A Tale of Two Brothers: Ukraine-Russia
Written by Kerem
Russians and Ukrainians, people of the same lands and roots, yet separated like two branches of a river. People that are now fighting each other, while praying to the same God. People that shared the same tears and smiles, yet far enough from each other to shed one another's blood on the soil which has raised them both. “What caused this tragedy?”, “What is the reason behind?”, “What fuels all this hatred?” Those are some of the questions which we all have been asking ourselves. Since the beginning of the conflict between the two countries, we all have been hearing different opinions from countless sources. But do we know, “What this is all about as one solid piece?” or “What we have heard is wrong, and what is correct?” ?
For example, “who are the Ukrainians?”. According to the notorious speech of Vladimir Putin, this term was founded by Lenin and they are part of the Russian nation. But is this all that simple? After all, we have a sovereign state with its own language and anthem. Ukrainians, or with their older name, Ruthenians are a part of the Eastern Slavic people, even though they are in the same group as Russians and Byelorussians, claiming that they are all the same is like rejecting the differences between you and your siblings. The first appearance of Ukrainians in history was the Kievan Rus in the 9th century. It was founded by a Viking prince named Rurik. This state is claimed by both Russia and Ukraine, but the truth lies in between, as the bond between these two nations was very strong back then. However, in the 13th century, the state fell to the Mongolian invasion and this was the start of the split between these two nations. During this period, both Ukrainians and Russians were vassalised by Mongolians. Later on, Russians established the Grand Duchy of Moscow, however Ukrainians endured foreign rule by various nations, and even Lithuanians once had a grip on their lands.
Image: Map of Kyivan Rus, Ian Mladjov, mappingeasterneurope.princeton.edu
Image: Distribution of East Slavic languages, Wikipedia.org
Yellow: Ukrainian, Orange: Rusyn, Light green: Byelorussian, Dark green: Russian
In the 17th century, with the creation of the Cossack Hetmanate, Ukrainians gained their independence after centuries. But also, this started a schism between Eastern and Western Ukrainians as this all happened with Russian support and on the western bank of Dnieper, people favoured the Polish-Lithuanian rule. However, the entirety of Ukraine soon fell under the rule of Russia with the exception of Galicia being taken by Austrians. For Russians, Ukranians were only a sect of Russians named Malorussians, but for the Ukrainians, the dream of independence was still in their minds.
During this period, there were many Ukrainian intellectuals who advocated for independence and protected the Ukrainian heritage despite the efforts of assimilation, the most important one of them being Taras Shevchenko. In 1917, the Ukrainian state declared its independence, after the withdrawal of Russia from World War 1 with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. However, this was only for a short period before the newly founded USSR invaded the country once again. One could argue that this was the period when the division between two nations turned into hostility. At the start, Ukrainians received autonomy and had their own republic in the union, under the name of Ukrainian SSR, but as soon as Stalin took the charge, things started to change. His forced policies on the Ukrainian landowners and farmers caused a human-made famine followed by the eradication of millions of Ukrainians. Thanks to the forced isolation of the republic from the rest of the world and the union. Also known as Holodomor, this incident is the main cause of the hostility between the two nations, despite the cultural oppression under the rule of the Russian Empire.
Image: Map of Eastern Europe in 1914, Roy Winkelman, etc.usf.edu
Image: Ukrainian ethnic presence in 1901, Albert H. Bumstead, National Library of Australia
Image: Map of the USSR, Maps-Russia.com
After the Cold War with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ukrainians were once again free in their homeland. However, the situation was far from the ideal , despite the optimistic atmosphere. Russia wasn't prepared to lose its once-called breadbasket. The first issue to appear was the Nuclear arsenal of the newly founded Ukrainian state, which was inherited from the Soviet Union. This issue was solved with an agreement between Ukraine, Russia and the USA, with the promise of recognition of their integrity and sovereignty, as well as financial aid from the USA, Ukraine agreed to deactivate its nuclear arsenal. Another important agreement is the one signed by both NATO and Russia, where Russia vocalised that they wouldn't intervene if any of the ex-soviet states wanted to join NATO, in return, NATO promised not to station any nuclear forces in the territories of the newly accepted members. Everything looked bright for everyone during this period, with the eastern economies becoming stabilised and the Cold War being left in the dusty pages of history.
Image: Collapse of the Soviet Union, https://www.freeman-pedia.com/
The Munich Security Conference in 2007 was the end of that period of optimism, with Putin's notorious speech. This was then followed by the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the start of Russia's intervention in the Syrian Civil War on the side of local dictator Bashar al-Asad. During this period, one important incident happened in Ukraine was “the Orange Revolution”. This happened after the election in 2004, where the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych won by a small margin. People protested in the streets claiming that the elections were rigged and that a new election was necessary. They were successful in their cause, and with the decision of the Ukrainian Supreme Court, a new election was held, where pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko won the election. However, Yanukovych was later elected president in the upcoming elections, which led to the Euromaidan protests. After Yanukovych refused to sign the long-discussed trade and association agreement between the EU and Ukraine in 2013, due to favouring Russia as a trade partner, massive demonstrations ignited in Ukraine. People demanded the resignation of Yanukovych and protests soon became violent due to the aggressive response of the police. In February 2014, Yanukovych fled the country and the protests were successful. The deal between the EU and Ukraine was signed later on, but was it that simple? In March 2014, Russia, dissatisfied with the events in Ukraine, indirectly sent troops into Crimea and annexed it with an election after pro-Russian troops seized control of the peninsula. Also, Russia supported the separatists in Donbas, in order to pressure Ukraine even more. However, those actions only increased hostility which has led to the recent events.
Besides all these things, there is also a long-lasting dispute about identity. The name "Ukraine" etymologically means "at the border" or "the borderlands", so in some sense, one could claim this is an artificial name. However, this is not the first name used for the people of Ukraine, the name Ruthenian was used long before, which derived from the word "Rus'". So to summarise things, Ukrainian heritage relies on Kyivan Rus, and this is the root of the dispute. We can see from many things, such as the Ukrainian currency and their national emblem, how the heritage of Kyivan Rus is still visible. On the other hand, Russia is acting similarly by erecting statues of Kyivan rulers such as Vladimir the Great in Moscow, who was the first Kievan ruler to convert to the Christian faith. From the Russian perspective, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Russians are the same people, who are all members of a greater Russia.
As they claim the Kyivan Rus all for themselves, this automatically leads to the rejection of the existence of a separate Ukrainian identity from Russia. For the Ukrainian part, they see themselves as the righteous successors of the Kievan Rus, which hosted all the eastern Slavic people under its roof. Prior to recent events , this was even a dispute among the Ukrainian population, but since what has happened, we could say that Ukrainians are now more firmly united in their national claims. Furthermore, one could say that this whole situation might have created a Ukrainian identity, stronger than ever, by reminding people of all their struggles throughout history, all at once.
In conclusion, we could say that a close connection doesn't necessarily guarantee a close relationship, in fact, it could even mean the opposite. Even for two brothers that were raised under the same roof, by the same mother.
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