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Friday, February 21, 2014

What Ukraine’s History Tells Us About Its Future

Anti-government protesters attend a rally on Independence square in Kiev on February 21. Nearly 100 people have died in the Ukraine protests, and while the country is no stranger to protest, few have been so violent. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Anti-government protesters attend a rally on Independence square in Kiev on February 21. Nearly 100 people have died in the Ukraine protests, and while the country is no stranger to protest, few have been so violent. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine is no stranger to massive protests, but not violent ones. So what can a studying Ukrainian history teach us about what will happen next in the country politically?

Harvard professor Serhii Plokhii joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the link between Ukraine’s history and its future.

Interview Highlights: Serhii Plokhii

How this protest is different from ones in the past

“It started, really, as a really peaceful event, almost a street party. There were concerts and poets were reading their poems and things like that. But because the political elite was unable to reach a compromise that would satisfy people on the streets, eventually, that all kind of deteriorated into violence. And I keep government responsible for that, and political class in general.”

“‘Til this recent events, what was interesting that these political forces that couldn’t agree on much agreed on one thing: that all these issues have — they have to be resolved peacefully. So compromise was the name of Ukrainian political culture since 1991, and to a degree, people who were in power, they understood that they had to do that because of the diversity of the regions — ethnic diversity, historical, different traditions, linguistic differences. And it is the current government that is now in power for three years that basically violated this, this unwritten agreement among the elites that issues should be resolved peacefully and on the basis of compromise.”

On Ukraine’s unique positioning between Russia and Western Europe

“Ukraine is historically a country that is positioned, really, on the border. It was positioned on the border between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, Christianity and Islam. Jews were important part of Ukrainian history since sixteenth century, at least. So there is multicultural character that is there.”

“What happened with this particular crisis was that Ukraine wanted to sign association agreement with European Union, and Russia’s position was that Ukraine had to choose: either stay with Russia or go west. And that was a significant, significant factor that brought to the current crisis, so it is certainly complicated factor. But Ukraine managed to do that for the last 20-plus years, so just going back to the old and tested policies — I guess this is the way out of the crisis.”

On the resolve of anti-government protesters

“What we see today and now is certainly the mobilization of the public opinion in general, and those who support pro-European direction of Ukrainian policy, and they are prepared to stay on the cold squares and streets of Kiev now for three months — it’s really very cold there — and even to die if it is necessary.”

Guest

  • Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW, and we just heard the latest from Ukraine. But let's put it in the context of the country's history. Serhii Plokhii is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, and he has come in to talk to us. Welcome.

SERHII PLOKHII: Well, thank you for having me.

HOBSON: Well, let me start with a question that a lot of people have when they hear about all this, which is what's the difference between Ukraine and the Ukraine, and what should you be saying?

PLOKHII: Well, the article was there until Ukraine became independent in 1991, and many people believe that if you use article, you imply that this is not an independent country.

HOBSON: Ah.

PLOKHII: And that changed in December of 1991. So preferred way of referring to Ukraine, at least in Ukraine and for those who study Ukraine abroad, is Ukraine without definite article.

HOBSON: OK, now let's go back to the point when Ukraine became Ukraine for the first time, which would have been back in 1918, right?

PLOKHII: Well, in the 20th century, yes, that's 1917, 1918. This is the first time that Ukraine became independent. But people who proclaimed Ukraine independent back then, they were tracing their roots all the way back to the Middle Ages, to the state that was called Kievan Rus, centered in Kiev, and again they adopted (unintelligible) of independent Ukraine, a symbol of princely power coming from the 10th and 11th centuries.

HOBSON: But they only had independence at that point for three years, right, and then the Russians came in.

PLOKHII: Even less than that, in the sense that they were changing governments. There was a war, so different military forces, different political forces changed it in Kiev. So overall it's a period of three years, but again even that was interrupted.

HOBSON: And at that point, back in 1921, it split, two-thirds to Russia, one-third to Poland, right?

PLOKHII: Exactly, exactly. That is what happened, and more than that, part of Ukraine, what is today Ukraine, ended up to be as constituent parts of Czechoslovakia or Romania, for example. So the split was four ways. But again two-thirds, roughly, went to Russia, as you say, and it became Soviet Republic within the Soviet Union, so the second largest after Russia.

