Ukraine Apart - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Ukraine Apart
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In the year of collapse, 1992, Russia was about as bad as it could get. But Ukraine was even worse than that. Here is a small illustration of the difference: When I lived in Moscow (which I did in that era) I always tried to take my vacations in the Soviet sphere. In the summer of 1992, we set out for a week in the Crimea by the Black Sea near Foros—the scene, a year before, of the kidnap of Mikhail Gorbachev. It is a startlingly lovely place, where the high hills slope down to the shore, and it has a kindly climate. It is also part of Ukraine, for tricky historical reasons, despite its population being mainly Russian.

We planned to stay at a former Communist Party Central Committee sanatorium, so-called, a short way along the coast from Mr. Gorbachev’s kitschy villa. These strange places were in fact reasonably comfortable holiday hotels, but the old Soviet elite had to pretend to be ill to stay in them. This pretense was never difficult in a country where mere breathing was often a health risk. The Communist Party having collapsed, and the old clientele having been driven from power, the manager of this establishment was very keen to encourage new customers, including Westerners. 

As we packed for the trip, we received an urgent phone call from him. Could we please be sure to bring Russian rubles, as many as we could get? He really needed them. We were amazed. We had planned to pay in U.S. dollars, the universal currency. We regarded the Ruble (rightly) as untrustworthy joke money. The previous January, 50 and 100 Ruble bills had been abolished overnight by state decree, and those who held them allowed a few days to exchange limited quantities of them for new cash. It was a straightforward robbery of millions of citizens by the state. A few years later, at the height of the debauched Boris Yeltsin era, the Ruble would virtually collapse, with 84 percent inflation and scores of bank failures. Nobody was exactly surprised.

But this was nothing compared to the problems of the then currency of the then-newly independent Ukraine. Officially known as the “Karbovanets” but actually called the “Coupon,” it was truly funny money, perhaps the least inspiring means of exchange I have ever seen. If the Ruble was wastepaper, the Coupon was garbage. It was traded outside the Kiev station in Moscow (where trains from Ukraine arrived) at impossibly low rates. Nobody wanted it, even then. What was it for? In Ukraine, things were so bad that the Ruble was a (comparatively) hard currency. 

So we crammed our baggage with solid bricks of Mr. Yeltsin’s money. And we were right to do so. In Ukraine the members of our small Western party were like conquerors, grotesquely rich. With our stacks and wads of Rubles we were able (for instance) to command a private display at the local aquarium. This was provided by retired Soviet Navy dolphins, which had allegedly been trained for spying missions and now made a living doing acrobatics. We enjoyed it, and plenty of local children got free seats, but we still felt rather ashamed to be so unjustly rich in a devastated land.

Ukrainian corruption was worse than Russian corruption. Ukrainian governments were more crooked than Russian governments. If you wanted things to be worse than they already were in Moscow, you headed south, physically as well as metaphorically. This difference was obviously because Russia had gas and oil, and also because all the carpetbaggers and get-rich-quick businessmen in the world had headed to Moscow, the only ex-Soviet city most of them had heard of or could find on a map. 

Ukrainian independence wasn’t taken seriously by Russians then, or for years afterward. To begin with, they didn’t even bother with a border. The Kremlin was much more worried about NATO and European Union expansion in Eastern Europe into the Baltic states and the Caucasus. And it also wasn’t seen as an opportunity by Western powers. Boris Yeltsin, by allowing Russia to be raped by foreign business and its own oligarchs, was the official friend of the West. No matter that he ran a horrible war in Chechnya. No matter that he ordered tanks to shell his own parliament building. No matter that he survived in office by shamelessly rigging elections (preventing what would otherwise have been the embarrassing return of the Communist Party to office). For committing roughly the same crimes as those perpetrated by Vladimir Putin, we praised him or at least forgave him. Anyway, the U.S. and the EU were preoccupied, in Iraq, in Yugoslavia, and then in Iraq again. So the idea of annoying Moscow by promoting people power in Kiev—never especially appealing—simply did not cross anyone’s mind. 

Thus a peculiar truce slowly emerged. Russia was allowed to keep its naval base in the ravishingly lovely port of Sevastopol, sharing its harbor with the new Ukrainian Fleet. Twin fortresses to this day glare at each other across the water. One flies Russia’s white, blue, and red flag, and is decorated with the legend “Glory to the Russian Navy!” in huge letters. The other is adorned with Ukraine’s yellow and blue ensign and declares in equally enormous characters “Glory to the Navy of Ukraine!”

