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date: 07 July 2022

2 The Land and the Peoplefree

2 The Land and the Peoplefree

  • Serhy Yekelchyk
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p. 13What is Ukraine’s geographical location, and what natural resources and industry does it possess?

Ukraine is located in southeastern Europe. Its longest land border, in the east and north, is with Russia; another northern neighbor is Belarus, a post-Soviet state and Russia’s close ally. Ukraine’s western neighbors are Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. All of them, except Moldova, are now members of the European Union and NATO; Ukraine is thus “sandwiched” between Russia and the member countries of the Western political and military alliance. In the south, Ukrainian territory is washed by the Black Sea, which links Ukraine to Turkey and Bulgaria and, beyond the Straits, to the Mediterranean world. Although lacking a common land border with Ukraine, these Black Sea neighbors have played an important role in Ukrainian history.

Ukraine is Europe’s second-largest country after Russia. Spanning 603,700 square kilometers, or 233,100 square miles (including the Crimea), it is a bit larger than France and approximately the size of Germany and Great Britain combined. Ukraine’s terrain consists almost entirely of vast plains well suited for agricultural cultivation, with higher elevations only along the far edges of Ukrainian territory: the Carpathians in the west and the more impressive Crimean Mountains along the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula. The most important Ukrainian river is the Dnipro (Dnieper), which traverses the entire country before emptying into the Black Sea.

p. 14For centuries Ukraine’s most valuable resource was the large “black-earth” belt of humus-rich soil in the Dnipro basin. Dubbed the “breadbasket of Europe,” the Ukrainian lands controlled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, later, the Russian Empire became a major area of commercial agriculture and a leading producer of grain and sugar beets. With the arrival of modern industry in the nineteenth century, rich deposits of coal and iron ore in eastern Ukraine led to the growth of mining and steel production, particularly in the Donbas. During the twentieth century, the mighty Ukrainian rivers became major sources of hydroelectric power, and a number of nuclear power stations were built, including in Chernobyl, situated just north of Kyiv.

Ukraine’s once-important deposits of oil and gas were largely exhausted by the 1970s, making the republic a net importer of these fuels. However, in recent decades the arrival of new extraction technologies rejuvenated this sector and also led to the discovery of significant offshore liquefied gas deposits in the Black Sea, off the Crimean coast. The status of these natural riches is now uncertain because of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

Some sectors of the Ukrainian economy weathered relatively well the crash triggered by the collapse of the Soviet economic system. The country remains among the world’s leading producers of steel, cast iron, and pipes, as well as mineral fertilizers. Building on its Soviet legacy of developed military industry, Ukraine is still among the world’s top 10 arms traders. However, other sectors did not fare so well in the new climate of global competition. Ukraine’s once-thriving aircraft industry is nearly extinct, and production of an indigenous Ukrainian car brand, Zaporozhets (later, Tavriia and Slavuta), ceased in 2011. Ukrainian machine building is aimed primarily at Russia and other post-Soviet states because it would not be competitive in Western markets.

Agriculture, the traditional mainstay of Ukraine’s economy, is still experiencing the pains of a slow and difficult transition from Soviet-era collective farms to market-oriented commercial agriculture. At the same time, however, the country has developed a modern service industry based to a large degree on the small-business model. The information technology sector is booming as well. Tourism is becoming an increasingly important part of the Ukrainian economy, p. 15especially in the western regions with their rich architectural heritage and new mountain resorts.

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What is Ukraine’s demography and ethnic composition?

The most recent population census, conducted in Ukraine in 2001, registered 48.4 million people, a notable decrease from the 51.5 million in 1989. Such a population decline reflects the general European trend of decreasing fertility rates, but it has been aggravated in Ukraine’s case by the post-Soviet economic collapse and the lack of significant in-migration. In addition to the number of deaths consistently exceeding the number of births since the early 1990s, there has been considerable immigration from Ukraine to more economically developed countries during the same period. As a result, official estimates put the population totals for 2014 at 45.4 million, and the prognosis, even before the Donbas war and the related population dislocation, pointed to a continuing decline.

Throughout the post-communist period, the industrial regions of eastern and southern Ukraine registered the steepest population decline. At the same time, large urban centers and Kyiv in particular (current population estimate: 3.1 million) continue to grow at the expense of the countryside. After reaching a low point in 2001, when Ukraine produced the lowest fertility rate ever recorded in a modern European state (1.078 child per woman), the successive governments improved the trend somewhat with child payments and other pro-natalist measures.1 Average life expectancy in Ukraine has also been increasing recently, although at 66 years for men and 76 for women, it still remains far below that of Western Europe.

According to the 2001 census, the population of Ukraine is composed of 77.8 percent ethnic Ukrainians and 17.3 percent Russians. Other ethnic groups are comparatively negligible, constituting less than one percent, but they can be quite visible in certain regions if settled compactly, as are Moldovans or Romanians (0.8 percent) and Hungarians (0.3 percent) in the southwest; Belarusians (0.6 percent) in the northwest; Bulgarians (0.4 percent) and Greeks (0.2 percent) in the south; and Crimean Tatars (0.5 percent) in the Crimea. Historically, Jews and Poles constituted significant minority groups in the Ukrainian lands, but the two world wars, the Holocaust, and p. 16forced population resettlements under Stalin reduced their respective proportions among Ukraine’s population. Once a prominent presence in the regions west of the Dnipro River, Poles now number only 0.3 percent of the total population (144,000). Already decimated during the war, Ukraine’s Jews have been emigrating en masse to Israel and the West since the late 1980s, reducing their share from 2 percent in 1959 to 0.2 percent (104,000) in 2001. Most German-speaking Mennonites left southern Ukraine in the 1920s and during World War II.

Historically a land of ethnic diversity, Ukraine has become a more homogenous East Slavic country since the late Soviet period, with a significant Russian minority and de facto Russian-Ukrainian bilingualism. Ethnic Russians in the Ukrainian SSR did not see themselves as a minority but, rather, as representatives of the Soviet Union’s leading nation. After the emergence of independent Ukraine, such an ethnic landscape set the stage for the present conflict.

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Who are the Ukrainians, and what is modern Ukrainian national identity?

In Eastern Europe, which was dominated for centuries by multinational dynastic empires, the concept of nationality developed differently from Western Europe and North America. Instead of referring to themselves as members of a state (e.g., Americans), the subjects of the Romanov and Habsburg empires entered the age of modern nationalism by identifying with their ethnic nationalities (e.g., Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians). As the empires collapsed at the end of World War I, some of these ethnic nations managed to obtain (they would often prefer to say “restore”) statehood based on the principle of national self-determination. Yet, the concept of nationhood was based on ethnicity, and a necessary distinction had to be made between members of the new state’s titular ethnic group and citizens of other ethnic backgrounds. Because Ukraine regained its independence relatively late, in 1991, the notion of “Ukrainians” or the “Ukrainian nation” is still understood there as referring to ethnic Ukrainians. When one wants to include all citizens of the Ukrainian state regardless of their ethnicity, one would typically speak of “citizens of Ukraine” p. 17or “people of Ukraine.” The Constitution of Ukraine proclaims as the source of state sovereignty the “Ukrainian people—citizens of Ukraine of all nationalities” and distinguishes between this civic concept of the nation and the ethnic “Ukrainian nation.”2 In recent decades, however, speakers of the Ukrainian language have gradually come to accept a Western understanding of “Ukrainians” as all citizens of Ukraine. Such a linguistic change reflects the slow development of civic patriotism based on allegiance to the state rather than an ethnic nation.

But in order to answer the question, we first need to understand the nature of the Ukrainian ethnic nation, which is also changing. Nationalists believe in organic, primordial ethnic nations defined by blood, but modern scholars argue otherwise. They demonstrate that modern nations emerge when education and mass media help the masses “imagine” themselves as part of a nation. The folk culture of the peasantry served as the foundation of modern nations in Eastern Europe, but it took the effort of patriotic intellectuals to define ethnic nations within patchwork empires and to design from folk elements a modern high culture that could serve as a foundation of contemporary national identity.

