Molly Guinness

The Spectator – on 400 years of unease between Ukraine and Russia

Ukraine declared independence from the USSR in 1991, but Moscow has made sure it’s remained heavily involved in Kiev’s affairs ever since. That has been relatively simple. Soon before independence, Anne Applebaum described how Russia’s ruthless annexation of its neighbour had left Ukraine without much identity of its own.

‘It took 350 years of Czarist domination, several decades of Stalinist purges, two collectivisation-induced mass famines, two world wars, and the refusal to teach Ukrainian children how to speak Ukrainian, along with the systematic elimination of anyone who might be thought a leader, an intellectual, a capitalist, or even a wealthy peasant. But they did it. The Russians have managed to rob 53 million people of their culture, to impoverish an economy which supplies one-third of the Soviet Union’s food and one-fifth of its industrial products, and in effect to destroy the largest nation in the world without its own state.’

Two years later, Ukrainians were gripped by fear that Russia would try to take away their new, hard-won freedom. An MP Applebaum spoke to cited the 17th century as evidence of the untrustworthiness of the Russians: 

‘If you know about 1654 [when Ukrainian rebels defeated their Polish overlords then were cheated out of their freedom by Russians], then you know that we cannot ever sign treaties with Russians, because we will always be cheated.’ He stared at me fiercely, moustaches quivering. ‘They want to bring our independence to an end. It has happened before, and it will happen again.’ 

The original bone of contention for this year’s protesters was a decision by Viktor Yanukovych to abandon a trade treaty with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia. The same argument played a part in the 2004 Orange Revolution when Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by Viktor Yushchenko after a controversial election.

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