HOBSON: How were the people there treated by the Soviets, though, during the time when Ukraine was controlled by the Soviets?

PLOKHII: Well, it is during Soviet control of Ukraine that we have one of the greatest tragedies of Ukrainian people and country in general, and this is the artificial famine of 1932, 1933. And from what we know today, it's up to four million people died in Ukraine alone. So this is an indication of the treatment of the area, of its people by the Soviet regime.

HOBSON: Why? Why did they treat them that way?

PLOKHII: Well, the Soviets wanted grain for industrialization of the country. And they were taking this grain at any price and leaving people to die. So that is one reason. Second reason was that Stalin was really unhappy with pro-independent mood in Ukraine and believed that Ukraine is a threat to the Soviet Union, that they are not reliable. And in that sense the social policies against peasantry, the economic policies and the nationality policy came together and resulted in that major tragedy.

HOBSON: OK, so independence comes again in 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union. But it has been politically turbulent since then.

PLOKHII: Yes, there were tensions, there were early elections. But till now, till these recent events, what was interesting that these political forces that couldn't agree on much agreed on one thing: that all these issues have - they have to be resolved peacefully.

So compromise was the name of Ukrainian political culture since 1991, and to a degree people who were in power, they understood that they had to do that because of the diversity of the regions: ethnic diversity, historical, different traditions, linguistic differences. And it is the current government that is now in power for three years that basically violated this unwritten agreement among the elites that issues should be resolved peacefully and on the basis of compromise.

HOBSON: But if the question right now is does Ukraine move more toward Russia or more toward the West, which do you think that it is more a part of really?

PLOKHII: Well, Ukraine is historically a country that is positioned, really, on the border. It was positioned on the border between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, Christianity and Islam. Jews were important part of Ukrainian history since 16th century, at least. So there is multicultural character that is there.

What we see today and now is certainly the mobilization of the public opinion in general and those who support pro-European direction of Ukrainian policy, and they are prepared to stay on the cold squares and streets of Kiev now for three months - it's really very cold there - and even to die if it is necessary.

HOBSON: Why do you think that this revolution is so much more violent than, say, the Orange Revolution 10 years ago?

PLOKHII: Well, this is an excellent question because the Orange Revolution was going for a shorter period of time, but again it was peaceful. This one is not peaceful, and one of the reasons for that is that it is going for so long. It started really as a really peaceful event, almost a street party.

There were concerts and poets were reading their poems and things like that. But because the political elite was unable to reach a compromise that would satisfy people on the streets, eventually that all kind of deteriorated into violence. And I keep government responsible for that and political class in general.

HOBSON: How many Ukrainians have moved to the U.S.? And where are they?

PLOKHII: Well, the major - the immigration started really in the late 19th century, and those people who came here, they came from a part of Ukraine that was part of Austria-Hungary, of Hapsburg Empire back then. Then the major new wave of immigration came after the Second World War. And they said - the first wave, they went to Pennsylvania mostly.

The second wave, they ended up on the East Coast - New York, for example, is a major center of Ukrainian immigration. And when it comes to the post-'90, '91 immigration, a good part of Ukrainians went to the West Coast, to California in particular, and those were mostly Protestants, Baptists who were persecuted during the Soviet times. And the rest, again, it's dispersed all over the country so I can't point to one specific - again, New York continues to be a major center. Philadelphia continues to be a major center of Ukrainian immigration.

HOBSON: Serhii Plokhii is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. Professor Polkhii, thank you so much for coming in.

PLOKHII: Well, thank you.

HOBSON: And as we continue to follow the developments in Ukraine, we are also following other stories, including this one from Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to appoint a senior officer to be in charge of military ethics. This comes in the wake of several high-profile ethics problems, including an incident involving nuclear missile launch officers who cheated on their proficiency exams.

Also that controversial "Jeopardy!" contestant, Arthur Chu, will return to play on the show this coming Monday. We've talked about him. We've talked to him. We've got the whole interview up at hereandnow.org. He uses game theory and tries to go right for those daily doubles. Well, a lot of viewers are very unhappy with him, and they will be talking about that and the pushback from fans later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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