On Wednesday, 25 January 2012, Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz delivered a lecture entitled “Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova in contemporary times.” The event was part of an ongoing series of brown bag lectures on the history, politics, and culture of the Intermarium: the lands between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas.
To avoid redundancy, we will ask those interested in more detailed explications of the region’s history than provided below to consult the previous lectures posted in the right sidebar.
The territories of the modern-day post-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus once constituted the heartland of the Eastern Slavic lands and, eventually, the polity of Kievan Rus’ (Latin: Ruthenia). Subsequently, the area was brutally subjugated by the Mongols, who were then expelled by the Lithuanians. As part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Ruthenian lands were integrated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (in reality, the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth). Only at the end of the eighteenth century, during the partitions of the Commonwealth (1772, 1793, 1795), the region was conquered by the Muscovite Romanov Empire. The latter’s collapse as a result of the First World War and a Bolshevik coup allowed the local Belarussian and Ukrainian nationalists to declare independent republics. These short-lived entities were soon crushed by the Red Army, however. In turn, the western Ruthenian provinces were incorporated into the resurrected Polish state, a fate unsatisfactory from the perspective of nationalist aspirations, but nevertheless allowing the area to avoid the red terror for two more decades.
Indeed, on the Soviet side of the frontier, the new masters literally painted the area red. The Soviet Terror-Famine (Holodomor) extinguished from 3-7 million lives in the Ukrainian SSR alone in 1932 – 1933. Soon thereafter, during the so-called nationalities operations of the Great Purge (1937 – 1938), the Polish Operation of the NKVD resulted in 111,000 – 250,000 dead ethnic Poles, mostly in Belarussian and Ukrainian SSRs (according to Terry Martin, Poles were 34 times more likely to fall victim to the terror than any other Soviet ethnic group). The prewar division between Poland and the USSR translated into significant differences in post-communist political culture – particularly in Ukraine – between the eastern (more Sovietized) and western (more Western) parts.
The Second World War witnessed a Hobbesian war of all against all in the Intermarium, with terrifying results. Following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Nazis and Soviets unleashed a war by invading and partitioning Poland. The latter seized the western Ruthenian lands for two years (1939 – 1941). From 1941 – 1944 Moscow’s former German allies occupied the region, only to be pushed out by the returning Reds. This time, the Bolsheviks were to remain for decades. The region once again bled profusely. The Nazis butchered the Jews in particular while the Soviets slaughtered the native elites especially. The former shipped many denizens of the Intermarium to concentration camps or forced labor in Germany, while the latter deported them to the Gulag network. Both sides also killed many “ordinary” inhabitants of the region (especially peasants) and subjected all to terror. Not surprisingly, the locals resisted one or both occupiers throughout this bloody time, sometimes seeking the assistance of one invader against the other. The Poles generally combated both the Nazis and the Soviets. The Balts, Belarussians, and Ukrainians sided with the former against the latter, although German racism and atrocities eventually contributed to significant support for the Soviet partisans in the Minsk area of Belarus and the Eastern Ukraine. As agents of the Kremlin’s imperialism, the communist guerrillas were naturally in conflict with the indigenous populations, particularly in the territories of pre-war Poland. In fact, a full-fledged war between the Soviet partisans and the Polish underground erupted in Wilno Land and the White Ruthenian areas north of the Pripyat River.
On the margins, Dr. Chodakiewicz emphasized that the infamous Red-Army-perpetrated wave of rapes did not start in Germany but, in fact, commenced once the Soviet forces reentered the Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists from the OUN-UPA, who had initially collaborated with the Nazis in the massacres of Jews, distanced themselves from the Germans and launched an ethnic cleansing campaign in prewar Poland’s southeastern provinces. The organization targeted chiefly ethnic Poles and Ukrainians who helped them or opposed OUN-UPA. The wartime bloodbath exacerbated already existing interethnic tensions in the region, which further prevented the Intermarium from generating a united front.
