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.

Baffling enough for settled populations (if it’s Tuesday I must be Ruthenian), this history is further complicated by huge and often forced movements of people, notably during the agony of the 1930s and 1940s. Although formally a compelling and acute piece of contemporary reportage, Tim Judah’s In Wartime also delves into the history of the western and eastern regions which he explored in the months after the Maidan. Few contemporary residents of the city which the Russians call Lvov, the Polish Lwów and the Germans Lemberg can claim their families lived here before 1945. Its (considerable) Polish population having been deported to reconstituted Poland, its numbers swelled by Ukrainian peasants moved back from Poland, and almost all its Jews lost in the Holocaust, the Galician capital Lviv is now a different – and much more ethnically Ukrainian – place than it was at the end of the Second World War.

At the other end of the country, too, there are places where few can trace their ancestry back more than a couple of generations. In a region initially taken for Russia by Catherine the Great, what is now the capital of the pro-Russian Donbas industrial region was initially named after a Welsh entrepreneur called John Hughes, who set up an iron-smelting works there in the 1870s (Hughesovka gradually mutating into Yuzovka), attracting Greeks, Tatars, Serbs, Bulgarians, Poles, Jews and Russians to work there (Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev moved to the region with their parents before the Revolution). Renamed first for the Ukrainian Trotsky and then as Stalino (for ‘steel’ not Stalin), the town was repopulated from elsewhere in the Soviet Union after the catastrophic man-made famine of the 1930s (which the Ukrainians now call the Holodomor). It was renamed Donetsk in 1961.

No wonder, then, that what peoples and places are called is a minefield in discussion of the Ukrainian conflict. ‘I am spelling Kiev and Odessa in the way they have always been spelled in English and don’t feel the need to take what many regard as a political stance by switching to the Ukrainian Kyiv and Odesa,’ Judah reports with some exasperation, in an afterword to his book. Indeed, his assertion that history ‘weighs very heavily on Ukraine, because of what really happened, what people believe happened, what people are told happened and what is forgotten’ is almost an understatement.

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The first two books to emerge in the immediate wake of the Maidan events didn’t promote the two contrasting narratives I began with in every detail, but they do represent the two positions that have been debated among British commentators and the diaspora in the columns of journals, at university conferences, and at public and private meetings ever since. Andrew Wilson had already written an effective narrative of the 2004 uprising in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2005), where he acknowledged that the protests against Yanukovich’s fraudulent 2004 election were pre-planned (exit polls, steward training, the building of a stage for a rock concert in the main square, the erection of six hundred tents), but ‘then so was the fraud that led to them.’ He accepts that Western NGOs advised and helped to organise the protests, but why not? The West was promoting its democratic values, for which it had no reason to apologise, and the protesters needed money from somewhere: ‘Without it, they would have lost.’ The Orange Revolution was a genuine popular demand for a change of regime and – despite Yushchenko’s insider credentials – its result a great deal more than an exchange of elites.

Wilson’s 2014 book Ukraine Crisis tells the story of the more spontaneous protests which began in November 2013, when Viktor Yanukovich withdrew from a planned association agreement with the EU. Relatively modest protests in the Maidan increased dramatically when occupiers were attacked by the police, and escalated further when the pro-Yanukovich parliament passed draconian anti-protest laws (including bans on tents, kiosks or ‘small architectural forms’, and on gatherings of more than three), turning the protests towards such traditional revolutionary methods as breaking cobblestones and throwing Molotov cocktails. On 20 February, snipers began firing on and killing demonstrators in the square. Finally, and despite an agreement being reached between the political representatives of the protesters and the government, the police withdrew and Yanukovich fled, taking with him a substantial portion of the booty he had amassed in his out-of-town presidential palace.

Wilson has been criticised in the past for emphasising the historical, cultural and linguistic divisions between the western and Russian-leaning parts of the country. But he lays the blame for exacerbating these divisions in 2013-14 firmly at Russia’s door. Indeed, to talk of a ‘Ukraine crisis’ is misleading: the crisis was of Russia’s making. Simply, like the Germans in the 1930s, ‘the Russians went ape.’

