Monday, January 27, 2014

A Short History of Ukraine

Protests and civil violence have rocked the Eastern European nation of Ukraine for several days now.  The Texas sized country of nearly 45 million is physically one of the largest in Europe.  Its plains have some of the world's best farming soil outside of North America.

Here is a brief description of its history.

In the early Middle Ages, Slavic tribes resided on the Dnieper River, a stream flowing roughly from north to south and emptying into the Black Sea.  By the 800s, the kingdoms and principalities of Scandinavia had grown rich from both plunder and trade.  They traded with those too powerful to plunder, like the Byzantine Empire.

A Swedish trading nation called the Varangians began using the river system in what is now Russia and Ukraine to build commercial ties with the rich Byzantine Empire which straddled the Balkans and Middle East.  The Byzantines were the remaining rump of the old Roman Empire, much more compact, but still rich and still formidable.

The Varangian trade with the Byzantines drew more Slavs and Varangians to the river banks.  Some combination of the two formed a state around the town of Kiev.  Originally the state was called the Kievan Rus.

No one can say for certain how much of the original state was Nordic and how much was Slavic.  Regardless, Slavs quickly dominated the early state.  In the 800s and 900s, Kiev grew into a wealthy trading state, extending their rule along the rivers and to the east.  It traded heavily with the Byzantine Empire and established dynastic connections with the impoverished European kingdoms emerging in central and western Europe.

Modern observers would find the early structure of Kievan rule unnecessarily complicated since they did not practice true primogeniture.  The Grand Prince ruled at Kiev.  Brothers, sons, or cousins could rule under him at other prominent cities.  Succession was complicated and sometimes contentious.  Hostile groups from the flatlands and Caucasian Mountains to the east often tried to play different princes off against each other.

One of the momentous moments in the history of Kievan Russia came during the reign of Grand Prince St. Vladimir the Great.  He ruled from 980-1015, modern calendar.  During his rule, he determined that his state ought to be Christian.  By this time, however, Christianity was very close to its first major permanent schism.  St. Vladimir had to choose between the Pope of what would be the Roman Catholic Church and the Emperor controlled Patriarch in Constantinople.  Vladimir may have stacked the deck.  He sent emissaries to describe each church to him so that he could decide.  Some went to the glittering capital of Constantinople to survey what would become the Eastern Orthodox Church.  They saw the mighty St. Sophia Church set in a dynamic metropolis.  Others went to examine the Western church in not Rome, but the Holy Roman Empire. Its poverty had not yet produced the fantastic cathedrals that would appear later in the Middle Ages.

St. Vladimir tied the fortunes of his nation to the East, selecting Orthodoxy.  This would form one of many barriers between Russia and the West for centuries.

Kiev met its ruin in the 1200s when the Mongols came.  Kiev chose to resist and was annihilated much as Carthage in the Third Punic War.  A papal nuncio to China who had seen Kiev intact wrote back on seeing the devastation.  His letter recounted the leveling of numerous beautiful churches and other buildings.  All that remained of the once thriving metropolis was a few mud huts and a few hundred Slavic slaves under the Mongol yoke.  To the east of the city, he saw endless fields of bleaches bones and skulls.

The Mongols controlled Eastern Europe until the 1400s.  Toward the end of its rule, some Russian cities started to assert themselves.  Chief among these was Moscow.  One of its successes lay in convincing the Orthodox patriarch to move the office of Metropolitan (analogous to Catholic Archbishop) from Kiev to Moscow.  That gave the future Russian capital spiritual predominance in Eastern Europe.  When it freed itself of the Mongols, it became the only Christian ruled leadership city in Orthodoxy.  That happened because Constantinople finally succumbed to the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

By now, Russian civilization had split into three parts.  The country around Kiev now had the name "Little Russia," or Ukraine.  To its north sat Belarus or "White Russia."  Moscow expanded to the north and east, becoming the center of "Great Russia."  But Ukraine was not yet fated to come under the rule of Russia.

As the Middle Ages closed and the modern era commenced, the great power in the East was Poland.  This Roman Catholic Slavic state united with the also Catholic Germanic state of Lithuania.  Through the 1400s until the 1700s, this state ruled a vast area of plains and swamps.  During the early 1600s, it even aspired to conquer Russia itself.  Southern Ukraine fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks who controlled the northern coast of the Black Sea.

From the rule of Peter the Great down to the end of the 18th century, Russia and its czars labored to gradually bring Ukraine under its own imperial rule.  Despite the changes in government, Ukraine developed its own culture and language.  It remembered the traditions of old Kiev and took pride in its heritage.

World War I ushered in significant changes.  First, the Germans steamrolled Russian forces and in 1918 made Ukraine a protectorate under its guidance.  This short lived situation dissolved with the German defeat in November, leaving Ukraine to the ravages of the Russian Civil War and eventually Bolshevism.

The Communist Soviet Union exacted a devastating toll from Ukraine.  Stalin, who had run press gangs in the city of Tsaritsyn, later Stalingrad, now Volgograd, determined that Ukraine's wealthy and productive peasants must surrender their lands.  The peasants, as they had done under the czars, resisted.  They burned their homes, slaughtered and ate their livestock, and denied the Soviets the fruit of their labors.  Stalin ordered millions rounded up and shipped off to the open plains of Siberia where most froze to death.  Resulting famine killed millions more.

When Hitler invaded in 1941, many Ukrainians welcomed his Wehrmacht as liberators.  Instead, they found the Germans more ruthless than Stalin.  Hitler's Einstatzgruppen teams rounded up professionals and other leaders to be massacred, often by burning churches around them.  Hitler's defeat brought more suffering.  The Soviets demanded from British and American allies the return of all expatriates, many of whom had fled the Communists right after World War I.  Shamefully, British and American officials approved the "return" of these people, most of whom suffered torture and death.

Ukraine's own Nikita Khrushchev  succeeded Stalin as Soviet leader.  His schemes and risky policies, however, led to his being removed from power.

Communist control led to disaster when a series of foolish decisions led to the late 1980s meltdown of the Ukraine located Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  Soviet authorities for days refused to order a mass evacuation, exposing hundreds of thousands to contamination.  Even today, Ukraine and Belarus still suffers high levels of cancer and birth defects as a result.  Chernobyl broke down what was left of loyalty to the Communist system.

In 1991, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia seceded from the Soviet Union, marking the end of its existence.  Ukraine since has wavered between its former Russian masters and would be Western mentors.  In the meantime, it has allowed its system to grow increasingly corrupt and authoritarian.  The present and future is unclear.  The resources and strength of the people, however, mean it still has potential to thrive.

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