The reappearance of the Soviets and the return of the red terror did, however, spark a wave of resistance from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In addition, a famine struck the region in 1946 – 1948 (the death toll is unknown, and practically no monographs have been written about it). Eventually, however, the anti-communist guerrillas were crushed and accommodation became the popular norm. Few dissidents appeared, reflecting the severity and efficiency of the KGB. Yet, discontent and resentment simmered under the surface, eventually finding an outlet in Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’ during the late 1980s. Of course, the Soviet leader wished to preserve the empire, not usher in democracy. Nevertheless, the law of unintended consequences brought about the implosion of the Soviet system. Thus, the union republics – including Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova – emerged as ostensibly independent and sovereign states.
Independence was only the beginning of a long, arduous, and meandering road, however. The result of the Soviet implosion was not exactly democracy, but, rather, post-communism. The long shadow of the Soviet legacy and its attendant pathologies continue to haunt the region, Lukashenka’s Belarus (Europe’s “last dictatorship”) in particular. Moldova and Ukraine are also heavily Sovietized. The old guard continues to wield tremendous influence, sometimes as unreformed communists, often as reinvented liberals, social democrats, populists (“agrarians”), or even nationalists (national Bolsheviks). According to a meticulous observer of the region and a student of post-communism, the upper-level nomenklatura generally emerged as liberals, the mid-level apparatchiks as social democrats, and the lower-level ones as populists or anti-Semites. Behind the veneer of post-communist pseudo-pluralism, secret policemen, oligarchs, and gangsters navigate adroitly. In fact, the three groups often overlap to a considerable degree, as most oligarchs enjoyed connections with the KGB, frequently operating as the chekists’ frontmen. In short, the lack of decommunization in the Intermarium has reinforced old pathologies and retarded the return of freedom, sometimes outright reversing it. Belarus is, of course, the most Sovietized, followed by Moldova and Ukraine.
On the cultural level, the deep wounds inflicted by decades of communism have been filled readily by the eager purveyors of post-modernist nihilism. In spite of this, religion continues to compete for the souls of the locals. Simultaneously, quite a few locals have also chosen to liberate themselves from Soviet-era indoctrination by attempting to rediscover their past. Thus, nationalism also functions as a contender. Unfortunately, it often finds expression in a narrow, ethnonationalist manner; much like before the Second World War. Of the three countries under discussion, this is particularly true in western Ukraine, where the OUN-UPA and its leaders are worshipped as national heroes. Moreover, the radical nationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) Party is much more nefarious than the post-Soviet successors of the OUN. Nevertheless, not all nationalist initiatives are unsavory. Under the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, for example, an attempt was made to unify the western and eastern Ukrainians through the commemoration of the Holodomor. Yet, even in this case, the Terror-Famine was cast as a uniquely Ukrainian tragedy, rather than an all-Soviet one. The pro-Russian, Sovietnostalgic circles from the east have, of course, attempted to deny the genocidal aspects of the Holodomor and strive to minimize the death toll.
In Moldova, in turn, nationalism became a potential international threat, destabilizing the regional and global order, when the local pan-Romanians attempted to reunite with Romania. To date, this was the most serious challenge to Yalta. Yet, the post-communists in both Chişinau and Bucareşt sabotaged the reunification. Meanwhile, post-Soviet Russia supports the secessionist enclave of Transnistria as both a Muscovite trojan horse in the area and leverage against Moldova’s pan-Romanian ambitions.
Dr. Chodakiewicz pointed out that Ukraine is the most important country of the trio for the West. As one of the largest and populous countries in Europe, straddling a strategic crossroads between East and West, the country may serve as both a key to the reconstruction of the Muscovite empire, or the eastward march of freedom. Viewing EU and NATO expansion as a panacea reflects a lack of vision and imagination, for the former is mired in an economic crisis while the latter is progressively decomposing. Currently, Germany is the strongest power on the European continent, but Berlin cultivates a “strategic partnership” with Moscow. In fact, the major Western capitals prefer working with Moscow, for dealing with the numerous power centers of the Intermarium is much more complicated. Yet, the US has more in common with the greater Intermarium than with Western Europe or post-Soviet Russia, including reverence for religion, patriotism, and tradition (post-communist pathologies notwithstanding). Thus, if the nations of the region succeed in transcending ethnonationalism, they may form a political bloc/confederation, which may build a mutually beneficial partnership with the US. However, until the political elite in Washington breaks with Moscow-centrism, Dr. Chodakiewicz warned, the Soviet ways will prevail in the Intermarium.