There was a prelude to the 2014 events, namely the Orange Revolution. The 2004 election was contested, as already mentioned, between two Viktors, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. The latter, who was prime minister at the time, had the support of the Ukrainian government and was also the candidate favored by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yushchenko, an opposition leader, was considered a pro-Western candidate. Yanukovych won the run-off election between the two, by a fairly narrow margin (49.5 percent to 46.6 percent). Yushchenko’s supporters claimed that the election results had been falsified, and a large crowd from all over Ukraine occupied Independence Square, known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian. Perhaps half a million protesters gathered on the Maidan, in the heart of downtown Kyiv. A stage was erected on the square, and opposition figures gave speeches and popular rock groups played music. Kyivans brought food to the protesters. Western media and politicians also supported the demonstrators and their Orange Revolution. Under pressure from the crowd, a new run-off election was held, but this time observers from other countries were stationed at polling booths to make sure that the voting was fair. When the votes were tallied, Yushchenko proved to be the victor (52.0 percent to 44.2 percent).
Yushchenko was not an effective president, and his term was marked by quarrels with other politicians who had gained prominence during the Orange Revolution, notably Yuliia Tymoshenko. In 2008 Yushchenko even appointed his former electoral opponent, Yanukovych, as prime minister. The major innovations of his term as president were in the realm of memory politics. Unlike any Ukrainian president before him, he initiated not only the rehabilitation of OUN and UPA, but their glorification. He posthumously awarded their leaders, particularly Roman Shukhevych (Supreme Commander of UPA) and Stepan Bandera (head of the largest faction of OUN), the honor of Hero of Ukraine. He also led a massive campaign to have the manmade famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor, recognized by all other countries as a genocide directed against the Ukrainian people. He ordered the collection of over two hundred thousand testimonies about the famine and founded a memorial museum in Kyiv to commemorate the victims.
Yushchenko did not even make it to the run off in the presidential elections of 2010. Instead, Tymoshenko faced off with Yanukovych, who won, 49.0 percent to 45.5 percent.
The victory of Yanukovych was a victory for his clan in Donetsk, who occupied influential positions in his government. He made an about-face from Yushchenko’s nationalist politics, and his minister of education and science, Dmytro Tabachnyk, alienated many Ukrainian intellectuals. Yanukovych was also the most corrupt of the Ukrainian presidents. He and his cronies embezzled in an ostentatious manner. Yanukovych remained popular in his base in the Donbas, but much of Ukraine felt he was a disgrace to the presidency.
The writing on the wall appeared in November 2013. Yanukovych was supposed to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union but instead accepted financial aid from Russia. Once again, the Maidan began to fill with protesters, eventually half a million of them. They were a mixed bunch. Although the Galicians were disproportionately represented, protesters came from all parts of Ukraine. Some were pro-Western democrats, some were far-right nationalists; feminists, members of the LGBT community, anarchists, and socialists were also there. Yanukovych’s government reacted with lethal violence against the protesters, and the nationalists – led by Right Sector – fought back. Over a hundred protesters were murdered by police snipers, and thirteen policemen were killed. By late February 2014, the armed protesters turned the tide, and Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia. These events are generally known as the Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity.
However, Putin called these events a “fascist coup” and began an invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian army had been neglected and was more a source of corrupt enrichment for officers than a fighting force. Russia marched into Crimea unopposed and annexed it. In the course of the invasion most of Ukraine’s navy deserted to the Russians. Crimea was low-hanging fruit. According to the 2001 census, two-thirds of its population was ethnically Russian and only a quarter Ukrainian. Over 80 percent was Russophone. There were more Crimean-Tatar-speakers in Crimea than Ukrainian-speakers. The Crimean authorities had held referendums in the early 1990s to press for independence or at least expand their autonomy, but Kyiv quashed these efforts. After Russia took Crimea in 2014, it held its own referendum on 28 February. It was definitely a Soviet-style election, with 97 percent of voters in favor of joining the Russian Federation.
At the same time, Russia encouraged anti-Maidan, pro-Russian unrest across the East and South of Ukraine, from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odesa in the southwest. Putin called this large swath of Ukraine “Novorossiia,” a reference to a territorial unit carved out of the Crimean Khanate in 1764. The wave of pro-Russian protests, which often involved seizure of government buildings, was called “the Russian Spring.” Owing to timely preventive measures by the hastily reconstituted Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian separatist movements only succeeded in the eastern Donbas region. Two cities – Donetsk and Luhansk – became the capitals of tiny separatist republics. But the battle over the eastern Donbas raged for another eight years, claiming about fifteen thousand lives. The two republics were first governed by rather thuggish military types, but later Russia installed leaders whom they controlled directly. Shelling from the Ukrainian side destroyed many buildings. The “success” of the Russian Spring in the two republics discredited the separatist option among some who might have earlier been attracted to it.
