Ukraine—‘history to blame’?

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2022), Volume 30

editorIn this centenary year of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses (see ‘Seen on TV’, pp 52–3, and ‘Museum Eye’, pp 56–7), it is tempting to apply the condescending observation of one of its characters, Englishman Haines—‘It seems history is to blame’—to the present crisis in Ukraine. It might be more accurate to observe that ‘geography is to blame’, since throughout its history Ukraine has had the misfortune to have no fixed, ‘natural’ or defendable frontiers and at various stages was dominated by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Habsburg Austria, Germany (Imperial and Nazi) and Russia (Tsarist and Soviet).

With respect to the latter, a simplistic ‘centuries of oppression’ narrative has been articulated by some, usually ultra-nationalist, Ukrainian representatives. This has been countered by an equally simplistic assertion that Ukrainian nationalism is inherently reactionary, even Nazi (and yes, the Nazis did find some collaborators in Ukraine—as they did in every territory they occupied). The reality is more complex. As Hiram Morgan explains in this issue (‘Ukraine—a brief history’, pp 46–8), Russia and Ukraine (and Belarus) have shared deep cultural, religious and linguistic ties for centuries. As recently as 2010, a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, was democratically elected president of Ukraine, only to be overthrown in questionable circumstances by the Maidan protests of late 2013/early 2014.

But none of this justifies what happened next—the Russian seizure of Crimea and the eastern Donbass—and certainly not the current full-scale invasion of a sovereign state, the levelling of whole cities to rubble and war crimes against civilians. The difference between 2014 and 2022 is that the Ukrainians are resisting—and very effectively, it seems. Surely they deserve our support, as do those within Russia who have raised their voices against this unjust, unprovoked, war of aggression?

No, neither history nor geography is to blame for the present crisis in Ukraine—Vladimir Putin is.

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