Many people have discovered Ukraine for the first time since the invasion by Russia at the beginning of this year 2022. In a perverted sense they could thank Mr Putin for the catalyst in making this so but this would not be entirely accurate. This is because the invasion of Ukraine really began in 2014 and this did not stop the World Cup being held in Russia in 2018. The world took little notice of the earlier incursions and annexations of Ukrainian territory, which obviously encouraged Mr Putin to go the whole hog, so to speak. This time, however, the USA freed from Trump and the European Union were galvanised to take action in the form of more far reaching sanctions and military aid to Ukraine. Still, Ukraine was for many a far flung place in the east of which little was known.
Finding Out About The War In Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has awoken in me and I would posit for many others a desire to know more about this state. I knew it was a former republic within the Soviet Union and had broken away when that entity collapsed in 1989. I had heard about the various problems occurring there and in Russia since that divide. The oligarchs and the wide spread corruption within the region and under the auspices of Putin were reported in the western media. Wars in Chechnya and the annexation of Crimea did get a certain amount of press; however, I like many was content to categorise all of this as growing pains taking place a long way away. Out of sight and largely out of mind. The full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 changed all this. That blue and yellow flag was, seemingly, suddenly flying on every screen.
Understanding Ukraine & Its History
How do we begin to comprehend a national and international event of this magnitude? History and the study of its various components is the only real means with which to begin to understand something like this. After nearly a year of watching news coverage of the war in Ukraine and related presentations by experts and think tanks I got lucky. I came across Professor Timothy Snyder and his online lectures beamed out of Yale University via YouTube. Strangely my path to Professor Snyder’s insights came courtesy of my interest in the American political situation vis a vis Donald Trump and the bookshop Politics and Prose in Washington DC. Timothy Snyder had written two books, which addressed this crisis particularly, On Tyranny and The Road To Unfreedom. I would learn that there are direct links between Trump and Ukraine via Putin and the Russian state. “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
Things I learned About Ukraine
A north to south axis was the main influence upon Ukraine during the first millennia and well into the middle ages. The surviving eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire, was the illuminating light in the south for the advent of language and a written alphabet in Ukraine. Whilst in the north the Franks were forging a Germanic Christian culture of state and church. The pull between these two forms of political and religious systems, the orthodox church and its counterpart in the Frankish Kingdom, would exert a powerful influence on the emerging Rus identity, as it transitioned from the pagan beliefs of its founders.
Kiev would become one of the great cities of the early second millennium, as the Rus prospered in its embrace of the eastern Christian church.
The Muslim and Jewish presence in what we now call Ukraine is profound and has been long lasting. Hazar and Jewish settlements have been in existence for many centuries and from the earliest periods. The Ottoman Empire was another southern factor which played a large part in the formation and resulting territorial makeup of Ukraine and Crimea.
Moscow was a much later (14th Century) and more Asian settlement which would become a city. It formed as a centre for those collecting tribute for the Mongol Empire, growing out from the Kremlin. The Muscovy fiefdom would become the Russian Empire in the post-Mongol period, with a totalitarian structure around the Czar. This admixture of peoples would take on the cultural identity of The Rus, as imperial powers often choose their own founding myths.
The more I discovered about Ukraine thanks to Professor Timothy Snyder the more I realised what a black hole my knowledge of eastern and central Europe largely is. Why is this so? I have been a student of history for most of my life and have desired an understanding of the world on this basis. Why has the Slavic realm been hidden from me in a fog of ignorance? Is it because of the Soviet Union and that geo-politically huge entity having blocked out the view somehow? Have we been so focused on western European and American concerns that we simply ignored the eastern perspective? Yes, I think so. Our comprehension of the classical world has been largely centred on the Mediterranean and then it shifted to western Europe in terms of the moral and philosophic underpinnings of our own conception of modern history. The people have discovered Ukraine quite recently and wonder where it has been all this time.
It is hard to imagine state employed people consciously doing this to other human beings and watching them die on mass. Idealogues and fanatics are dangerous forces. Turning people into ‘others’ and sentencing them to extermination was undertaken on grand scales in the 1930s in Ukraine.
Professor Snyder points out to the world that Ukraine was the target for much of the fighting and killing during the first half of the twentieth century. The Ukrainian ‘bread basket’ was the attraction for the Germans in the First World War to feed their soldiers in the latter part of this conflict. The Germans backed Ukrainian nationalists against the Soviet Russians in a bid to access this source of food.
The real action and most European WW2 deaths actually happened in Ukraine and surrounding areas. Hitler’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, after their earlier non-aggression pact, seemed incomprehensible to casual observers of this war but it was always the main plan. This was where the land and the fertile soil abounded for Germanic expansion on a massive scale. Ukraine and Poland was where the greater part of the Holocaust occurred. The Jews would be exterminated and the Slavonic people starved out of this land, as the Soviets had done in 1932-34. Hitler and his minions murdered millions of Jews and Russians but were ultimately defeated by Soviet Russia in this campaign. Much of the fighting in Europe during WW2 happened on the eastern front. The Allies did not really get going until 1944 in Europe. Prior to this millions of Russians and eastern Europeans were killed and starved in battles , pogroms, and concentration camps across eastern Europe. Around 27 million Russians died in WW2. The United Kingdom and the USA would suffer less than a million deaths between them. The French including colonies had some 600, 000 deaths in WW2.