Ukrainians are an excellent example of this process, because the nation’s modern name took hold only in the late nineteenth century, thanks to the efforts of the patriotic intelligentsia. Of course, the ancestors of modern Ukrainians lived on the same territories since at least the fifth century and were known under various names. Originally called the Rus people (Rusy, or Rusyny), they later became known as “Little Russians” in the Russian Empire and “Ruthenians” in Austria-Hungary. Looking for a name that would clearly separate their people from the Russians, local activists began propagating the appellation “Ukrainians” in the late nineteenth century. It was derived from the name of the land, Ukraine, meaning “borderland” and by then sufficiently established as the geographical designation for present-day central Ukraine. The name “Ukrainians” really took hold in the 1920s, with the creation of the Ukrainian SSR within the Soviet Union and the national mobilization of Ukrainians in Poland. However, even today some enclaves of East Slavic populations in the Ukrainian southwest and in neighboring Slovakia have preserved the historical name “Rusyns.” Scholars disagree on whether p. 18they are a branch of the Ukrainian people that did not develop a modern ethnic identity or a separate ethnic group.

Perhaps more important, the concept of ethnic Ukrainians as a group separate from the Russians was something Ukrainian activists had to fight for. The Russian Empire recognized “Little Russians” only as a “tribe” of the Russian people and banned education and publishing in Ukrainian. The Soviet Union acknowledged the existence of the Ukrainian nation and created the Ukrainian SSR as a national homeland for Ukrainians. However, in the long run, Soviet leaders emphasized the leading role of Russians in an East Slavic fraternal union of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians within the Soviet Union. As a result, Russians were taught to see Ukrainians as their “younger brothers” rather than as equals. As for Ukrainians, during the postwar period in particular, the state encouraged them to identify with the Soviet Union in general, more than with their own republic, and to adopt the Russian language and culture. Creeping assimilation made considerable inroads in Ukraine by the end of the Soviet period. Since tsarist times, a share of ethnic Ukrainians identified themselves as native speakers of the Russian language, and this group grew in size during the postwar period. By the time of the 2001 census, 14.8 percent of self-identified ethnic Ukrainians in Ukraine claimed Russian as their native language. Although it was not recorded by census-takers, more subtle opinion polls in the 1990s revealed the presence of people, especially in eastern Ukraine, who preferred to identify as “Soviets” rather than as Ukrainians or Russians. Some 27 percent of respondents in a 1997 nationwide opinion poll selected the answer “both Ukrainian and Russian” when asked to identify their ethnicity.3 Many self-identified Ukrainians also subscribed to the idea of a special connection to Russia.

Modern Ukrainian ethnic identity continued to evolve during the post-communist period. The state-run education system did much to consolidate popular identification with the concept of the Ukrainian ethnic nation, marked by the Ukrainian language and folk traditions. At the same time, politicians discovered the language issue to be a convenient mobilization tool. Incapable of solving the grave economic and social problems during the post-communist transition, political parties found it easier to fight over p. 19the “imposition” of Ukrainian on traditionally Russian-speaking or bilingual regions in eastern and southern Ukraine. The Russian state next door also found it advantageous for its own internal political reasons to fan political rhetoric about the protection of Russian speakers against forced Ukrainization. In reality, however, what the opposing sides often try to present as a clear-cut conflict between the Ukrainian and Russian national identities in Ukraine is actually the painful process of overcoming the ambivalent Soviet legacy in the region. Hidden beneath the surface of supposed ethnic strife, one finds a conflict between the new Western-style civil society and the strong paternalistic state, the latter representing not only the Soviet past and the Russian present but also the ideal to which the Yanukovych regime aspired.

The war in the Donbas, tragic as it is, has strengthened the concept of the Ukrainian civic nation identifying with the Ukrainian state, in part because the rebels identify so openly with Russia and are often Russian citizens. One can see from social media and footage from the war zone that Ukrainian volunteers and soldiers are more often than not also speaking Russian, meaning that they are fighting for a civic rather than an ethnic concept of Ukrainian identity. It is now up to the new Ukrainian authorities to cement this new civic patriotism with measures that link modern Ukrainian identity with democracy and inclusivity.

