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History Bites

Events over several decades in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans remind us that upheavals in the present looking to the future also summon the past. Ukraine is a case in point. 

A reminder of its past is captured in the phrase, "fascist riffraff," shouted by Russian-speaking Ukrainans against the Ukrainian-speaking groups now in charge in Kiev. It summons the Russian memory that the parents and grandparents of the current protesters fought with the Germans against Russia in WWII. Putin and Company's charges of terrorism and extreme nationalistism refer to this  history. As prior dotCommonweal posts have noted Ukraine has been part of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Luthuania as well as Russia. It is a borderland as the geo-politicians like to point out. It is also Bloodlands as historian Timothy Synder called it in a history that examines the war between Hitler and Stalin; both engaged in the mass killings of Ukrainians and other inhabitants of the borderlands before and during the war.

In the meantime, here is a brief assessment of the dangers all around: New Yorker

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Here is how George Friedman of Stratfor Group analyzes Ukraine's options:

The Ukrainian government has $13 billion in debt, owed mostly to Western institutions. The Russian government has agreed to provide Ukraine with $15 billion in aid doled out in tranches to cover it, since Ukraine can't. Russia is now withholding additional aid until it can be confident the emerging government in Kiev is one with which it can work. It has also given Ukraine discounted natural gas. Without this assistance Ukraine would be in an even worse situation.

In turning toward Europe, parliament has to address refinancing its debt and ensure that the Russians will continue to discount natural gas. The Europeans are in no position politically to underwrite the Ukrainian debt. Given the economic situation and austerity in many EU countries, there would be an uproar if Brussels diverted scarce resources to a non-member. And regardless of what might be believed, the idea that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union under current circumstances is dismal. The bloc has enough sick economies on its hands.

The Germans have suggested that the International Monetary Fund handle Ukraine's economic problem. The IMF's approach to such problems is best compared to surgery without anesthesia. The patient may survive and be better for it, but the agony will be intense. In return for any bailout, the IMF will demand a restructuring of Ukraine's finances. Given Ukraine's finances, that restructuring would be dramatic. And the consequences could well lead to yet another round of protests.

The Russians have agreed to this, likely chuckling. Either parliament will reject the IMF plan and ask Russia to assume the burden immediately, or it will turn to Russia after experiencing the pain. There is a reason the Russians have been so relaxed about events in Ukraine. They understand that between the debt, natural gas and tariffs on Ukrainian exports to Russia, Ukraine has extremely powerful constraints. Under the worst circumstances Ukraine would move into the Western camp an economic cripple. Under the best, Ukraine would recognize its fate and turn to Russia.



I sensed a tremendous grass roots support for those who fought against the corrupt government. Those who sacrificed to bring supplies to those who fought for freedom may not tolerate  more of the same. It is a more global world now. Not as easy to do things in secret. The problem with the East is real. Perhaps some real leaders will emerge to get everyone working together. The US need not be involved  militarily. But Europe and the US may be able to do a lot here. May be more possible that putting Syria together. 

I am waiting for the column by (David Ignatius, Tom Friedman, Jim Lobe or????) or a piece in Haaretz that will tell us what the U.S. policy really is and who is really running it. Maybe Edward Snowden knows!

Tom Friedman has responded to my request. Headline: "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There."

Doesn't really answer the questions: What's U.S. policy? Who's in Charge of it? But....

Friedman's main point: "[W]e should have learned some lessons from our recent experience in the Middle East: First, how little we understand about the social and political complexities of the countries there; second, that we can — at considerable cost — stop bad things from happening in these countries but cannot, by ourselves, make good things happen; and third, that when we try to make good things happen we run the risk of assuming the responsibility for solving their problems, a responsibility that truly belongs to them."

Doesn't really answer the questions: What's U.S. policy?

Right.  Apparently our policy is, "This seems like a European issue.  Let Europe deal with it."  And it worked, at least for this week.



And Europe? Here is Catherine Ashton, EU foreign minister:

"KIEV, Ukraine — The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, spent two days here promising unspecific support for a new Ukrainian government but urging it not to break close trading and cultural links with Russia. Ms. Ashton’s deft dance was inevitable — the European Union and the West are not willing or capable of bailing out Ukraine’s economy, especially if Moscow retaliates with new punitive tariffs, higher prices for natural gas and a cutoff of significant ties to Ukrainian factories and businesses." NYTIMES

And/or/But, she is smiling at Yulia Tymoshenko, former president recently released from prison. Tymoshenko is apparently likely to run for president, which may be a mixed blessing for Ukraine.

History and historical memory are important. The pro-Russian cries of "fascist riff-raff" about the Kiev demonstrators need to be put in a proper context. Apparently it's true that when the Germans invaded Russia, driving into the Ukraine in the early summer of 1941, there were Ukranians who welcomed them as liberators. Presumably the reason was that some seven or eight years earlier Stalin had engineered a famine to break Ukranian resistance to his collectivization policies, and in short order some three million or more Ukrainians perished. Quite understandable that those Ukranians left alive would have hailed German liberators few years later. The Germans, unable to leave well enough alone, started killing people, as was their wont in the other territories they occupied (mainly Poland at that point), and I think that brought the Ukranian-German honeymoon to an end. Timothy Snyder's splendid Bloodlands goes into all this and much more.

