I have been to Ukraine once before I ever set foot into Evil Empire aka Russia and was fairly satisfied with everything that I have lacked for more than 2 years in Moscow: Sun, fair pricing, fresh food and smiling faces...So what is Ukraine anyway and what makes it so different than Russia where a lot of people think that Ukraine is a city in Russian Federation?
The word “Ukraine” or “Ukrayina” has an ancient slavic meaning of “Borderland” and has been actually a no man’s land for some time between the forest tribes of slavs and the western people (the polish, the lithuanians...whatever). Another interesting fact is that the first capital of slavic civilization (not the one that you may imagine as cheap prostitution, vodka and nuclear warheads) was Kiev (or Kyiv as it is now, again, called). So it is rather true to say that Ukraine as we know today is the birthplace of the slavs and I have no clue why they tend to shift their capitals up north gradually to Moscow and then to St.Petersburg and back to old Moscow again.
As the mighty tsars rolled their eyes to the arctic emptiness of Siberia (maybe they have prophesied the riches lying underneath) and the dusty steppes of Central Asia, a group of people would find their way to the vast lands between the Russian forests up north and the Black Sea down south. They would rush to these fertile lands (which is called Chernozem, black earth) and live a life not dissimilar to those in the Wild West. So my friend’s analogy was not really incorrect and the subculture they developed came with a name of “Cossack”. Although being farmers, those guys were well fed and well educated fighters with a bit of vodka to light up the mortal spirits, so they became the slavic cowboys and formed a roaming posse that took more than 3 centuries to suppress. Watch the film Taras Bulba with Yul Brynner (who is actually a Russian) where they resist to the evil Polish and Russians by not shaving off their signature ponytails and pay homage to an authority other than a hetman, a leader of a Cossack subcommunity.
Yul Brynner as Taras Bulba, the mighty Cossack
The Ukrainians,Cossacks in particular, formed colonies through the mighty rivers that ran through the black earth and developed a dialect of Russian that would sound funny to every contemporary Russian speaker (but interesting to me) and stick to a peasantville life of nature, horilka (a form of vodka that better shortens life) and a unique cuisines (Every food now that is served as Russian is actually Ukrainian, except McDonalds). That is why their upscale cousins that freeze their asses in the north and boast of the scariest capital ever built (Russians) find them backward country-dwellers with no culture, no science and a funny language.
A typical Ukrainian love scene
After unification by Russia, Ukraine became a part of Russian Empire and Russians, as the biggest imperialists of Asia, began a massive cultural revolution and Russification. Ukrainian language was banned from public places and many Russian immigrants flocked to the Ukraine. The only place where the Ukrainian language and culture flourished was the countryside and the West Ukraine (or Ruthenia, a part of Poland that time).
Everything changed in the country with the Revolution of 1917, where a handful of half-mad bolshevik men led by Lenin took power in the country with a shiny promise to change it into a dictatorship of the proletariat. This didn’t mean a lot for the peasants of Ukraine since every change in the government office in Moscow meant a havoc among the country and it didn’t take long for the breeze in Leningrad to make a tornado in Ukraine. One of the promises of communism was the collectivization of agriculture and massive industrialization at all costs. Since Ukraine had a lot of farmlands on the most fertile soil on Earth and enough manpower to man the machines of heavy industry, it took the burden of the first blow of communism, many of which will later follow to shake the country to its knees.
What we mean by collectivization is simply taking anything and everything from the peasants (land, machinery, housing, livestock and even cutlery) and push them into Kolhozes (Collective Farms) so that the government will have a good night’s sleep in Kremlin, knowing that it has supreme control over all crops, cows, donkeys, horses and poultry in the country to make inefficient and wasteful central plans and create more human misery. Not all peasants would, of course, peacefully hand over all the generations’ worth of wealth accumulation to the new government who cry out revolutionary slogans of international fraternity of all peasants and workers. So they had to be led in gunpoint to the Kolhozes and many died trying not to. A lot of rich peasants were branded as enemies to revolution (or Kulaks, Fists in Russian). As the uprising rose to critical levels, Stalin, the father figure of all communists, made one of his deadly decisions about Ukraine and ordered an artificial famine (or Holodomor as the Ukrainians call it). Everything that has digestive value in Ukraine was confiscated to be shipped out to other soviet republics and not even a grain of wheat was left for Ukrainians, the people who produce it, so eventually more then 3 million people died from starvation and agriculture in Ukraine and USSR in particular came to a deadly stop in 1930s. This is rather unknown in the west because no or little information leaked outside and western authorities paid no interest to an “internal” affair of a lucrative business partner.
This is what communism promised: every comrade will be full and Kremlin will be happy
As dust settled in Ukraine, another misfortune was gathering wind outside the borders and making deals with the Soviets to carve up Poland. USSR jumped into this juicy opportunity to get a piece of Poland and unite all Ukrainians under the glorious red banner of socialism; but the Western Ukrainians, who lived in a comparatively prosperous life than their mortally hungry eastern cousins resisted to everything the Soviets brought under their arms: Poverty, Famine, Oppression and Russification. That is the main reason why the Western Ukraine is unlike the East, where everything is Russian. That was the biggest milestone in the cultural and political division now felt in Ukraine.
