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Ukraine's long history of fighting for nationhood and democracy

Jim DoughertyMay 22, 2024 Updated May 24, 2024 (0)


Ukraine has had a long and difficult path to democracy and freedom

It's easy to criticize the many half-steps, reversals and injustices along the way - and the legacies and scars of all those struggles and failures today - or even make use of them for propaganda against Ukraine in its current struggle, but the truth is both more complex - and ultimately more inspiring - than the romanticized and mostly false straight line to freedom story many Western nations tell themselves.

Ukraine's unique position - at the frontier of East and West, and caught between different cultures, empires and languages - impeded, and sometimes enabled, its struggle for national identity and freedom. In many ways, in a world torn by sectarian, ideological and cultural division and strife, Ukraine shows a way - a difficult way to be sure - but a way nonetheless, to build a pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive society.

Though in a completely different context, in many ways it is an example of the American motto, 'Out of many, one' - as we watch that 'one' being forged in the crucible of war.

Though by no means continuous, democracy within the modern boundaries of Ukraine goes back to ancient times, when the Greek trading colony of Olbia, now only an archeological site at the confluence of the Southern Buh and Dnieper rivers, had a democratic government, according to Herodotus. (from The Gates of Europe, A History of Ukraine, Serhil Plokhy, p. 6).

Almost a thousand years later, Procopius, a sixth century chronicler of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, wrote of the slavic tribes known to his day that they "... are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from of old under a democracy, and consequently everything that involves their welfare, whether for good or ill, is referred to the people." (Plokhy, p. 15-16)

How the otherwise primitive conditions Procopius described of these sometimes enemies, sometimes allies of the empire were related, or not, to their political organization is less important than the fact that the author, with broad knowledge of the Byzantine empire and its relations with neighboring peoples, felt, among all the information he could relate, that the Slav democratic practices were at the least noteworthy, possibly even exceptional or praiseworthy, in his experience and knowledge.

The divided history of Ukraine would also play a role in its democratic legacy almost another thousand years later when Ukraine, under Mongol rule since the 1240 fall of Kyiv - which ended the legendary dynasty of the Viking-descendant Kyivian Rus', including Vlodomyr the Great, and divided it into different regions, roughly today's Russia and Ukraine - found itself divided again as Mongol rule retreated in the 1340s, with what is today western Ukraine conquered by the Kingdom of Poland, within which local nobles were exposed to democratic practices (Plokhy, p. 44), including electing a King. Eastern Ukraine came under Lithuanian control, while the Mongol rule persisted a century longer, and more harshly, in Russia, which had no exposure to such early modern, albeit limited, democratic practices.

With the Union of Lublin in 1569 creating the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, most of what would be Ukraine was under one realm, and its nobles participated in the election of a common ruler (Plokhy, p. 67). This was an intermediate but not unimportant step toward democracy, like the House of Lords in England or, more than two centuries later, the Continental Congress or the US Senate which originally represented not the people directly but the existing colonies and later states.

On the other end of the social/economic spectrum, the earliest Ukrainian Cossacks, escaped serfs, criminals, debtors and others who found themselves on the wrong side of the legal and political structures of the time, banded together for survival, trade, raiding and banditry. Approached by the Byzantines, the pope and local princes at various times to be employed as mercenaries, they were known to elect their commanders, retaining the right to remove or even execute a leader who did not live up to expectations (Plokhy, p. 79-80). And, after a series of alliances and confrontations led to the growing power of the Cossacks as an increasingly effective and semi-professional military force to be reckoned with, and they finally successfully rebelled in the Great Revolt of 1648, their future legendary leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky was chosen -- by election. (Plokhy, p. 97) Though the autonomous region - really a state in all but name - the Cossacks created, the so called Hetmanate, no longer had such direct democracy, it did mirror the Polish model of local commanders in this case electing leadership.

Later Ukrainian patriots would extol the Cossack's democratic legacy: "unlike the Russians," Plokhy summarizes, "the Ukrainians had no tsars, and unlike the Poles, they had no nobility." (p. 158)

During the early Soviet period, when Ukraine was divided largely between the Soviet Union and Poland, while Polish language and cultural policies were not favorable to Ukrainians, ".. the Polish state had one feature that the Soviet Union never possessed - a political system built on the principles of electoral democracy." (Plokhy, p. 238) Once again the division and subjugation of Ukraine, while a tragedy for its national aspirations, allowed it to keep a toehold on the habits and institutions of a free society, unlike its Slavic brethren to the east.

When in the wake of the Second World War the Soviet Union expanded west, unifying and even expanding Ukraine, Stalin inadvertently brought into the Soviet sphere "fairly well-developed traditions of autonomy, parliamentary democracy, and communal and national self-organization that had been all but absent in the central and eastern Ukrainian land." (Plokhy, p. 288)

Like Poland's Solidarity movement, those seeds of democracy and freedom would eventually sprout and grow strong enough to topple the once seemingly invincible communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. In Ukraine's case, it would take pride of place as the country that voted to dismantle the Soviet Union.

When in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev, under pressure from hardliners over the growing independence movements within Soviet republics, tried to rein in the forces unleashed by his perestroika reforms, and communists controlling the new Ukrainian parliament voted to ban demonstrations, students from across the country gathered to protest and hunger strike in downtown Kyiv in what would later be known at the First Maidan revolution. Kyivans came out en masse to support the students as government forces threatened to clear them out. (Plokhy, p. 317)

Like the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam war protests, popular resistance to injustice not only mobilized those most affected or concerned about the issue, but pricked the conscience - or at least the political survival instincts - of those in power.

The communists in Ukraine's parliament eventually relented, firing the leader negotiating to bring Ukraine into a new, allegedly reformed, union with the other, soon to be former, republics of the Soviet Union.

And, on August 24, 1991, five days after the attempted coup against reform in Moscow, the communists voted with democratic reformers in the Ukrainian parliament for independence. On December 1, the Ukrainian people in their historic referendum voted for independence, across all party and ethic lines - Ukraine was free and the Soviet Union - unable to survive politically by the Russian's own admission without Ukraine, and with Gorbachev resigning Dec. 25 - was no more.

Thirteen years later the democratic revolution continued when, in November 2004, the reforming, anti-corruption, disfigured and nearly killed by Russian poison candidate Victor Yushchenko had the presidential election stolen from him in a transparently rigged result by the Putin-allied and oligarch-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, and 200,000 Ukrainians this time protested at the Maidan, Kyiv's Independence Square, forcing, with European pressure, the government to call a new election in response to this "Orange Revolution" against corruption, crony capitalism and the subversion of the people's clear desire for freedom and justice. (Plokhy, p. 334)

Independence had carried a heavy price for Ukraine, first in the 1990s with extreme poverty and economic depression brought on by the total failure of the old Soviet command driven and mostly still state-owned enterprises to adapt to market forces or the needs of a population struggling to manage or even survive in the post-Soviet world.

When reforms eventually allowed oligarchs to snap up, often abetted by corruption or intimidation, old state-owned industries at a fraction of their value, bringing back economic growth at the price of crony capitalist subversion of nascent democratic institutions, and Yushchenko attempts at reform and moving toward Europe seemed to be coming to naught, protests again shook Ukraine with the Revolution of Dignity starting in November 2013.

In the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in 2013, the Ukrainian people demanded democracy and an end to corruption

With the corrupt Putin-allied Yanukovych elected in 2010, and the pillaging of Ukraine with over $70 billion in foreign assets squirreled away by him and his cronies (Plokhy, p. 338), the people of Ukraine, fed up with corruption, hoped that closer ties with the European Union would bolster their fledgling democracy, fight corruption and bring more transparent, Western business practices to Ukraine. Yanukovych, playing a double game with Russia, first considered and then refused to sign an EU association agreement in November 2013.

Government forces controlled by the corrupt Putin-allied Yanukovych used violence to try and stop the protests, killing at least 68 people

Ukrainians were outraged, taking to the streets , this time a half million strong, in protests lasting until February. Fearing a new Maidan revolution, Yanukovych responded with police and violence, with at least 68 protesters killed. Ukrainians had their lives on the line, and paid the ultimate price, for their freedoms. World leaders condemned the violence, threatening sanctions, and the Ukrainian parliament banned the use of force against the protesters. On February 21, Yanukovych, having lost the support of parliament, fled. The next day, Putin decided to proceed with his plan to take over Crimea. Weakened by revolution and the corruption of the Yanukovych regime preceding it, Ukraine was in no position to resist, and Putin's hybrid war spread to the Donbas region, preying on disaffected Russian speakers and others unhappy with corruption with a different alternative, to 'return' to Russia. (Plokhy, p. 339-340)

Ukrainians protested, died and are now fighting on the front line of freedom and democracy

Ukrainians responded, many with volunteer efforts to resist Putin's aggression in the east, and the stage was set for the eventual full scale Russian invasion and war launched against Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Not only had Ukrainians sacrificed their individual lives in the fight for democracy, they had, as in many revolutions, risked the security of their entire country - perhaps foolishly, some would say - or perhaps believing - as they, the Poles and other nations at times in their history finding themselves without a homeland - that their nation was more than a state defined by a boundary, but an ideal of a democratic, free and just people. That ideal is worth fighting for, and the Ukrainian people, on the front line of that fight against cruel and evil tyranny, are fighting that good fight not only for themselves, but for free and freedom-aspiring peoples everywhere.


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