Ukrainian History, or No Offense, A Bunch of Stuff You Probably Never Thought About

The second in a three-part series about Ukraine

When a traveler or journalist from the West arrives in Ukraine, most of them do so at a disadvantage. Mainstream culture has likely furnished little analysis, save for reductive imperialist narratives that define Ukraine vis-à-vis war and its neighbors. When that traveler or journalist spends time there, though, they begin to learn of the place’s fascinating history, and, if they’re like me, they fall in love.

People often use the adjective “rich” to describe a place’s history; Ukraine lives up to that billing. Surprisingly so, to people unfamiliar with its background. Almost every step is one of discovery, every friendship forged an act of learning lived history within one or two generations of totalitarianism, extreme poverty, and revolution unlike anything experienced within America since the 19th century, and Europe since the mid-20th.

But what is history, especially as it applies to an entire country? In broad terms, it’s a series of choices made by popular storytellers and citizens, on the one hand the choice to emphasize certain facts, and on the other hand the choice to receive those facts. History, on a national level, is a consensus, based on the faith that readers have in the people writing the history, and their willingness to receive a given narrative about how a country developed, which people were vital to its development and in which way. At the present moment, for example, the history of The United States is being contended. One could argue that the war in Ukraine is a conflict between Ukrainians and their neighbors over Ukrainian history, and Ukraine’s right to determine who tells stories about its people and its land.  

The point of the following section is not that Ukrainians are related to the Scythians or Sarmatians or Huns or any of the other groups who’ve moved through the area over the centuries, any more than Germans are related to Arminius, or Italians are descended from Romans. The point is that Ukrainians have just as much irrational history on which to draw to create a story about themselves as anyone else.

The traditional, Eurocentric version of history with which most Americans and Western Europeans born before the end of the Cold War grew up goes something like this: a causal line between the Europe and America of today exists that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece and the Israel of the Bible. This line goes through Great Britain, and Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and Ancient Rome. It features figures like Christopher Columbus, and Martin Luther, and Richard the Lionheart. It is the perspective of a person looking north toward Germany and Scandinavia, and east toward the steppes that produced Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun.

Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian history carries within it this necessary and understandable bias. Rome, the Greek city-states, Great Britain and other civilizations, were all places that competed with their neighbors. We remember them now as mighty empires, but they were always a couple bad harvests away from famine, invasion, and widespread death. It’s easy to look back on the lives of our ancestors from the vantage of today and judge them harshly, when so much is assured by technology, science, and medicine. The idea that one should expect any children to grow unharmed to adulthood would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. The empires that stand as protagonists in America and Western Europe’s history all share this in common: at the time, they were uncertain propositions that survived in spite of the power and potential of those empires around them. At no point was anything secure, and the same time that Roman authors were describing Rome’s eminence in the world to their Emperors and patricians, Chinese and Persian authors were doing the same about their empires for their leaders.

Although “Western civilization” has come to include Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia in recent years, that picture tends not to include places like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and the former constituent countries of Yugoslavia. Some of this has to do with language; much, up until the 17th or 18th century, with the Catholic-Orthodox and alphabetical divide in Christianity; some, with the political and cultural isolation imposed by the USSR after the first and second world wars. An exacerbating element concerns the proliferation of broadcast media that spread cultural stereotypes at a time when emphasizing national differences between east and west (the aforementioned struggle with the USSR) was seen as necessary.

All of this combines to obscure Ukraine. Uncovering the nation and peoples’ history may be a daunting task, but it is not insurmountable. Once one accepts the proposition that Ukraine is a part of history, “Ukraine” starts cropping up all over the place. This could be the case with any other country, too, but that’s exactly the point—traditionally, it isn’t the case with Ukraine. Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time and instrumental to the choreography of Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” was born in Kyiv at the end of the 19th century. Hasidism was born in Ukraine, too, through Baal Shem Tov, at the end of the 17th century. The Polish-Lithuanian expedition to rescue Vienna and Europe from the Ottomans occurred in the 16th century. The destruction of Kyiv at the hands of the Golden Horde in the 13th century may have disrupted or delayed the development of Ukraine as a country, but without the Kyiv Rus fighting against the Mongols, it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine the Mongols reaching further than they did, and wreaking worse havoc in Central and perhaps even Western Europe. Kyiv itself was settled by Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries. Further back still, Ukraine was the homeland of those two Gothic tribes that first sacked Rome in the 5th century; earlier, the Scythians made that land their home. In pre-history, northern horsemen mentioned as allies of the Trojans in Homer’s Iliad almost certainly originated in what is now Ukraine, and accounts of female horsemen known from archeological digs around Kyiv suggest a possible template for the Amazons of legend. According to archeologists, Ukraine is likely where the horse was domesticated. Human habitation has been established there dating back tens of thousands of years, back to when man hunted megafauna, and fabricated shelters with mammoth bones.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to Ukraine’s importance to Europe’s development. Nevertheless, this evidence is easily dismissed, and has been for decades, at least. Ukraine lies outside the conventional historical narrative as taught in schools, its facts consigned to a secondary importance assigned by virtue of their relationship to Europe’s development. Ukraine is not the central character in its own story, let alone a central character in the story of Europe. It certainly could be. 

In spite of millennia of events and experiences on which to draw, few people in the West view Ukraine (alongside Greece, Italy, or Turkey) as part of European history and civilization. Rather, Ukraine and its neighboring countries are seen as the source of menacing historical accidents like the Huns and the Mongols, occasionally pacified by strong rulers, hospitable to barbarians adjacent to the crucial transformations unfolding, inevitably, elsewhere. Inferior to the Western civilization that these ruinous savages periodically threaten.


Institutional storytelling refers to the tendency of institutions to privilege or prioritize their own  perspective and diminish those of others. An early and obvious example of this is The Iliad, or, the Greek account of the Trojan War. In this telling, Troy and its allies were antagonists, while Greeks and their allies were protagonists. This cultural epic or myth reinforced a sense of “Greek-ness” originating in the former territory of Mycenae and those cities or islands like Sparta and Ithaca that allied with it, and dated back to the 9th century, BC. 500 years later, the Iliad was used again to understand the struggle between Greek city-states and their Persian neighbors. It has been used many times since, but always within the framework of rivals competing for power.

The nomadic tribes of Ukraine, to the extent that they were involved in the Trojan War, were unquestionably allied with Troy. And during the clash between Greece and Persia between 490 and 480 BC, they were a nuisance to both sides, appearing indirectly in Herodotus’ account as a cautionary tale offered to Xerxes by an uncle, Artabanus, who said of invading Greece:

“I warned your father—Darius, my own brother—not to attack the Scythians, those wanderers who live in a cityless land. But he would not listen to me. Confident in his power to subdue them he invaded their country and before he came home again many fine soldiers who marched with him were dead. But you, my lord, mean to attack a nation greatly superior to the Scythians…”

Herodotus, a Greek, portrayed Greece as superior to Persians, and to Scythians, because it was in his interests. It made for a good story and solidified the (Greek) reader’s opinion of him or herself. It was primarily directed at a Greek audience, and secondarily at a Persian audience. From Herodotus’ perspective, Scythians were illiterate barbarians, useful only as a way of demonstrating Persian vulnerability and fallibility. They served as a foil to emphasize Persia’s overestimation of their own military strength.

That was the Greek version of Scythians. The historical and archeological Scythians lasted almost 600 years, from sometime in the 8th century BC until the mid-3rd century BC. Although defeated by Philip of Macedon, the Scythians were not destroyed, and they managed to exert power over much of Ukraine until Celtic, Thracian, and Sarmatian migrations displaced the people who had originally settled there.

This template reasserted itself periodically. Following the Fall of Western Rome over the course of the 5th-6th centuries AD, the situation in Western Europe deteriorated greatly. By the time Anne of Kyiv married the King of France in the late 11th century, the relative development in Kyiv and Paris had reached such a point that she sent letters home describing the squalor of her new surroundings, thereby emphasizing the difference in strength and culture between the places. Granted, Paris had recently been sacked by the Vikings, and Europe itself was at an historical ebb, relative to other regions of the world, but at that time Paris was still considered a gem in the West. At this precise moment, though, Kyiv was a place of learning and commerce, a diverse and bustling neighbor of the Byzantines. Paris, a savage backwater.

Nevertheless, the destruction of the Kyivan state at the hands of the Mongolian Golden Horde returned much of Ukraine to barbarity at the very moment the West was dragging itself out of the Dark Ages. Centuries passed while the Rus people struggled against the Mongols and against each other. By the time Jan Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania rescued the Austro-Hungarian Empire from invading Ottoman Turkey in the late 17th century, Ukraine had been relegated to a sort of cultural backwater, mentioned only as a footnote in those secondary texts that decided to refer to it at all. One reason for this is that the audience for the writing and cultural output of Ukraine was Orthodox Christian communities, of which there were few in the West; Ukraine was producing religious literature in a language and with an alphabet that was almost as inaccessible as Japanese at the very moment that print was making books more accessible and widespread.

From Polish footnote in the 15th-17th centuries to Russian footnote after the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ukraine remained hidden. In spite of their lacking a king after the Mongols galloped through, in spite of not developing a nation to go along with its distinct cultural identity and language, Ukraine persisted among the peasantry and smaller landowners, the great anonymous masses that make up history as it’s lived, rather than a certain type of history written and preferred by the wealthy and influential. This is similar to other places in Europe that were never fully colonized by conquerors—English, Lapps, Sicilians, Basques, and so forth. Look for Ukrainians in literature—you will find them in Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Look for Ukrainians in poetry and art—they are present, most conspicuously so in the works of Taras Shevchenko, a 19th-century romantic painter and poet who helped formalize the idea of “Ukraine” as a place apart from Russia or Poland. Ukrainians are everywhere in the literature of the countries around them, as well as those countries that claimed portions of the territory as their own. It can be complicated to trace their history at this moment because they were given many different names by the people who interacted with one portion or another of the group—Cossacks, Ruthenians, Galicians—in all cases, words assigned to Ukrainians by outsiders, rather than generated internally.

Things stayed this way for the most part through the beginning of the 20th century, when leftist and anarchist movements competed with nationalist movements organized around ethnicity for primacy in the region, while monarchs like Emperor Franz Joseph and Tsars like Nicholas II attempted to hold onto power. The same powerful forces that had aligned to disrupt the European status quo through revolution and war spread slowly eastward.

One tendency during the late 19th century helped accelerate the process of nationalism: Russia’s attempts to describe Ukraine as “invented.” This was connected to Russian attacks on Polish language and identity, and Belarusian identity, as well as their attempts to encourage ethno-nationalist movements in the Balkans and Central Europe. This was part of an ongoing struggle with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Tsar saw non-Russian identities and languages as liabilities. Russia’s government therefore characterized nationalist movements as schemes to destabilize Russia. Russification became a viable path, through resettlement, the outlaw of non-Russian language to be taught in schools, forbidding non-Russian culture, and politics. People like Shevchenko, who wrote in Ukrainian about Ukraine in the early-19th century, were punished and made into pariahs for “agitating.”

It’s worth taking a moment to pause, here, with the assertion that “Ukrainian” is an invented identity or language—a fictional product of professional agitators—because that assertion, which has been employed variously by Polish, Austro-Hungarian, German, and a variety of Russian groups over the years, has ramifications for the present and the future. There is no more persuasive argument against viewing Ukrainians (or anyone) as equal or important than the notion that their culture, their history, their language is a political trick or a con. If that assertion is true, what you’re reading right now isn’t an essay, it’s fiction. One can easily justify annexation or partition of an invented polity.

But that is not the case. Ukraine is a country that developed organically over centuries, and the various peoples who live there coexist, for the most part peacefully save in those places that they are actually and actively being supported by external powers. True, Ukraine in its current form bears little resemblance to Kyivan Rus; but then, modern France is quite different from the Frankish court of Charlemagne. Russia’s own history is a long and slow evolution from the principality of Muscovy in the 17th century to the Russian Empire in the 18th century and, ultimately, to the current post-Soviet state; surely, if Ukraine is an “invented” country, it is not any more so than Russia, a political entity that did not exist on medieval European maps and was utterly unknown to ancient Rome. But this essay is not intended as an attack on Russian identity—it is intended to point out that the creation of every nationality or national history is an imposition, an invention, on a certain level. How, if the principality or duchy of Muscovy does not predate the 12th century, did people come to live there? How is it that those people ended up speaking a language similar to that spoken by the Poles, and to the Kyivan Rus? These seem like obvious questions, the type an eight-year-old might ask, but are often left unexplored or even unposed.

As much is the case in France, England, Germany, Italy, and Russia, Ukraine is a country with a history, and a distinct language, and culture, and people. Stating this is neither an endorsement nor repudiation of E. J. Hobsbawn—if the contemporary nationalism of Ukrainians today is invented, then surely it is no more or less invented than the nationalism of England, Germany, Italy, or Russia. 

Back to Ukraine’s history! At the end of the First World War, a war in which Poles and Ukrainians had fought on both sides (German / Austria-Hungary for those living in Central Powers-aligned areas, Russia for those living in Allied areas), the world had changed dramatically. The two promised revolutions, economic and ethno-nationalist, arrived at the same time, in different places: Central and Eastern Europe were “emancipated” from Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian dominion (though not, unfortunately, domination), and a bevy of states were created based on “self-determination” and/or reconstituted and recognized. Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary benefitted from autonomy and self-determination, enforced or enabled by the victorious Allied powers. The Ottoman Empire was partitioned and colonized, and of the former Ottoman territories only Turkey was able to organize an effective defense against a disorganized and badly led Greek force (which nevertheless nearly succeeded in reanimating the long-dead corpse of the Byzantine empire).

Ukrainian and Belarussian ambitions for nationhood were ignored, though both appealed for recognition and formed leadership constituencies. The Poles were able to occupy parts of Belarus and what is now western Ukraine with help from their allies in France and the United States, both of which sent units and equipment. Belarussian and Ukrainian militaries mobilized to resist Poland, were defeated, and their lands annexed. Meanwhile, the center and east of Belarus and Ukraine were overwhelmed by the Bolsheviks, and forcibly incorporated into the USSR—technically through their own republics but subordinated in fact to Moscow and subject to Russification.

It’s worth underlining that point: almost every other European country’s claims to ethnic legitimacy were acknowledged and honored by the Western Europeans negotiating the Armistice in 1919. Ukrainian and Belarussian claims were overlooked, yes, but also they were actively opposed by Polish soldiers equipped by France (in the case of Belarus) and Polish soldiers fighting alongside French units, and under air cover of planes flown by the United States (in the case of Ukraine). To this day, a memorial to United States bomber pilots who fought for Poland in WWI stands in the Lviv cemetery—built in WWI, defaced by communists after WWII, and rehabilitated after Ukraine’s independence.

Ukrainian and Belarussian claims for independence in the East were also opposed by Bolshevists, but on different terms; their project, in 1919, was still the creation of a classless, worker-led, global socialist society, pitted against states built on ethnic, capitalist, and nationalistic foundations.

In the end, Ukraine and Belarus were treated like the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. They were places that could be colonized and occupied, rather than liberated, to be dealt with as means to a variety of ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. The source of the problem. The outsider, the Hun, the Mongol.


Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, too, has its roots in history. When Ukraine declared itself independent in 1917—the East and the West, separately—Ukraine laid claim to an area that included Crimea, and extended into Russia encompassing parts of the Caucases and steppe territories east even of Volgograd (the city formerly known as Stalingrad). Ukraine, in 1917, laid claims to all historical Cossack lands, heavily settled by Ukrainians. This specific idea of “Ukraine” as such was, like many ethno-nationalist visions in the early 20th century, part half-baked history, part aspiration, part pseudo-science, but there wasn’t any reason not to include Crimea and those parts of Russia long settled and farmed by Ukrainians, any more than to mark out a part of Germany and Russia as Poland based on a certain snapshot of history and the linguistic preferences of its inhabitants. People fought and died for this vision of Ukraine, and endured prison and political exile; the fact that it ultimately did not come to pass doesn’t repudiate its importance to many, and underlines why Soviet leaders like Stalin treated Ukrainians with unusual ferocity.

