The ‘Borderland’ – Ukrainian Identity,
Past and Present
It is Day 53 of the war in Ukraine and just this week I was thinking to myself, fearing, I was becoming used to or numb to the stories, the images, the horrors coming out of Ukraine. And then I saw a picture of a boy, Danylo, holding on to his cat as he was finally being evacuated out of the besieged city of Mariupol. The boy’s face is hidden, and you can only see the terrified eyes of the cat and the boy’s hands hugging it. And in this hug, you can feel all the injustice of this war, of every war, from the beginning till the end of time.
Since the early morning of 24 February when the Russian army moved into Ukraine for no apparent reason and began a large-scale war aimed at crushing the country, and its people I am in awe of Ukrainians. I keep wondering where these people came from, where did their politicians, their soldiers, their women and children, even their pets, where did they all come from? Looking defiantly back from the horrible pictures of death, destruction, rape and looting, are faces full of dignity, resolve, humanity, compassion. Even when they are pleading for help to the rest of the world, they remain dignified. And it is as if they are holding a mirror to our faces, forcing us to see who we truly are, deep down inside, how brave are we, or how scared.
I think of great works of art and literature where suffering often elevates its subjects to martyrdom. Is this what has happened, I wonder? Did this brutally unjust war somehow lift these ordinary people and make them heroes? Or have these proud Slavic people always been there, at the edge of modern Europe, fighting a fight of belonging that we had not noticed until now.
Ukraine’s early history
One interpretation of the word Ukraine means “borderland”, the land between Europe to the West and Russia to the East. The name first appears in the history of Eastern Europe with the establishment of Kyivan Rus, a Kingdom that rose to power in the Middle Ages. Its foundation is shrouded in that typical borderland mystery and debates continue to this day whether it was the Varangians – Viking warrior-traders who founded it or the local Eastern Slavic tribes that united it. Its first ruler Prince Oleh established the capital in Kyiv paving the ways for Kyivan Rus to become the largest and most powerful state in Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Kingdom adopted Christianity from Byzantine, becoming part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and fought centuries of wars with the advancing tribes from Asia Minor, finally falling to Mongol rule in the mid-thirteenth century. All three countries – Belarus, Ukraine and Russia consider Kyivan Rus its origin. However, this shared heritage, instead of bringing the countries together has become the subject of bitter dispute, denial and a justification for Russia’s imperial ambition.
After the decline of Kyivan Rus different parts of it came to be ruled by the Golden Horde, the Kingdom of Poland and the Crimean Khanate. After Russia defeated the latter, the lands of Ukraine were split between the Russian Empire and the Hungarian Empire for the next one hundred years continuing the division between East and West.
Out of the Bolshevik victory in the October Revolution of 1917 and the rubble of the Russian Empire on 30 December 1922 the Soviet Union was declared and Ukraine became one of its founding Republics. Initially the capital of the newly independent republic was in Kharkiv and later on it moved to Kyiv. In the first years, through a process known as Ukrainization, Ukrainian language and culture were elevated in social status and ethnic Ukrainian politicians promoted into leadership positions both in Kyiv, as well as in Moscow. This included two of the Soviet Union’s leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev who both had Ukrainian origin. Despite this important role in the new Soviet country, Ukrainians also suffered tremendously during Stalin’s reign. In 1932 and 1933 a wide-spread famine took place across the Soviet Union as the grain crop failed and left millions to starve, this affected Ukraine particularly heavily as it was one of the largest grain producers of the Soviet Republics. Many believe the Holodomor, as it is known in Ukraine, meaning Great or Terror Famine was engineered by Stalin who ordered thousands of tons of wheat to be taken from Ukraine, as a means to suppress Ukrainian independence and dissent.
The end of the Cold War and Ukrainian independence
In 1991 as the Cold War came to an end and Russia dissolved the Soviet Union, Ukraine, along with the other fourteen Soviet Republics became independent countries. In 1994 the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed, which guaranteed the political independence and territorial integrity of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. It was signed by Russia, the United States of America and Britain, in exchange for these guarantees, the countries handed over their nuclear weapons to Russia.
For everyone who lived east of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War was a disruptive, difficult but also exciting time. Living standards collapsed, hyper-inflation wiped out people’s savings and basic goods like food and medicines became a luxury; public services all but disappeared and we were left to the brutal force of the free market where speculation was rife, thugs ruled the streets and oligarchs privatized everything that was previously public property. But despite the hardship, this was also a time of unparalleled hope and optimism. A time of freedom, a time when we believed the worst was behind us and now, we can re-take our rightful place in Europe and start re-imagining our future together.
Many of the countries of Eastern Europe, formerly in the Soviet sphere of influence, oriented their political futures towards Europe and away from Russia, starting a process of integration with the European Union and NATO. However, the former Soviet Republics, like Ukraine, found it more difficult to emancipate themselves. With large Russian-speaking populations and strategic interests, Russia continued to exercise control and interfere in the internal affairs of the newly independent countries. This led to a series of Colour Revolutions which took place across many former Soviet Republics, including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in November 2004. The protesters alleged fraud in the 2004 Presidential elections and contested the results in favour of pro-Russian candidate – Viktor Yanukovych. During the presidential elections the opposition and pro-European, candidate Viktor Yushchenko also suffered an assassination attempt, allegedly by Russia. He became seriously ill and had to be transported to a hospital in Vienna, where doctors confirmed he had been poisoned with dioxin, possibly during a dinner with Ukrainian politicians with links to Russia. Despite this, Yushchenko survived and went on to win the vote re-count, becoming President in 2005. However, in the 2010 presidential election, Yanukovych came back and this time won the elections. His leadership led a policy of closer integration with Russia, as well as wide-spread corruption, and led to another uprising starting in February 2014, known as Euromaidan Revolution. Protesters called for closer ties with Europe including, joining the European Union and NATO and led to deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, eventually ousting the Russia-backed president Victor Yanukovych who had to flee the country with Russian help.