This view is challenged in the other immediate response to the 2013-14 events, Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine. Sakwa has reservations about the 2004 Orange Revolution; the question of whether it was a people’s revolution or a revolutionary coup ‘remains pertinent to this day’. The Maidan uprising began as a protest against the betrayal of the Orange Revolution’s undoubted ideals, but anywhere else such a lengthy occupation of the centre of a major European city would have been quickly broken up (the police had tried on more than one occasion). By the time gunshots rang out from high buildings around the square, killing large numbers of protesters but also some police, the revolution was dominated not by a pro-European or human rights agenda, but by a radical nationalist ideology pursued by ‘armed men strutting across the square’. It had become ‘a mockery of its original ideals’.

But Sakwa’s main target is the West, and the baleful consequences of the asymmetrical end of the Cold War, a ‘velvet-gloved Versailles’ in which Russia was cast as the loser, not as one of a number of countries that had overthrown a sclerotic communist regime through the exercise of the people’s democratic rights. While the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, Nato – an organisation which, for Sakwa, ‘exists to manage the risks created by its existence’ – extended its footprint to Russia’s borders. Despite the ‘reset’ of American-Russian relations under the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton in particular took a hawkishly combative attitude to Russia, defining its actions in Georgia (and later Crimea) as aggression, rather than ‘defensive reactions to perceived challenges’. By 2014, the demonisation of Putin had poisoned sensible discussion, and Ukraine had become a pawn in a new Cold War. Now that war has heated up, and ‘America is fighting Russia down to the very last Ukrainian.’

And far from the European Union providing a ‘vegetarian’ counterweight to Nato’s military expansion, the two organisations act increasingly in concert, posing the EU’s eastern neighbours a stark, with-us-or-against-us choice between economic and military ties with Russia or with the West (a view challenged by the EU). One consequence of this is the imposition of a similar either-or choice on the Ukrainian people. For Sakwa, the Western ‘Orange’ tendency was pushing Ukraine towards becoming a monolingual, culturally autonomous nation-state aligned with the European Union and the Atlantic community. This tendency overrode ‘a rather more plural understanding of the challenges facing Ukraine’, which recognised ‘that the country’s various regions have different historical and cultural experiences’. So a new belligerent proselytism by an increasingly exclusive (Sakwa’s word is ‘monist’) EU has encouraged western Ukrainians to raise the bar for what it means to be Ukrainian, effectively excluding the Russian-speakers of the east, on the vexed and divisive issues of language, culture and – most of all – the collision between the present and the past.

On the language question, it’s true that in Ukraine an indigenous linguistic majority has not sought to restrict the use of Russian, unlike in the Baltic states. But that’s because almost everyone speaks it, and it remains the predominant language of entertainment and literature. As Sakwa asks (exaggerating only slightly), ‘is there any other country on earth where a language understood by 100 per cent of the population is not a language of state?’ For Russian-speaking easterners, the fact that a Russian-speaking couple in Donetsk or Kharkiv can’t get married in the language in which they proposed is, in the present political context, a kind of provocation.

One result of the privatisation of Russian is that it can be sneered at as a ‘kitchen language’ – as it reputedly is for the current president, chocolate billionaire Petro Poroshenko. As far back as 2004, a group of Ukrainian intellectuals published two open letters attacking Yanukovich for promising to grant ‘the language of pop music and Russian criminal slang the absurd status of “second state language”’. Attitudes to Russian reflect attitudes to its speakers in general. Advertisements for Lvivske beer contrast civilised Galician sippers with the boorish drunks of the east. It isn’t hard to detect a feeling of ‘why should we share our country with these people?’ The deaths of more than a hundred protesters are memorialised in shrines around the square where they fell. But, as Judah points out, there is no memorial for the 18 policemen, many from Crimea and the east, who also died: ‘deaths which were not forgotten or forgiven in the places they had come from.’ Plokhy properly remembers the ‘heavenly hundred’ and refers to ‘Russian efforts to destabilise the situation in Kharkiv and Odessa’. He doesn’t refer at all to the 42 anti-Maidan protesters who were driven into an Odessa trade union building by pro-Maidan demonstrators on 2 May 2014, then burned to death.

The most contentious element of the Maidan was the role of two far-right groups in the protests, and their connection with groups who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. Both Svoboda (a political party, its name meaning ‘freedom’) and the Right Sector (after the section of the Maidan which it organised) trace their heritage back to OUN-B, the faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, which carried out a large number of assassinations, mostly of occupying Poles, in the 1930s. In 1939 western Ukraine was assigned to the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and OUN-B’s main enemy became the Soviets. Siding with the Germans was a matter of geopolitical common sense, but the OUN-B’s racial-nationalist ideology also inclined it towards Hitlerism. Bandera’s deputy, later ‘prime minister’ of Ukraine, Yaroslav Stetsko, supported ‘bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine’.

