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Ukrainians Are Fighting For Their Right To Exist
Given the long history of human rights abuses, they know what life under Russia’s authoritarian rule would look like
Wikipedia Commons, Ministry of Defense, Ukraine
Ukraine has surprised the world with its fierce resistance to Russia. But we Ukrainians are fighting so hard because we know from centuries of bitter experience that Russian rule won’t mean a reunification of two “brotherly nations,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin claims, but rather subjugation, oppression, exploitation and the systematic destruction of Ukrainians and their heritage.
Contrary to conventional belief, the current Russian invasion did not start in February; it started eight years ago when Putin dispatched his troops to invade and grab the Crimean Peninsula. We worried then that Russia might not stop there. Our worst fears have come true, and the end of the nightmare is nowhere in sight.
After the latest onslaught, Russian forces occupy roughly 20% of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea. To accomplish that “feat,” they are currently killing an average of two to three Ukrainian children every single day. About 200 Ukrainian soldiers are being slaughtered daily. More than 14 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, and more than 6 million have left the country—the largest displacement since World War II. Kyiv School of Economics estimates that more than 44 million square meters of housing has been destroyed or seized. Over 1,123 educational buildings and 643 medical facilities have been damaged, destroyed or seized. The overall direct and indirect economic losses caused by the invasion range from $564 billion to $600 billion.
New horror stories of war crimes emerge daily—residential neighborhoods bombarded; innocents indiscriminately targeted; civilian men shot at point-blank range, their hands tied behind their backs; women raped. But such expressions of “brotherly love” from Russian rulers are nothing new for Ukraine. One does not have to do a deep historical dive to find evidence galore of Russia’s repeated attempts to destroy Ukrainians and their culture.
Just a cursory glance at the main highlights over the past 100 years offers ample proof.
In the late 1920s to early 1930s, Ukraine was subjected to what Ukrainians have dubbed the Executed Renaissance, when Stalin explicitly abandoned all pretense of allowing any cultural independence to non-Russian nationalities. When it came to my region, he decided to cleanse a whole generation of Ukrainian poets, writers who refused to submit to his Russification campaign. As part of his Great Terror, he arrested them en masse, executed or imprisoned them, and then banned and destroyed their work. He banned education in the Ukrainian language and the Ukrainian church.
Soviet authorities subjected Ukrainians not to one but three Great Famines— Holodomors— in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. They confiscated grain and other agricultural produce from Ukrainian peasants and built up their own vast reserves, which they then exported abroad. Mass starvation was their tool of choice to teach Ukrainians fighting for—or dreaming about—national liberation a lesson.
In May 1944, they deported about 200,000 Crimean Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula to Central Asia and remote parts of Russia in order to "clean the territory from anti-Soviet elements." (This tipped the population balance in that area toward ethnic Russians, whose presence then became yet another pretext for Putin’s annexation of Crimea.) All Crimean Tatars were considered traitors who collaborated with Nazi Germany—even those who left the peninsula before the German occupation and actually fought in the Soviet army. Almost 9,000 war veterans, including more than 500 officers, were deported. It is estimated that over 30,000 Crimean Tatars died of starvation, disease and exhaustion the following year while going through "labor use" in mines, factories and construction sites in inhuman conditions. Those who somehow survived began returning to their homeland only after November 14, 1989, when the collapsing Soviet Union finally adopted a declaration condemning the deportation of Crimean Tatars, admitting it was illegal and criminal.
But three years before that mea culpa, Soviet authorities attempted to cover up the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe by insisting that Kyiv proceed with its May Day parades as planned. Instead of quickly evacuating the residents of the region, the USSR duped them into staying to celebrate, exposing them to potential radiation just to convince the world that everything was fine.
Other actions of the Soviet authorities were subtler, such as those targeting the Ukrainian language. They considered Ukrainian the language of peasants, deserving to be stamped out. So they passed a law in 1970 mandating Russian as the sole language for all university dissertation defenses. In 1984, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Russian language teachers were given a 15% salary increase not awarded to teachers of Ukrainian. That same year, an order of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR sanctioned the translation of all museum records in the Soviet Union into Russian in an effort to marginalize regional languages. And in 1990, a year before Ukraine declared its independence from Soviet rule, Moscow adopted the Law on the Languages of the Peoples of the Soviet Union, which solidified Russian as the official language of all the regions it controlled.
None of this was particularly novel. It was merely the culmination of a centuries-long campaign against the Ukrainian language, a part of a bigger effort to strip the Ukrainian people of their culture.
In 1720, Czar Peter I issued a decree banning the printing of books in Ukrainian and ordered the removal of Ukrainian-language texts from church libraries. Nine years later, his successor, Peter II, ordered the translation of all government decrees and orders from Ukrainian to Russian. In 1769, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church went so far as to bar the printing of Ukrainian alphabet books. On many occasions in our common “brotherly” history, Ukrainian-language schools were converted into Russian or closed. The works of famous Ukrainians authors such as Shevchenko, Kulish, Kostomarov and others were banned along with the publication of Ukrainian-language spiritual and popular educational literature. Ukrainian theatrical performances were not allowed either. In 1888, Alexander III prohibited the use of the Ukrainian language in official institutions and even the baptism of children with Ukrainian names.
Ukrainians have encapsulated Russia’s long campaign of brutality in the story of a fictional Ukrainian family that goes something like this: My great-grandmother almost starved to death during the Holodomor. Two of her six siblings did not make it. Her husband, who was a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, was shot dead by chekists, members of the Soviet secret police, for being a “nationalist.” My grandfather lost his teeth and froze off a couple of his toes in a labor camp in Siberia, because of his family history of Ukrainian nationalism. My uncle died from cancer after being forced to clean up Chernobyl without proper protection. My parents worked day and night for me to have a better life, only for my kids and me to flee our home to get away from Russian missiles. But we are the lucky ones, because we did not end up in a mass grave.
If this story does not fully convey how the Ukrainian people feel about Putin and Russia’s crimes and depredations, there is a slogan that has gained traction in the last 100 days that does. It is emblazoned on T-shirts and hoodies, and the proceeds from their sale are going to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Roughly translated, it says: “Our Russophobia Is Not Enough,” meaning that Russia’s treatment of Ukrainians deserves more contempt than the Ukrainian people are capable of mustering.
Russia is not our liberator; it is our tormenter. Its authoritarian rulers have no respect for human rights. Our choice is to fight for our freedom—or live under Putin’s oppressive rule. We choose to fight.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.