As an American who has been living in Kharkiv, Ukraine for the past two years, I’m often asked for my opinion on the current situation in Ukraine by Ukrainians. I’m also often the recipient of concern for my well-being from friends back in the USA. While I’ve exchanged private email and messages with a number of people, and posted a few news stories to my accounts on Facebook and VK, I haven’t actually written up a statement of my own until now. I guess the time has finally come for me to write a few things about the current state of affairs here in Ukraine, and in Kharkiv in particular.
A Brief History Lesson
To even begin to understand the situation in Ukraine, I think Americans need a bit of a history lesson. The fact is that most Americans probably couldn’t have located Ukraine on a map before the recent unrest began, and most of them have zero understanding of Eastern European history. As evidence of this, I cite one question that Americans frequently ask me about Ukraine: “Isn’t the Ukraine part of Russia?” No, Ukraine is not part of Russia, and it’s not “the Ukraine” anymore. During the Soviet era, Ukraine was one of the republics of the USSR, and was known as “the Ukraine” in the west as it was a regional republic within a larger whole (the USSR). Today it is an independent nation, and as a result, the “the” before its name has been dropped. In any case, Americans really do need a bit of a history lesson when it comes to understanding politics, society, and ethnic issues in Eastern Europe, as they generally don’t understand much of anything about this entire region.
The Kievan Rus was established in the 9th century by the Varangians as the first historically recorded Eastern Slavic state. It rose to substantial influence and power during the Middle Ages, but had disintegrated by the end of the 12th century. It was invaded by Lithuanians, Poles, and Mongols, and its territories belonged to those groups entirely by the 14th century. In the 15th century, various regions of modern Ukraine were ruled by the Polish, the Lithuanians, and the Crimeans. By the 18th century, Ukraine had been split between the Poles and the Russians. By the 19th century, it was possessed by the Austrians (and later the Austro-Hungarians) and the Russian Empire, and it remained so until the 20th century.
A chaotic period of warfare ensued after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic (which was composed of most of the modern territory of Ukraine, minus Crimea and the southeastern portion of modern Ukraine) was formed for a brief period. The Ukrainian-Soviet War followed, and in 1922 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established as one of the founding members of the USSR. The Soviet government was hostile to the Ukrainian language and culture, and mass repression of both took place for an extended period. There were two mass-starvations of Ukrainians due to the failed policies of the USSR, the most well-known of which was the Holodomor. During this famine of 1932-33, which had been engineered by Stalin, over 7 million Ukrainians lost their lives.
Then came World War II. Again, the invaders poured into Ukraine, this time from Germany. By 1941, Ukraine was under the control of Nazi Germany, and by 1944, the Germans had been expelled by the Soviets. As a result of the Second World War, Ukraine’s territories expanded to include parts of Poland and all of Crimea.
In 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, and re-established itself as an independent republic. Since the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has endeavored to transition to a market economy, and saw substantial economic growth until the 2008 recession. The Ukrainian economy took a nosedive at that time, losing 20% of its value, and was forced to devalue the currency. In recent years, Ukraine has seen a slow economic recovery. Russia supplies most of the gas and oil consumed by Ukraine, so Ukraine’s economy is closely linked to Russia whether they like it or not.
A Modern Divided Ukraine
The brief history lesson is important, especially for American understanding, because it illustrates the horribly troubled history of the region. The only piece of real estate more embattled than Eastern Europe on this planet is the Middle East. Most modern Eastern European nations have changed hands so many times that it’s become impossible to know which territory really belongs to whom, and the movements of immigrants and refugees have resulted in ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities within most of the modern states in Eastern Europe that have little in common with the majority.
