Ukraine. A country most Americans probably couldn’t even find on a globe a few weeks ago, and probably still can’t, has taken center-stage in the corporate media lately. I’m presuming FDL readers are at least somewhat familiar with the current situation, so I’m not going to go into too many details on that subject. What I hope to offer is a basic understanding of the region’s long and often tragic history, and why I think the independent nation of Ukraine, based on the borders of the old Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, simply cannot survive for long.
On the history & culture of Ukraine
Ukraine is, basically, the steppe, a vast natural grassland with huge rivers flowing through it, ideal for both grazing and farming for thousands of years, bounded by and sometimes incorporating everything from the Carpathian Mountains in the west, vast forests to the north, rougher steppe(with lots of coal) to the east, and the Black Sea to the south. This Wikipedia piece has a decent map of the same.
It’s long been a highway for migrating groups of humans. Horse cultures predominated for thousands of years–Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Tartars. It also boasts some of the greatest farmland in the world. The Ostrogoths, migrants from Scandinavia, settled there during Roman times, only to be driven into the Roman Empire by the Huns and greatly contributing to the collapse of said Empire. Slavic peoples settled and farmed. Vikings, largely from Sweden and called the Rus, sailed down the great rivers from the north and founded some of the first cities, including Kiev, playing a huge role in both Ukrainian and Russian history.
The Khazars, a Slavic tribe, established a nation. They found themselves sandwiched between the Christian Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire and the Muslim Arab Caliphate at one time. Not wanting to fight either great power on their borders, the Khazars legendarily converted to Judaism in the hopes of being left alone by both. It even worked for awhile. There’s a good argument that most Jews in the world today are ultimately descended from this Slavic people, not the Semitic Hebrews of Israel. Then the Mongols came. Then the Ottoman Turks. Then the Russians.
The modern Ukrainian language is essentially a dialect of Russian, or maybe the reverse, depending on your point of view. Both Ukrainians and Russians have been largely Orthodox Christian for centuries now. The Russian Empire gradually conquered the whole area, including the definitely non-Ukrainian Crimea(it was, and still is, one of the last Tartar strongholds) in the 1700′s. First the Russian Czars, and later the Communist Russians, did their best to settle large numbers of Russians in what is now Ukraine, especially in the east and south. They were quite successful, as these CNN maps of the current linguistic and political divisions of Ukraine illustrate quite vividly.
Western Ukraine, closer to the rest of Europe, was often not part of the old Russian Empire at all. Lwiw(Ukrainian), or Lvov(Russian), or Lemburg as the Austrians called it, was successively part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, and now independent Ukraine in the last century alone. Poland, BTW, would love to get its old Ukrainian possessions back. Central Ukraine has been everything from an imperial Russian province to German-occupied territory(twice) to White Russian to Soviet to independent Ukrainian. Crimea and the eastern third of the country have been predominantly Russian for a long time now. It is to Moscow that they look for leadership and protection, not Kiev.
This is illustrated by the Crimean Parliament voting today to secede from Ukraine and join Mother Russia, and the takeover of government buildings in the eastern city of Donetsk by ethnic Russian demonstrators demanding the same. These incidents are NOT something that just HAD to be engineered by Vladimir Putin, those people really feel that way no matter what Fox News or John Kerry or Barack Obama might say.