In receipt of funds from German intelligence, OUN-B formed a battalion which entered Lviv with the Germans on the first day of the invasion in June 1941. The following day, the OUN proclaimed an independent Ukraine, which wasn’t part of the German masterplan, and Bandera was arrested. He remained in Sachsenhausen until released in 1944 to direct partisan activities against the advancing Red Army. However, his supporters participated in the killing of several thousand Jews in early actions ordered by SS leader Reinhard Heydrich, and, having infiltrated the police in western Ukraine, participated in further pogroms and exterminations later on. In 1943, OUN-B created the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which killed 60-100,000 Poles in Volhynia and eastern Galicia. There was even a Ukrainian unit of the Waffen-SS, called the Galicia Division. After the war, Bandera led a guerrilla action against Soviet Ukraine from exile in Germany, where he was assassinated by the KGB in 1959.

As Judah remarks, again with some understatement, ‘failing to untangle this poisonous legacy has proved to be a Ukrainian Achilles’ heel.’ In 1991, after independence, a Social-National Party of Ukraine, claiming to be Bandera’s heir, was founded in Lviv. Like the party’s name, its Wolf’s Hook symbol was a mirror-image of the Nazi original. In 1998, the party leader Oleh Tyahnybok was elected to the Ukraine parliament, the Rada, and invited to join Yushchenko’s bloc, where he remained while negotiating a memorandum of collaboration with the French Front National. The invitation to Tyahnybok, in Andrew Wilson’s view, was an example of Yushchenko being a ‘bit too inclusive’, a judgment confirmed when, having changed the SNPU’s name to Svoboda, Tyahnybok praised the UPA for fighting ‘against the Moskali, Germans, Zhydy [‘Yids’, effectively] and other scum’. Expelled from Yushchenko’s bloc, Svoboda increased its vote in western regions, while openly celebrating the SS Galicia Division. In 2012, the Svoboda-dominated Lviv Regional Council proclaimed 2012 ‘the year of Stetsko’ (the advocate of ‘the German methods of exterminating Jewry’) and Svoboda formed an electoral pact with Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, going on to win an unprecedented 10.44 per cent of the national vote in parliamentary elections. In 2013-14, Tyahnybok was one of the three parliamentary leaders of the Maidan uprising (sharing a platform with John McCain) and the UPA’s red and black flag flew in the square. Svoboda was given five portfolios in the immediate post-Maidan government, including chief prosecutor and deputy prime minister.

The role of the far right is deemed to be hugely exaggerated by Russian propagandists, for whom the Maidan was a conspiracy of Western imperialists, fascists and gays. As Judah argues, ‘small elements of truth have painted, and allowed the Russian media and their Western fellow-travellers to paint, an utterly distorted picture of the whole.’ The far right was active in the Maidan, but it was a small minority (for Wilson, a torch-lit march through Kiev in honour of Bandera was ‘such a stupid idea, it had to be a provocation’). In the subsequent elections for the presidency and the Rada, Svoboda collapsed (neither it nor the Right Sector gaining the 5 per cent needed to be awarded party-list seats). Neither group has anything like the electoral support of the far right in France, Austria, the Netherlands or even parts of Scandinavia.

Certainly, the current government of Ukraine is not a fascist junta, and the far right did do hearteningly badly in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2014. But Svoboda still does well in local elections in its western heartlands, and 13 far-right activists became constituency MPs. In addition, as Judah says, other far right groups have played much more significant roles in the war. An early part of Right Sector, Patriot of Ukraine, was formed by Andriy Parubiy (later a commander of both the 2004 and 2010 insurrections, and secretary of the National Security Council in the post-Maidan government) and became the paramilitary wing of the Social-National Assembly of Ukraine (founded in 2008). In jail during the Maidan, its leader Andrij Biletsky was released on 24 February 2014. After streetfighting with anti-Maidan separatists in Kharkiv, Biletsky’s organisation was registered as the volunteer Azov Battalion, and airlifted by the interior minister to Mariupol, a port on the Azov sea coast which pro-Russian separatists were trying to seize. Awarded the Order of Courage by Poroshenko and promoted to lieutenant colonel, Biletsky stood successfully as a parliamentary candidate for a Kiev constituency. He was appointed to the Military Council of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front. The deputy commander of the Azov battalion, Vadym Troyan, was appointed head of police for the Kiev region. In 2010, Biletsky declared that the aim of his organisation was ‘to lead the White Races of the world in the final crusade for their survival; a crusade against Semite-led subhumanity’.

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So what attitude should be taken to what appears to be the indifference towards, if not indulgence of, people who enthusiastically support historic collaborators with the Germans, have been or are part of neo-Nazi organisations, and/or have recently expressed anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic opinions? One answer is that Ukraine is a country at war. According to Anton Gerashchenko, an Interior Ministry adviser, ‘a person who takes a weapon in his hands and goes to defend his motherland is a hero. And his political views are his own affair.’ Others hold that criticising the far-right undermines the Maidan uprising. As the BBC’s David Stern put it, ‘many Euromaidan supporters bristle at, or deny, any claim that the movement contains an influential ultra-nationalist element, fearful that this will be used to tar the entire movement, which in fact is what has happened. They simply call them “patriots”.’ The political and military influence of the far right has waned since the summer of 2014. Nonetheless, the increasing hegemony of its view of history (one of Yushchenko’s last acts as president was to proclaim Bandera a hero of Ukraine) excludes from public discourse those whose fathers or grandfathers fought in the Red Army against the Ukrainian Nationalists (whether fighting with the Germans or on their own account). In April last year, and despite the far right’s paltry 2014 election results, the Rada passed a new law prohibiting any denial of, or even disrespect to, the OUN and the UPA in their ‘struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century’, a law lifted straight from Svoboda’s party programme. Passed nem con by the Rada, it was signed into law by Poroshenko.

In his 1996 polemic The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington drew the frontier between the Western and the Orthodox worlds down the middle of Ukraine. The more than nine thousand deaths in the eastern war have served only to solidify that border. On the western side, there is a currently unfeasible plan to build a protective wall on the Ukraine-Russia border described as the ‘European Rampart’. The Russians, Plokhy reports, see Ukraine as ‘a battleground between corrupt Western values, including democracy, individual freedoms, human rights and, especially, the rights of sexual minorities on the one hand and traditional Russian values on the other’.

This easy division between western progressives and eastern conservatives masks an irony. In 2004, it was possible to identify a clear and recognisable faultline between Western-oriented, urban, socially-liberal Orange people (many from the college, creative and small business communities), and the Russian-leaning Blue people, who combine left-wing economic policies (high pensions, price subsidies, support for heavy industry, opposition to oligarchic rule) with social conservatism. In redrawing the traditional western political faultline which divides social progressives and economic egalitarians from socially conservative economic liberals, the Orange/Blue divide echoed similar divisions in Iran, Thailand and the Middle East (where the rural conservative poor battle a liberal urban middle class), and anticipated the move of populist and far right organisations (from Ukip to the Front National) towards left-wing economic policies as a means to attract traditionally social-democratic voters alarmed by immigration. Similarly, Svoboda’s party programme calls for renationalisation of ‘privatised enterprises whose owners do not fulfil their social, investment and other commitments’. On social issues, however, the far right takes a more predictable view. One of the component parts of Right Sector posted a picture of the drag artist Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst with the headline ‘Do we need this kind of Europe?’ Another accuses the EU of a policy of ‘homosexual dictatorship’, an echo of the Russian ‘Eurosodom’. The day Odessa banned its gay pride celebration, an MP in the prime minister’s party called homosexuality ‘a treatable disease’ and accused gay people of paedophilia. The recent, EU-instigated legislation protecting LGBT Ukrainians from discrimination in the workplace – but not from hate crimes – was passed by the Rada, but only at the ninth attempt. Nationalist Ukraine, then, looks uncomfortably like a mirror-image of nationalist Russia and its supporters in the east. Insofar as conservative nationalism has become hegemonic in post-Maidan Ukraine, the socially-liberal, progressive element of Orangeism has been sidelined.

Whether or not the current government’s efforts to incorporate the volunteer militias and control their criminal activities succeed, it was brought to power by a revolution (albeit one which started out liberal but turned nationalist). Ukraine has spent too much of its past as – in Sakwa’s words – ‘a bit-player in its own drama’. As western Ukrainians dismiss the Donbas separatists as no more than the fifth column of an invading army, so Russia’s supporters accuse Kiev revolutionaries of being puppets of the CIA. It’s the Ukrainians themselves who can and should take credit for the 2004 and 2014 uprisings, in which hundreds of thousands of people challenged corruption and oligarchy, east and west.