Seeing its influence diminish, these events angered Russia and triggered first the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and in August later that year it sent paramilitary troops to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The formal claim was that Russians living in these areas were being denied their rights and discriminated and that is why Russia was coming to their protection. The truth is that these claims were never independently verified or confirmed. Despite being one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Russia never made use of the existing mechanisms that the UN Charter provided – for investigative expert missions, special rapporteurs, peacekeepers, etc. Indeed, these mechanisms are often slow and flawed but Russia never even tried to use them. For many Ukrainians in the Eastern parts of the country the war became a reality already then.
Political turmoil continued, the 2019 presidential elections were a peculiar case of life imitating art – when a young actor and comedian – Volodymyr Zelenskyy, famous for a TV show called “Servant of the People” in which he plays a comedian elected to be president, became the newly elected president of Ukraine. Tensions with Russia continued to escalate but it is still unclear what exactly caused the Russian military forces to openly attack Ukraine and try to take the capital Kyiv.
In a speech just before the invasion Russian President Putin justified this once again with the protection of Russian-speaking minority, a narrative which had been developing since the Euromaidan protests. However, he also went further to challenge the very existence of Ukraine and Ukrainian people, by claiming that Kyivan Rus was a Russian kingdom and that there has never been an independent Ukraine or a Ukrainian people, thus denying Ukrainians their identity, their past as, well as their future.
The denial of Ukrainian identity and history is not the only parallel that can be drawn with the past. Russian troops have also reportedly stolen thousands of tons of grain from Ukraine and have blockaded grain in Ukrainian ports, causing a surge in the price of wheat worldwide and a shortage across Africa and the Middle East. Russian troops have also stolen and destroyed agricultural machinery combine harvesters and tractors worth millions of dollars putting at risk this year’s harvest. The reference to Holodomor is impossible to be missed.
Some in the West blamed not only Russia for this invasion, but also NATO which was advancing Eastwards despite Russian objections. But for anyone who has lived long enough in geographical proximity with Russia it is clear that this started long before NATO enlargement. For countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence Russia never ceased to be a threat. As our countries moved closer to integrating in the EU and NATO structures, Russia became more aggressive in asserting its influence. This happened in Georgia in 2008 when Russian military invaded the country and toppled the democratically elected and pro-European government and replace it with a pro-Russian one. This pattern was followed in the case of Ukraine as well, but as Russia failed to win the initial stage of the war, it is now positioning itself for a protracted war on different fronts.
Eastern European countries and peoples on the other hand, intuitively understand that what Ukraine is experiencing is a very real threat to us all and this sends shivers down our collective spines. And it is out of this understanding that the biggest support for Ukraine and for Ukraine’s refugees stems from. That is why societies that have seen be very reluctant to take in and support refugees from other crises such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, have now taken in the majority of the 5.3 million refugees that have fled Ukraine (there are an additional 6.5 million that are internally displaced). Of these the overwhelming majority are in Poland – nearly 3 million, in Romania 800,000, in Moldova over 400,000 (when its population is 4 million), in Bulgaria nearly 70,000.
The UK and Ukraine
The UK is also increasingly becoming a destination for Ukrainians – before the war there were an estimated relatively small population of around 38,000 and most of them lived in London’s boroughs of Newham, Ealing, Hounslow and Waltham Forest. Recruiters for low-skilled agricultural jobs had started looking further East to countries like Ukraine and Moldova even before Brexit unfolded and workers from Eastern European EU countries started leaving the UK. Employers in these sectors were already seeing shortages of workers, and the government re-introduced a work visa scheme for seasonal workers for these two countries – covering agriculture, animal farming and lorry driving. Most new arrivals came to the UK through this route.
The war saw both the UK government and the public respond swiftly and with strong statements of support for Ukrainian refugees. When the government announced the scheme Homes for Ukraine, allowing UK nationals to sponsor refugees to come and live in their homes, the public response was incredible – around 10,000 applied only in the first day with thousands more joining after that. People were prepared to open their homes to those fleeing Putin’s bombs and aggression. Despite the initial support however, the actual implementation of the scheme has been slow and met with delays, red-tape and inefficiency. No changes were made for Ukrainians to enter, and they continued to need to apply for visa to come to the UK, unlike the rest of the EU where they can travel visa-free. The family reunification visa also remained limited to immediate family and was difficult to operate. As a result, the number of arrivals remain relatively low – under 20,000 from both the family reunification and the sponsorship scheme.
Despite these difficulties, as the public support for migrants and refugees increases, and as the war continues with no end in sight, at least there is hope for children like Danylo. Hope that they can have their childhood back, if not in their own home, then at least in the homes of caring and compassionate strangers.
Yva Alexandrova is a Bulgarian writer and international migration expert. Her book “Here to Stay” deals with the lived experiences of Eastern European migrants in the UK in the past decade and examines changing attitudes and perceptions).
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