The misfortune aka Nazi Germany, who failed to invade Britain, with most of its Luftwaffe lying in pieces under the Channel Sea, switched strategies and stroke USSR which had a pact of nonaggression signed before. The fearsome panzers strolled their way through the borders with USSR: Ukraine and the Baltic States, which were under Soviet political and cultural invasion and this is one of the reasons why they had petty resistance to be virtually unopposed for miles through USSR for months. Many Ukrainians welcomed the German Blitzkrieg as a breeze of freedom from the evil Soviets but it didn’t take much for them to realize that what “Ukrainian Freedom” meant for Germans are no less than slave labor of untermensch for the Third Reich. Many battles and subsequent atrocities from both sides took place in Ukrainian soil for 3 years, where Nazis hunted Jews and Soviet Partisans, Soviets hunted Nazis and Ukrainian Partisans and no party took much prisoners during the killings. After the 4 year war, Ukraine has lost 90% of its wealth and half of its manpower, mainly men. The country saw two major sweeping operations in different directions: Barbarossa of the Nazis and the Soviet Grand Offensive to Berlin. So most of the cities were to be defended to the last men, lost with a lot of scorched earth tactics and had to be recaptured with heavy bombardment again to leave them in ruins at the end. For the avid historical travelers, it is hard to find buildings of the classic era in Ukrainian cities, especially in Kiev where whole streets or boulevards were wiped off the map.
A common heartbreaking scene in Ukraine after the war
After the war and especially the death of Stalin, signs of relief came with “the Thaw” where Khrushchev tried hard to eradicate the cult of personality, Ukraine was heavily invested and subsequently became the driving power of Soviet Union with Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) thanks to its modern agriculture output to feed hungry Tadjik comrades, modern science to build Soyuz space modules and mass tourism in Black Sea for the siberian comrades to dip their cold feet in hot sea water. As the Russification came to an end, Taras Shevchenko, a poet and a cultural icon for Ukraine, was highly praised (to win Ukrainian people’s hearts) and Ukrainian language appeared in public once more. Many Ukrainians rose ranks in the Communist Party (although not ethnic Ukrainians, Khrushchev and his successor Brezhnev was born in Ukraine) and they had a lovely gift of goodwill from Khrushchev in the meantime, The Crimean Peninsula. Although the heartland of the Krim Tatar people for centuries, Crimea was home to one of the major battlegrounds of WW2 (Siege of Sevastopol) and as an excuse to a humiliating defeat, Stalin blamed the Crimean Tatars for helping fascist pigs and deported them to a deadly march to the Central Asia and filled the population gap with Russians. So that is why Crimea is an independent republic within Ukraine (with the official language as Russian) and now trying its best to be “reintegrated” into the rich neighbor, Russian Federation.
Another deadly treat by communism was the Chernobyl Disaster. Built near the Pripyat Marshes between Belarus and Ukraine, Chernobyl was once a eye candy of the Soviet nuclear engineering and supplied a considerable amount of “clean” energy to the neighboring Belorussian and Ukrainian SSR. After a deadly error made during a test run in one reactor (they simply tried to shut down and run it again to see if it actually can be shut down but it didn’t and eventually blew up) countless radioactive debris spread around. The Soviet Union, which cared much more about its international reputation as the homeland for accelerated progress to communism in the galaxy than the wellbeing of its citizens, not only kept the leak as a close guarded state secret but also organized cheerful May 1st Labor Day Parades in Kiev and other surrounding cities under the rain saturated with radioactivity. The children herded into the parade with red banners were meant be showered with revolutionary high spirits but nonetheless were soaked with pure communist radiation instead. The tragedy was designed to be hidden inside the ironclad borders of USSR until Swedish scientists woke up the other morning to receive delirious readings of radiation coming from somewhere south. Gorbachev, maybe the first time cursing on his Glasnost (Openness) policy, had to make a public speech on TV to name this accident as a misfortune and assured that everything was done already to save soviet citizens’ lives. Actually, people lived under constant bombardment of radiation for some time until they were to be crammed into army buses to be taken away elsewhere. There were also naive but heroic attempts to put down the nuclear fire by local firefighters who swiftly melted away by high radiation. After the incident became high news, it was understood that the nuclear cloud, with a twist of fate, didn’t go south to the highly populated Kiev but north to the marshlands and dispersed its heavy particles in the forests. It took soviet engineering a considerable amount of lives and materiel to cover the sizzling reactor but it had already made the last strike to the bleeding beast of the Soviet Union which eventually collapsed and left Ukraine with half of the Soviet Navy with most of the nuclear and conventional arsenal and a huge heap of inefficient heavy industry with ancient technology.
Ukraine didn’t have any piece of time with independence (excluding the short-lived Ukrainian Republic between the world wars which was destroyed by the valiant Red Army) and many must have considered going back to the caring embrace of the big cousin, Russia (and some still do); but here we are, after a series of economic blows and widespread corruption that siphoned nearly all the wealth out of the country, Ukraine now stands tall but irritated once again between two opposing forces, now not armed with tanks and howitzers but with economic and social values...maybe it is her fate as a Borderland between two opposing forces.