The subjection of Ukraine by Soviet formations and its incorporation into the USSR was a fractious affair, characterized by periods of peace, and periods of conflict. After the wars of 1919-20 between Ukraine and its Polish and Bolshevik neighbors, Poland and Russia approached the problem of Ukrainian nationalism differently. Poland worked against it, viewing Ukrainian nationalism as a threat to its security. At first, the USSR took the opposite view, recognizing the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (The U.S.S.R.’s own U.S.S.R.) as its own state and offering the country much latitude and autonomy. In the 1920s, beset by external foes, engaged in a fight against countries on all flanks, Vladimir Lenin encouraged Ukrainian poets, artists, authors, and politicians to view their country and language as distinct, and the country experienced a creative renaissance that was largely overlooked in a West that assumed everything happening within the impenetrable red swath of territory controlled by Moscow was an oppressive gray horror. Volodymyr Sosiura, a Ukrainian lyrical poet, had that patriotic Ukrainian renaissance to thank for his ascent to prominence in the 1920s—between 1930 and 1931 he spent two years in a Soviet re-education camp. Pavlo Tychyna was a major Ukrainian poet, interpreter, academic and statesman; like Sosiura some time in prison changed the tone of his poetry from patriotic to pro-communist party. Mykola Kulish and Mykola Hvylyoviy were both writers whose popularity during this time, to name two others. Many other individuals were part of the movement, and many of those individuals were veterans of WWI and the Red Army.

By the late 1920s, though, as Joseph Stalin consolidated power, Russia had regained enough strength and settled with its neighbors sufficiently to focus on internal matters. And internal matters, for Ukraine, meant cracking down on their language (outlawed in favor of Russian), literature (outlawed in favor of class-appropriate authors), politics, and economy. These efforts led to widespread resistance, and by 1930, nearly 1 million Ukrainians were estimated to be either actively or passively resisting Moscow. Stalin’s solution, an engineered famine, which was applied in other areas of the USSR as well for similar purposes, sought to destroy perceived Ukrainian truculence once and for all. Between 1932 and 1933, what has come to be known as “Holodomor” resulted in the deaths by starvation of between 2 and 10 million people (contemporary Western scholars put the number in the high 4 millions), and the usual outrages that accompany famine: crime, cannibalism, and shattered communities.

The Ukrainian experience of Holodomor, successfully buried in the West by a combination of inattention and initial enthusiasm in academia and media sources for the Soviet experiment, is an experience that resonated with special power through the years. This is how lived history often works: overlooked or ignored by the academic, political, or professional writers of an age, a trauma works its way down from generation to generation, or within a family, until an opportunity for vengeance presents itself.

So with Holodomor, which helped frame how history played out over the next decade, even contributing to the early and astonishing defeats of the Red Army during the opening chapters of Germany’s war with Russia. Part of this has to do with to the immense and unforgiven insult offered to Ukrainians who, remembering having to watch family and friends die, and in some cases eat their bodies to survive, happily and even enthusiastically assisted the Nazis in destroying the Soviet military and political apparatus. Part of that was the unfortunate accident of Holodomor’s most conspicuous architect and advocate, Lazar Kaganovich, having been Jewish (more on the specific history of anti-semitism in Ukraine later).

Kaganovich was also Ukrainian—as were Nikita Khrushchev and Mikael Gorbachev, though both identified primarily with their Russian roots. Ukrainians were woven deeply into the fabric of the USSR, and they and their nation were seen as essential to the success of the Soviet project. Ukraine’s farmland, its industrial base, and European population were all viewed as indispensable assets to the USSR. Much more than Belarus, or many of the far-eastern satellites, a powerful and confident Ukrainian ally made the United Soviet Socialist Republic feasible. And yet, the moment Ukraine had an opportunity to separate from Moscow and the USSR, many of Ukraine’s citizens took sides against the USSR, carrying on a vicious insurgency that lasted from 1941 until 1954, after Stalin’s death. Less a matter of defeat than a détente, the end of the Ukrainian insurgency happened alongside the elevation of a Donbas Ukrainian (albeit one who identified as Russian) to the most powerful position in the USSR, as well as his elevation of Ukraine to a position of prominence, a position from which it more or less happily cooperated with the Soviet project until its total collapse in 1991. This is worth saying because it illustrates how to treat one’s neighbors—badly and they will meet violence with violence, well and they will provide useful labor for you, for free.

History has not been kind to Khrushchev, but he was a capable leader, and a staunch Soviet. From the perspective of the USSR, in fact, he was a godsend. Stalin, who managed to avoid being defeated by an inferior opponent in Hitler, made major errors throughout the 1930s and 40s that nearly resulted in the destruction of the USSR in his lifetime and may, in fact, have ultimately doomed it. Without some grand gesture, Khrushchev felt, the blood-debt incurred by Stalin in Ukraine meant that a country and people who could make the difference between success and failure would always be on the outside, a reluctant participant in the Soviet experiment. In giving Crimea to Ukraine, Khrushchev managed to effectively bury the hatchet, and helped ensure Ukraine’s loyalty throughout the remainder of the USSR’s existence.

Historical Anti-Semitism in Ukraine

Before galloping onward to Ukraine’s independence from the USSR—the next meaningful thing that happened to the country in the 20th century—it is necessary first to take step backward and address a longstanding point of contention, and one of the chief avenues of criticism for the country and its people: racism and anti-semitism. A brief note: I am using the published advice of Tim Snyder and not capitalizing the “s” in anti-semitism.

Ukraine has a reputation for being a country that is especially racist and anti-semitic. There’s no way around this criticism, or its historical basis. Modern anti-semitism is the heart and soul of serious moral opposition to Ukraine as a country, as well as the country’s culture. And while its anti-Jewish, anti-minority reputation goes back centuries—anti-semitism is the only history many people concede to Ukraine—it is Ukraine’s relationship to the Holocaust that inspires the most horror and opposition. This factor cannot be overlooked or bypassed.

