Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ukraine -- the Borderland

I recently finished reading Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid. The book in 233 pages of text provides a brief history of Ukraine as well as accounts of experiences the author had reporting for two years (in the early 1990s) while living there. The book is organized by the places she visited as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph, and the interviews she conducted; historical sections are introduced sequentially in the chapters.

I also read the Ukraine sections of the CIA World Factbook and the Wikipedia entry for Ukraine.

Ukraine has existed as a country only since 1991. Immediately before that it was one of the republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It looks to me as if Ukrainians have created a story of their past from the Kievan Rus, through eastern Slavs, Cossacks, and others who lived in the region. The country now consists of areas once dominated by Lithuania, Poland, Austria, the Crimean Khanate, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and of course, Russia, and different parts have different cultures and different views of the "nation" based on their local histories. Most of Ukraine was a part of the Russian empire for hundreds of years before the country became part of the USSR.

Historical Regions of the Ukraine
The book presents a dismal picture of a century of trials leading to today. During World War I, Ukraine was a portion of the Russian empire that saw fighting in the last year of the war. Bolsheviks and White Russians then fought there as part of the larger war for control of Russia. Then there was famine in the 1920s and a Stalinist purge of intellectuals. In the 1930s there was a famine due to crop failures, massive disruption due to collectivization of agriculture and the elimination of the Kulaks, and a deliberately imposed famine by the Stalin regime; millions died. The Axis occupied most of Ukrainian territory during World War II, and millions were killed in the Holocaust, in battle, and in the massacre of prisoners of war. After the war, Stalin imposed sanctions on Ukrainian ethnic groups he accused of consorting with the enemy. The Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986 and no one knows the morbidity and mortality it caused.

In the first decade after independence, the Ukrainian economy contracted by 60 percent, and it has still not fully recovered. The death rate has exceeded the birth rate during more than two decades of independence; there has been substantial migration, but the population has decreased overall since 1991. The country has been described as a kleptocracy, with government plagued by corruption, and a small number of oligarchs gaining great wealth. Massive popular demonstrations -- the Orange Revolution of 2004 and Euromaidan in 2013-14 -- attested to massive popular disapproval of government and economic conditions and each led to regime change.

It was the current dangerous situation that caused my history book club to choose to read about Ukrainian history, and the recommendation of a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine that led me to choose this book. The book in describing the disasters of the last century is sometimes hard to take, but is a worthwhile read. The author manages to combine an overview of Ukrainian history with a feel for the human impact, the latter based on her accounts of interviews with people who shared memories of the hard times.

It is well known that there is a divide in the country, with the western population more oriented toward western Europe, more likely to speak Ukrainian, more likely to belong to the Ukrainian oriented churches, while the east and south, (and especially Crimea) were more oriented toward Russia, more likely to speak Russian, and more more likely to belong to the Russian Orthodox church. The regions bordering on Russia appear to have had more industry and more mining. The following map illustrates an aspect of this regionalism:

Ukrainian Salary Map (2007)
Anna Reid has done a good job providing the average American reader with a basis for understanding the current crisis. Indeed, in her chapter on Crimea, she as much as implies that there would be a future Crimean crisis. One of the translations of Ukraine is "Borderland", and Ukraine is now a borderland between the European Union, the European Common Market and NATO on the one side, and on the other the Russian sphere of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. That is a tough place to be!

1 comment:

John Daly said...

The following is drawn from Wikipedia's entry for the CIS:

While Ukraine was one of the three founding members of the Confederation of Independent States (created in the breakup of the USSR) it never ratified the CIS charter and its parliament voted to withdraw from the CIS on March 14, 2014. It ratified the CIS Free Trade Agreement but has not joined the Eurasian Economic Community. It is not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization which includes Russia, but is a member of a more pro-Western pro-US group known as the "GUAM" (Georgia, Uzbekistan / Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova).