Ellie McHugh recounts the multi-faceted, multi-layered history of ethnic and religious strife that makes the Ukrainian crisis far more complex than generally appreciated
“Dreamers of sleepers and white treason, we dream of rain and the history of the gun” – Mother Russia/Dominion, The Sisters of Mercy
It’s been an interesting few weeks for those of us who grew up during the Cold War: not least for the sight of a Ukrainian soldier carrying a Soviet standard as his commander sought to negotiate with his Russian counterpart. Then there’s the fascinating article in Haaretz about “Delta”, the ex-IDF soldier who leads the “Blue Helmets of Maidan”, a paramilitary unit supporting the uprising. Nor is it easy to forget the images of Orthodox priests blessing tanks, a reminder that Putin’s Russia owes as much to the Tsar of All Russias as the it does the Soviet Union.
Both Orthodoxy and Judaism have deep roots in the Ukraine whilst the appeal to historic ties is a poignant reminder of the suffering endured by both Russians and Ukrainians as one people in the 20th century.
The history of Russia begins in the Ukrainian city of Kiev in the 9th Century when the Varangian warlord Rurik displaced the Turkic Khazars and took control of the valuable trade between Byzantium and northern Europe. Initially a pagan kingdom, the conversion of Rus to Eastern-Rite Christianity occurred a century later during the reign of Vladimir the Great and for three centuries the Kingdom of Rus dominated the western steppe from Novgorod in the north to the mouth of the river Dnieper in the south.
For a period in the 13th and 14th Centuries the Ukraine was a vassal of the Mongol Golden Horde, falling under the influence of Lithuania around the time of the Black Death. The Lithuanian victory against the Horde at the Battle of Blue Waters in 1362 secured their hold on Belarus, Kiev and Podolia on the Southern Bug river.
In 1385 Lithuania entered a dynastic union with Poland and Podolia experienced large-scale Polish colonisation, introducing Catholicism and expanding the extant Jewish population. Meanwhile to the east the power of the Golden Horde was being broken by Tamerlane, reducing the influence of the Muslim Tatars. These would eventually break from the Horde and in 1441 establish the Crimean Khanate whilst in 1480 the Grand Duchy of Muskovy asserted its independence and claimed supremacy amongst the Rus.
The 15th and 16th Centuries saw the increasing Polonisation of the Ruthenian aristocracy west of the Dnieper with many adopting the Catholic faith and customs of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility. At the same time the Crimean Tatars routinely raided the Ukrainian hinterland and in response a distinctive Cossack culture developed between the Dnieper and the Volga. The Cossacks lived in independent communities, banding together in larger military formations which in time would evolve into the famed Zaporozhian and Don Cossack Hosts.
When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established by the Union of Lublin in 1569 many Cossack officers felt that as Ruthenians they were unjustly excluded from representation amongst the nobility, and there were a number of unsuccessful Cossack uprisings. Meanwhile to the leaders of the Commonwealth the ungovernable Cossacks were a constant source of diplomatic tension with the Ottoman Empire due to their frequent raids on the Crimea, Moldavia, Walachia and by galley across the Azov and Black Seas.
To ease tensions the Commonwealth established a registry for Cossacks in 1572, promising pay and various personal privileges in return for military service. However the registry allowed for limited numbers with the majority of Cossacks remaining unregistered and at the mercy of the nobility who considered them peasants and potential serfs.
When in 1596 the Ruthenian Church elected to break with the Patriarch of Constantinople at the Union of Brest and acknowledge the authority of the Holy See, the Cossacks supported Orthodoxy and divisions within the Commonwealth became even more pronounced.
For much of this period Cossack restlessness was channeled into a succession of border wars with the Ottoman Empire but with the end of the Thirty Years’s War in 1648 the tensions erupted into a successful Cossack rebellion under Zaporozhian Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, initially aided by the Crimean Tatars. Rebellion became a war of independence and in 1654 the Treaty of Pereyaslav brought the Cossacks under the protection of Tsar Alexey I.
Two more decades of bloodshed followed before the formal partition of the Ukraine in 1686, with Kiev and the lands east of the river Dnieper passing permanently to Russia. Here the Zaporozhian and Don Cossack Hosts clung to the Orthodox church as they battled to maintain their autonomy from both Russia and the Cossack Hetmanate. Meanwhile in the west the Greek Catholic church maintained the eastern-rite under the auspices of Rome and the Polish crown.
The 18th century was a period of autocratic modernisation for Russia, initiated by Peter I and reaching its apogee under Catherine II. Peter ended the independence of the Hetmanate in 1709 whilst in 1764 Catherine abolished the office of hetman. A decade later in 1775 the Zaporozhian Sich was destroyed and their Host disbanded by Prince Potemkin. The Zaporozhians splintered with a new Host establishing itself on the Danube under Ottoman protection whilst a loyal remnant were settled east of the Dneister.
