Ukraine: Everything is Terrible, A Very Short Primer

I’m not following the news in Ukraine closely, mainly out of fatalism.  I don’t specialize in studying Ukraine (anymore) and can’t claim any incredibly deep knowledge or up to date news from the ground.  However, a few thoughts.

The country known as Ukraine is a thoroughly modern creation (as are most states, to a surprising degree).  It was the Ukrainian Socialist Republic during the Soviet Union, becoming independent within its current borders for the first time in 1991.  Now, a state somewhat similar in borders, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, did exist…for four years, from 1917-1921.  Before that, there was nothing at all similar to Ukraine.  The territory was almost entirely a colonial region of the Russian Empire.  Before that, it was split between Russia, Austria, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  Who cares, one might reasonably ask?

 Wonkblog printed a map of the linguistic divisions within Ukraine, where orange represents predominantly Ukrainian-speaking regions and blue represents predominantly Russian-speaking.  This division can be traced ultimately to this old history – the orange area, full of nationalist Ukrainians, was the area formerly ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  It has a long history of Ukrainian culture, literature, and nationalism.  The blue area, formerly ruled by Muslim khanates, was considered “empty land” when the Russian Empire took over and was prioritized for Russian settlement.  This policy continued during the Soviet Union.  Which is why today the eastern half of Ukraine is full of people deeply committed to closer rapprochement with Russia, and the western half is horrified by the idea.

And who says history is irrelevant!

This post contains gaps, simplifications, and generally fails to cover even the basics of the history.   Ukraine has an awful lot of history, mainly characterized by wars and general inhumanity.  There is much more to this story than any news story will give you, and the divisions are much deeper than it might appear.  They are not only about the question of whether Ukraine should be closer to the EU – some Ukrainians believe Ukraine shouldn’t exist at all.  Easy narratives about how activists in the street are going to bring American Freedom to a benighted Trashcanistan are totally off-base.  This is the latest skirmish in a very, very long struggle.

TL;DR – if you think the battle over Obamacare can ultimately traced to the Civil War, you can accept what’s going on in Ukraine is way too complicated for you to have any sort of opinion on.


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