After 2014 the Ukrainian government built up the country’s armed forces, aided to some extent by Western countries, notably the USA and Canada. The president elected in the wake of the Euromaidan, Petro Poroshenko (2014-19), ran on a nationalist program, appealing much more to the West of the country than to its East and South. He reinvigorated the cult of OUN and UPA, appointing a Nationalist as head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. He set quotas to assure that the Ukrainian language was dominant in TV and radio. This came at the expense of the Russian language, and naturally produced opposition from pro-Russian politicians. The Ukrainian language was also mandated as the exclusive language of education in state schools from the fifth grade on. This became a sore point in relations with Hungary, since there was a sizable Magyar-speaking minority in Transcarpathia.
Poroshenko also initiated a church reform that led to schism throughout the Eastern Orthodox world. Until early 2019, the Orthodox church in Ukraine was divided among three jurisdictions: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was the largest religious organization in Ukraine and a self-governing church under the Patriarch of Moscow; the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyivan Patriarchate), which was not recognized by any other Orthodox church; and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, also unrecognized and based primarily in Western Ukraine. Poroshenko, with some aid from the US state department, was able to gain the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople to establish a united Ukrainian Orthodox church that would be under the jurisdiction of Constantinople rather than Moscow. In theory, there was to be a unification council of all three Orthodox churches in Ukraine, but in reality, and unsurprisingly, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate refused to participate. In the end, a rump unification council was held between the two formerly unrecognized Ukrainian churches, and a new church came into being, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It was an autocephalous church under the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Patriarch of Moscow condemned the new church and its patron in Constantinople, introducing a schism in world Orthodoxy. Orthodox churches around the world had to make a choice whether to support Constantinople or Moscow. At least for the next few years (i.e., at the time this is being written), most Orthodox churches were unwilling to recognize the new Ukrainian church under Constantinople. Partially this reflected respect for the prestige and financial resources of the Russian church, and partially this resulted from resentment that Constantinople was interfering in the affairs of other churches. Parishes and communities in Ukraine were also divided. Poroshenko’s government used various administrative measures to transfer parishes from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This was especially successful in the politically nationalist regions of Galicia and Volhynia. At present the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [Moscow Patriarch] claims over twelve thousand parishes and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine claims over seven thousand.
Poroshenko was aiming at the consolidation of the Ukrainian nation on an ethnonationalist platform, a Ukrainian nation that spoke Ukrainian, adopted a nationalist version of history, and worshipped in a Ukrainian church. This was also, and deliberately, an attempt to de-russify Ukraine. It is difficult to say whether his efforts over five years had a positive or negative impact on healing the regional divisions in Ukraine. What is not unclear is that his policies infuriated Putin.
Was Ukrainian society moving in the direction of ethnonationalism? The answer came in the 2019 presidential elections. Poroshenko ran for a second term as president. His slogan left no doubt that he intended to intensify his efforts: “Army, Language, Faith.” Facing him was a celebrity candidate, a comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky. A rather diminutive figure, he had starred in a sitcom in which a teacher rants about the corruption in Ukraine, his rant goes viral, and he unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine. And that’s pretty much what happened in reality. For years, Ukrainian presidential candidates had been campaigning on symbols and historical memory politics and on pro-Russian and pro-Western platforms, while neglecting more concrete domestic issues and simultaneously enriching themselves. Zelensky ran on an anti-corruption program, and he was able to overcome the regional political divisions that had plagued independent Ukraine since its inception. He received the largest percentage of the popular vote ever – 73 percent. He won in every oblast of Ukraine except for the most recalcitrantly nationalist of them – Lviv oblast. Moreover, Zelensky was of Jewish rather than Ukrainian ethnicity and a Russophone.
Zelensky was president when Putin’s Russia launched a massive invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. His skills as an orator have served Ukraine well in the war, which – at the time of this writing – is still underway. At this point, Ukraine has been successful in keeping the Russian forces largely at bay, but certain cities – much of Mariupol, and parts of Kharkiv and Kyiv – have suffered the destruction of infrastructure and shortages of food, heat, medicine, and water as a result of Russian shelling. Many villages in the environs of these cities have endured even more acute devastation. Every day brings news of fresh atrocities. About a tenth of Ukraine’s population has fled abroad, mainly to Poland.
Clearly, Ukraine is once again at a turning point. The fog of war is too thick at present to glimpse what the ultimate meaning of this conflagration will be. The only thing for sure is that huge wounds are being inflicted on the country and its people, wounds that will take a very long time to heal.
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