Ukraine Then and Now: Origins

Part One of a series: Contradictions abound
By Walter Ruby
November 13, 2019

In September 1991, a month after Ukraine first asserted its sovereignty, but more than three months before the final breakup of the Soviet Union, I was in Kiev to witness the historic ceremony at which authorities acknowledged for the first time that the vast majority of those murdered in the nearby Babi Yar massacre pit during World War II were Jews.

It was a key moment in the history of a country and a people that has long struggled with its relationship to the Jews. Atrocities against the Jews occurred in all regions of Ukraine, and not only perpetrated by Germans. Michael's town of Skala was in formerly Polish territory but had been part of the Ukraine SSR since 1939. Antisemitic behavior among the local Ukrainian natives was rampant. Yet Michael's saviors also came from the Ukrainian people. 

I traveled extensively in Ukraine and other parts of Soviet Union as a journalist covering international Jewish affairs in the 1980s and ‘90s, and have returned to Kiev numerous times since then to visit family members of my Ukrainian-born wife. Coauthoring the autobiography of Michael Edelstein provided a deeper look into the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in a typical Ukrainian town.

So I have a rounded perspective on Ukraine and its history that leads me to write this series of six blog posts on Ukraine Then and Now. I'll set it up with a brief primer on Ukraine history, and then in future posts I will get into themes of antisemitism, collaboration, nationalism, Communism and independence.

At the end, I'll tie it back to Michael's story with some speculations on how his life might have been different if he he'd been born in a town on the other side of the river—not in Poland but in the Ukrainian SSR, a part of the Soviet Union since shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Origin story

Contradictions abound concerning Ukraine, a country torn between East and West, the name of which literally means “borderlands”.

The country of about 233,000 square miles is the largest country located entirely within Europe. It lies southwest of Russia and also borders Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, Ukraine has a population of about 42 million people excluding the Crimean Peninsula, an integral part of independent Ukraine that was illegally occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014. The United States and most of the world still recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine.

The history of Ukraine can be said to commence with the emergence of Kievan Rus, a powerful East Slavic state that adopted Christianity just before the year 1000; thereby starting the process of spreading Eastern Orthodox Christianity—imported from Byzantine Empire—throughout Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. After the Mongol Invasion of 1240 utterly destroyed Kievan Rus, the territory that became modern day Ukraine was fought over for hundreds of years by LithuaniaPoland, the Ottoman Empire and Russia.

Cossack republic emerged during a revolt against Poland in the 1650’s—a bloody rebellion which, as we shall see, led to the widespread slaughter of Jews. Ukraine was divided between Russia and Poland in the 1650’s and, 150 years later, between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Those divisions created a country split between a mainly Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west, which included the area around Skala. 

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin instituted a forced collectivization of agriculture

During World War I, Ukraine was overrun by the forces of Imperial Germany, but after that country’s surrender to the Western powers in 1918; Ukraine became caught up in the civil war that erupted after the Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, with Red and White armies causing widespread devastation as they battled across the breadth of Ukraine. The Reds finally won, and in the early 1930’s Soviet dictator Josef Stalin instituted a forced collectivization of agriculture which caused the Holodomor (Great Famine), during which millions of Ukrainian peasants perished.Conditions were not as dire in western Ukraine, which was included in the territory of Poland, reborn as an independent state after 130 years.

Yet as the 1920’s and 1930’s progressed, there was ever-increasing friction between Polish state authorities and a growing Ukrainian national movement. with the area’s large Jewish population caught uneasily in between. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union together invaded and destroyed Poland in 1939, with the Soviets grabbing western Ukraine and imposing the repressive Communist system on the population there. By June, 1941, as the Germans prepared to unleash Operation Barbarossa upon the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians were ready to throw in their lot with the Germans. 


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The sweep of Ukraine history from the Golden Horde to the Trump era. And in between they wiped out the Jews. I look forward to reading your future posts in this series. 

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 15:56 Permalink

In reply to by dan

Reply by logged in user.

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 16:24 Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"Contradictions" is an understatement.

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 16:11 Permalink

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Part One of a series: Contradictions abound

Munye's World

By the Ruby Brothers


Munye's World