Geography as the determinant of Ukraine’s violent history
Russian bombing in Kyiv striking the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, March 2, 2022 (Photo courtesy: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center)
Zakarpattia, the west-facing nose of Ukraine, borders four countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. In its hills, frontiers moved more often than people. A man named András Orosz had lived in the village of Novoye Selo, called Tiszaújhely in Hungarian. Over the course of his long life he had held five different nationalities: Austro-Hungarian, Romanian, Czechoslovak, Soviet and, finally, Ukrainian. Yet Orosz had never once left his village; the borders had moved around him.
—Rory MacLean, Pravda Ha Ha
HAD THE CRITICAL perspective of two Nikolais—the editor Polevoy, whose History of the Russian People saw in Russia an elemental struggle between Europe and Asia, and Nadezhdin, Russia’s first ethnographer—prevailed, Nikolai Gogol might still be considered a Ukrainian writer. But by the mid-1830s, before the 1836 performance of The Government Inspector in St Petersburg, Gogol had already been recast as a Russian writer thanks to the ill-tempered ‘nationalist’ poet-historian Stepan Shevyryov and Vissarion Belinsky, who in many ways had made the poet Nikolay Nekrasov before evading the Tsar’s police by dying of tuberculosis. Gogol, of Ukrainian Cossack stock, still divides Russia and Ukraine over who gets to claim him.
A century before Gogol’s birth (1809) and almost a half-century before Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of Law, 1748, trans 1750), the Hetman of Ukraine, Pylyp Orlyk, wrote a constitution (the Constitution of Bendery, also known as Pacts and Constitutions of Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporizhian Host) that separated powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The Hetman’s document also provided for a democratically elected Cossack parliament. Most of present-day Ukraine was still in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and almost 60 years after Pylyp Orlyk’s constitution, the Koliivshchyna rebellion of the Cossacks in 1768 would culminate in the Massacre of Uman in which about 2,000 (once said to be more than 30,000) Poles and Jews as well as Uniate (Eastern Catholic) clergymen were killed.
The name of Ukraine, famously, is supposed to mean “borderland”, tracing its Slavic roots back through Kievan Rus’. Notwithstanding etymological nuances, borderland it has always been. Driving from today’s Chernivtsi in western Ukraine and thinking of the “Jews in kaftans…spur-jingling Romanian soldiers…colourfully dressed peasant women with baskets of eggs on their heads and solid ethnic German burghers in wide knickerbockers and Tyrolean hats” recalled in Gregor von Rezzori’s autobiographical The Snows of Yesteryear (1989), historian and travel writer Rory Maclean writes: “To the Jews the city had been טשערנאוויץ [Chernivtsi in Yiddish]. Its Romanian rulers had called it Cernui. Under the Austrians it had been Czernowitz. To Poles it was Czerniowce and to Russians Chernovtsy. Once it had been dubbed ‘Little Vienna’ and ‘Jerusalem upon the Prut’. But in the fury of the Second World War, its diverse culture had been ravaged and expunged.” (Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe, 2019)
Ukraine is the geography of Russian paranoia. Russia’s more systematic rise and expansion under the Romanovs fed on the insecurity that had driven Ivan and medieval Muscovy. This insecurity of a preeminent land power remains exactly as the Soviet Union lived it, and as post-Soviet Russia still exploits it
Between them, the two World Wars destroyed Central Europe and its ethno-religious diversity of culture, imposing the new homogenous nation-state on the map. But nowhere did this history of violence play out in more sanguinary ferocity than in what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands”, straddling the old Central and post-1922 (Soviet Union) Eastern Europe: “In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States…Though their homelands became battlefields midway through this period, these people were all victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war. The Second World War was the most lethal conflict in history, and about half of the soldiers who perished on all of its battlefields all the world over died here…in the bloodlands. Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty. Most were women, children, and the aged; none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.” (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010)
The bloodlands were where most of European Jewry perished because they mostly lived there. The Nazis did not kill in their concentration camps on German territory but in the extermination camps, the cities and fields in and around the bloodlands. Ukraine till 1945 was still without today’s western territories but its contribution to this history of blood is as much pre-World War II as in its durée. It was here that the Terror-Famine, or Holodomor, killed four to seven million (as per more updated estimates since the 2003 UN figure of seven to 10 million deaths) people in 1932-33, as part of Stalin’s policy-driven genocide of Ukrainians by starvation. Unlike the rest of the Depression-era Western world, most of those who died of hunger in Soviet Ukraine were peasants.
“The Ukrainian cities lived, just, but the Ukrainian countryside was dying. City dwellers could not fail to notice the destitution of peasants who, contrary to all seeming logic, left the field in search of food. The train station at Dnipropetrovsk was overrun with starving peasants, too weak to even beg,” writes Snyder, after the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. “The proof was all around. Starving peasants begged along the breadlines, asking for crumbs. In one town, a fifteen-year-old girl begged her way to the front of the line, only to be beaten to death by the shopkeeper. The city housewives making the queues had to watch as peasant women starved to death on the side-walks. A girl walking to and from school each day saw the dying in the morning and the dead in the afternoon.” Some of the more gruesome scenes witnessed by Jones were in the city of Stalino, then newly renamed after the dictator. More recently, it has been an epicentre of the separatist-triggered civil war in Ukraine. The city is today’s Donetsk.
Ukraine’s mass starvation was a direct consequence of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan. The Ukrainians, eyewitnesses to their own catastrophe, would call it the “buds of the socialist spring.”
