Ukraine, country on the border (part 3)
Part three of a five-part series that looks at Ukraine, co-host of the 2012 European Football Championships, from a historical, political and cultural perspective.
Part I - Ukraine, the early years and the beginnings of its sex trade
Part II - Ukraine and its troubled relations with Poland
Part III - Ukraine and its big brother, Russia
Part IV - Golden Age and the 20th Century
Part V - Ukraine - Munich connection
Kyiv is the English translation for the Ukrainian word. The Russian translation is Kiev.
Part III Ukraine and its big brother, Russia
"The policy of Russia is changeless. Its methods, its tactics, its maneuvers may change, but the polar star of its policy, world domination, is a fixed star." - Karl Marx
Russia loves power and tries to influence its neighbors
Perhaps no words so succinctly describe a country as Marx's about Russia. From the oligarchs and the fashion labels that their wives and mistresses wear, everything in Russia has been and is about money and power. Power, the greatest of aphrodisiacs, is revered, worshipped and eventually (if you have the right connections) accumulated, at the expense of the general masses. No leaders in Russia, from the tsars Katarina, Peter, Ivan or Alexander to today's modern Vladimir Putin were ever considered weak, because apparatchiks in the Kremlin or the factory workers would never stand for it. Today it seems that with each passing year, little has changed in "Mother Russia". The thought of Russia giving up one square centimeter of territory to China or Japan or the West is unfathomable. There are also reports that as the Arctic ice melts, Russia has busily staked claims on the resulting land, and as an extension, the mineral and resource wealth that may lie beneath the water. In today's economy, energy is geopolitical power and Russia has plenty of it. But in their minds, and it comes full circle to Marx's quote, they can never have enough of either.
Tsarist Russia and the land grab
With the signing of the Agreement of Pereiaslav in 1654 by Bohdan Khmel'nyts'kyi, and the Ukrainian Cossacks' oath of allegiance to the tsar as part of that pact, so began Russia's quest to emolliate and then surmount all other lands it could in the vicinity (think a very large vicinity here). It was during this time Russia was able to expand to the Pacific Ocean, and by the mid-19th Century, Russia even had outposts in California. Khmel'nyts'kyi's act of signing with Imperial Russia is looked at today in two ways. For the nationalistic
The Kremlin, always a place of intrigue, from the south
Ukrainians he is considered a traitor, for Russians and some eastern Ukrainians he is held in high esteem. Both Ukrainians and Russians believe that they are the direct descendants of the old Kyivan Rus's culture and history, and to some degree they are. But the winners of war write history, and Russia has never been defeated for any length of time on their own land, so the history they have written has always had the Black Russians (Ruthenians, Ukrainians), and the White Russians (Belarusians) as part of their greater Russian land. By being the rightful heirs, in Russia's eyes, they have continually tried to explain that Ukraine is a part of greater Russia, and that an independent Ukraine had never existed since the Kyivan Rus' times till the implosion of communism, it all fits very nicely into Russia's world view (For a look at Ukraine's 'Golden Age', the 20th Century and its relationship with the Soviet Union, please read part IV). Now that there is an independent Ukraine, Russia has still created ways to control her smaller 'brother' (some would say 'son').
Russia's weapons of domination today
Most of the music and television on the airwaves, major printed news sources and cinema in Ukraine is in Russian, and subsidized heavily by the Kremlin. Most books are written in Russian as well. With about 500 million speakers of Russian worldwide, it makes good business sense to do so. Natural gas prices are raised by Russia whenever Ukraine tries to exert her independence. The promise of cheap energy was again used to ensure that a Russian fleet would remain in Crimea, which is also populated by many Russian nationalists. And the list of maneuvers and methods to control Ukraine goes on and on.
Tymoschenko and Putin in one of their many talks. Putin said that the gas deal signed by Tymoschenko was a win for Ukraine. She now languishes in a Ukrainian prison.
The preponderance of Russian within Ukrainian borders is nothing new. Most Russians thought the Ukrainian language was a language of the peasants, and since much of the country was still very rural until the early 20th Century, there was some truth to that. It wasn't till the middle of the 19th Century before Ukrainian was thought of as a proper language. The Ukrainian government today has tried to keep the Russian language at bay, by declaring that all taped television programming must have Ukrainian subtitles if it is done in Russian. The previous government made Ukrainian the only official language, and yet whenever a person called some office of the government, the official invariably answered in Russian. The current regime wants to make Russian the second official language of the government, and that is why there were fights in parliament a few weeks ago, as many Ukrainian speakers blocked the introduction of the language bill. The music industry is dominated by Russian singing pop stars, either from Ukraine or from Russia itself. In order to reach the largest possible audience, papers and magazines are printed in Russian. Translations of books from other languages are done in Russian first, if they are ever done in Ukrainian at all. Many of the translators, who translate from English to Russian, are paid by the Russian government. Language, one of the most important aspects of national identity, is manipulated by Moscow, and is a key component of the tactics Russia uses to still heavily influence its smaller, weaker neighbor.
Another tactic which affects not only Ukraine but the rest of Europe is the threat of gas price hikes for Ukraine every time it strays too far from the fold. Ukraine pays much less than the market price for its natural gas. It simply could not pay as much as Germany or even Poland. To exert even more pressure on Europe, Russia claims that Ukraine is stealing gas while in transit westward so it is turned off, depriving Ukraine and Europe. This is never done in summer, always during the coldest stretches of winter. The idea of having to survive a Ukrainian winter without heat is more than ample pressure on any leader to stay in excellent terms with Russia. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko, who negotiated a gas deal with Russia in what she thought was fair terms, was even applauded by none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, for the win-win negotiation. A few short years later she is wilting away in a Kharkiv prison for her troubles (most governments in Europe and the Americas see her incarceration as politically motivated).
A third tactic that is being used for control-and perhaps this is the most insidious, is the fact that for those Ukrainians who feel closer to Moscow than Kyiv, especially in the Crimea, some are offered Russian passports. This is the same ploy used by Russia earlier in South Ossetia, in Georgia. Then it can be used as a pretext for war when the Kremlin later claims they need to protect their citizens from Ukrainian (Georgian) 'aggression'.
The connections between Ukraine and Russia will remain, similarly to the USA and Canada. Neither can escape the geography nor can it be any other way. Russia is Ukraine's largest trade partner, they can speak the same language, if necessary, and they have a shared history. It is often said even today that Kyiv is the most Russian city in the world. But most young Ukrainians do not feel the close connection to Russia or the USSR; they have only known an independent Ukrainian state. More songs are being done in Ukrainian; it has become hip to speak the language. There is slowly some movement towards a more unified country, regardless of mother tongues, as witnessed in last night's victory over Sweden.
The Russian Imperial flag. The tactics have changed, but Russia desires power and wealth.
Politically, the Ukrainian government recently stopped the release of the Russian (government-sponsored) made movie "The Match", which dishonestly portrays all Ukrainians as Nazi sympathizers during World War II, and depicts Russia as the 'saviour' of Ukraine. Russia's continued pressure on its own political opposition is beginning to shine a very bad light on the country, and is forcing many Ukrainians to reassess Russia as a whole. With more internet and travel for Ukrainians, they have become acutely aware of what other countries think about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. They realize that they must continue to try and break free of the yoke that has bound them to Russia for nearly four centuries, one exploited the other exploiting. The hope for these young Ukrainians is that in the near future they will be considered smaller yet equal with their big brother, and they can build a relationship that is mutually beneficial for both countries. However, before that can happen, the guiding star in the Russian sky will have to dim a bit.
Michael V Owens lived in Ukraine for a year and was a professor of English at Kyiv International University. His father is from Dneprpetrovsk and his wife was born just outside Kolomyia, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast.