May 15, 2014

Borderland: Ukrainian History

16 members attended the meeting of the club last night at the Kensington Row Bookshop to discuss Ukrainian History. A number of books had been suggested, and the discussion was about Ukraine generally rather than about a specific book. However most of the members present had read Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid. The discussion was enlivened by the fact that one of the members present had visited the country in the 1960s,  and another member in the early 1990s and again recently.

An online video had been identified for the members on the history of Ukraine as well as the associated book available on Kindle. So too, members were informed of this article on Ukrainian history, with the great set of 22 historical maps published with it.

Opening of the Discussion

The history of Ukraine is one of extreme suffering. Polish and Russian overlords dominated ethnic Ukrainian serfs during the 17th and 18th century; moreover there were raids by Cossack bands and periodic warfare. In the 20th century, after the Russian revolution, what is now Ukraine was divided and was wracked by wars among local factions, and between the Soviet and White armies. In the 1920s and 30s, as part of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians suffered famine and purges. It was a major battleground between the Soviet and Axis forces in the Second World War; the Nazi's on being driven out of the region committed massacres and the Communists on regaining possession retaliated against those that they perceived as traitorous. After the break up of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians suffered more than most of the other former republics from economic decline and bad government. Of course today the country is in crisis having lost Crimea, and with the east in turmoil.

We noted that Jews, everywhere an endangered minority in Europe, had migrated in significant numbers to areas that are now parts of Ukraine. They were there a despised group, suffering not only the deprivations of their neighbors but Cossack raids and what was described at a first Holocaust lead by Cossacks led by Bohdan Chmielick. Even today the term Cossack has a connotation of excessive violence (which dates in part to their service to the Romanov Tsars) that is especially vivid in many Jewish memories. The Nazi's killed virtually all the Jews in the Ukraine during the 20th century Holocaust.

Source of map: Talking Points Memo

Creating a Ukrainian Country

We spent some time reviewing the process by which Ukraine came to be a sovereign state. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was first created after World War I, out of parts of what had been the Russian empire, notably what had been called Little Russia and South Russia. It was a founding and integral part of the USSR. Many of the functions of a national government were carried out from Moscow rather than from Kiev; many people who were born in or lived for a long time in Ukraine played an important role in the government of the USSR (notably Khrushchev, Andropov, and Brezhnev).

Western lands were added by conquest to the Ukraine SSR in World War II. Crimea was transferred from the Russian SSR to the Ukraine SSR in 1954.

At the time of the creation of the United Nations (and its decentralized agencies) Ukraine was made a member state of the UN. This took place in spite of the fact that the foreign affairs of the Ukraine SSR were both formally and actually managed by the government of the USSR from Moscow (as the foreign affairs of U.S. states are managed by the federal government in Washington).

Thus when the USSR broke up in 1991, and Ukraine became an independent country, there was no Ukrainian experience of managing many aspects of the governance of an independent state. Moreover, the country was assembled in the 20th century from regions with very different histories,  economies and cultures.

Why Was Ukrainia So Badly Governed?

The question was asked by one of our members.

For the decade after independence, the Ukrainian economy suffered a huge decline -- more severe even than the Russian economy. There was massive corruption in government, and a oligarchy formed of people who had taken advantage to accumulate extreme wealth. Massive popular demonstrations (the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan) resulted in changes in the administration.

It was suggested that the answer lay in a history in which the land had been governed for centuries by the extremely autocratic Russian Tsars and then by the extremely autocratic Communist governments of the USSR. While Ukrainian society formally tried to draw from western political models of democracy and western economic models of free market capitalism, it had not historically developed the institutions to make those models work well.  Indeed, it tended to fall back on autocratic government and extraction of benefits from favoritism by the autocrats that had characterized the USSR and the Tsarist Russian empire.

About the Ukrainian National Identity

One of our members mentioned that he had not been able to find a reference to a Ukrainian people before the Napoleonic wars and the early 1800s. We tossed around the idea that the creation of an ethnic "Ukrainian" identity was part of the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. We suggested that that identity was built around a number of elements:

  • The Ukrainian language, which is one of the Slavic languages (quite similar to Russian). Its first grammar was published in 1818 and its first dictionary in 1823. Taras Shevchenko became famous writing poetry in the language. Still many people in Ukraine speak Russian as their "first language" and many more speak Russian as well as Ukrainian. An anecdote was shared of a meeting with Ukrainian officials that broke up because the officials had to attend their class in the Ukrainian language.
  • Geography: Ukrainians are people who live in Ukraine (or near it; there are apparently millions of "ethnic" Ukrainians in Poland). During the existence of the USSR, many people who would have considered themselves Ukrainian moved (or were moved) to other parts of the USSR.
  • History: a history of Little Russia, was published in the 19th century, the first of the formal histories that Ukrainians could conceive of as their own. But ethnic identity is formed around the stories people tell themselves of the past of their kind. In the case of ethnic Ukrainians that story included the Kievan Rus who ruled the largest area in Europe a thousand years ago, and the Cossack Hetmanate, composed of people who escaped from serfdom and revolted against foreign domination.
  • Religion, especially the Orthodox religion. It was pointed out that Orthodox churches tend to be nationalistic supporting the national government. In the case of Galicia, affiliation with the Uniate church was also important in creating a sense of ethnic identity.
  • The educational system: beginning with higher education in the 19th century, and much more broadly in the 20th, schools taught the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history,
  • Definition by others: Poles, Russians, and Germans saw the Ukrainian peasants as people to be conquered and/or exploited.
  • Ukrainians could define themselves as not Poles, not Russians, not Ottomans, not Germans, not any of the other neighboring ethic groups with whom they had little in common and indeed much to fear.
  • Common local bonds: For the villagers in the land that became Ukraine, the only people that they could look to for aid and support were their neighbors and local community. Those were the people that could be looked to for the "ethnic identity" of "people like me". It was suggested that that cultural concept may have persisted.
Still, there was some discussion as to how strong the ethnic identity could be in a nation state so recently become independent, with so complex a history and so diverse a geography. The example of Ireland was brought up, as a country that uses one language (English) for government and day to day living, but in which the people value a language few speak well (Irish) as part of their ethnic history and identity. So too, it was questioned whether the members present did not feel that they were America, even though most could trace their ancestry back to relatively recent immigrants.

Accession to the European Union and NATO

In 2012, the EU signed deals on free trade and political association with Ukraine. but with conditions that members thought could not be met. Plans were formalized for Ukraine to join NATO in 2008, but were shelved in 2010 when Viktor Yanukovych was elected Ukrainian president.

It was noted that the highest wages in Ukraine tend to be in the eastern region, where coal mines and heavy industry are concentrated. Of course, many in this region also see that Russian wages and pensions are higher than those in Ukraine, and may hope for economic gain from linking to Russia. However, were Ukraine to become part of the European common market, many of the less efficient mines and factories in Ukraine would face stiff competition, and many Ukrainians might well eventually lose their jobs. This might have helped divide the country, especially if many people in the west feel they have much to gain by closer ties with the west, while many people in the east feel that they have much to lose.

While these overtures to tie Ukraine to western Europe may not have been realistic, club members suggested that they would have been objectionable to many Russians. It seem to us that Russia would prefer to have Ukraine as a buffer state rather than as a part of the EU and NATO. Russia's current actions may be seen as, in part, responses to the western overtures to Ukraine.

One member noted that Poland might well prefer a Ukraine integrated into western Europe rather than as a country heavily influenced by Russia. However, we agreed that we knew almost nothing about Ukrainian-Polish political relations.

Ukraine and the Russian Federation

We discussed oil and gas briefly, noting that Ukraine was dependent on Russian energy exports, and that Russia had recently increased the price of its energy exports to Ukraine. While Ukraine has some leverage in that a significant portion of Russian exports to western Europe pass through its pipeline, there is also a pipeline through Belarus that allows Ukraine to be bypassed.

We noted that different western European nations have quite different dependencies on oil and gas imported from Russia. The implication is that, given the difficulty of building the infrastructure needed to obtain supplies fro other sources, the more dependent countries may be less willing to confront Russia over Ukraine.

We noted that Russia had nationalized oil reserves claimed by Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. We also wondered whether Russia could find alternative markets for its energy exports in Asia, either by building a pipeline through Russian territory or by accessing pipelines in Central Asian States. We commented negatively on the appointment of Vice President Biden's son, Hunter, to the board of directors of Ukraine's largest gas producer.

Russia had intervened militarily to separate Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, to separate Transnistria from Moldova, and now to separate Crimea from Ukraine. It was questioned whether the end game now is for Russia to try to separate some part of eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country, creating a "neutral" region with close economic and cultural ties to the Russian Federation.

We noted that the Russian-Ukrainian situation should be understood in a wider context. Russia is a major global player involved in negotiations with regard to Syria, nuclear weapons, and chemical weapons. It has been a valuable U.S. ally with respect to the war in Afghanistan, allowing bases in countries allied to Russia and transshipment of materials through its territory.

Overall Opinion of Borderland 

We considered Borderland by Anna Reid to be primarily a cultural history, although it also dealt with political history in some detail. On member noted that she would have liked to have had more about economics, given the importance that that subject appears to hold for understanding current events. Still the opinion of the book was very positive. An easy read, well written and interesting.



  1. These data are from the World Factbook

    Exports - commodities:

    ferrous and nonferrous metals, fuel and petroleum products, chemicals, machinery and transport equipment, food products

    Exports - partners:

    Russia 25.6%, Turkey 5.4%, Egypt 4.2% (2012)

    Ukraine exported relatively low valued products and its major markets were Russia, Turkey and Egypt. Last year's GDP growth rate 0.4 percent.

    According to the World Bank, the per capita GDP was $8,478 estimated PPP last year, about one sixth that of the USA.

  2. From today's New York Times:

    "When Russia seized Crimea in March, it acquired not just the Crimean landmass but also a maritime zone more than three times its size with the rights to underwater resources potentially worth trillions of dollars......(It) did so under an international accord that gives nations sovereignty over areas up to 230 miles from their shorelines. It had tried, unsuccessfully, to gain access to energy resources in the same territory in a pact with Ukraine less than two years earlier.......Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and other major oil companies have already explored the Black Sea, and some petroleum analysts say its potential may rival that of the North Sea. That rush, which began in the 1970s, lifted the economies of Britain, Norway and other European countries."

  3. John Crowe made this comment:

    I take exception to some of the comments as being unsupported. In particular, I am unaware of any indication that there were a Ukrainian people before 1800 and that documentable evidence of such begins in the extreme West of what is now Ukraine. As such, stating how Ukrainian serfs reacted to Polish or other overlords in the 17th century is stretching things. That may be something that modern Ukrainians consider part of their history, but it is not something that can realistically be attributed to the people at that time. This would be similar to claims about the Welsh three millennia ago. There were no English, Welsh, or Scots at that time.

    Similarly, the Kievan Rus are more a mythology than history for the Ukrainians. In particular, I not sure they ruled the western areas where Ukrainian identity arose. Their primary concern was trade between the Baltic, Black, and Caspian Seas. The western areas the Ukraine were not on those trade routes. Additionally, Kievan Rus controlled large non-Ukrainian areas. The Russian nobility claim descent from the Kievan Rus.

    I know of no evidence for the origins of the Cossacks. I am told that modern people who identify themselves as Cossacks consider Cossacks their ethnicity. They are also conjectured to be Mongols who went native for example. I understand that the Ukrainians identify Cossacks as part of their history, but they also ruled areas that were not Ukrainian. As the Kievan Rus, Cossacks ceased ruling Ukraine long before there is any evidence of Ukrainians.

    Also, many Ukrainians in Ukraine speak Russian as a primary language. Some of these identify themselves as Russian, though many claim to be Ukrainian. This was identified as one of the reasons for the instability in the east, the Ukrainian government had decided to stop using Russian.

  4. I get the point that there probably was not a self-identified nor externally identified "Ukrainian" people before 1800. On the other hand, there were people speaking related Slavic dialects living in a region that would become Ukraine. Their descendants would become Ukrainians in the sense used in the discussion, and their I suspect that their descendants would claim their ancestors in the 17th and 18th century to be Ukrainian. Moreover, I suspect that the Polish and Russian landlords perceived the peasants and serfs living on their land as culturally differentiated by the language that they used.

    That there were Kievan Rus is history. That does not mean that the way modern Ukraine depends on the state of a thousand years ago is strictly historic. There may or may not have been a King Arthur, and Shakespeare may not have gotten the Plantagenet kings exactly right, but Arthur and Shakespeare's kings are part of English cultural consciousness.

  5. Continuing John C:

    I am no expert on the ethnic origins of the Cossacks but what I have read is that they were a mix of people of various ethnic groups who came together in the relative freedom of the Halmanate, defended it, and came to have a reputation as warriors.

    I too heard that a decision by the transition government to stop using Russian contributed to the separation sentiment of the Russian speakers. As I mentioned in the club meeting, in the Republic of Ireland most people speak English as their primary language and it is the primary language of government and commerce, yet the people feel a cultural identity with the Irish language,

  6. While the fighting goes on in the east of Ukraine, the country is in the midst of a financial crisis. "The currency has hit new lows: a dollar now buys around 30 hryvnia (see chart). This week the central bank instituted new currency controls in a fruitless attempt to slow its plunge. Government bonds are trading at 40 cents on the dollar.......The IMF pledged $17.5 billion. A few billion dollars may come from other donors, including the European Union and America. Even if all goes to plan—and it probably will not—the pot is a long way short of $40 billion." (originally promised by the IMF on the part of its member states. Read more from The Economist article: