Oddly enough, I know Ukraine. Or as much as one can know the country from spending time traveling there, long ago as a post-graduate student and in recent years as a tourist and writer. Part of my family was from a Ukrainian town, which I have visited.
Amid the standoff in Crimea, observations from this time lend some insight into the tangled roots of the crisis.
- Vladimir Putin has been hiding his intentions in plain sight. In an infamous 2005 speech, he declared that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.” But more to the point, he lamented the fact that “tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” This was dog-whistle politics in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. People were listening. Were we or the Europeans?
- Ukrainian culture is deep and distinctive. When I first traveled to Kiev and Odessa by way of Lvov as a student in the early 1970s, I got lecture after lecture about the universal genius of Taras Shevchenko, the Pushkin/Shakespeare of the country.
- Even so, independent Ukrainian nationhood has been more of a romantic dream than a political reality. Lithuanians, Poles and Russians have run the country for most of the last millennium. The main avenue of Kiev is lined with Soviet architecture. The Russians designed Ukraine’s most beautiful city, Odessa, as the St. Petersburg of the South. And it is.
- The crowd on the Maidan, according to an eye witness, was a brave, spontaneous and democratic one. It wasn’t manufactured by higher powers. “They just kept marching forward knowing they would get shot,” said the observer, an American who was in the city on business.
- But the new ruling group, empowered by the street protesters, won’t necessarily be a total contrast to the rapacious Yanukovych bunch. “Ukraine is basically tribes of billionaires fighting with each other over resources,” said a former U.S. government official who has worked for more than one tribe there as a political and security adviser.
- Historically and culturally, Crimea isn’t Ukraine. Sevastopol and Yalta, famous spots on the peninsula, feel Russian when you visit. Sevastapol is home to monuments –- literally and operationally –- to Russian military power: the old Russian fleet submarine bays; the dolphin training center (like a shabby Sea World); the stone markers representing Soviet battles in World War II. Yalta, an almost mystical name to the old Russian leisure class, is home to the dachas of famous Russian artists and the World War II meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. When you visit the Czarist summer home that played host to that meeting, there is nothing Ukrainian about the place in any sense.
- Ironically, and confusingly, old Kiev was the birthplace of Eastern Slavic culture and faith, the place where Vladimir I in 980 decided to adopt Christianity. Evidence of this history is on display to this day, in sacred catacombs that contain rows of skulls of monks from many centuries ago. Russia and Ukraine are yoked together: uncomfortably, sometimes violently, but inevitably.
- The definition of what is Ukraine has always been elastic around the edges. The first Ukrainian city I visited as a student in a Volkswagen bus in 1970 was Lvov, in what was then called “Western Ukraine.” It had the feel of an Austrian or Polish town, a Middle European city, and for good reason: at one time or another, it had belonged to both. (Under the Austrians it was known as Lemberg.)
- There is not the same tradition of American-style ideas of freedom -- sometimes glorified in the abstract, and paid lip service to by Putin –- in Russia or Ukraine.
When I was traveling on a post-graduate fellowship from the Watson Foundation, my carefully limited visa allowed me to drive to Kiev and Odessa, but not to deviate from that route in any way, for any length of time. Well, I wanted to visit Bila Treskva, an hour south of Kiev, where my mother’s ancestors were from. So I drove there without permission. It took the authorities only a few hours to find me, take me into custody and question me for a couple of hours. Before they let me go they made me sign a document admitting my malfeasance. It was in Russian.