THE VIOLENCE INTRINSIC to Ukraine’s political geography and ethnogeography cannot be imaginatively understood without Gogol’s Taras Bulba (1835, a more popular second edition was published in 1842). The land where Scythian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Viking histories overlapped began its imperial life as Kievan Rus’ on which foundation is based the shared origin of modern Russia and Ukraine, the East Slavic tribe of Polianians (or Polans) bequeathing the name Rus, having lived along the Ros, Rosava and Dnipro (Dnieper) and calling one of its dominant clans Ros. Once the most powerful state in medieval Europe, Kievan Rus’ saw its golden age begin with the ascent of Volodymyr I, or Vladimir the Great, around 980CE and saw itself disintegrate a little more than a century after Vladimir’s death in 1015.
Till the establishment of the Cossack Hetmanate in 1648, Ukraine would not get a semblance of sovereignty back—and even then, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host, could lead his rebellion against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth only after pledging loyalty to the Russian tsar. Four centuries before that, the Mongol invasion that destroyed Kievan Rus’ had razed Kyiv to the ground in 1240. And as recently as the late 16th century, the Crimean Khanate had marched to Moscow through Ukraine and plundered the city. With fear of the Golden Horde ingrained in the Russo-Ukrainian psyche, the persistent Tatar raids as well as the thriving Crimean Tatar slave trade meant the borderlands never knew a decade of peace. Divided along religious lines—the Poles and Lithuanians had converted some of the west Ukrainian nobility to Catholicism while eastern Ukraine and the peasants remained Orthodox, fuelling the Koliivshchyna rebellion—Ukraine would not regain its promised autonomy even after the tsarist empire conquered Crimea in 1783 and began settling the steppes north of Crimea (Novorossiya).
Taras Bulba, redolent of Russian-Ukrainian anti-Semitism which was shared by Gogol, as was the hatred for the Poles, captures the soul of the steppes, a topography and geography of unredeemable violence with no natural borders and of constant human conflict. It was here, in southern Ukraine, that Gogol believed the key to Russia lay. Behind a father ordering the execution of his son who had betrayed the Cossack cause because of his love for a Polish girl whose suffering in the Cossacks’ siege had aroused his humanity stands this broader story of the borderland as an eternal bloodland.
But there is more to this geography which brings us to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In his pre-dawn TV address of February 24, Putin said that Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist” because of the “constant threat” from Ukraine. This long-running grouse of every Russian strongman (and one woman who too had invaded Crimea) sounds as medieval as its origins, only the reality of it having transformed itself into paranoia. Peter the Great made Russia European. But that was not enough. The Russian predicament has been summed up by Robert D Kaplan in one paragraph: “…Russia, protected by forest glades against many a rampaging host, nevertheless fell prey in the thirteenth century to the Golden Horde of the Mongols. Thus would Russia be denied access to the European Renaissance, and branded forever with the bitterest feelings of inferiority and insecurity. The ultimate land-based empire, with no natural barriers against invasion save for the forest itself, Russia would know forevermore what it was like to be brutally conquered, and as a result would become perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory, or at least dominating its contiguous shadow zones.” (The Revenge of Geography, 2012)
That neat, albeit rather simplistic, summary of Russian imperial history ties in with Kievan Rus’ constantly struggling against the nomads from the steppes and eventually being destroyed by the Mongols. “The result was that, through innumerable movements and countermovements… Russian history shifted gradually north…with Moscow emerging strongest in the later medieval centuries,” writes Kaplan. Medieval Muscovy was still landlocked and hemmed in by the taiga, the steppes and the Mongols to the east. Its access to the Black Sea was denied by the Turks and Mongols on the southern steppes while the Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes blocked Moscow’s access to the Baltic Sea. The White Sea to the north was unusable except for a brief period in summer. “Threatened on all sides of the infinite plain, the Russians had no choice but to try to break out, which they did under Ivan IV [Ivan the Terrible].” Russia’s more systematic rise and expansion under the Romanovs, too, fed on the insecurity that had driven Ivan and medieval Muscovy. This classic dilemma and paranoia of a preeminent land power remains, in its essence, exactly as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder understood it, as the Soviet Union lived it, and as post-Soviet Russia still exploits it.
The bloodlands were where most of European Jewry perished because they mostly lived there. It was here that the terror-famine, or Holodomor, killed four to seven million people in 1932-33, as part of Stalin’s policy-driven genocide of Ukrainians. The Ukrainians would call it the ‘buds of the socialist spring’
Ukraine, unfortunately, is the geography of Russian paranoia, or the excuse for it, even though the expansion of NATO or the European Union isn’t exactly the Golden Horde sweeping across the steppes or the Wehrmacht rolling in. The comedian-turned war president in Kyiv has surprised the world with his courage, dignity and determination. Born to Russian-speaking Jewish parents, Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who, ironically, shares his forename with Vladimir of Kievan Rus’ along with Putin) lost family in the Holocaust. To call him a Nazi is a crime in itself. As British journalist Ben Judah tweeted: “If you’d told many of our great-grandparents in the Pale that a Jewish man would be a Ukrainian war leader against a Russian invasion they would have blinked incredulously.” Meanwhile, his hunter has dropped a bomb near the site of the Holocaust memorial at Babyn (Babi) Yar.
Condemned by another’s sense of bad geography, Ukraine would hope to not retrace the socio-psychological leap it has taken in recent years.