Thinking about Ukraine

Taras Shevchenko Statue in Tashkent

Uzbekistan is a former republic in the USSR and the Russia’s attempted takeover of Ukraine is big news here. Our school also has close ties to the international schools in Kyiv through our regional schools association. I wanted to read a bit more about the history of Ukraine and purchased Anna Reid’s “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine“. She was the Economist correspondent in Ukraine shortly after independence from 1993-1994. Her book is a bit dated and the second half was written around the time Russia took over Crimea but it all applies today. The book had the perfect amount of depth for me, focusing on the most compelling stories from Ukraine’s long history combined with her own experiences and conversations with Ukrainians. I knew of the sad and tragic recent history of Ukraine in the 20th century. I am surprised there are still Ukrainians left after the Jewish pogroms, Stalin’s forced famine, the purges of the USSR, and the Nazi invasion of WWII. I was also looking for a sense of how much much the Ukrainians differed from the Russians.

I have never travelled to Ukraine but know many people who lived there. Some of my ancestry I discovered through 23 & Me is from western Ukraine near the Polish and Slovak borders.

I didn’t know much about how Kyiv started. It was a port city on the banks of the Dnieper River over 1000 years ago. Scandinavian tribes were the first to conquer and provide structure to Kyiv in the 800s. Their DNA can still be seen in the region in the physical features of many Ukrainians. It was fascinating to learn the patron king of both the Ukrainians and Russians (Vladimir/Volodymyr) actually chose the Orthodox Church as the state religion in the late 900s. He sampled Islam (can’t drink), Catholic/Judiasm (nice ceremonies, but just not doing it) and settled on the Greek Orthodox. He thought the splendor and awe of Hagia Sophia in Constaninople is what he was after. Hence today, the Ukrainians and Russians are Orthodox. I always thought that the world would be more interesting if Islam and Christianity had not swepted through big portions of the world. It would be cool to have Eastern European people today worshiping the Slavic god Perun or the other forest-based systems and have a more diverse religious environment globally.

The courage demonstrated by the Ukrainian people has caught the imagination of the world. I wonder how this will support the country in both the short-term and long-term future.

There were lots of interesting tidbits in the book that helped me understand Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. I put some of them below for my future reference. I recommend reading the book if you want to know more about Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians settled in my biological hometown of Freeland, Pennsylvania and I always wondered about St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church. The Byzantine and Catholic churches split when Rome and Constantinople became two separate empires. The Byzantine/Catholic church came about when the Poles were running Ukraine in 1596 and a group of Orthodox bishops blended their church with the Pope in Rome, and that was the start of the Greek-Catholic or Uniate Church.

I am never surprised at the evil of the Nazis. Reid quotes Erich Koch, the head of the Nazi occupation in WWII-era Ukraine that Ukrainians were “the n-word” and fit only for vodka and the whip. War criminal Herman Goring’s solution was to kill all males over the age of 15 and and “send in the SS stallions”.

The book has a section on Taras Shevchenko, who single-handedly turned Ukraine into a literary language (see statue above). He was born in 1814 to a poor serf family south-west of Kyiv. His parents died before he became a teenager and he was raised as a “servant-boy” in the household of a local landowner. He was a natural artist and caught the attention of an art student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kyiv and eventually, his friend bought his freedom from serfdom. He was introduced to Ukrainian free society and became a writer and poet. Because he wrote in Ukrainian, he was largely dismissed by critics and literary elites. He joined a Ukrainian secret society of intellectuals whose goal was the abolish serfdom/monarchy and unite all Slavs with Ukraine in the lead. Of course, the Tsar eventually found about them and jailed/exiled the group. Shevchenko was sentenced to 10 years in exile, but it was disorganized system and because of his connections and talent, the provincial governors allowed him to entertain groups with his singing, dancing, painting and comedy. For two years of his exile he was assigned as the official artist of a military expedition to chart the Aral Sea. He barely survived the journey and I would love to find his sketches from that expedition. I wonder what he thought about Uzbekistan? When Tsar Nicholas died, he was freed from exile, he took up his previous life as a literary celebrity and participated in poetry readings, etc. He died of “dropsy” (today known as a stroke) at the age of 47 and was immediately venerated by the intellectual elite. Today, he is the Shakespeare of Ukrainian and celebrated around the ex-Soviet world as a champion of the common people. The statue here in Tashkent should have a man with a smiling face and positive energy instead of the stern, serious look.

Other points to note:

  • The Russian words for “chain”, “whip” and “money” have Mongolian roots. This comes from when many years the Mongols subjugated the Russians and Ukrainians and laid waste to Kyiv.
  • Muscovites called themselves “Rus” the Greek word for Rossiya while the Ukrainians/Belorussians were referred to as the Rusyny, or “Ruthenians”.
  • The Cossacks are like the cowboys of Ukraine and take a big place in the folklore and founding mythology of the country.
  • Poland lost the Ukraine and its own country to Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1795.
  • By 1989 the last Soviet census, Russians made up 11 million of Ukraine’s 52 million people. I didn’t realize the Ukraine was so big, both in area and population.
  • Growing up on the Sea of Azav in the 1870s, Anton Chekhov saw the wilderness eaten away by windmills, telegraph poles, villages and ploughed fields. The sea of the steppe was lost forever to agriculture, similar to the Great Plains in the USA.
  • I learned about historical fringe religious groups in Ukriane such as the Molokans, who were Orthodox Presbyterians and the Dukhobors, who rejected Orthodox icons and traditions and lived communally.
  • Odessa must be a really nice city to live and probably feels like many of the Mediterranean cities.
  • The Ukrainians are very similar to the Russians, but are kind of the country-cousins that live on the farm. (I am stereotyping.)
  • Lviv was named in 1991 with Ukrainian independence. The Russians called it Lvov (1945) and the Poles called it Lwow before that. The city was not a Ukrainian or Russian city in the 1800s, but a Polish-Austrian-Jewish city. Reid described it as a shabbier Salzburg without Mozart souvenirs.
  • In the 25 years before WWI, more than 2 million Ukrainians and Polish peasants left Galicia. At the Treaty of Versailles, Ukraine was not represented and lost everything.

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