Ukraine: History Repeats Itself

Backbencher February 25, 2014 0
Ukraine: History Repeats Itself

James Evans highlight echoes of the Cold War that surround recent events in Ukraine.

There are strange moments in contemporary life when the events of the past seem to recur. The philosopher George Santayana reflected in 1905 that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.

The influence of the past has frequently -and sometimes tragically – shaped the future of nations. The wounds of three world wars: World War One, World War Two, and the ‘Cold War’ that followed, still weep blood over freshly bandaged nations. For example, tensions remain strong along the ‘38th Parallel’ that divides North and South Korea: the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010 by the North Koreans proved that this Cold War volcano is still active!

European post-war politics has been shaped by a desire to break the cycles of the past in order to improve the future. The European Union is the legacy of twentieth-century conflicts, constructed with the political support of a war-guilt generation led by statesmen such as Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998. The unshakeable faith of many European leaders in the shared vision of a peaceful ‘super-state’ appears strange in the context of the political fragmentation of their continent in the twentieth-century. The Versailles Treaty of 1919 and the collapse of Soviet Communism at the end of the 1980s effected and catalysed the breakdown of empires into smaller nation states. More recently, inter-tribal and inter-religious conflicts tore the former Yugoslavia into smaller independent strips in the 1990s. Nevertheless, membership of the EU is clearly seen by many people living in former Eastern Bloc countries such as Ukraine as a route to progressive government and economic prosperity.

Membership of the EU is clearly seen by many people living in former Eastern Bloc countries such as Ukraine as a route to progressive government and economic prosperity.

Ukraine’s current state of revolutionary turmoil is fascinating to historians, politicians and the media alike. Its unpropitious historical geography, as a borderland between Russia and ‘The West’, provides an explanation for the bloody clashes of recent days between its pro-Russian faction, now focused around the eastern city of Kharkiv, and the rebels who have ousted President Viktor Yanukovych from the capital, Kiev. US President Barack Obama has tactfully asserted that Ukraine is not a pawn on some ‘cold war chessboard’. But the sense of déjà-vu is inescapable. This is now the third time, after independence from the USSR in 1990, and the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, that Ukrainians has asserted their independence from Russian power. As in 2004-5, the new revolution has been centred around Independence Square in Kiev. The familiar figure of Yulia Tymoshenko, newly released from her prison hospital bed, even returned there to address the crowds.

Tymoshenko asserts that she has returned to ‘a different Ukraine’. But to this outsider, the divisions between Kiev and Kharkiv seem as stark as ever. Perhaps the real choice that Ukraine faces is whether to repeat the tug-of-war between Russian and Western influence or, like the former Yugoslavia, to establish stability through a permanent political partition. Either way, in the words of Shirley Bassey, ‘it’s all just a little bit of history repeating’.

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