Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has made many hard-won gains and tried to lose at least one small thing.
Correspondent Mo Rocca asked: “When I was growing up, we called it ‘Ukraine’. Why has that changed?”
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively on Russia and Ukraine, said: “Ukraine, the use of this the, I think, reflected the fact that people didn’t really know what Ukraine was. And Ukrainians, especially over the past 30 years, have been trying very hard to get English speakers to stop doing this because they find it condescending.
“It’s Ukraine. It’s a country. It has its own state now. It’s no more ‘Ukraine’ than you would say ‘Russia’, ‘Germany’ or ‘France “.
Not according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who practically denies that Ukraine is his own country. “A stable state has not been built in Ukraine,” Putin said last week, trying to justify his invasion of neighboring Russia. “It’s an inherent part of our own history, culture, [and] spiritual space.”
Russia and the country it often calls its “little brother” can claim a common parentage… a very long time ago.
“At the end of the Middle Ages there was a civilization called Kievan Rus, based in Kiev,” Applebaum said. “Russia and Ukraine trace their origins to this state.”
This civilization would have been founded in the 9th century by the Vikings. “But that’s, of course, centuries ago, and a lot has happened since then,” Applebaum said. “In that sense, you know, the Vikings also played a part in the creation of England and the coasts of France. And that was a very long time ago.”
“Okay, so if the Vikings claimed ownership of France today, would that be kind of a dubious claim?” Roca asked.
“Good. I mean, it’s as dubious for the Russians to claim control of Ukraine as for the Vikings to claim control of Ukraine, or even France or England.”
Fast forward to 1793, when most of what is now Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. “Ukraine was a bit like Ireland within the UK,” Applebaum said. “It was a subordinate part of a greater whole, of a greater empire.”
During the revolution that ushered in the Soviet Union, Ukraine fought for independence. It lost and in 1922 was subsumed within the communist state. “But it was a separate entity from the start,” Applebaum said. “It always had its own language. It always had its own status inside the USSR.”
But within a decade, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, fearful of an independent-minded Ukraine, pulled down the hammer: “He had decided to take the land from the peasants and give it to the state. opposition to this in Ukraine.
Stalin would not tolerate any opposition. The atrocity that began in 1932 would come to be known as the Holodomor – Ukrainian for “extermination of hunger”. “The Holodomor was a man-made famine,” Applebaum said. “That means it was a famine caused not by crop failure, not by insects or drought; it was a famine created by the Soviet state. Local activists went from house to house in rural Ukraine and confiscated food. The idea was to take every last bit of food, and they knew, of course, that meant people would die, and they expected that occur.”
Between 1932 and 1933, some four million Ukrainians died of starvation.
In the 1984 documentary “The Harvest of Despair”, journalist Vasyl Sokil recalled the horror: “They saw a child picking a stalk of wheat, trying to eat these unripe grains. It was a very serious crime. It was an order from the government, to punish anyone, even to death by execution.”
Applebaum said, “People survived by eating frogs, toads, mice. They ate tree bark.”
Rocca asked, “Is it true that some people have resorted to cannibalism?”
“Yes. It was indeed recorded by the authorities at the time. And of course that means that in Moscow people knew that there was cannibalism in Ukraine, yes.”
A second wave of Stalinist terror involved the arrest and murder of Ukrainian intellectuals, artists and even dictionary writers.
“And is it right that they knocked out a letter from the Ukrainian alphabet?” Roca asked.
“Yes. They changed the way the language was written, again to be more like Russian.”
“You know, you mentioned so many horrible details; this detail that I find so humiliating, to take the language and to erase a letter?”
“The attempt to eliminate Ukraine and the sense of it, of a separate identity and sense of nationhood, has really been Russian policy since the 19th century,” Applebaum said. “It was a tsarist policy. Later it was Stalin’s policy, and now it’s Putin’s policy.
“Putin thinks that an independent, sovereign and democratic Ukraine is a threat to him personally and to his personal power. The only thing Putin really fears are grassroots democratic movements, and the most important way he can to push back against them is to eliminate this Ukrainian state.
“Do many Ukrainians today think, ‘Not yet’?” Roca asked.
“There is a famous poem by Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet called ‘Calamity Again’. And [it] begins exactly with this idea: just as we were beginning to get along, calamity struck again. Its democracy was solidifying. His sense of national identity grew stronger. And now this disaster has befallen them and this feeling that they might be dragged back into some horrific Stalinist or Tsarist-era nightmare must torment many of them.”
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Story produced by Robert Marston. Publisher: Steven Tyler.