 The Russian language was semi-officially allowed to coexist with Ukrainian, in normal use. The two tongues are similar but by no means the same, and many Russian speakers have difficulty with Ukrainian. Since many Ukrainians speak only Russian anyway, attempts to impose Ukrainian on everyone have met with some trouble—especially a petulant scheme some years ago to compel all movie theaters to show all films in Ukrainian alone. [[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”94365″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”185″,”style”:”float: right;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]

These absurdities are driven by a passionate minority of Ukrainian nationalists. Some are just romantics, but others come from the country’s interesting western regions, where Ukrainian is more widely spoken and there is much bitterness against Russia.

No patriot from any country can fail to see their point. They feel that an ancient culture and language have been trampled and forgotten. They believe that Stalin’s dreadful man-made famine in 1932-33 was an attempted genocide of Ukrainians, and refer to it as the “Holodomor.” The dreadful cruelty of the event, during which corpses of those who had starved to death lay openly in the streets, makes it hard for other voices to suggest that the famine, while it certainly murdered many Ukrainians, was not directed against a nationality, but against any who resisted collectivization. 

But, alas for them, these nationalists are in line of succession to two previous attempts at separating Ukraine from Russia, both in the twentieth century. These are the only modern precedents for Ukrainian independence, and they are not happy. The first was the 1918 Peace of Brest-Litovsk, at which Imperial Germany made Lenin pay in hard coin for supporting the 1917 Bolshevik coup d’état. That price was the creation of Friedrich Naumann’s dream of “Mitteleuropa”—German political and economic domination of Ukraine, Central Europe, Poland, the Baltic States, and the Caucasus. Naumann, interestingly, was a prominent German Liberal, not, as one might expect, a militarist nationalist. One might reasonably wonder if modern German liberals see the European Union as a soft, civilized way of achieving a subtle modern Mitteleuropa, by customs and currency union rather than through conquest. 

The brief period of Ukrainian “independence” that followed Brest-Litovsk was supported mainly by German bayonets, and swiftly smothered by the Bolsheviks after the defeat of the Kaiser, and the collapse of the Central Powers later that year. 

The second came in the terrible years of annexation and conquest that ended the Peace of Versailles. Ukrainians living in Poland initially rejoiced when the 1939 Stalin-Hitler Pact transferred them to Soviet rule. After years of enforced Polonization, they thought they had been freed. They quickly learned they had not. Various other parts of historical Ukraine, which had been given to Czechoslovakia and Romania, were also repossessed. Then came Hitler, unwisely seen as an ally by some Ukrainian nationalists. He used them when it suited him to do so, and crushed them when it did not. Once the Red Army had driven him out, Stalin took care to crush them too, not surprisingly making great play of the collaboration between some nationalists and Germany. The accusation was all the stronger because there is some truth in it, and to this day many of the rougher, more swaggering protestors on Kiev’s streets belong to organizations with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism (“Svoboda,” or “Freedom”) or of old-fashioned heavy-booted nationalism (“Pravy Sektor,” or “Right Sector”).

It was odd to see neoconservative sophisticates such as Victoria Nuland handing out buns and crackers to these crowds, and odder still to see the politically correct German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, egging them on. It is very unlikely that they had any idea what they were doing.

These days, in Western diplomacy, tweaking Russia’s nose seems to be an end in itself, as so many people have persuaded themselves that Vladimir Putin’s state is the seat of all international evil. Bad as it is, it is not remotely that bad—and the Kremlin can hardly be expected to smile on attempts to take away its cordon sanitaire and turn it into a candidate member of NATO. This is fundamentally silly. Russia dominates the region as Mount Everest dominates the Himalayas. From time to time it can be driven back, but it will always end in tears and worse. For Russia cares more about Ukraine than the West, and will carry on caring long after the TV crews and the politicians have packed up and moved on to the next fashionable barricade. 

 And yet our simple-minded intervention can still damage the lives of ordinary, innocent people who must endure the ebb and flow of other people’s power around their homes. As in so much of this tragic part of the world, famine, war, invasion, ethnic cleansing, racial massacre, and secret police repression are all living memories. The whole place is an unquiet grave, and those who disturb it could well get more than they bargained for. 

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