
No, Maidan hasn’t won yet, but the Ukrainian people have always been brave, and they do deserve a better life. They have the right to choose and to create for themselves a more perfect union, with one’s liberties and human dignity guaranteed, where equality under a moral law reigns and everyone lives and dies free; today I, all of us, and the world share the chains of the Ukrainian people, since the destruction of just a single person’s freedom creates a ripple effect throughout civil society: So, without undue influence, the Free World must enable, through every available means, the destiny of the Ukrainian people to manifest itself through the people’s own free will, uncorrupted by immoral men.