The first genocidal pogroms against Jewish people are generally said to have taken place in Ukraine, in the 17th century. A “Cossack” nation led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky, in the process of establishing independence from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, focused attacks on Jewish civilians and Roman Catholic clergy, killing tens of thousands of Jewish civilians over ten years. Other, less widespread but similar pogroms happened periodically in the area until WWII, when Ukrainian paramilitaries cooperated with invading Nazis to participate in the Holocaust. Memories of the Holocaust, as well as the periodic brutalizations that occurred before, were carried by Jewish survivors fleeing Westward, to England and to the United States, and those firsthand accounts of murder or savagery invariably singled out Ukrainians (rather than Croats, Romanians, or even French) as perpetrators of the most degenerate attacks, criminal outrages remarkable for their cruelty and callousness.

This is so much the case, that Ukraine is almost indistinguishable from “anti-semitism” in Western European popular culture. Watch any movie about WWII or that touches on Ukrainians, and the role of the Ukrainian character or characters will be to murder or oppress minorities or specifically Jewish characters with as much animosity as possible, and in some suitably shocking manner. Either that or demonstrate their potential for doing so. They act as savage accomplices of the refined but amoral Germans, thinly-racialized caricatures of a perpetual lower class that can only be organized for violence or spite.

The idea of Ukrainians as essentially anti-semitic thugs (we’ll focus on this rather than racist, homophobic, xenophobic, because all of those other negative attributes are subordinate to the anti-semitism) has been very effective at marginalizing or “othering” Ukraine as a national idea. The smear occupies a small corner of everyone’s imagination, whether they’re aware of that corner or not. It influences attitudes toward Ukraine, and affects what people believe is possible in the country, and with the country’s citizens. Ukrainians themselves are often unaware of the external bias, or how it affects how they think and write about their own country. Sometimes this creates a vicious feedback loop in which Westerners read articles or watch cinema created by Ukrainians who have been colonized by this idea of themselves as specially guilty of anti-semitism, similar to the phenomenon of Black Americans echoing racist ideas in their own language and literature, re-capturing themselves through an internalized dialogue that exists everywhere outside them, and lives inside them as well. This phenomenon is most capably described by Ralph Waldo Ellison in Invisible Man and by Richard Wright in Native Son—the greatest violence of a stereotype being perpetuated inside an individual who is subjected to the stereotype’s definitional weight.

The myth is common and easily-perceived in articles written by Ukrainians themselves, like this piece in The New York Times, “Attacks on Roma Force Ukraine to Confront an Old Ethnic Enmity,” in which a journalist actively (and, tragically, without awareness) perpetuates a certain type of Western myth, abetted by years of Russian propaganda, about Ukrainians. Western readers are conditioned to accept such articles at face value and without additional context; from this perspective, articles of this sort are kitsch at best, and propaganda at worst.

The Ukrainian’s relationship to anti-semitism today manifests itself similarly to that of the African-American’s relationship to racism, with some important differences. Most conspicuously, Ukrainians do not “appear” to be much different from any other Caucasian group, due in part to the area of Ukraine having been traversed and colonized for centuries by the same invading forces that shaped the rest of Eurasia. Most African-Americans are visually distinctive. The African-American’s relationship to racism is based on the imposition of an ahistorical and spurious definition of capabilities in which the African-American was, by dint of slavery, subsequently described as intellectually and morally inferior to whites. African-Americans were deliberately trapped in a system that was not designed by or for them (more accurately, was designed to exploit them), this definitional inferiority proceeded from that system, and the imposition of identity by external forces was facilitated by visual cues (it is still imposed, today).

While there is something to be said for Ukrainians’ inferior status under those countries that governed their territory, from the Poles to the Austro-Hungarians to the Russians, that does not fully explain their relationship to the Jewish residents of those same areas, and it certainly does not excuse their participation in the Holocaust. A crime was perpetrated against African-Americans, the crime of slavery, and that crime was doubled by the crime of institutional racism that has since followed the original crime; similar crimes were perpetrated against Ukrainians, but the Ukrainians also committed great crimes against their neighbors.

One must be an ethno-nationalist to believe that there are traits fundamental to certain cultures, and therefore it is difficult to find ethno-nationalists on the left, or in the United States (a country filled with many different nationalities, and therefore absent a native “nationalism” based on ethnicity, save the aforementioned categories imposed by racists and religious exceptionalism and extremism, which is different from nationalism). Ukrainians are not born with some special anti-semitic gene, nor is there something about Ukrainian culture that predisposes Ukrainians to anti-semitism. But there certainly were material and legal conditions that made anti-semitism especially likely in Ukraine, and there have been political leaders for whom it was occasionally advantageous to scapegoat Jewish people.

The first genocidal “pogrom” mentioned earlier, intimately connected to the Khmelnytsky Uprising, was itself a populist rejection of exploitative rent-seeking that occurred in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The most influential nobles, who had amassed great power through the acquisition of farmland, had, by the 17th century, set high rents for tenant farmers (many of whom were Belarusian and Ukrainian), and insulated themselves from direct appeal by relying on Jewish employees to manage the occupation and rent collection on those lands. Jewish managers therefore became the human face for distant Polish aristocrats, and when Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks rebelled, Jewish civilians were the unsurprising (if unwarranted) targets for the brunt of that rage. Leftists might say that a more proper target of Cossack and peasant (in this case, Ukrainian) anger might have been those Polish aristocrats responsible for imposing unreasonable terms on the peasantry, and that the Jewish managers were as exploited and victimized by the system as anyone. That evaluation, one in which the aristocrats are the real genesis of the injustice that led to the uprising, doesn’t seem too off the mark for that specific pogrom. But there were others, and they took on a certain brutal tinge in 19th and 20th century Russia.

