By Callie Hietala
Janet Demiray, a Patrick County native and former counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, recently visited the Patrick County and Martinsville branches of the Blue Ridge Regional Library system to discuss Ukraine’s long history and answer questions.
The ongoing Russian invasion began on Feb. 24 and has already resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the displacement of millions of people.
Demiray lived in Moscow for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in Poland from 1982-1985, and worked at the embassy from 2001 until 2005. She has returned almost every year between then and 2019, either as a speaker or as an election observer.
“I don’t think we can overstate the impact, the shock, of a massive military invasion of a sovereign nation in Europe in the 21st century,” Demiray said to about 20 people gathered in the Martinsville library on Saturday. “Nothing on this scale has happened since World War II. This is a fight for the survival of the Ukrainian nation.”
Demiray spent much of her presentation discussing the history of Ukraine, which she described as an “old nation in a young state,” having only gained full independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin “has put forth the idea that Ukraine is really not a country, it really doesn’t have a history or identity except as part of Russia, I think this is something that needs examining and emphasizing that Ukraine does have its own story,” she said.
“Their story is one of trying to find their own place in a region with more powerful neighbors. While many parts of their history are tragic and bloody, the Ukrainian nation has largely not sought conquest, but the right to rule themselves in their own homeland and to define for themselves who are Ukrainians and what is Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s long history
That history began, Demiray said, when the first real state centered in Ukrainian lands, Kyivan Rus’, was founded by Vikings traveling from Scandinavia to establish trade routes and established power in Kyiv. Kyivan Rus’ came to an end on when the city of Kyiv was captured by Mongols in 1240. The ruler at the time, Prince Danylo of Galicia, became a vassal of the Mongols, as did the princes of other cities, including Moscow, which had been established in 1147.
Demiray said the Mongol rulers created the office of the grand prince of Rus to help them collect tribute from their subjects. Eventually, Moscow won the struggle for that office and moved the seat of the Orthodox Church, which originated in Kyivan Rus’, to Moscow. That, Demiray explained, is the basis for Russia’s claim that the Russians and Ukrainians are one people, with Russia taking on the role of the dominant “older brother.”
Eventually, the Mongols withdrew from Eastern Europe and the area they had conquered was divided between the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania.
In 1476, Grand Prince Ivan III, the first ruler of Moscow to call himself tsar, declared independence from the remaining Mongols still exerting power over the area and began a campaign of “gathering Rus’ lands,” during which he took over several city states and even laid claim to lands that were outside of the former Mongol realm, including those in what is now Ukraine.
In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a military chief (hetman) of a group of rural Ukrainians known as Cossacks, led a revolt against Polish rule in Ukraine which forced the Polish king to recognize an independent Cossack state in 1649. Just a few years later, in 1651, the Cossacks were abandoned by their Crimean Tartar allies, which resulted in Khmelnytsky signing the Treaty of Pereiaslave with Russian Tsar Aleksei.
According to Demiray, this treaty is “a bone of contention in Russian-Ukrainian history to this day. Russian history regards it a reunification of Ukraine and Russia, but Ukrainian historians believe the Cossacks viewed the treaty as more of a contract in which the Cossacks pledged loyalty and military service in exchange for protection by the tsar, thinking they were not giving up their autonomous state.
“The tsar however, saw the opportunity to gather more of the historic Rus’ lands that he thought belonged by right to Muscovy (Moscow), and this was the first big step of Russia into what is now Ukrainian lands. Future tsars of Russia would enlarge the area controlled by the Russian empire,” Demiray said.
Half a century later, Demiray said, another Cossack hetman, Ivan Mazepa, joined forces with Charles XII of Sweden to fight against Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The Cossack and Swedish armies were defeated at the Battle of Poltava in Ukraine in July 1709, in part due to the destruction of the Cossack capital, Baturyn, and its military and grain supplies by Russian forces.
“The town’s defenders,” Demiray said, “more than 10,000 people, were massacred by Russian forces, including women and children … In Russian history, Mazepa is a traitor to his tsar. To Ukrainians, (he is) a fighter for a Cossack nation, separate and independent from Moscow.”
Demiray described a number of other historically significant moments in the history of Ukraine/Russia relations—the continued expansion of the Russian empire, including into Ukrainian lands, and the development of a Ukrainian national consciousness through language, literature and culture. The movement was led in part by a group of Ukrainian intellectuals, most of whom were arrested by officials of the Russian empire and not allowed to return to their country.
In 1917, according to Demiray, the Ukrainian idea suddenly came to fruition when a revolution forced the Russian tsar to abdicate, creating a constitutional state in Russia. A group of politicians and intellectuals formed the Central Rada, a government for an independent Ukraine. The independent state was short-lived, however, Demiray said, giving way to a Ukrainian Soviet state controlled by the Bolsheviks which, after years of civil war, formally joined other Soviet republics to form the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) in 1922.
Demiray said the USSR’s first leader, Vladimir Lenin, largely allowed Ukraine to remain autonomous, using in-state administration and fostering the development of Ukrainian education and culture. That policy was reversed, however, when Joseph Stalin came to power. Demiray said Ukrainian intellectuals and writers were among the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror.