Potemkin went on to peacefully annex the Crimean Khanate in 1783, finally putting an end to the Tatar slave trade which is estimated to have carried one million Poles, Ukrainians and Russians into bondage in the preceding centuries. Amongst Potemkin’s other legacies were the founding of the great port cities of Kherson, Mykolaiv and Sevastopol, and the establishment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The two banks of the Dneiper would be reunited in 1793 when Russia annexed the western Ukraine during the second division of Poland whilst Ukrainian Galicia became the northernmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Western Ukraine retained a strong Polish-speaking and Catholic nobility whilst the peasants largely reverted from the Greek Catholic faith to Orthodoxy.
Throughout Catherine’s reign and into the 19th Century there was also a steady influx of German immigrants, including many thousands of Mennonites whose total population reached 100,000 by the outbreak of war in 1914.
The First World War was a disaster for all the major powers of Eastern Europe. In 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated following the February Revolution only for the Provisional Government to itself be ousted by the Bolsheviks in the October revolution. The Russian Empire descended into a Civil War which would last until 1923 and draw in both the Central and Allied powers.
In the Ukraine the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires saw competing nationalist groups attempt to create a united Ukrainian state in the ancient Ruthenian borders, whilst White Russian forces based in Crimea battled with Trotsky’s Red Guards and Nestor Makhno’s anarchist Black Army. The situation became so violent and confused that even pacifistic Mennonites took up arms in the ensuing bloodbath.
Following the Bolshevik victory in 1923, western Ukraine was ceded to Poland with other territory passing to Belarus, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Lenin’s New Economic Policy used state capitalism to galvanise economic growth, but when Stalin seized power he collectivised the agricultural sector, and in 1932-33 the Ukraine suffered the Great Famine, killing in the order of 10 million people. Ukrainian nationalism was heavily repressed in the run up to the Second World War, as was the Cossack culture, and an estimated four-fifths of the Ukrainian cultural elite died in the purges of the 1930s.
The Second World War inflicted a fresh round of horrors on both the Ukraine and the Crimea as the German invasion of 1941 initiated two-and-a-half years of Nazi rule. During this time up to 8 million Ukrainians were killed, including 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews.
Despite the brutality of the German occupation, more than 200,000 Ukrainians volunteered to fight against the Soviet regime, partly from within the occupied territories and partly from emigrés. In 1943 these volunteer units were formed into the Ukrainian Liberation Army, and in the final months of the war this was integrated into the Ukrainian National Army.
Meanwhile in western Ukraine the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the military wing of the initially fascist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, conducted guerrilla warfare against Soviets and Germans alike in an attempt to establish an independent Ukrainian state. This included the ethnic cleansing of Polish and Jewish populations. After the war the UPA continued their resistance to Polish and Soviet rule through the late 1940s, and many of today’s right-wing Ukrainian nationalist parties trace their origins to the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.
However despite these movements, large numbers of Ukrainians including the vast majority of Cossacks fought for the Red Army during the war. And since the fall of the Soviet Union the Cossack identity has become very closely associated with Russian conservatism.
In the Crimea, the Germans recruited a Tatar Legion, and in 1944, as collective punishment, Stalin had the entire Crimean Tatar population, along with Armenians, Bulgarians and Greeks, deported to Central Asia: it was only in the final years of the Soviet Union that they were free to return to their homeland.
In the postwar years Eastern Ukraine became a leading industrial centre, armaments manufacturer and energy producer, giving it a powerful political influence in the Soviet Union, further enhanced by the addition of the Crimea in 1954 with the Black Sea Fleet.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian Parliament declared its independence. Since then, its strategic importance has increased further with the development of Russian oil and gas pipelines, making it a key link in the trade between Russia and her western customers, whilst its heavy industry is still largely focused on trading with the former Soviet states. There’s also a thriving hi-tech sector including online commerce and internet services with excellent growth potential.
All of these would be reason enough for the Russian government to want a favourable trading relationship with Ukraine and to back the deposed Yanukovich government to maintain it. However when the vital importance of the Black Sea Fleet to Russian prestige and influence in the Middle-East is also taken into account, along with the significance that Kiev plays in Russia’s cultural identity, it should come as no surprise that President Putin is willing to risk the wrath of the West.
And Putin has a strong hand to play. Many European Union countries are over-dependent on Russia for their gas supplies, which is why there’s little appetite for action in Berlin or Brussels, whilst threats of sanctions by the USA and UK would have to be implemented unilaterally and thus lack credibility.
The key question though is whether there’s a compromise both pro-Russian and pro-EU factions can agree to, that will save Ukraine as a cohesive nation, or will the likely secession of the Crimea to join the Russian Federation mark the first step towards repartitioning along the historic east-west divide of the Dneiper?
Then there’s the increasing militancy of the Cossack Hosts in Russia and beyond. The Russian Hosts have been staunch supporters of Putin’s regime which coincides with their conservative and Orthodox ideals, but it’s far from clear that their Ukrainian counterparts share their enthusiasm. Indeed a number of Ukrainian Cossacks have publicly abjured the oath given at the Treaty of Pereyaslav and paraded in support of the new Ukrainian government at the Euromaidan in Kiev.
With paramilitary forces on both sides of this dispute the risks of accidental escalation are all too real.