The Future of the Past: The Ukraine Crisis in the Historical Perspective

August 2015
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The post-imperial history of empires and their former subjects can provide important insights into Ukraine’s present and future. Former metropolises have usually found it hard to let go of their imperial past. An example of this is the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, which played an important role in Ukrainian history—a decline full of wars and conflicts. Turning to the history of East Central Europe, it is tempting to see Hitler’s empire-building efforts as a continuation of the Habsburg tradition of continental European imperialism. The Suez crisis of 1956, which saw the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France, reminds one of the difficulties of imperial Britain and France in parting with their colonial possessions and roles in the region. Russian temptation to rewrite history and restore its dominance over the former imperial state is increased by the fact that the new state borders created numerous ethnic minorities, some of them Russian in ethnic or cultural terms, that the newly independent states find hard to integrate.   

Independent Ukraine first emerged from the disintegration of the Romanov and Habsburg empires in 1918. Its autonomous governing institutions were formed after the Russian Revolution as the Bolsheviks tried desperately to maintain control of the nations of the former Russian Empire. Like many other nations, Ukraine was divided between several states during the interwar period, and its internationally recognized territory grew during and after World War II at the expense of the weak nationalizing interwar states of Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, which struggled but failed to assimilate their minorities. Finally, the independence of the present-day Ukrainian state came as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union, a multiethnic polity with a strong imperial tradition and global reach. Ukraine may have been an “unexpected nation” to the rest of the world, but its rise to independence was relatively long and gradual, conforming to general world trends of the twentieth century.

Historically, Ukraine is of course far from unique. Large minorities were part and parcel of every post-World War I state in Eastern Europe—Ukrainians know that, as they found themselves in some of those states. Most of them, with the notable exception of Czechoslovakia, tried to force Ukrainians and other minorities to renounce their native languages and cultures and join the titular nation. That did not work very well, to say the least. The minorities did not rebel on their own, but World War II provided the incentive and means for them to turn their backs on their home states, which sometimes led to massacres and ethnic cleansing. At the end of the war, the victorious great powers drew new borders and resettled populations to turn the nationalizing states into national ones by reducing their territory and “repatriating” their populations. The initiative and muscle came from the Soviet Union, which was happy to extend its territory in the name of the “reunification” of Ukrainians previously beyond Moscow’s control.

Where does this leave Ukraine with its significant ethnic Russian population, which numbers more than 8 million people and more than 17 percent of the country’s population? Independent Ukraine presents a rather special case when it comes to its treatment of minorities. Not unlike interwar Czechoslovakia, it has never used force or coercion to deal with its minorities, Russians in particular, and the Russians of Ukraine have failed not only to rebel but even to mobilize in defense of rights that were never violated. The Russian government, like the German government back in 1938, has used the issue of minority rights to destabilize its neighbor and justify its aggression. But the mobilization of the ethnic Russian and Russian...

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