What did happen?

David Edgar

  • The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
    Allen Lane, 381 pp, £25.00, December 2015, ISBN 978 0 241 18808 8
  • In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah
    Allen Lane, 256 pp, £20.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 19882 7
  • Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West by Andrew Wilson
    Yale, 236 pp, £12.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 21159 7
  • Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa
    I.B. Tauris, 297 pp, £9.99, January 2015, ISBN 978 1 78453 527 8

This is what it looks like from the West. A post-Soviet republic holds a presidential election which a candidate from the east of the country with criminal backing attempts to steal, provoking a popular uprising, a rerun of the election and the victory of his opponent. Six years later the eastern candidate wins the presidency against a divided opposition, jails his main opponent on trumped up charges, moves members of his clan into key positions, and amasses a huge fortune.

Under Russian pressure, the new president betrays an election promise to sign an agreement with the European Union, provoking another popular uprising. The police attack the protesters, and their numbers swell. The president pushes through draconian laws against the demonstrators. Evoking a heroic tradition of resistance to occupation by Nazis and communists, militant protesters attempt to march on parliament, battling the police, who respond by murdering more than a hundred people. Despite reaching an agreement to de-escalate the conflict, the president flees, a new government is temporarily appointed and subsequently a new president and parliament are elected. The Russians use the departure of the president and the appointment of the new government as an excuse to annex one part of the country and to invade another.

This is how they see it from the other side. Following a disputed election result, a pre-planned uprising backed by Western intelligence in a former part of the Soviet Union forces the judiciary to rerun an election. The winner presides over a factious and sectarian administration, every bit as corrupt as its predecessor, and it’s no surprise that the previously ousted winner is properly re-elected six years later. He refuses to sign an agreement with the Western powers that would have impoverished swathes of the population, particularly in the formerly industrial regions of the east and south.

In response to this decision, protesters, again backed by Western intelligence agencies, occupy the central square, paralysing the capital. After nearly two months, parliament passes emergency measures to bring the protests under control, provoking radicals from two neo-fascist parties – consciously emulating wartime Nazi collaborators – to attack the police. Sniper fire from the protesters leads to a counter-attack. Following the collapse of police resistance, a junta is imposed, which includes several members of one of the neo-fascist parties, while the other group spreads out across the country, threatening and in some cases killing those who support the elected government. For its own protection, one part of the country votes overwhelmingly to join Russia while, in another, a popular uprising against the Western-backed fascist junta leads to the creation of two independent people’s republics. They are attacked by fascist militias, and volunteers from Russia come to their aid.

What I’m describing are the two, mutually exclusive accounts of what happened in Ukraine between the Orange Revolution of 2004 (itself one of a series of adjectivally-coded revolutions which broke out in the former Soviet space in the early 2000s) and the 2013-14 re-occupation of Kiev’s central square (the Maidan) and the events that followed. The annexed/liberated bit of the country was Crimea and the invaded/seceded part was the industrial region of the Donbas, consisting of the eastern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. It was Viktor Yushchenko who won the rerun of the 2004 election, and his administration which fell apart through fractious dispute with Yulia Tymoshenko. The 2004 loser, Viktor Yanukovich, defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, and then had her jailed for fraud.

There would be less controversy about the preceding period. People in both the west and east of the country would agree that – following an overwhelming vote for independence in 1991 – Ukraine’s first two presidents (former Communist Party boss Leonid Kravchuk and former Soviet industrial director Leonid Kuchma) presided over an economic catastrophe. Within a year of independence, the number of Ukrainians in poverty had risen from 15 per cent to 50 per cent and inflation had reached 2500 per cent. Both Kuchma’s chosen successor, Yanukovich, and his 2004 opponent, Yushchenko, had served as Kuchma’s prime minister. They were backed – in disputed proportions – by different factions of the oligarch class, which had been the only real beneficiary of the selling off of the country’s assets in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

There are now at least half a dozen books on the Maidan protests and their aftermath, most of which take ‘the Western point of view’ (in the senses of being westward-looking and of predominating in the central and western part of the country). Two of the most recent delve into the complex and chequered history of what is today Ukraine. Following The Last Empire, his much-praised history of the end of the Soviet Union, Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe tells the story of Ukraine from Ovid (for whom the Greek colonies north of the Black Sea were ‘a handful of names in a region scarcely known’) to the present, a history which echoes through and defines today’s conflicts. Key events include the conversion in 980 of Volodymyr the Great to Greek Orthodox Christianity (the foundation myth of an all-Russian polity embracing much but not all of present-day Ukraine); the Mongol invasion of 1237, which – for western-oriented Ukrainians – wiped that slate clean; the rise of the notoriously insurrectionary Cossack tribes in the 17th century (the Great Revolt of 1648 was the seventh serious Cossack uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in fifty years); the division of Cossack Ukraine between Russia and Austro-Hungary in the late 18th century; and the emergence of a distinct linguistic and cultural nationalism in the 19th. And all that is before you get into the short 20th century, during which Ukraine was an Austro-Hungarian-Russian battlefield, briefly independent, then divided between the Soviet Union and Poland (a division redrawn to Soviet advantage under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), occupied by the Germans, and re-incorporated (this time in its entirety) into the postwar USSR. Relatively independent from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, Ukraine spent most of its pre-20th-century history divided between Poland, Austro-Hungary and Russia.

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