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Ukraine: Against History and Geography

From The Hedgehog Review

Photo by Max Kukurudziak / Unsplash

The two nations, on Moscow’s telling, don’t just share a common border: They share a common history, a common religious tradition, a common language. (All points debated by Ukrainians.) The old maps—of the glory days of the Soviet Union, of the Russian Empire, of the early medieval kingdom of Kyivan Rus’—are brought forward as evidence that the two nations belong together still within the Russkiy mir, “the Russian world.” . . .

For Ukrainians, maps allow for no such exercise in imperial nostalgia. Open up any history of Ukraine, and you’ll immediately be struck by the numerous claims made upon its territory over time. Some or all of the expanse that we now label “Ukraine” was a portion of Kyivan Rus’ (doomed by the Mongols’ raids); the principality of Galicia-Volhynia (vassal state of the Golden Horde); the grand duchy of Lithuania (which took Kyiv in 1362 and at its height reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea); the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795); the Ottoman Empire (in the southwest); the Grand Duchy of Moscow, later the Russian Empire (in the east); and the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (1773-1918); among still other incursions (including German occupation in World War II) and local permutations. . . .

Ukraine as we envision it now didn’t take shape until the Russian Revolution, and even then its borders with several neighbors—Moldova, Romania, Poland, and Russia—shifted repeatedly across the twentieth century. That Soviet map, however, holds little charm for many now, for long before the Soviet project went bust, leaving decaying buildings and implements throughout Ukraine (especially its rural districts) that visitors still remark on, the Soviet leadership in Moscow had been no great friend to its neighbor. Lenin resisted Ukrainian autonomy from the start, quashing its nascent independence movement in the late teens, and Stalin cracked down on Ukrainian dissent, including with the manmade famine of 1932-1933 . . . As Tony Judt observes in his magisterial account of Europe since 1945, Postwar (2005), Soviet leaders treated Ukraine as an “internal colony” for decades, exploiting its natural resources, keeping its citizens under close surveillance, and shipping its products “to the rest of the Soviet Union at heavily subsidized prices.”

Read the rest at The Hedgehog Review