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History in the Crimea & Ukraine Today

Protest in Kiev, December 2013

History is being blithely tossed about these days by everyone from Vladimir Putin himself to Sarah Palin and John McCain. What is the real story? Is there a real story?

To answer that question, I invited two eminent historians – well, one historian and one historically minded political scientist, Serhii Plokhii and Mark Kramer, both of Harvard, to speak at MIT on this exact situation. They spoke on Monday (3/17), the day after the Crimean Referendum and the day before the Russian President’s speech. In that latter speech Mr. Putin stated unequivocally, “it is enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other.” The challenge of course, as students of history know, is that one person’s history can be another person’s myth and vice versa.

The key points in Mark and Serhii’s talks concerned economics, historical developments, and the power of historical symbols.

On the subject of economics, Mark reminded us how very poor are the residents of that region (average salaries around $250/month) and why they might actually prefer to join Russia for purely economic reasons. In general, the per capita GDP of Ukraine is among the lowest of the regions of the former Soviet Union (the only ones lower are Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan). Even that of Belarus is double that of Ukraine (World bank data). And that of Russia is 3.6 times as high (in official World Bank dollars). Average salaries in official dollars are higher in the Eastern part of Ukraine, but as Serhii pointed out, the Western Ukrainians typically have a somewhat higher standard of living because many work in the EU and send remittances back to Russia.

The other salient economic factor to keep in mind is that the Ukrainian economy is heavily dependent on Russia. Russia is by far the largest single trading partner for Ukraine, equaling the trade that Ukraine has with all EU countries. Ukraine imports roughly 80 percent of its natural gas, and almost all of this comes from Russia. Efforts to diversify sources of gas imports have made only very limited headway thus far. As a result, the Russian government has the capacity to exert great economic pressure on Ukraine, not only by raising the prices it charges for natural gas but also by erecting barriers against Ukrainian exports.

On the subject of the protests, Serhii and Mark noted that the two halves of Ukraine showed remarkably different attitudes toward the protests in November 2013-March 2014. In the West 80-85% of people in opinion polls supported the protests in Kiev and many traveled to the capital to participate. In the East, 80-85% opposed the polls. But in most of the protest period (until very recently) the Eastern Ukrainians showed little activism and tended to stay home. Only after the Russian troop forces appeared did Eastern Ukrainians begin to protest vociferously in favor of joining Russia and rejecting the EU.

Serhii spoke about the break-up of the USSR in the fall of 1991, arguing that a crucial variable in the breakup of the whole country was the fact that Ukraine voted overwhelmingly (92.3%) for independence in a referendum on December 1. While Mikhail Gorbachev still held out hopes that Ukraine and Russia could work closely “in the formation of a union of sovereign states,” Ukraine’s independence effectively nixed that. On December 8, Leonid Kravchuk, the newly elected President of independent Ukraine signed the Belavezh Accords with Boris Yeltsin for Russia and Stanislau Shushkevich for Belarus, thus dissolving the Soviet Union. On March 13 of this year Putin, in conversation with Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, seemed to try to rewrite this history by declaring that Ukraine’s decision to secede was not legal. In his March 18 speech Mr. Putin acknowledged that “the USSR fell apart” and that Russia itself had a played a part in the “sovereignty parade” of former republics declaring their independence. Still, he referred to Crimea being handed over “like a sack of potatoes,” and Russia realizing with the departure of Crimea “that it [Russia] was not simply robbed, it was plundered.” Looking at the historical record, it is nonetheless interesting to note that of all the parts of Ukraine which voted for independence in December 1991, only Crimea and Sevastpol had relatively small majorities, 54% and 57% respectively, compared with the rest of Ukraine where the Western parts were hugely positive (mostly %% in the high 80s and 90s).

But the real takeaway is that the issue of flags at the Ukrainian protests really matters. As Mark Kramer pointed out, flying the flag of the Ukrainian Liberation Army (also known as UPA or Banderovtsy) is like flying the Confederate flag in the U.S. For all that the UPA were not the only ones to commit atrocities (the Soviet armed forces also committed atrocities), the UPA symbols still evoke angst in many people in that part of the world (especially Jews, but also liberals and those committed to human rights). In fact, one of the reasons that Viktor Yushchenko was not able to continue as President of Ukraine after his initial surge to victory in the Orange Revolution was his effort to rehabilitate the image of the Banderovtsy. This is not an academic issue for many. In the 2012 parliamentary elections the Svoboda Party, which was founded as the Social-National Party of Ukraine and which is quite nationalist, won 10% of the vote, which, though small, is still significant. As Andreas Umland, one of the foremost experts in the world on right-wing parties, has pointed out, the spread of nationalist and especially ultra-nationalist slogans and symbols has deeply undermined Ukrainian nation-building. Today more than ever Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Jews, Americans, and all the other nationalities in the region need to have an idea of this complex history so as to avoid falling into simplistic assumptions about what has happened and what it all means.

Population of Crimea from 18th-21st Centuries

A few suggested readings:
Shevtsova, Lilia. “Ukraine: Law of Unintended Consequences Illustrated.” Carnegie Moscow Center, March 4, 2014; and “Ukraine: Law of Unintended Consequences Illustrated, Part II.” March 5, 2014.
Whitmore, Brian. “The Power Vertical: Through The Crimean Prism: Five Things We’ve Learned About Russia,” March 14, 2014.
Snyder, Timothy. “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014.
Snegovaya, Maria. “How Putin’s Worldview May Be Shaping His Response in Crimea,” Washington Post, March 2, 2014.
Adrian Bryttan, “The Wolf who cried Fascist!” – Pathology of Russian Propaganda against Ukraine, pt. 1 (March 21) and pt. 2, How Russia ‘fought against fascism’ – from 1920 until 1941; posted on March 21, 2014.
Uilleam Blacker, “Blurred Lines: Russian Literature and Cultural Diversity in Ukraine.” March 17, 2014.
Kramer, Mark. “Why Did Russia Give Away Crimea Sixty Years Ago?
Plokhy, Serhii. Ukraine and Russia: Representations of the Past (University of Toronto Press 2008).
David Marples, Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (Central European Univ Press, 2007), chs. 3-6.
Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak, eds., Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 155-194.
Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine
Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 (Yale Univ Press, 2003), pp. 154-215.
Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History, 4th ed. (Univ of Toronto Press, 2013), chs. 23-24.

By Elizabeth Wood

Elizabeth Wood is Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

5 replies on “History in the Crimea & Ukraine Today”

Dear Elizabeth,
Could you provide the citation for the graph on Crimea’s changing demographics? I would love to use that in my presentations on the ongoing crisis.

Nice piece!

Is that a typo at the end of para #4? Western Ukrainians sending remittances to Russia (not Ukraine)?

Your post has several good points. However, I absolutely can’t agree with comparison between the role played by Soviet Army in World War II and the Ukrainian Liberation Army (UPA) which fought on the side of Nazi Germany. Please, explain what atrocities according to you were committed by the Soviet Army in the war that allows you to place its soldiers in the same line with Nazi collaborators from UPA on whose hands is blood of thousands of Jews, Russians, Ukrainians and Poles. I think your statement is simply shameful and reflects on attempts of some western historians to re-write the history of the World War II.

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