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The 20th-Century History Behind Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

One interpretation of the name “Ukraine” is a borderland. This needs to be taken seriously. Borderlands are all about diversity and competing understandings of community and nation. They are always mixtures of people with different languages, religions, and customs. Some will think of themselves as kin to the people on one side of the border; some look to the other side.

The debate over how to remember Ukraine’s World War II history, as well as its implications for Ukrainian nationalism and independence, is key to understanding the current conflict. Photo by S. Khoroshko / Slava Katamidze Collection / Getty Images

In Ukraine, the West (Europe) is on one side of the border, and the East (Russia) on the other.
Among those in the eastern parts of Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk) who tend to look East are descendants of the Russian peasants, like the parents of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who around the turn of the 20th century came to work in the Donbas mines.

This map, published in the New York Times in February 1918 shows the boundaries of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which existed from 1917-1920. Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine’s modern history as an independent state amounted to a few tumultuous years of a shaky Ukrainian People’s Republic between the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the consolidation of the Soviet Union in 1920

A map of Ukraine in 1993, following independence from Russia. Wikimedia Commons

n December 1991, the Ukrainian population voted the great majority of Ukrainians voted for independent sovereignty.

A crowd holds a demonstration outside of the Soviet headquarters in Kyiv in September 1991, after Ukraine declared its independence.

Over the centuries, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, Poland, and Lithuania have all wielded jurisdiction over Ukraine, which first asserted its modern independence in 1917, with the formation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

A nationalist rally in Kyiv in January 1917

Russia soon wrested back control of Ukraine, making it part of the newly established Soviet Union and retaining power in the region until World War II, when Germany invaded. The debate over how to remember this wartime history, as well as its implications for Ukrainian nationalism and independence, is key to understanding the current conflict. During WWII, Ukrainian nationalists saw the Nazis as liberators from Soviet oppression. Now, Russia is using that chapter to paint Ukraine as a Nazi nation

Motorized infantry of the German armed forces advance into Ukraine during World War II. Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In borderlands like Ukraine, there are generally competing origin stories. Ukrainians tell a story of the origins of the Ukrainian nation going back to 11th century Kyiv, surviving centuries of oppression by Russia and Poland, and, finally, emerging out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union as a sovereign Ukrainian state in 1991.
For the Russians, the various western and southern provinces now called “Ukraine” were populated by Slavic border people (Ukrainians) who were essentially Russian. They considered this land a part of the Russian Empire for centuries.
The Australian press has been treating the Ukrainian origin story as “truth” and the Russian one as “lies,” but things are never that simple. Like all origin stories, both are a mixture of historical facts and political imagination.

A string of carts with bread was confiscated from peasants, circa 1932. 
Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

Also omitted from this version of events are the genocide and suppression that took place under Soviet rule—most famously the Great Famine. Holodomor, which fuses the Ukrainian words for starvation and inflicting death, claimed the lives of around 3.9 million people, or approximately 13 percent of the Ukrainian population, in the early 1930s.

Holodomor, which fuses the Ukrainian words for starvation and inflicting death, claimed the lives of around 3.9 million people

A human-made famine was the direct result of Soviet policies aimed at punishing Ukrainian farmers who fought Soviet mandates to collectivize. The Soviets also waged an intense “Russification” campaign, persecuting Ukraine’s cultural elite and elevating the Russian language and culture above all others.
When Germany invaded in 1941, some Ukrainians, especially those in western Ukraine, saw them as liberators, says Oxana Shevel, a political scientist at Tufts University. The Ukrainians didn’t particularly want to live under the Germans so much as escape the Soviets, adds Shevel, who is the president of the nonprofit educational organization American Association for Ukrainian Studies.