By then, the area that is currently Ukraine was governed by Russia, as was much of Poland and all of Lithuania. And the Ukrainian peasantry was still anti-cosmopolitan, anti-intellectual, and anti-Jewish, feeding the military and the Cossack ranks with people eager to enforce laws through violence, eager to wage war on populations within the Empire. Hostile to the Empire itself. From 1791 until 1917, Russia, in a quirk of fate, permitted Jewish citizens permanent settlement only in “The Pale of Settlement,” an area that encompassed much of Ukraine, all of Belarus, all of Lithuania, and Eastern Poland. It was most likely, in the Russian Empire, that one would encounter Jewish people in this area. An excellent reason that one doesn’t read about massive historical pogroms occurring in Moscow or St. Petersburg is that for much of the 19th and early 20th century those populations were tightly controlled and limited to thousands, and the mechanism for venting Russian anti-semitism under the Tsars (which existed, as is obvious from their carving out a space outside Russia’s “home” territories and cities) was to expel Jewish residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This happened periodically, the most recent example occurring during the end of the 19th century when, as Jewish residents amassed wealth and prestige, the tsars evicted most of them and confiscated their property. Those who lost most or had little to begin with were sent to live as outcasts in the Pale of Settlement among Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Baba Yar and Anti-Semitism in Ukraine and Eastern Europe during WWII

Ukrainians, largely rural, lived side-by-side with Poles, Jews, and other nationalities starting in 1791. Alongside the dislocating experience of industrialization and leaving their rural roots, Ukrainians saw their own nascent nationhood squashed by Western powers, and then over a decade beginning in 1930, brutally repressed by the USSR. When the Nazis entered Ukraine from the West in 1941, they brought with them a convenient answer that seemed designed to find an audience in Ukraine.

Almost as soon as the Germans entered Ukraine in 1941, they began killing Jews. This was not the case in Western European countries, and many Central European countries, too (Eli Weisel’s Night describes Jewish residents of a Hungarian town who avoided the Holocaust until mid-1944). This chapter of history is extensively documented both by the Nazis and by those victims of theirs who survived. The single most horrific moment arrived shortly after the capture of Kyiv, when the Nazis rounded up as many Ukrainian Jews as they could lay hands on, and between 29 and 30 September, massacred over 30,000 of them in a series of ravines called “Baba Yar” (now, a picturesque memorial park). Crucially for the history of Ukraine, this butchery was aided and empowered by local Ukrainian paramilitaries or “auxiliary police” who had been organized previously by a hyper-nationalist organization called “OUN.” Over the course of the war, these auxiliary police helped the Nazis kill another 70-120,000 Ukrainians, Jews, and Roma at Baba Yar for a variety of reasons; this original bit of ethnic cleansing is notable for its scope, immediacy, and (from the point of the Nazis) effectiveness.

Of course, the Nazis were aided in their efforts to extinguish “Bolshevism” and “Jewry” by local allies in every country they invaded; Italians, French, Poles, Lithuanians, Dutch, Latvians, Russians, Belarussians, Croats, and Hungarians to name some.

There is no question that Ukrainians assisted the Nazis in ethnic cleansing against their Jewish and minority neighbors, and this essay is not intended to minimize that horror. It is important, though, to understand the distinction between a group committed to genocide (the Nazis), and a group interested primarily in vengeance and settling personal grievances, in a local context (the Ukrainians). The Ukrainians’ participation in Holocaust activities such as Baba Yar helped cement their external reputation as among WWII’s great criminal groups, but their crimes, coming as they do from a position of weakness and exploitation vis-à-vis their position between Western Europe and Russia must be viewed with some circumspection. Eight years before Baba Yar, the country had been subjected to Holodomor, which was led by a Jewish Soviet bureaucrat, and carried out by people recruited and trained in urban areas by the USSR—many of the soldiers, secret police, and Soviet functionaries, were Jewish. This has become a talking point for ethno-nationalists and anti-semites interested in justifying their world view; I trust that readers will not impute that motivation to me, Here, I am pointing out the sad cycle of violence in which two groups of people were trapped—Ukrainians hoping to take control of their own destiny from Russia and the USSR, and also, in the very specific case of those Jewish intellectuals enthusiastically participating in the USSR project, Eastern European and Russian Jewish citizens hoping to emancipate the global working class from capitalistic exploitation, thereby destroying the harmful and divisive identity-driven conflict that had been the root of so many historical pogroms.

The collectivization and famine, then, made it easy for German propogandists of the time to distort the significance of those events and use them for their own purposes, pitting (once again) different exploited and oppressed groups against one another. This propaganda is still alive and well today among certain groups in whose interest it is to mischaracterize Jewish people and distract from their own misbehavior.

Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Poles also have a reputation for anti-semitism, though not quite so assertively as Ukrainians—mitigated, no doubt, by western ignorance of Belorusia as a country, and latent sympathy for Poles and Lithuanians, who are as a rule viewed more favorably than Ukrainians, as seen in the reflexive impulse to grant Poland its own nation in the wake of WWI. In the German WWII series “Generation War,” anti-semitic paramilitaries working alongside SS Einsatzgruppen in Russia have blue-and-yellow armbands, a subtle nod to their nationalist affiliation (Ukrainian). A Polish resistance group fighting against the Germans reserves their worst contempt for Jews, but even so, are afforded a measure of redemption owing to their hostility to the swastika—redemption denied to the Ukrainian paramilitaries.

Elie Wiesel’s Night is filled with cruel Eastern European characters, from the neighbors in the Hungarian town of Sighet where the action begins, to Franek, the Polish foreman who insists on stealing the gold crown from Wiesel’s mouth. In the beginning of the book, a Jewish man named Moshe survives a massacre in Ukrainian Galicia in 1942, then returns to Sighet to warn residents of German intentions. On the other hand, one of the very few positive characterizations that occurs in the concentration camps is a leader identified as “the Dutchman.” Goodness is possible from Western Europe, and mendacity, evil, and cruelty occur in Eastern Europe, and is perpetuated by Eastern Europeans.

Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors looks at the doctors who betrayed their Hippocratic Oaths in service of racial science and genocide. It has within it a chapter dedicated to anti-semitic Polish doctors who enthusiastically cooperated with the SS within concentration camps. While it does not mention Ukrainians—Lifton’s subject matter does not extend to that country—it does reinforce the perception at the time that “all Poles are anti-semitic”—a perception that carries over into the present time. Where one finds Western and Polish anti-semites, the Poles are always worse. The farther east one travels, it seems, the further away from civilization one gets.

Ukrainians make appearances in Into that Darkness, a profile of Franz Stangl (the commandant of Treblinka, an extermination camp), by Gitta Sereny, as SS soldiers and guards both of the trains and the camps, at the station to greet incoming trains and crack the whips. Sereny, a careful recorder of Stangl’s personality and of Treblinka itself, includes many firsthand accounts of the horrible crimes of the Holocaust. In one account, by a member of the Polish resistance named Pan Zabecki, the Ukrainian guards come across as victims, too; Zabecki describes the Lithuanians as the truly bad collaborators: “I know a great deal has been said about the brutality of the Ukrainians,” he said, “but actually the Lithuanians who mostly guarded the trains were the real sadists; they used to shoot at people, blind, through the windows of the cars, when they begged for doctors, water, and to be allowed to relieve themselves. They did it as a sport—they laughed and joked and bet while they did it. Amongst the Ukrainians there were several who we knew wanted to get away…” Nevertheless, Zabecki’s resistance group imposed harsh penalties on members of the surrounding Polish population who cooperated with the Ukrainian guards, and acknowledges up front that even at that early juncture (the book was published in 1973, barely 30 years after the war’s conclusion) Ukrainians had a reputation for “brutality.” Throughout Into that Darkness Ukrainians have two basic identities as guards: that of the brutes wielding the whips, and that of the “reasonable” guards, capable of being bribed, amenable to approach.

If it seems to readers like these are the basic identities of prison guards of any race, ethnicity, and historical period, that is probably true. The point here is that those Ukrainians who appeared for police or paramilitary duty were conditioned to be used in ways that predisposed them toward violence and cruelty, no more and no less than citizens of other, similarly-subjugated countries, but with the important distinction that they were fully empowered to conduct ethnic cleansing on the spot against neighbors that they’d long viewed as enemies or outsiders. The tragedy is that this “prison guard” became their national historical identity.

While this is a small snapshot of a particular cross-section of Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans (those in close proximity to or involved in the Holocaust), at a very particular moment (WWII), one can find evidence of this trope without much effort. Just about any story authored by a Western European that describes or discusses the Holocaust or WWII’s eastern front at length will eventually bring a spotlight to bear on Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian or Belarusian anti-semitism and cooperation with the Nazis in that anti-semitic context. This is muted in Soviet accounts of the Holocaust and WWII, for the same reasons that histories of the Civil War do not focus on the vicious fighting that took place in border states like Kansas, Kentucky, and Maryland.

Throughout WWII, alongside stories of enthusiastic cooperation with Nazi units, and heroic fighting in defense of their ideology and agenda, these groups also struggled mightily against the Nazis, though, and suffered heavily. As under the Russian Tsars and the USSR, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians and Belarussians were exploited, repressed, and treated little better than chattel slaves. When one views them with detachment and perspective, the peoples of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth come to resemble prisoners in a massive camp, in which different inmates were set against each another for the amusement and entertainment of great powers. Russians and Germans were sometimes treated that way by each other, as well, when the opportunity presented itself.

The legacy of anti-semitism and “ethnic enmity” in Ukraine is not specially Ukrainian, nor is it a function of Ukrainian culture or society. It is the logical output of a series of conditions, legally established and violently enforced, by a succession of rulers—Polish, Russian, German, and Russian. To call Ukraine an anti-semitic place or to accuse Ukrainians of anti-semitism is an inhuman act, historically inaccurate, an unsupportable act of political and social violence against a marginalized people.

WWII and beyond, to Chernobyl

WWII may have ended in 1945, but a large undeclared war between Poland and Ukraine raged into 1946, and Western Ukrainians waged an insurgency against Russian dominion until 1954. Russia was able to resolve the Polish-Ukrainian conflict with large-scale forced population exchanges according to how civilians had identified themselves during Nazi censuses, as well as by imposing land exchanges. This stopped the conflict between Poland and Ukraine, but fighting against Moscow didn’t truly end until Khrushchev was elevated to first secretary of the Communist Party. An eastern Ukrainian himself, who had worked with Lazar Kaganovych and had been present at Stalingrad, Khrushchev saw that the USSR needed Ukraine to succeed, and that violence and repression would only go so far in assuring compliance. To truly thrive, the USSR needed Ukraine as an ally, not an ally-in-name-only. Khrushchev settled on a brilliant idea, stitching Ukraine together with Russia by giving Ukraine Crimea, and bringing the two SSRs into closer cooperation.

For thirty years, from 1959 until 1989, the arrangement held without falter. Ukraine took part in the USSR’s successes, contributing grain and technology and energy. It shared in its disasters, as over 300,000 Ukrainians fought in Afghanistan under the Red Army. Over generations and through shared experiences, Ukrainians became increasingly intertwined with the USSR’s leadership. The future and fate of the USSR came to involve Ukraine as much as it did Russia, and vice versa—by design.

Only one major event interrupted the status quo, and it did so with long-reaching consequences. The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and the bumbling way in which it was handled politically and publicly left a lasting impact on the people of Ukraine. As it was the people of Ukraine (and Belarus) who suffered most from the meltdown—both in terms of the personnel affected directly, and the land scarred by the fallout from the meltdown—the event shaped their confidence in how the USSR was capable of handling crisis. In terms of response and transparency, the meltdown exposed the USSR’s governing mechanism as out of touch, insular, and ineffective. Its impact extends to the present time, where the country and culture is riddled with anecdotal accounts of early death from cancer. As likely as not this is due as much to widespread unregulated industrial output, rather than radioactive fallout, but the suspicion that “Chernobyl killed my father/grandfather” persists in Kyiv and cities like it, ensuring that the calamity stays part of the present.

The Fall of the USSR and After

This essay has spent more time discussing negative events in Ukraine’s history than positive. That is because at the moment, the weight of that negative history counts for more than the positive events—positive moments in Ukraine’s history have been mined, culturally, and expropriated by external powers, like “Russia.” It might be a stretch to say that the peoples of Muscovy “stole” the name “Russia” from people living in Ukraine, but it’s certainly true that (1) Ukrainians are far more “Russian” than the vast country that bears their name, and (2) Russia is far less “Russian” than Ukraine. This probably seems like a small or irrelevant detail—personally, it is difficult for me to treat it with great seriousness—but it is of utmost importance to Ukrainians themselves, and to “Russians,” and for this reason deserves consideration. It’s also important because, again, one of the primary attacks leveled against Ukraine is that it is a fake or contrived country, and, this cannot be stated enough, so is the country and people levying that criticism against Ukraine and Ukrainians. Other countries have long used history to shape and justify their behavior. This is especially conspicuous in the dealings of Russians as well as European countries happy to determine the identity of people living in Ukraine.

But there have been great accomplishments by Ukrainians, and great things wrought by people living under the Russians, and Austro-Hungarians, and Poles, and under the USSR. Something like the 240,000,000-strong USSR doesn’t last for 70 years without getting a few things right. From 1960-1990, the USSR was prosperous, especially compared with those civilizations that preceded it. They managed to send life into outer space, and to bring it back. They brought stability to an area that had been riven by war. Entire full lives were lived within the boundaries of the USSR.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the fall was simultaneously the greatest single political collapse in history in absolute terms, and the most peaceful collapse, one unique in history for its goodwill and sincerity. Among the extraordinary things that happened: (1) Russia did not fight wars to hold onto departing SSRs including Ukraine and Belarus, (2) Poland immediately recognized Ukraine’s territorial identity rather than springing into war with their neighbor in spite of the past century of mutual ethnic cleansing and revenge-killings and many of the victims on both sides still being alive, (3) the USSR did not seek to externalize the threat and declare war on the West. There are many other related, smaller miracles that occurred around 1991, but these were the greatest. Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear arsenal seemed like another, similarly inspired gesture at the time, though later events proved that decision to be an error.

Promises made when the USSR broke up: that countries could live in peace with one another, and that capitalism and Western style liberalism would be an effective way to balance and govern the world, were swiftly proven untrue by events on the ground involving criminals and double-dealing locals, and hostility and exploitation involving western businessmen and politicians. Efforts to determine whether or not “liberalism” might have been more effective as a guiding strategy under different political circumstances is a pointless counterfactual exercise. The architects of the USSR’s dissolution—George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev—were not allowed to see their vision through, for better or for worse—instead, that transition was coopted by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, who, to be as fair as one possibly can, did not do a good job with it. What happened in Ukraine and the rest of the USSR is that in the 1990s, a brief period of optimism was swiftly replaced by a brutal, no-holds-barred gang war for industrial dominance by oligarchs, just a step better than petty warlords. The USSR, which had been at the very least an ideologically coherent (if corrupt and increasingly unstable) group of nations quickly deteriorated into a series of national boundaries ruled by despots or oligarchs, balanced precariously within and without, tied together by bonds of language and shared experiences and, no longer, common interests.

With time, each of those countries experienced revolutions. The most European of the countries to fall behind the USSR’s iron curtain were also the countries fastest to grow beyond their recent past: East Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Baltic States quickly returning to their traditional stability, and integrating into the European project with varying degrees of difficulty.

Ukraine became unique among its neighbors—famously undergoing revolution after revolution, each of which offered some hope for change, and little in the way of lasting reforms. This was partly due to the short and contested existence of anything approximating “Rule of Law” in the country but also likely indicative of its proximity to Russia (which had and has a vested interest in keeping Ukraine disorganized and fractious). Social instability is also a gift to Ukraine by Russia and part of Austria-Hungary’s legacy, and related partly to Ukraine’s proximity to Europe, which offers Ukraine’s westernmost and central residents positive examples of successful countries, and hope for a different model of governance than iron-fisted Russia.

That was the case when, in 2013-14, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime. After students on the Maidan square were beaten, what was, essentially, an intellectual protest against a perceived shift away from Europe and toward Russia blossomed into a mass-protest against the police, corruption, a lack of transparency, and a lack of accountability and justice. Within a month, hundreds had become hundreds of thousands. By the end of February, Yanukovych’s men were stuffing suitcases of cash and valuables onto military helicopters, then onto the back of an AN-26 transport plane, from whence he made his escape to Russia, and parts relatively unknown (okay, somewhere near Moscow).

The conflict that followed has consumed thousands of lives, displaced over a million citizens (more if one considers the annexation of Crimea, which one should), and thrust Ukrainian politics into an even less stable if theoretically or potentially more accountable chapter, led by the election of Volodymyr Zelensky.

This brings us up to the present time in Ukraine.

Published by fancypencilhand


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