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Is it true that Ukraine is split into pro-Western and pro-Russian halves?

Such a picture is a convenient simplification, often reproduced by mass media. In reality, there is no clear line dividing Ukraine on this or any other issue, although regional differences do exist and can be mobilized for political ends. It is important to understand that there is no ethnic “Russian” half of Ukraine. Ethnic Ukrainians constitute the majority of the population in all provinces except for the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, where ethnic Russians are in the majority. Ukrainians predominate even in the two provinces of the Donbas region on the Russian border, where the conflict is raging. The religious divide between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (recognizing the pope) and the three Orthodox churches p. 20in Ukraine does not provide a clear dividing line either, because Ukrainian Catholics are concentrated in the westernmost historical regions of Galicia and Transcarpathia, whereas the current conflict is taking place in traditionally Orthodox territory.

If this is so, what are the divisions one encounters in Ukraine, and how do they fuel the current conflict? As in many other countries, including the United States, there are regional voting patterns and cultural variances in Ukraine. However, these divisions are fluid and are not usually expressed in terms of a simple dichotomy of pro-Russian versus pro-Western. In order to understand them, we need to look at Ukraine’s historical regions.

It is worth keeping in mind that prior to World War II, the region we now call western Ukraine was divided among Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Before that, these lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This westernmost region, which constitutes more like a quarter than a half of Ukrainian territory, only experienced Soviet rule for half a century and therefore underwent a much shorter indoctrination in “fraternal relations” with Russia. It was also there, and in Galicia in particular, that the Ukrainian national movement developed freely during the nineteenth century, while it was being suppressed in the Russian Empire. Patriotic intellectuals gained access to the peasantry early on through reading rooms, co-ops, and the educational system, resulting in a strong popular sense of Ukrainian identity by the early twentieth century. Ukrainian radical nationalism was also born in the region in the 1920s, after the Allies denied the Ukrainians the right of self-determination, and nationalist insurgents in Galicia fought against the Soviets for several years after the end of World War II. Assimilation into Russian culture was least advanced there. In the years leading up to the Soviet collapse, mass rallies and demands for independence also originated there.

With this in mind, perhaps one could call Galicia and, with lesser justification, all of western Ukraine a hotbed of anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism. Yet, this in itself would not make the region “pro-Western.” The immediate neighbor to the west, Poland, was to local Ukrainians a former imperial master just like Russia, and during the interwar period the Polish state was the main enemy of Ukrainian radical nationalists. The periods of Hungarian and Romanian rule did not leave warm memories either. However, p. 21western Ukraine could be seen as culturally “Western” in the sense of having experience with political participation and civil society, two phenomena that were sorely lacking on the Russian side of the border. Imperfect as they were, the Austrian models of parliamentary democracy and communal organization shaped western Ukrainian social life. This experience of political participation in a multinational empire and its successors also strengthened Ukrainian national identity.

But if only the westernmost quarter of the country can claim the longer tradition of European constitutionalism and civil society, would it not leave the rest of Ukraine solidly in the Russian sphere of influence? Election results and opinion polls do not support such a hypothesis. Although three-quarters of present-day Ukrainian territories were part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union at least since the late eighteenth century, they do not vote as a bloc. The political landscape of these lands is both diverse and fluid. It is influenced by a variety of factors, such as ethnic composition, age profile, industrial development, trade patterns, and tourist routes. A changing economy, combined with generational differences, influences political choices. For example, the Communist Party, which was a formidable political force in eastern and central Ukraine in the mid- to late 1990s, with its emphasis on stronger ties with Russia, has become marginalized. If, in the 1990s, central Ukraine tended to vote with the east against the west, in the 2000s the center has voted increasingly often with the west against the east.

If this is so, how can one explain the apparent popular support for separatism in the Crimea and, to a lesser degree, in the Donbas? The answer is to be found in the fusion of Soviet nostalgia with Russian cultural identity. Both regions had an established local identity that was associated with Soviet history: the Donbas as the industrial region of proud miners and steelworkers “providing” for the rest of the country, and the Crimea as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet and the site of historic battles, as well as a popular resort welcoming tourists from the Soviet Russian republic. In both cases, pride in the region’s Soviet past went hand in hand with the predominance of Russian culture. In the Crimea, the percentage of Russian speakers is considerably higher than the share of ethnic Russians in the population (60.4 percent). In the two Donbas provinces, the percentage of ethnic Ukrainians in 2001 stood at 58 percent and 56.9 percent, p. 22correspondingly, but only 30 percent and 24.1 percent of the population claimed Ukrainian as their mother tongue. In the last decade, the powerful Party of Regions played on the linked issues of Soviet nostalgia and the Russian language in order to maintain its electoral base in eastern Ukraine, and in the Donbas in particular. Thus a transitional, fluid cultural identity became mobilized for political ends, making political identification with Putin’s Russia possible.

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How large is the Ukrainian diaspora, and what role does it play in North American politics?

Mass emigration from the Ukrainian lands started in the late nineteenth century in connection with rural overpopulation and the lack of opportunity at home. Beginning in the 1870s, Ukrainians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who at first were predominantly young men intending to return home after earning some money, went to the northeastern United States as coal miners and industrial laborers. In the long run, however, many were joined by their families, and vibrant Ukrainian communities developed in such American cities as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Beginning in the 1890s, another stream of Ukrainian immigrants began arriving in the New World from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: peasants who were willing to resettle permanently with their families if they could obtain arable land. Their original destinations were Brazil and Argentina, but Canada soon emerged as the most popular choice. Seeking to colonize the prairie provinces and secure a workforce for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Canadian authorities welcomed Ukrainian peasant immigrants. By the time of World War I, an estimated 500,000 Ukrainians had left for the New World.

As Ukrainian peasants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire crossed the ocean in search of a better life, about two million of their brethren in the Russian Empire migrated eastward to western Siberia and Central Asia, where vacant land was still available. Very few ethnic Ukrainian immigrants came to North America from the tsarist state, but by the late nineteenth century the majority of Jewish immigrants arriving in North American cities hailed from the Russian Empire. Usually self-identifying as “Russian Jews” or “Polish Jews,” they were more often than not from the territories that today constitute Ukraine. Jewish immigrants from Ukraine were p. 23fleeing the legal and economic discrimination they suffered under the tsars, as well as the violent pogroms of 1881 and 1903–1905.

The next large immigration wave from Ukraine came at the end of World War II and consisted of refugees from the Stalin regime, as well as some slave laborers in Nazi Germany, who preferred to resettle in the West. Numerically much smaller than the earlier wave of economic immigrants, with only some 80,000 coming to the United States and 30,000 to Canada, this well-educated generation of “displaced persons” soon took over Ukrainian community organizations in North America, establishing the anti-communist political profile of the Ukrainian diaspora. For the first time, postwar immigrants established notable Ukrainian communities in Great Britain and Australia, with an estimated 20,000 settlers each.

Whereas these earlier immigration waves created and maintained Ukrainian churches and community organizations in the West, the new economic migrants of the post-communist period have rarely joined them. Most of the new arrivals since 1991 have been Soviet-educated economic migrants who found it difficult to identify with the nationalist and clerical agenda of most diasporic organizations. Young professionals leading a busy urban lifestyle also constitute a significant portion of the new Ukrainian immigration. It was really only during the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 and again during the crisis of 2013–2014 that the new immigrants came out in large numbers to organize, together with the established Ukrainian community organizations, public rallies and vigils in major Western cities.

Recent censuses counted 1,209,000 people of full or partial Ukrainian descent in Canada and 961,000 in the United States. Such major North American cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Edmonton, and Winnipeg have visible Ukrainian neighborhoods or a strong Ukrainian cultural presence. Voters of Ukrainian background exercise some political influence in Canada’s prairie provinces, where they constitute a significant share of the population, as well as in Toronto. Ray Hnatyshyn, a Ukrainian Canadian, served in 1990–1995 as the twenty-fourth governor general of Canada; the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan have all had Ukrainian-Canadian premiers. Ukrainian-American and Ukrainian-Canadian community organizations have consistently supported democratic change in Ukraine.