Ukraine holds a special place in my heart. Perhaps because I fell in love at a very early age with Timusz Hmelnitzky, the handsome son of hetman Bohdan Hmelnitsky, leader of the fierce Ukrainian Cossacks of the 17th century. Timusz was the one who conquered the heart of princess Ruxandra, my Moldavian homonym of the 16 hundreds. In any case, almost 5 centuries later, this story definitely inspired me to look closer at Ukraine when I wrote my doctoral thesis. The research I did was about Europe’s borderlands, of which Ukraine is not only a geographical expression, but also a name. U-krajna means border in Ukrainian.
At the time of my travels to Kiev, where I spent a couple of months in a block of flats on Chernobilskaia Ulitza and many many hours in archives that insisted on remaining resolutely shut in the face of too much inquisitiveness, the Cossacks, with their colourful history of noble brigands and stubbornness, caught between Russian oppression and Polish opportunism, were an adventurous and friendly companion to my exploration of Ukrainian history. From it I learnt that, much as Ukrainian politicians try periodically to convince their own people of the opposite , Ukraine is painfully split along an East/West division of political preferences, cultural traditions and allegiances. Russia will never cease to loom large over the country, with its long industrial and political arm that keeps Donetsk, the Ukrainian industry heartland, close to its core, and Europe will continue to be the dream of a part of the country that feels closer to the Poles, the Germans and the Romanians. Not the EU, but the European dream of justice, peace and equity, that the Union still painfully hangs on to, without delivering. Much like their ancestors the Cossacks, the people now on the streets of Kiev, appear to be a formidable force, standing up for their cause. They are ready for just about whatever it may take to get their demands thorough and oust Yanukovitch and his clique. But here’s the rub: they already did that. 7 years ago. And somehow the past, in the shape of this president, and in the shape of Russia, came back to haunt them, slowly but rather surely. When I visited Ukraine in 2006, the feeling I had was of being in the Romania of 1996. It felt the country was at a crossroads, from where it could go East or West. The public discourse and the people claimed they wanted to keep both in a harmonious blend.
But in that region, so close to Moscow, and relatively far from Vienna, Brussels and Paris, even Warsaw, such choices don’t quite seem to work. Whichever choice is made, there’s always going to be a little too much Russia for EU tastes and a little too much yearning for transparency and accountability for Russian standards. Bohdan Hmelnitsky, the Ukrainian hetman, started his path to glory through an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, succeeding to establish for a short while a relatively strong Cossack state. This entity suffered blows coming from the Poles, and tried to ally with the Porte and the Moldavians in order to resist, but soon enough, Bohdan Khmelnytsky found himself signing the treaty of Pereyaslav for protection, with the Russians. It was the beginning of the Ukrainian decline and assimilation of the Cossacks.
Due to their difficult geopolitical position Ukraine and the Ukrainians will always have difficult choices to make and will always be alone to make them.
Russia does as it has always done, and leaves them with not much choice other than a past they know and can’t get rid of.
Now, if Europe really wanted to give Ukraine a choice introducing something that is actually new, maybe it should not invite Ukrainians to sign a partnership in Vilnius, a capital city that evokes the defeats of the past.
With music from the Taras Bulba opera, by Mykola Lysenko.
ALSO ON PODCASTSUISSE.CH