Ukraine’s long struggle to preserve its culture and independence


Ukrainians refer to Russian television and its viewers as “zombieland” because they long ago developed an immunity to the main talking points of Vladimir Putin’s mindless propaganda war. You know the absurdity of his claims that Nazis and drug addicts rule Kyiv, that NATO is threatening to destroy Russia, and that Russian-speaking Ukrainians are victims of genocide.

Putin has supported these talking points by presenting his own version of Ukrainian history. According to him, Ukraine has only been independent since 1991 and for the past 30 years has denied its true destiny: unity with Russia in a close but subordinate relationship.

But four revolutionary uprisings in Ukraine in the last 100 years refute this narrative: the War of Independence in 1917-21, the struggle against Stalin’s regime in the 1920s and 1930s, the guerrilla warfare of the 1940s and the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 .

Ukraine’s current resistance to Russian invasion draws on these revolutionary cycles and underscores a long, generational quest for national self-determination in the face of Russian racist claims.

Because of its rich “black earth”, Ukraine developed around 5,000 to 3,000 BC. one of the oldest agricultural civilizations in the world, the Trypillians. In the 10th-13th centuries, Kyiv was the center of a powerful state whose ruling family mingled with European royalty, and in the 17th-18th centuries a unique Baroque culture flourished there.

The country’s most recent struggle for statehood began towards the end of World War I with the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Originally detached from the Russian Empire in 1917, the republic merged in 1919 with the eastern half of Galicia, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the republic was short-lived. Bolshevik armies invaded three times from Russia, and the country remained a hotbed of resistance until 1921, with armies and partisans challenging Moscow-imposed rule.

The armed resistance only died out at the end of 1922 with the proclamation of a Ukrainian Soviet Republic, which promised Ukraine political and cultural autonomy. At that time, some Ukrainian activists engaged in the new process of state and nation building. When a policy of Ukrainization was announced in 1923, education, the media, and government institutions began using Ukrainian as the official language. By 1925, politics had ushered in a cultural renaissance in literature and the arts. It produced a wealth of brilliant writers and an internationally recognized avant-garde movement in art, theater and film. This generation, including artists like Kazimir Malevich, established a new Ukrainian identity as modern, innovative and European.

Stalin ended this renaissance when he unleashed a war against Ukraine. Show trials of Ukrainian activists and cultural figures began in 1928 and forced collectivization of agricultural production in 1930. In 1932 he restricted Ukrainization policies and repressed the intelligentsia. Collectivization sparked thousands of revolts across the country, a resistance only crushed by waves of mass arrests and the deaths of 4 million people during the Great Famine (Holodomor) of 1932–33.

Ten years later, during World War II, an armed underground emerged in Ukraine to prevent the Soviet authorities from retaking control of the country. The resistance was long and stubborn, and had broad support in western Ukraine. This part of the country had first tasted Soviet rule in 1939–41, which included the destruction of its institutions, the deportation of hundreds of thousands, and numerous atrocities. In the post-war years, the Soviet authorities killed an estimated 140,000 members of the underground. They also arrested up to 400,000 people and deported them to Siberia, including whole families suspected of helping the fighters. In 1951, the Soviets finally crushed the resistance by tracking down and killing its leadership.

During the Cold War, much of the world ignored the existence of Ukraine. Western media were content to view the country as part of “Russia” with no agency or identity of its own. But in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukrainians once again declared their independence.

The country’s most recent revolutionary cycle culminated in the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, often dubbed the Revolution of Dignity. It started in 2004 when Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian sympathizer, tried to seize power. This year, Ukrainian protesters launched the Orange Revolution, a series of strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins that successfully repelled Yanukovych’s fraudulent claims of winning the election.

Backed by Moscow, Yanukovych launched a strong media campaign and won the 2010 election. Corruption immediately spread massively, as did Russia’s influence throughout Ukraine. In 2013, Yanukovych suddenly reversed his policy towards joining the European Union. All of Ukraine erupted, but the epicenter of spontaneous protests was Kyiv’s Independence Square. Special security forces attacked and shot demonstrators. When the protesters successfully fought back, Yanukovych fled the country. Ukraine once again moved towards independence and democracy, electing Petro Poroshenko as president in 2014, followed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019.

Today, Putin claims his invasion is needed to rally Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians into “a single geopolitical entity” and solve “Russia’s main problem” – the Ukrainian question. For him, the idea of ​​Kyiv as the capital of an independent state symbolizes Russia’s national humiliation. Putin also recognizes that a prosperous, democratic, and culturally vibrant Ukraine poses a threat to his own rule. But beyond that, he sees the crushing of Ukraine as the grand opening salvo that will proclaim Russia’s challenge to the West for leadership of a new world order.

However, the citizens of Ukraine reject Russian supremacy. A whole generation grew up in an independent state. They know its language, read its literature and identify with its culture. During this time, monuments of Soviet or Russian rule have disappeared, including 17,000 statues of Lenin and countless pictures of Stalin’s followers. The remaining symbols of the Soviet past have been redesigned – painted yellow and blue, renamed and metaphorically repurposed.

In Kyiv, the Arch of People’s Friendship, originally erected in 1982 as a symbol of Russian-Ukrainian unity, and the massive stainless steel Motherland Monument, originally erected in 1981 to commemorate the soldiers of World War II, have taken on new meaning: they symbolize Ukrainian resistance to the Russian dominance.

Zombieland’s spin faces a strong counter-narrative on location as Ukrainians once again resist attempts to erase their history as they fight for their lives and their land. There are echoes in today’s resistance of many past militant struggles, spanning different eras and generations. It is a story of the continued and determined quest for national survival.

Myroslav Shkandrij, Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Canada, is the most recent author of Revolutionary Ukraine 1917-2017: Flashpoints in History and Contemporary Memory Wars. This article was created in collaboration with Zocalo public square. Ukraine’s long struggle to preserve its culture and independence

Caroline Bleakley

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