Residents of Kyiv leave the city following pre-offensive missile strikes by Russian armed forces on February 24, 2022. Photo by Pierre Crom / Getty Images

The question for Shevel is how to treat this history. From the Soviet point of view that Putin still embraces, it’s simple, she says: The Holocaust aside, Ukrainian nationalists were “bad guys” because “they fought the Soviet state.” Putin and other critics often draw on Ukrainians’ wartime collaboration with the Nazis to baselessly characterize the modern country as a Nazi nation; in a February 24 speech, the Russian president deemed the “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine” key goals of the invasion.
Putin has referenced Ukrainian nationalists in service of his own political agenda of portraying modern Ukrainians as Nazis. Prior to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, many Ukrainians viewed Bandera and other freedom fighters in a less favorable light, says Shevel. After, however, she noticed a shift, with these individuals, some of whom fought alongside the Nazis, being called heroes. The Soviets, once held up as liberators from the Nazis, were now the bad guys again.

With difficulties in the propaganda battle in the world, Russia has isolated its population from information about the war in Ukraine and is succeeding in promoting in its territory a new symbol of national unity. The letter Z, which does not exist in the Cyrillic alphabet, has become a kind of state meme, which started among soldiers and is spreading in the local cultural industry – in addition to causing controversy on social media around the world.

D&F Magazine In Focus: War in Ukraine
Since February 21, 2022, an escalation in the violent conflict has spread from eastern Ukraine throughout the country—bringing with it an escalated crisis. Here’s what to know about the Ukraine crisis from a humanitarian perspective, both for Ukrainian refugees and those living amid the violence.
Over 2 million refugees fled Ukraine in just the first weeks
From a humanitarian perspective, the Ukraine crisis is largely a refugee crisis. In just the first week of hostilities, over 1 million Ukrainians fled home, often with little more than a few days’ worths of clothes and food. As of March 16, 2022, over 3 million have now fled.
Over 1.8 million have crossed the border into Poland, where 1.5 million of their compatriots had been living prior to this most recent escalation in the conflict. This means many arriving in Poland already have relatives and contacts. Once people cross from Ukraine into Poland, they are met by buses and taken to one of nine reception centers. In the Polish town of Medyka, this center is actually a parking lot that has been stocked with thousands of donations—including food, clothing, hygiene items, diapers, and more—and charter buses into Poland and other parts of the EU.
The lines to cross the border are already long, with some people reportedly waiting for three days to be processed. The UNHCR has also warned us that this is by no means the end: As many as 4 million Ukrainians could flee in the coming weeks, nearly 10% of the country’s population. So far, the UN Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi confirmed, that the needs of incoming Ukrainians are being met, however, without adequate state funding this could change. The UN has set up a special humanitarian fund with a preliminary request of $550.6 million to help support the situation. The United States has approved $54 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and, as of this writing, Congress is considering issuing another $2.9 billion in humanitarian aid. The European Commission has made an initial commitment of €90 million (approximately $100 million USD).
As much as 10% of Ukraine’s population could be displaced in the coming weeks.

In their Situation Report on April 7, UN OCHA said, “The situation in the hard-hit eastern, northern and southern areas of Ukraine is becoming increasingly dire. Unmet needs continue to accumulate as access to food, water, medicines and other basic necessities remains severely restricted.”

Children of Ukraine one year before
Children of Ukraine today
Kyiv one year ago
Ukrainian forces carry an elderly man as thousands flee the area of Irpin at a damaged bridge on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine on Monday, March 7, 2022. (Heidi Levine/for The Washington Post)

Ukraine one year ago
Ukraine now. The fighting has now reached Kyiv.Credit…Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images
Ukrainian People one year ago
People in Kyiv, Ukraine crowd the train stations trying to get out of the country during the Russian invasion, but the evacuation trains are not enough for all the people. 1 March 2022. Photo: Sebastian Backhaus
Ukrainians traditionally celebrate Vyshyvanka Day, the day of the national embroidered shirt.

People sleep in the Kyiv subway, using it as a bomb shelter on Friday. In Ukraine’s capital, many residents hurried underground for safety overnight Thursday and Friday as Russian forces fired on the city and moved closer. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

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