It's a bit extraordinary (but alas, not surprising) that in all the radio and TV coverage of the Ukranian problems (at least that I've seen or heard), no mention has been made of Stalin's killing of the Ukranians in the early 1930s. But then, I'm also continually surprised by the number of people who have never heard Mao's much, much greater famine of 1958-61, which carried off between 36 and 45 million Chinese, and if I mention it, appear not to believe it.

I suspect unconcious racism has something to do with it. Ukranians are half Russian, and Russians are half Asiatic, so why worry? And if tens of millions of Chinese died under Mao, well, perhaps that's a good thing, because it just slows down population growth (and I have heard people say that).

The NYTimes on line (Wed. 2/26) has a video/picture with this caption:

"Scuffles erupted outside the regional Parliament in Crimea as thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators confronted Muslim Crimean Tatars backing the new Ukrainian leadership."

There is a region called Tatarstan in Russia to the east of Moscow (WIKI), but who are the Tatars battling with pro-Russians in the picutre? And identified as Muslim. Apprently citizens of Ukraine. What history can we uncover here?
The internet is currently full of "history" about Ukraine and its relations with Russia, Germany, etc; certainly not as footnoted as Timothy Snyer's Bloodland. These internet accounts might be called "living history," i.e., the stories remembered by the range of Ukrainian protesters. So what's the Tatar's story? 

Ms. Steinfels - want to reinforce what Mr. Clifford has written - very wise.  At the same time, allow me to expand and also reinforce his reference book, The Bloodlands.

Actually, what makes this situation even more complex is that the Ukranian region endured and suffered through the deliberate Holodrome policies of Stalin.  Historians estimate that because native Ukranians rejected communal farms and centralization, Stalin applied a deliberate starvation policy that probably led to  the deaths of 10 million Ukranians (1932-34).  This depopulation allowed the communist party to then force Russian/Soviet emigration into eastern Ukraine to form communal farms, villages, etc.  Basically, extinguishing mllions and replacing them with forced emigrantion.

And yes, both the WWII policies and atrocities of Nazis and Soviets only led to more repression and Ukranian deaths.

So, what we don't need right now is *blowhard* US imperialism - just like in Iraq were Bush and company completely ignored the basic religious conflict between Shia and Sunni; so, the US could also make a parallel mistake in the Ukraine.

It will be interesting to see developments over the next 5-7 days - with Putin pulling off military manuevers on the border; with the unscheduled Crimean legislature meeting; with rumors of Crimean succession, etc.

But, at the core, what we see here is the continued reprecussions of WWII, colonialism (Soviet imperlalism and Nazi oppression), Soviet puppet governments that did not allow Ukraine to develop its own government, political structures/party systems, etc.  Just like the Middle East and the arbitrary manufacture of nations via Versailles and subsequent British/French imperial designs after WWI, the former puppet states of Soviet Russia will also go through a long period of instability, etc.

Here is the link to an excellent background analysis of the history of Ukraine.

Nicholas --

I remember reading about the Ukranian famine in the '50s.  The accounts then said that the Ukraine (called "the" Ukraine then) was the bread-basket of the Soviets, as the American mid-west is the bread-basket of the U. S. and other countries.  ("Bread-basket" meant that it produced the wheat that was the foundation of their diets.  The Ukranian peasants were extreemly independent people and resisted Communism.  So one Fall Stalin, after the crops were in, he took all the wheat and sent out of the Ukraine, resulting in the starvation of 4,000,000 people.  It was perhaps one of the most evil decisions ever made by a human being.  

I suspect that it was probably one of the reasons that the Western intellectuals who at first saw Stalin as some sort of savior of the Russian people began to have doubts about him.  But you're right -- in writing of the 30s-50's you rarely saw any mention of the famine in the writings of those days.  Guilty consciences for having been taken in by a monster?  Who knows. 

Further to Timothy Snyder: he has a piece on the Ukraine in the latest New York Review of Books. It's very worrying, not only about Ukraine, but also about the shape politics is taking in Russia with the emergence of what he calls "National Bolshevism," a political theory that tries to combine the "best" of Naziism with the "best" of Stalinism. His conclusion is that while there is certainly a right wing, even a far right wing in the Ukraine, it's not that group that made the protests in the Maidan, but rather others who see the EU and closer ties to the EU as a road to decency, the rule of law, and freedom in general. 

He also points out the obvious -- that World War II in Europe was started not only by Hitler, but by Stalin as well, and asks how those coming to power in Russia today can possibly call others "fascists" when they have taken over so many fascist techniques themselves.

From Attila the Hun through Stalin, the Russian people seem to have had some of the worst rulers in history.  Why?  Chance or what?  It's been enough to make them pessimists.. 

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