“Stalin’s most heinous crime against Ukraine,” she said, was the famine of 1932-33, called the Terror Famine by Ukrainians. It was caused by his policies of rapid collectivization of peasant farms and seizure of grain stocks, which were exported to earn money for industrialization and feed the cities of the USSR. “At least 4 million Ukrainians perished from starvation,” she said.
Finally, in December 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Demiray said Ukraine’s parliament had already declared independence, a decision ratified by 90 percent of voters in a referendum, creating a fully independent Ukraine.
Just over a decade later, in 2004, Ukrainians participated in the Orange Revolution. “Following a clear attempt by pro-Moscow and Putin-backed (presidential) candidate Viktor Yanukovych to falsify the results of the (Ukrainian) presidential election, thousands of Ukrainians rallied across the country and on Independence Square in Kyiv, camping out in freezing weather and demanding a fair election.” Eventually, the election results were thrown out and a new election, held under close observation, was held. Pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko was declared the winner.
In 2010, the Putin-backed Yanukovych won the presidential election, more closely aligning Ukraine with Russia. Under pressure from Moscow, Yanukovych declined to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, sparking protests in Kyiv “which were met with brutal force by riot police.” A large-scale protest movement once again brought thousands to Kyiv’s Independence Square, where they clashed with security forces, who reportedly shot nearly 100 protesters in one month. Yanukovych fled to Russia just before he was impeached by parliament.
“This time, Putin reacted with force,” she said, “occupying and then annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in parts of eastern Ukraine. The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics, heavily backed by Russian money, weapons, and manpower engaged in war with Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 that, despite a formal ceasefire, has cost over 14,000 lives and displaced about 2 million Ukrainians.”
Demiray said Ukrainians feel that the war that is happening now is a continuation of the war that they’ve been fighting since 2014.
The war today
Demiray said the anti-Ukraine propaganda campaign launched by Russia began in earnest after the events of 2013 and 2014 that led to President Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea.
At the time, Putin was already cracking down in Russia because he had witnessed the events of the Arab Spring and even demonstrations in his own country protesting elections that the populace said were flawed. Putin believed, Demiray said, that such demonstrations were dangerous, especially as one had successfully ejected a Ukrainian leader friendly to Putin.
“So, he (Putin) then cracked down more in Russia and really started pushing that Ukraine was captive of these (Western) forces” who he accused of organizing demonstrations against Russia and against him personally. He spread information that Ukrainians “couldn’t be trusted and they were against him and they were Nazis,” and accused them of aggression against those living in Crimea, saying it “was a sign of what they would do in Russia if they had the chance. They would kill everybody.”
Now, she said, “there has been so much propaganda, almost brainwashing” of Russian citizens that, though it is hard to know whether or not the people of Russia agree with this latest act of aggression, “there’s so much control now in Russia that you just have to go along with things.” She pointed out that many of Russia’s younger, more educated population is leaving the country. “There’s no opposition left in Russia. Alexei Navalny was the only credible opposition left and he’s in prison.”
The propaganda campaign has been so successful, she said, that even some families with relatives living in both Russia and Ukraine cannot agree on what is happening. “You see people talking about how, after the invasion, their families back in Russia didn’t believe what was going on when they actually spoke to them,” she said, adding that the Russian relatives accused their Ukrainian family members of making up the reports they were sharing.
This is a vast change from Russia as it was during the early post-Soviet era, she said, when there were a number of political parties in Russia and (mostly) freely contested elections. “Nowadays, it seems that Putin has such a hold on things that there is no real opposition and people pretty much do what they’re told or leave,” Demiray explained.
Ukraine, she said, has been more successful at developing a “civil society” than Russia, including a populace that is concerned with civic engagement and an independent media. “This is something they never had during the Soviet era and something that Russia developed, but now has no longer,” she said.
She, like many others, said she does not know how the current conflict might resolve, or when.
“There are lots of things that could happen. I think U.S. and NATO policy looks to be arming Ukraine and supporting Ukraine to the point that Ukrainian forces can push the Russians out or at least stalemate them to the point where Putin stops fighting and then maybe there will be some kind of a peace conference and we’ll see whether there have to be territorial concessions.”
At the moment, Demiray said, “the most important thing is that Putin is stopped, he gets no further, and if possible is pushed out because right now Ukraine doesn’t control its southern coast at all, and that’s one of the real problems for the country and the world.” She explained that Ukraine, a major exporter of grain, particularly to Africa and to the United Nations world food program, cannot access its ports, it cannot export its food.
Demiray said that she still has friends in the country, some of whom have fled to Poland, but others who remain in Ukraine. Thus far, no one she knows has been killed in the conflict.
“The thing that I’ve heard talking with them and seen on their Facebook pages is … the downright hatred for Russia” from people who have not normally taken strong political stances publicly. “That’s going to be something that’s going to last for a long time,” she said.
The movement of Ukrainian patriotism, which began in earnest more than a century ago, has now taken on a new form, Demiray said. What once was an effort to craft a national identity through language, literature, and culture is now “based on facing a common foe” in Russia.
“We can only hope that Ukraine will prevail,” Demiray said. “As its national anthem says, ‘Ukraine has not yet perished.’”