This is definitely true of modern Ukraine, which in many ways consists of three distinct regions with very different influences, cultures, and ethnic groups. There is Western Ukraine, which consists primarily of Ukrainian-speaking people of Ukrainian ethnic heritage, but with a large minority of Russian-speaking people of Russian ethnic heritage. Then there are Eastern and Southern Ukraine, which consist of a majority of Russian-speaking people and a minority with Russian ethnic heritage, and a large minority of ethnic Ukrainians who nevertheless speak Russian as their primary language. Finally, there is Crimea, which consists today of mostly Russian-speakers of Russian ethnicity, and a substantial minority of Ukrainians and Tartars. Crimea has enjoyed a somewhat independent status from Kyiv (Ukraine’s capital) since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the people there have traditionally considered themselves somewhat independent to the modern Ukraine established under Soviet rule.
You can see in the map where the linguistic divides in Ukraine are, and if this is compared to a map of voting patterns, it is evident that the Russian-speakers tend to vote for more Russia-friendly candidates, while the Ukrainian-speakers tend to vote for more EU-friendly candidates. I think understanding this will shed a great deal of light on the situation in Ukraine today, especially for Americans who are familiar with living in a nation divided by two distinct political regions that exist on geographic lines, and are routinely divided almost exactly the same way in nearly every national election. Just as the USA has its perpetual red states and perpetual blue states, so does Ukraine have its perpetual Russia-friendly states and its perpetual EU-friendly states.
For more about this topic, I suggest these links:
My View on Recent Events
So, I hope this history and cultural lesson about Ukraine will bring a better understanding of the region to my friends and readers in the USA and other western nations. I promised you my opinion on these matters at the beginning, and I don’t intend to disappoint you. There are several things I want to say, so I’m going to divide my thoughts into a few sections for easier writing and reading.
Modern Ukraine has experienced a struggling economy. The economic difficulties here would probably have been substantially lessened if it were not for the foreign vultures in the EU, USA, and Russia fighting over economic and political dominance over Ukraine.
Russia has used the fact that Ukraine relies on its resources to wield power and influence over the government here ever since the collapse of the USSR. They’ve helped to keep Ukraine weak, unstable, and corrupt. They’ve backed those who would bow to their will, and used their leverage to oust those who would create stronger ties with the EU.
Meanwhile, the EU and USA have done just the opposite. The western powers complain of corruption in Ukraine, but are only too happy to back corrupt pro-EU candidates in Ukrainian elections. They encourage various types of economic blockade against Ukraine due to “intellectual property concerns,” but then provide no way for the Ukrainian people to obtain that “intellectual property” by any legally sanctioned method. They spend billions influencing local politics through NGOs.
Both sides are like vultures fighting over the corpse of an economically weakened Ukraine. They hypocritically accuse each other of meddling while ignoring their own abuses of power. They both seem to care more about their political influence than the well-being of the Ukrainian people. Their actions pollute and distort the social, economic, and political processes of Ukraine, and encourage the very corruption they both claim they want to eliminate. It’s hypocrisy.
I’ll say here what I recently said on my wall on Facebook: As an American living in Ukraine, what I wish more than anything else is for the EU, the USA, and Russia to stop meddling in local affairs. Aren’t there enough problems in your own houses!? Get your noses out of other people’s living rooms!
United or Divided Ukraine?
I’d like to see Ukrainians remain united in this region, and totally independent. I think it would be a shame for the various regions to split off and join Russia or the EU, or form into sub-nations. It might go that way, but I don’t think that’s ultimately in the interests of anyone living within the borders of modern Ukraine, except perhaps the interests of a few ultra-rich oligarchs.
Without the east and south of Ukraine, the west would have no basis for any kind of economic growth. Without the west of Ukraine, the east and south would become separated from a great deal of their cultural heritage. A divided Ukraine might be in the interests of foreign powers, but it isn’t in the interests of the Ukrainian people. Splitting up this region is one of the worst options.
I was recently asked to comment on the situation here for local television, and this is (paraphrasing, because I can’t remember my exact words) what I said: Things here in Kharkiv are pretty much as normal. As an American, I’m not afraid of Ukrainians. I’m more afraid of the Russians on the other side of the border, which is just 40km from here, and more worried about the situation in Crimea. Kharkiv seems quite safe, and I’m not afraid to be here. I’m worried about the economic situation, but I hope that Ukrainians will pull together and that the economic problems will be resolved as a result.
