Recent events in Ukraine have their origins in a long history of strife. If we in the West are to respond appropriately, we should understand just what it is we are up against.
It is commonly held that “Ukraine” derives from the Slavic “ukraina” meaning “borderlands.” It is fitting, then, that much of the history of Ukraine involves the coming and going of various empires. Then, as now, Ukraine’s identity is largely defined by its ethnic diversity; first through centuries of conquest and migration and then by design.
In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great ruled over a Russian empire, including Ukraine. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas, she invited Germans, Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and more to reap the bounty of the borderlands; including vast tracts of the most fertile soil on earth.
So, when we speak of modern Ukraine and what it means to be Ukrainian, we are speaking of ethnic Ukrainians but also of a wider collection of people united by the land and, often in resistance to Russia, the Ukrainian language itself.
After a variety of groups struggled for independence during the tumult following World War I (1914-1918), the land we speak of today as Ukraine was absorbed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) and was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic or the Ukrainian SSR.
While there was much fanciful talk of creating a socialist utopia in the Soviet Bloc, the rise to power of Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s crushed those hopes under a Russian boot. In an attempt to reform Soviet society, a series of state programs collectivized agriculture and nationalized industry.
While the Ukraine SSR produced enough crops to feed an empire, Stalin wanted to send a message to these prosperous, non-Russian farmers. The grain they harvested was used to feed others and from 1932-1933 millions of Ukrainians died during a famine known as the Holodomor.
The story of this lesser known twentieth century genocide is told by Atlantic staff writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum in Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017).
While the precise causes of the famine are debated, it is clear that race and ethnicity played an important role. During the Soviet era, Russians ruled with an iron fist.
Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and Ukrainians briefly swapped their communist dictator for a fascist one. The abuses under German occupation mimicked those under Stalin, with a special disregard for Ukrainian Jews. Some estimates indicate that, from 1941-1944, one in ten Ukrainian civilians perished.
In the summer of 1943, the Germans and Soviets clashed just east of Ukraine in what turned out to be Germany’s final offensive effort on their Eastern Front. Today, as Vladimir Putin launched the most recent invasion of Ukraine, he did so from a staging area that was the site of the largest battle in human history involving millions of men and thousands of tanks. History does, indeed, repeat itself. (See: Battle of Kursk.)
A very personal and thoroughly researched historical novel about this massive battle is told in Last Citadel (2003) by David L. Robbins. Perhaps offering some insight into the attitude of Vladimir Putin’s soldiers today, much of the action in Last Citadel takes place from the perspective of a father and son team operating a Russian T-34 tank. Their relationship illuminates the humanity of those who fight Russia’s wars as opposed to the nefarious motivations of those who have ordered them into battle; a distinction sometimes difficult to make when the bullets are flying.
By the spring of 1944, what remains of Nazi Germany’s war machine is in retreat while continuing to clash with the advancing Soviet army. As the battle lines moved west, Ukraine pulsed with violence.
This is the setting for Mark Sullivan’s The Last Green Valley (2021). In a novel inspired by true events, Emil and Adeline Martel, their small children, and extended family—living in southern Ukraine — have decisions to make while the war rages all around them.
As ethnic Germans, the retreating army has offered to protect the Martels if they agree to return to Germany as part of Heinrich Himmler’s plan to preserve German racial purity. Having lived in Ukraine for more than a century, the Martel family has no interest in returning to Germany under Adolph Hitler. This becomes increasingly clear as we learn through flashback of Emil’s haunting experience with Nazi soldiers who demanded mortal proof of his allegiance to Germany.
Unfortunately, staying on their farm will place the Martels back under Soviet/Russian rule in an environment where German-Ukrainians will not be very welcome.
Offering a glimmer of hope, the Martels receive word that the US and British armies have gained a foothold in Italy. Emil is convinced that the family should do all that it can to reach the Allied forces as they approach Germany.
As Emil tells Adeline, “We can stay and wait for the bear that we know will kill us, or rape you and kill me and the boys, or imprison us all in Siberia. Or we can run with the wolves that will protect us until we can make our escape west. Escape the war. Escape everything.” Run from the bears while hiding out with the wolves.
While the Martels choose to flee westward, many Ukrainians are forced to accept their re-subjugation by the Russians. From 1945-1991, Ukraine continued as a Soviet Republic during a decades-long Cold War with the West.
The story of an independent Ukraine begins in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The modern dynamics of Ukraine’s recent history and its strategic importance to the entire world is explored in Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland (2018) by German historian Karl Schlögel.
During the past three decades Ukraine has risen out of Russia’s shadow and into the light of an independent and autonomous nation and, much like the United States, as a multi-ethnic electoral democracy. While many of the USSR’s former republics joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Ukraine has not. The Western alliance now includes 28 European countries, the US, and Canada. Potential Ukrainian membership in NATO is a divisive issue at the heart of Russia’s invasion in 2022.
As Russian tanks once again bear down on Ukraine, the reaction of the United States and its allies will not only determine the fate of that country, it will serve as a measure of our resolve and commitment to a stable world order.
The immediate reaction to the invasion of Ukraine has been almost universally supportive of the Ukrainian people. However, as Schlogel writes, “One prerequisite for effective and sustained support for Ukraine is a better understanding of its emergence as a nation and its natural and cultural diversity.”
I think books can help here.