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Used as propaganda against it, Ukraine's challenges are a legacy of the very kind of dictatorship its enemies seek to reimpose

Jun 8, 2024 (0)


Today's attacks on Ukrainian language, culture and identity are the latest in a centuries long struggle

Many of Ukraine's challenges—and their exploitation and exaggeration as propaganda against Ukraine—are legacies of the subjugation of Ukraine by the forebears of the very forces that seek to conquer Ukraine today.

Language is one example. Lacking a formal state for much of its history, without natural borders to protect it, Ukraine has been dominated by foreign empires, most recently imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. As such, language and culture— especially language—has been key to maintaining Ukrainian identity, and also a target for those seeking to dominate Ukraine and weaken it politically.

The Holodomor man-made famine, and the purges that accompanied it, tried to destroy the will and capacity of the Ukrainian people for independence and self government

And that past is connected to current events. As Anne Applebaum put it in Red Famine, Stalin's War on Ukraine, her meticulous history of Stalin's political famine that killed 3.9 million Ukrainians, the 1876 ban by Tsar Alexander II on Ukrainian books and periodicals, as well as banning Ukrainian organizations and even theatrical performances, was a precedent for the " hostility to Ukrainian media and Ukrainian civil society later espoused by the Soviet regime—and, much later, by the post-Soviet Russian government as well." (Red Famine, p. 10)

The disdain for Ukrainian as just a dialect is not new. Though Ukrainian and Russian are about as different as French and Portuguese, or English and Dutch,  and have been diverging for a thousand years, cultural prejudices and political considerations have often relegated Ukrainian to the status of a second class language, at least in the eyes and ears of those seeking to dominate Ukraine. Even the Bolsheviks were still "men raised and educated in the Russian empire, and the Russian empire did not recognize such a thing as 'Ukraine' in the province that they knew as 'Southwest Russia'...they would have absorbed Russia's prejudices again a language that was widely described as a dialect of Russian..." (Red Famine, p. 23)

When the Bolsheviks returned to Kyiv in 1919 during the civil war chaos in the aftermath of the First World War, like the tsars, ..."they banned Ukrainian newspapers, stopped the use of Ukrainian in schools, and shut down Ukrainian theatres... and Russian troops 'shot anyone in Kyiv who spoke Ukrainian'..." (Red Famine, p. 39)

And, when 'Ukrainization'—Stalin's later attempt to co-opt Ukraine into being a more compliant part of the Soviet Union— failed to stem discontent over the collectivization and confiscation that would eventually lead to millions of deaths, the backlash against Ukrainian language and culture, linked with nationalism, and, in the minds of the Soviet leadership, with counter-revolutionary conspiracies, was as through as it was harsh.

Over 200,000 were arrested in 1932-1933 in a  "...targeted purge on specific institutions and branches of society, especially education, culture, religion and publishing... in essence an entire generation of educated, patriotic Ukrainians." (Red Famine, p. 258)

Schools and institutes of Ukrainian learning were purged or closed altogether:

[I]n practice the Russian language returned to dominance in both higher education and public life. Millions assumed that any association with the Ukrainian language or history was toxic, even dangerous, as well as 'backwards' and inferior... Ambitious students openly sought to avoid studying Ukrainian, preferring to be educated in Russian, the language that gave them greater access and more career opportunities... Some now feared to use Ukrainian at all. (Red Famine, p. 259-260)

Given the cultural, economic and political dominance of the Russian language, supported by the terror of Soviet dictatorship, show trials, executions and deportations to forced labor in the Gulag, it's perhaps surprising, and a tribute to the tenacity and resilience of the Ukrainian people, that their language survived at all.

The outcome of today's struggle may well determine whether the language of Ukraine, and the nation itself, continue to survive, as old Russian prejudices against Ukraine and the Ukrainian language are revived as part of the justification for a brutal, illegal war of aggression aimed at subsuming Ukraine into a new Russian empire, to be once again 'Southwest' or 'Little' Russia.

Ukrainians well know that the future of their language, culture and identity—and their very survival as a nation—is at stake on the field of battle. As the linguist Max Weinreich famously wrote "a language is a dialect with an army and navy."

Russia has used corruption and other Soviet dictatorship legacies to attack Ukraine

The attack on the Ukrainian language and cultural identity is not the only front where Ukraine's current enemies and detractors criticize weaknesses in Ukraine exacerbated by the forebears of those seeking to destroy Ukraine today.

Like Russia itself and other post-communist and post-Soviet states, Ukraine has struggled with corruption and establishing the rule of law.

Ukrainians lived for generations under a totalitarian government whose first major 'reform'—collectivization of farming—provided no benefit whatsoever to the Ukrainian people, led to the starvation and death of millions, and was in effect an ideological cover for a method to extract as much grain as possible for export to fund Stalin's crash industrialization. Failing to meet its production goals, and with Stalin unwilling to admit the failure of his policy—and certainly no one willing to be the one to tell him it was failing—collectivization spawned a policy of total food confiscation— including seed grain and the food needed for even survival from peasants' homes, barns and kitchens, resulting in the deaths of 3.9 million Ukrainians in 1932-3.

Ukrainians can be forgiven for being more than just a little skeptical of governmental authority. The brutalities of the Holodomor famine, the concurrent murderous political oppression and that of the following decades elevated traditional peasant/third world (really just human) evasion/avoidance of burdensome political or police authority from a pragmatic, morally questionable tactic of personal benefit to an essential moral imperative for survival of one's own family against a state armed with an ideology justifying any means, regardless of the cost in human suffering and death, to achieve it ends.

History caught up with the moral and economic bankruptcy of Soviet rule in Ukraine  on Dec. 1, 1991 when its citizens voted for independence, in effect ending the Soviet Union.

Once the jubilation of freedom wore off, chaos, economic collapse and oligarchic control of industry unfortunately did nothing to rebuild trust in public institutions, or the institutions themselves, but rather reinforced old habits of distrust and corruption.

Applebaum puts the blame for much of Ukraine's current woes squarely on Stalin's 1932-3 purge of an "entire generation of educated patriotic Ukrainians:"

Certainly the elimination of Ukraine's elite in the 1930s­—the nation's best scholars, writers and political leaders as well as its most energetic farmers—continues to matter. Even three generations later, many of contemporary Ukraine's political problems, including widespread distrust of the state, weak national institutions and a corrupt political class, can be traced directly back to the loss of that first, post-revolutionary, patriotic elite. (Red Famine, p. 425)

And that purge of Ukraine's best and brightest would have consequences cascading through history—not just an injury, but a maiming of Ukraine's civil society, crippling it to the present day:

In 1933 the men and women who could have led the country, the people whom they would have influenced and who would have influenced others in turn, were abruptly removed from the scene. Those who replaced them were frightened into silence and obedience, taught to be wary, careful, cowed. In subsequent years the state became a thing to be feared, not admired; politicians and bureaucrats were never again seen as benign public servants. The political passivity in Ukraine, the tolerance of corruption, and the general wariness of state institutions, even democratic ones—all of these contemporary Ukrainian political pathologies date back to 1933. (Red Famine, p. 425)

And those "political pathologies" have been used today not just in propaganda against Ukraine, but as a direct means of attack on the vulnerabilities created by the national PTSD from surviving one of the most brutal and deadly dictatorships in history. As Owen Matthews reports in Overreach, The Inside Story of Putin's War Against Ukraine:

Ukraine's continued corruption suited the Kremlin just fine. A corrupt Ukraine was a weak Ukraine. "I promise you, they [the Ukrainian elite] need no lessons from us," joked [one anonymous senior Russian state media executive], whose TV channels covered the twists and turns of Ukrainian government corruption in detail. "If you want a world-level master-class in razpi l [skimming] and otkat [bribery], ask a Ukrainian governor." (p. 137)

And Ukraine's enemies, oblivious to, or more likely utterly unconcerned about— perhaps even perversely proud of—their historical responsibility for traumatizing a subject nation and crippling its ability to ever create a better, more just society, felt no compunction in using the weaknesses they and their forebears had created to do even more harm:

Russia had systematically used corruption as a deliberate tool both to blackmail and split the country's elite and to link the oligarchs to Moscow through their extensive business interests both in Russia and the occupied territories of Donbas. (Overreach p. 137)

A new generation of Ukrainians is fighting for a better future for their country

But the Ukrainian people have refused to accept their role as victim. In both the second and third Maidan revolutions, they protested, putting their lives on the line—with sixty-eight making the ultimate sacrifice in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity— and demanded democratic reforms, and crucially, an end to corruption.

It's not easy. Many elites in business, government and the military were stuck in the old ways of doing things. But, as one senior U.S. military leader reported, there's a whole new generation of young people in Ukraine—in his direct knowledge in the military, but throughout society—that are fighting to build a better, more just and free society, one where the rule of law governs—rather than corrupt oligarchs and their political cronies.

Now, they are fighting for the very survival of their country, so it can grow and prosper free of domination by a malign foreign power seeking to re-enslave Ukraine under the yoke of a tyranny increasingly like the one responsible—not only for so much of their people's suffering—but for a good deal of the corruption and the other crippling legacies of dictatorship handicapping their historic fight for freedom.


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