That said, I still support the right of any person to choose his own path, whether that’s a group or an individual, and as such, I support the right of secession either by groups or individuals. More on that in the next section…
Liberty vs. Slavery
I’m an English teacher here in Ukraine, so I’m going to bore my readers at the beginning of this section with an interesting note with regards to linguistic history. The origin of the word “slave” in English comes from Old French and Medieval Latin words for Slav because many of the slaves captured in wars were of Slavic origin.
If you’ve read my blog before, or you’ve read my posts on Facebook, you probably already know that I’m an anarchist, so probably my thoughts here won’t come as a shock to you. If you haven’t read my writing before, my thoughts here might be quite offensive to you. Either way, this is how I’d personally like to see things develop in Ukraine.
I’d like it if the people of Ukraine threw off the chains of their oppressors and did away with the state entirely. I don’t think that’s at all likely to happen, given the conversations I’ve had with Ukrainians. Mostly the locals seem to be arguing, as most statists in any part of the world do, over whom should be the ones wearing the jackboots, and upon whose back and heads they should be standing. It’s unfortunate that around the world so many people don’t think to end the vicious cycle of oppression, but simply to shift a few of the people in the oppressor class around, or kill them off, or exile them, only to have a new oppressor take their place and install a new form of oppression. I suppose it’s not as surprising in a region like Eastern Europe, which, as we’ve already seen, has a long history of warfare, invasion, and dominance by foreign powers. Nevertheless, it troubles me that so many here are simply arguing over changing the people holding the reins of oppression rather than changing the system itself.
It troubles me that there’s an argument over whether it’s better to be the weak little brother of the EU, or the weak little brother of Russia, as if either of these options were truly desirable to Ukrainian interests. I think the best course for Ukraine’s economic future is to remove as many of the internal and external barriers to trade as it can on all sides of its borders. Right now, products from the EU and USA are under such heavy import tariffs that some of them cost three times what they cost just over the border in Krakow, Poland, or sometimes five times the price of that in the USA. These barriers to trade are making Ukraine horribly expensive for Ukrainians in ways that simply wouldn’t exist without so much interference in economics from both the Ukrainian government itself and from foreign powers wishing to use their economic influence to satisfy their own selfish desires in Ukraine. Taking either side in this economic war is ultimately against the economic interests of the Ukrainian people. What’s in their economic interests is eliminating as many economic barriers as possible on all sides of their borders, and without choosing a side in the economic games of international politics.
What’s best for Ukrainians, and best for any people anywhere is to cast off the chains of oppression in favor of self-sovereignty. It’s not a solution to simply change the faces of those in power. If you leave a corrupt and morally bankrupt institution like the state in power, you only make a slight change in the form of your oppression. If people want to get rid of oppression, they need to first wake up and realize that the state is the engine of oppression, and needs to be eliminated if there’s a true desire for liberty.
Liberty cannot exist where there is an agent of power to whom special rules apply. The government is such an agent. It has permission to do things that would immediately be understood as illegal and immoral if they were done by individuals. When such an institution exists, it matters not who controls it, as it will always and forever be used by those who wish to do illegal, immoral, and corrupt things.
You don’t eliminate corruption by getting on the corruption train and trying to steer it in a new direction. Those rails just lead to the same places. You can’t steer a train.
You get to freedom and liberty by getting off the train entirely and establishing a society based on the notion that everyone has the same set of rights, that the use of violence, theft, and coercion are not among those rights, and that nobody is an exception.
Perhaps of interest, given the earlier history lesson, is that one region of Ukraine once attempted to establish such a society called Вільна територія (Free Territory in Ukrainian), which existed from 1918 to 1921. Ultimately, it was a doomed experiment as the Bolsheviks were opposed, and crushed it. Nevertheless, certain members of the doomed society continued to spread their anarchist ideas until the 1940s. Sadly, today there seems to be no memory for these events, nor a substantial desire to establish bold alternatives to statism.