After the Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht in 1945, the borders of Soviet Ukraine were extended westward to include districts taken from Poland, as well as minor territories from Czechoslovakia and Romania. In 1954, the Crimean Peninsula was removed from the Russian Soviet Federative Republic of the Soviet Union and added to Soviet Ukraine. This was the last of a series of border adjustments between the two Soviet republics. Since Crimea is connected to Ukraine by land (and an island from the perspective of Russia), the point was to connect the peninsula to the Ukrainian water supplies and electricity grids. The Soviet leadership took the opportunity to explain that Ukraine and Russia were unified by fate. Because the year 1954 was the three hundredth anniversary of the agreement that had united the Cossacks and Muscovy against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Soviet factories produced cigarette packs and nightgowns with the logo 300 YEARS. This was an early example of the Soviet politics of eternity: legitimating rule not by present achievement or future promise but by the nostalgic loop of a round number.
Soviet Ukraine was the second most populous republic of the USSR, after Soviet Russia. In Soviet Ukraine’s western districts, which had been part of Poland before the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalists resisted the imposition of Soviet rule. In a series of deportations in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they and their families were sent by the hundreds of thousands to the Soviet concentration camp system, the Gulag. In just a few days in October 1947, for example, 76,192 Ukrainians were transported to the Gulag in what was known as Operation West. Most of those who were still alive at the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 were released by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian communists joined their Russian comrades in governing the largest country in the world. During the cold war, southeastern Ukraine was a Soviet military heartland. Rockets were built in Dnipropetrovsk, not far from where the Cossacks once had their fortress.
Though Soviet policy had been lethal to Ukrainians, Soviet leaders never denied that Ukraine was a nation. The governing idea was that nations would achieve their full potential under Soviet rule, and then dissolve once communism was achieved. In the early decades of the Soviet Union, the existence of a Ukrainian nation was taken for granted, from the journalism of Joseph Roth to the statistics of the League of Nations. The famine of 1932–1933 was also a war against the Ukrainian nation, in that it wrecked the social cohesion of villages and coincided with a bloody purge of Ukrainian national activists. Yet the vague idea remained that a Ukrainian nation would have a socialist future. It was really only in the 1970s, under Brezhnev, that Soviet policy officially dropped this pretense. In his myth of the “Great Fatherland War,” Russians and Ukrainians were merged as soldiers against fascism. When Brezhnev abandoned utopia for “really existing socialism,” he implied that the development of non-Russian nations was complete. Brezhnev urged that Russian become the language of communication for all Soviet elites, and a client of his ran Ukrainian affairs. Schools were russified, and universities were to follow. In the 1970s, Ukrainian opponents of the Soviet regime risked prison and the psychiatric hospital to protest on behalf of Ukrainian culture.
To be sure, Ukrainian communists joined wholeheartedly and in great numbers in the Soviet project, helping Russian communists to govern Asian regions of the USSR. After 1985, Gorbachev’s attempt to bypass the communist party alienated such people, while his policy of glasnost, or open discussion, encouraged Soviet citizens to air national grievances. In 1986, his silence after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl discredited him among many Ukrainians. Millions of inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were needlessly exposed to high doses of radiation. It was hard to forgive his specific order that a May Day parade go forward under a deadly cloud. The senseless poisoning of 1986 prompted Ukrainians to begin to speak of the senseless mass starvation of 1933.
In summer 1991, the failed coup against Gorbachev opened the way for Boris Yeltsin to lead Russia from the Soviet Union. Ukrainian communists and oppositionists alike agreed that Ukraine should follow suit. In a referendum, 92% of the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine, including a majority in every Ukrainian region, voted for independence.
As in the new Russia, the 1990s in the new Ukraine were marked by takeovers of Soviet assets and clever arbitrage schemes. Unlike in Russia, in Ukraine the new class of oligarchs formed themselves into durable clans, none of which dominated the state for more than a few years at a time. And unlike in Russia, in Ukraine power changed hands through democratic elections. Both Russia and Ukraine missed an opportunity for economic reform in the relatively good years before the world financial crisis of 2008. Unlike in Russia, in Ukraine the European Union was seen as a cure for the corruption that hindered social advancement and a more equitable distribution of wealth. EU membership was consistently promoted, at least rhetorically, by Ukrainian leaders. The Ukrainian president from 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, promoted the idea of a European future, even as he pursued policies that made such a future less likely.
Yanukovych’s career demonstrates the difference between Ukrainian oligarchical pluralism and Russian kleptocratic centralism. He had run for president for the first time in 2004. The final count had been manipulated in his favor by his patron, the outgoing president Leonid Kuchma. Russian foreign policy was also to support his candidacy and declare his victory. After three weeks of protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square (known as the Maidan), a ruling of the Ukrainian supreme court, and new elections, Yanukovych accepted defeat. This was an important moment in Ukrainian history; it confirmed democracy as a succession principle. So long as the rule of law functioned at the heights of politics, there was always hope that it might one day extend to everyday life.
After his defeat, Yanukovych hired the American political consultant Paul Manafort to improve his image. Although Manafort maintained a residence in Trump Tower in New York, he spent a great deal of time in Ukraine. Under Manafort’s tutelage, Yanukovych got a better haircut and better suits, and began to talk with his hands. Manafort helped him to pursue a “Southern strategy” for Ukraine reminiscent of the one that his Republican Party had used in the United States: emphasizing cultural differences, making politics about being rather than doing. In the United States, this meant playing to the grievances of whites even though they were a majority whose members held almost all the wealth; in Ukraine it meant exaggerating the difficulties of people who spoke Russian, even though it was a major language of politics and economics of the country, and the first language of those who controlled the country’s resources. Like Manafort’s next client, Donald Trump, Yanukovych rose to power on a campaign of cultural grievance mixed with the hope that an oligarch might defend the people against an oligarchy.
After winning the presidential election of 2010, Yanukovych concentrated on his own personal wealth. He seemed to be importing Russian practices by creating a permanent kleptocratic elite rather than allowing the rotation of oligarchical clans. His dentist son became one of the richest men in Ukraine. Yanukovych undermined the checks and balances among the branches of the Ukrainian government, for example by making the judge who had misplaced his criminal record the chief justice of the Ukrainian supreme court. Yanukovych also tried to manage democracy in the Russian style. He put one of his two major opponents in prison, and had a law passed that disqualified the other from running for president. This left him running for a second term against a handpicked nationalist opponent. Yanukovych was certain to win, after which he could tell Europeans and Americans that he had saved Ukraine from nationalism.