Ukraine and Russia share a great deal in the way of history and culture – indeed for long periods in the past, the neighboring countries were part of larger empires encompassing both territories.
But that history – especially during the Soviet period from 1922 to 1991, in which Ukraine was absorbed into the communist bloc – has also bred resentment. Opinions of the merits of the Soviet Union and its leaders diverge, with Ukrainians far less likely to view the period favorably than Russians.
Nonetheless, President Vladimir Putin continues to claim Soviet foundations for what he sees as “historical Russia” – an entity that includes Ukraine.
Stalin’s engineered famine
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ukraine was known as the breadbasket of Europe and later of the Soviet Union. Its rich soil and ample fields made it an ideal place to grow the grain that helped feed the entire continent.
After Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union beginning in 1922, its agriculture was subject to collectivization policies, in which private land was taken over by the Soviets to be worked communally. Anything produced on those lands would be redistributed across the union.
In 1932 and 1933, a famine devastated the Soviet Union as a result of aggressive collectivization coupled with poor harvests.
Millions starved to death across the Soviet Union, but Ukraine felt the brunt of this horror. Research estimates that some 3 million to 4 million Ukrainians died of the famine, around 13% of the population, though the true figure is impossible to establish because of Soviet efforts to hide the famine and its toll.
Scholars note that many of the political decisions of the Soviet regime under Joseph Stalin – such as preventing Ukrainian farmers from traveling in search of food, and severely punishing anyone who took produce from collective farms – made the famine much worse for Ukrainians. These policies were specific to Ukrainians within Ukraine, as well as Ukrainians who lived in other parts of the Soviet Union.
Some historians claim that Stalin’s moves were done to quash a Ukrainian independence movement and were specifically targeted at ethnic Ukrainians. As such, some scholars call the famine a genocide. In Ukrainian, the event is known as “Holodomor,” which means “death by hunger.”
Recognition of the full extent of the Holodomor and implicating Soviet leadership for the deaths remains an important issue in Ukraine to this day, with the country’s leaders long fighting for global recognition of the Holodomor and its impact on modern Ukraine.
But this is not the case in much of the rest of the world.
Just as the the Soviet government of the day denied that there were any decisions that explicitly deprived Ukraine of food – noting that the famine affected the entire country – so too do present-day Russian leaders refuse to acknowledge culpability.
Russia’s refusal to admit that the famine disproportionately affected Ukrainians has been taken by many in Ukraine as an attempt to downplay Ukrainian history and national identity.
Soviet annexation of Western Ukraine
This attempt to suppress Ukrainian national identity continued during and after World War II. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian national movement was concentrated in the western parts of modern-day Ukraine, part of Poland until the Nazi invasion in 1939.
Before Gemany’s invasion, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany entered into a secret agreement, under the guise of the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact, which outlined German and Soviet spheres of influence over parts of central and east Europe.
After Germany invaded Poland, the Red Army moved into the eastern portion of the country under the pretense of stabilizing the failing nation. In reality, the Soviet Union was taking advantage of the provisions laid out in the secret protocol. The Polish territories that now make up western Ukraine were also incorporated into Soviet Ukraine and Belarus, subsuming them into the larger Russian cultural world.
At the end of the war, the territories remained part of the Soviet Union.
Stalin set about suppressing Ukrainian culture in these newly annexed lands in favor of a greater Russian culture. For example, the Soviets repressed any Ukrainian intellectuals who promoted the Ukrainian language and culture through censorship and imprisonment.
This suppression also included liquidating the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a self-governing church that has allegiance to the pope and was one of the most prominent cultural institutions promoting Ukrainian language and culture in these former Polish territories.
Its properties were transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, and many of its priests and bishops were imprisoned or exiled. The destruction of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is still a source of resentment for many Ukrainians. It stands, we believe as scholars, as a clear instance of the Soviets’ intentional efforts to destroy Ukrainian cultural institutions.
The legacy of Chernobyl in Ukraine
Just as disaster marked the early years of Ukraine as a Soviet republic, so did its final years.
In 1986 a nuclear reactor at the Soviet-run Chernobyl nuclear power in the north of Ukraine went into partial meltdown. It remains the worst peacetime nuclear catastrophe the world has seen.
It required the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people in the areas surrounding the power plant. And to this day, approximately 1,000 square miles of Ukraine are part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where radioactive fallout remains high and access is restricted.
Soviet lies to cover up the extent of the disaster – and missteps that would have limited the fallout – only compounded the problem. Emergency personnel were not given proper equipment or training to deal with the nuclear material.
It resulted in a heavy death toll and a higher than normal incidence of radiation-induced disease and complications such as cancer and birth defects among both former residents of the region and the workers sent in to deal with the disaster.
Other Soviet republics and European countries faced the fallout from Chernobyl, but it was the authorities in Ukraine who were tasked with organizing evacuations to Kyiv while Moscow attempted to cover up the scope of the disaster.
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Meanwhile, independent Ukraine has been left to attend to the thousands of citizens who have chronic illnesses and disabilities as a result of the accident.
The legacy of Chernobyl looms large in Ukraine’s recent past and continues to define many people’s memory of living in the Soviet era.
Memories of a painful past
This painful history of life under Soviet rule forms the backdrop to resentment in Ukraine today toward Russia. To many Ukrainians, these are not merely stories from textbooks, but central parts of people’s lives – many Ukrainians are still living with the health and environmental consequences of Chernobyl, for instance.
As Russia amasses troops at Ukraine’s borders, and the threat of an invasion increases, many in Ukraine may be reminded of past attempts by its neighbor to crush Ukrainian independence.
Emily Channell-Justice, Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program, Harvard University and Jacob Lassin, Postdoctoral Research Scholar in Russian and East European Studies, Arizona State University