The year was 1968 in Kiev, capital of Ukraine. The Soviet Union was at the peak of its Cold War power. Czechoslovaka’s Prague Spring revolution had been crushed by the Soviet army just three weeks before. I was one of a group 30 Pennsylvania news people on a Soviet, tightly controlled, tour of Moscow, Prague, Kiev, and the then East and West Berlin.
For now, however, we were in Kiev after a short stay in gloomy Moscow where we were quickly conditioned to strict rules, continual surveillance, and talk of a happy, prosperous, modern, workers’ paradise called the Soviet Union. It did not prepare us for Kiev which was anything but happy although its people were cheerier, friendlier, and its land and cityscapes prettier and better kept than those of Moscow.
The animosity between the people of Kiev and the Russians was palpable. Our first inkling came on the one-hour trip from the airport into the city, a wildly mad drive, during which the Ukrainian driver told our Russian guide that he was showing Americans the skills of Ukrainian bus drivers. This was after the guide, whom the driver treated with obvious disdain, complained about the in-and-out, high-speed thrust through the night-time countryside. That the bus engine threw a rod and stranded us didn’t change his attitude which was very friendly to us, but cold, cold to our Russian guide, Irene.
Even though we eventually were towed (by cable) into Kiev by another bus, the Ukrainians made it a prideful point that we were no longer in Russia, but in Ukraine. Exchanging money in Moscow was very bureaucratic and we were required to keep track of the money we had lest we be charged with smuggling rubles or dollars in or out. The authorities in Kiev didn’t care. Kennedy half-dollars were in high demand and got an eight-to-one exchange. ” Not to worry,” they said. “You’re in Kiev, not Moscow.”
Although the Russians and our guide bragged about how the Soviet Union cherished and preserved the culture and language of Ukraine, this view was not shared by locals who told us privately that all things Ukrainian were put down by the Russians. This was later echoed by a group of touring Canadian-Ukrainians whom we met. Ukraine, then and as it is now, was split by language and loyalties. And, there is reason for resentment.
Many of the Eastern European countries such as Poland and Lithuania, were pawns played in the game of politician chess with the great powers. Ukraine was no different and Crimea, now the hot-spot of Russian invasion, was that in spades. But, Russia dominated. The once-independent Ukraine fell to the Soviet Army in 1919, and millions died of starvation in the Soviet move to collectivize the farms in 1932-33.
The Ukrainians welcomed the German liberation in the 1940s until they began machine gunning the Jews and anyone who questioned them. Kiev lost 100,000 to that and another 100,000 to deportations, not to mention thousands killed fighting. The Germans treated the Slavs nearly as badly as the Jews so there was not much resistance to Russian liberation/occupation after the war.
Nonetheless, in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine reclaimed its independence. It has been a struggle since and by actions within the last week, it appears mother Russia will likely, re-impose its sovereignty over Ukraine. It is doubtful that Ukraine will be permitted to (or that they want to) split into Ukrainian and Russian spheres. Russian President Putin wants to return to the glory of the Soviet times and that must make nervous the people of the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and the Czechs and Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians. They have all tasted the lash and power of Russia.
The power now is not necessarily the army but the energy (gas and oil) that Russia controls and supplies. Those are powerful weapons and Putin has used them powerfully. Don’t expect him to back off any opportunity he sees. It doesn’t bode well for Ukraine any more than it did for the part of Georgia that Russia now occupies.