This week I am continuing with some reflections on the situation in Ukraine. In the previous column, I referred to the late Professor Lev Dobriansky, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, who articulated the essential relationship between Russa and Ukraine when he referred to Ukraine as being the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union. An economist, he used a simple mathematical equation to describe the interaction between the Soviet Union and Ukraine as: U.S.S.R. – Ukraine = Zero.
His point was to demonstrate that the broad, fertile plains of Ukraine kept the Soviet Union supplied with the grain it needed to maintain its dominance over its member states. Under the stagnant system of Planned Economy as instituted by Stalin, the wheat production coming out of Ukraine was increasingly insufficient to meet the need, thereby forcing foreign grain purchasing.
A joke at the time described an apocryphal meeting of the Soviet Politburo at which the then Chairman, Leonid Brezhnev, said that he had experienced a terrible dream that the whole world had gone communist. One of the members retorted, “But Comrade Leonid, that is our goal. You had a wonderful dream,” to which Brezhnev replied, “If the whole world goes communist, where will we buy our wheat.”
When I was in school, politicians and the media would refer to Ukraine as “The Ukraine.” Regrettably, some still do, an indication of their failure to grasp the significance of the difference between Russia and Ukraine. The dropping of the article, “The,” among those knowledgeable of the status was another contribution from Professor Dobriansky, who also served for many years as the president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. He said that as we would not say “The France” or “The Poland,” we should not say, “The Ukraine.”
In speaking of the relationship between Ukraine and America, we might overlook the fact that Chicago contains the second largest population of Ukrainians of any city in the world, exceed only by Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. As Ukrainians fled the terrorism of the Stalinist period, America offered hope for a better future, and in this country, they gravitated to Chicago, Pittsburgh and other northern population centers.
In 1944, Ukrainian scholars in America founded The Ukrainian Quarterly, an excellent journal that offers perspectives on history, society, economics and politics, along with well-developed book reviews. As a language, Ukrainian is similar to Russian, but distinctly is its own entity linguistically, all of which brings us to the topic of Russification.
As early as the 17th century, the Muscovite rulers began the process of Russification, that is, trying to force the non-Russian minorities over which they ruled to use the Russian language and to think of themselves as Russian. Ironically, the two greatest proponents of Russification were non-Russian themselves.
In the 18th century the Empress Catherine II, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, was herself a German princess. Her birth name was Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, and she took power after the overthrow of her husband, Peter III, who was also her second cousin. Throughout her reign she attempted to require the Ukrainians and other nationalities under her rule to speak Russian and to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the 20th century, her legacy was continued, oddly, by Joseph Stalin, himself a Georgian peasant, who through the machinations of communist intrigue was able to hold power following Lenin’s death in 1924 until his own demise in 1953. We often concentrate on the brutality of his regime with its purges, show trials and gulags, causing us to overlook his own campaign for Russification. In the end, in that regard he succeeded no more successfully than had Catherine.
This discussion brings us to Vladimir Putin, now as I write sending Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine, another step in his attempt to put back the non-Russian minorities into a conglomerate of nations and peoples under Russian hegemony. His success in the re-taking of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 clearly presaged this current imperialist foray.
I close thinking of President Eisenhower’s fondness for quoting the philosopher George Santayana, who said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”