Russia was not the only country to occupy Ukraine in the 20th century; the Nazis, with their own genocidal agenda, also did so. Timothy Snyder argues that Nazi policies, which referred to Ukrainians as Afrikaner or as Neger – including the Hunger Plan to starve millions of people in the winter of 1941, the Generalplan Ost to forcibly transport or kill millions more thereafter, and the “final solution” to exterminate the Jews – were centered on Ukraine; consequently some 3.5 million civilian inhabitants of Ukraine – of which an estimated 1.5 million were Jews – were killed by the Nazis, in addition to roughly another 3 million inhabitants of Ukraine who died as soldiers fighting against the Nazis or indirectly as a consequence of the war. Russian historians have calculated that more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in WWII than inhabitants of Soviet Russia; more Ukrainians died fighting against the Nazis than French, British and Americans put together. At the end of the war, Ukrainians were subjected once more to Stalin’s rule.
Almost miraculously, the Ukrainian sense of national identity survived this horrendous history, and in the referendum of 1991, 84% of the population participated and more than 92% voted for independence from the Soviet Union. When the votes are disaggregated by region, it is notable that every region had a majority in favor; the lowest majority (54%) was in Crimea, but in each of the majority-Russian-speaking Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, over 83% voted in favor. This was partly because citizenship was defined not ethnically but inclusively, and although the constitution adopted in 1996 proclaimed that the state language would be Ukrainian, it also promised that “the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed”; again, that “The State promotes the consolidation and development of the Ukrainian nation, its historical consciousness, traditions and culture, and also the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of all indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine.” The positive outcome of the referendum cannot be attributed to interference by the United States, because Pres. George H.W. Bush was strongly opposed to independence for Ukraine.
This history puts Soviet-controlled Ukraine firmly in the category of colonies, and in fact one which has suffered more than many others. Most of us refer to colonies and former colonies of Western imperial powers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as the “Third World” or “Global South,” sharply distinguished from the imperial powers that exploited and oppressed them, yet we are guilty of lumping together the imperial power with its colonies and former colonies in the Soviet Union. From this perspective, the disintegration of the Soviet Union can be seen as an ongoing process of decolonization, and Ukraine’s struggle for independence as being necessary, as Lenin said, to permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs. [Continue reading…]