It is a battle zone all too familiar to Jewish memory.
Here, by the immense and frosty Dnieper River where thousands of Ukrainians this week clashed with riot police, Jews were massacred over the centuries by Cossacks charging Poland, by Whites fighting Reds, and by the Nazis as they stormed the Soviet Union.
In all these conflicts, this flat, sprawling and fertile gateway to Russia played the thankless role of a battleground between East and West. Following this week’s bloodbath in Kiev, Ukraine returned to this familiar and debilitating status, while its leaders seemed haunted by its history of misjudgment, trauma and despair.
On paper, Ukraine has the makings of a great power. Its borders are vast, its land is rich and its 46 million people are largely skilled and educated. The largest country fully in Europe and the world’s third-largest wheat exporter, Ukraine’s army of 1.2 million (mostly reservist) troops is larger than any other between Russia and America. Its land is blessed not only with lush prairies, but also with natural resources – most notably coal – and its industry makes cars, trucks and airplanes.
Still, a generation after gaining its independence, Ukraine seems like a giant with feet of clay.
Downtown Kiev is handsome, or such it was until recent days’ carnage, but the rest of the country is largely destitute, with per capita product hardly half of nearby Poland’s and one-fifth of Israel’s.
Worse, Ukraine is a nation with a split identity. The Dnieper that slices it from north to south does not linchpin Ukrainian society the way the Nile and the Mississippi helped unite Egyptians and Americans.
Instead, the Dnieper splits a predominantly ethnic Russian population to its east and a predominantly Ukrainian population to its west.
Considering that the languages are close and the two populations’ religion is in many ways identical, Ukraine’s ethnic divide could have been as harmless as the differences between Italians and Germans in Switzerland.
Sadly, the Ukrainian majority recall Russia as the nation that during the 1920s robbed their farmers of their lands, and in the 1930s oversaw the famine where millions of Ukrainians died.
Though the scope and circumstances of that trauma remain unclear, many believe it was plotted in Moscow as part of a war on Ukrainian nationalism.
Moreover, most ethnic Ukrainians live in regions that had been ruled for centuries by Poland, Lithuania and Austria. Russia, and the immigrations it later brought, are to them intruders, even regardless of the strife that followed the Russians.
And in the more distant memory, after Ukrainian rebels wrested their land from Poland in the 17th century, Russia came along and undid their short-lived independence.
At the same time, many Russians recall the Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazi occupation, and now see the rebels as those fascists’ heirs.
This baggage of distinction, suspicion and wounds is what Ukraine’s leaders were supposed to somehow overcome when they declared its independence 23 years ago.
Signs of this project’s failure appeared along the years, most notably a decade ago, when fraud charges surrounding a presidential election that pitted candidates from Ukrainian and Russian backgrounds were followed by the Orange Revolution protest movement that produced a revote through a Supreme Court ruling.
The current president, Russian- descended Viktor Yanukovych, is the one who back then initially won the presidency but then lost it in the revote. The Orange Revolution’s leader, Ukrainian-descended Yulia Tymoshenko, emerged from those events prime minister but later lost a presidential election to Yanukovych, which she also claimed was rigged.
In a typically Ukrainian mixture of soap opera and Shakespearean tragedy, Tymoshenko was later tried and convicted for alleged abuse of power and is now serving a jail term in a decrepit Soviet-era hospital.
Posters of Tymoshneko waved by protesters in Kiev this week, with her trademark circular braid crowning her charismatic face, lent the clashes an added flavor of martyrdom and sainthood.
This week, as the world watched Ukraine turn on itself, it seemed its experiment with nation-building has failed once and for all.
The intifada-like scenes of Ukrainians wielding iron bars, hurling rocks, throwing stun grenades, pitching firebombs and firing live bullets at each other will haunt Ukraine for years, even if mayhem soon subsides, a prospect that few for now predict. As things stand, both within and outside Ukraine many suspect that this week’s turbulence was but the beginning, as civil war has effectively began, and schism is well on its way.
THE RIOTS followed weeks in which thousands flocked to downtown Kiev, where they camped day and night in sub-arctic frost to protest President Yanukovych’s vetoing of a far-reaching trade agreement with the EU.
At stake was obviously much more than sales taxes and tariffs. It was about where Ukraine would turn its face: East or West.
One does not need to be an ethnic Russian to seek that deal. The alternative, orbiting the Russian economy, would mean less capital, enterprise and wealth.
Yanukovych’s stance is more complex, and defendable, than many in the West assume. Yes, his heart is in Russia and his strategic instincts lead to the Kremlin and its tenant.
However, the EU’s expectation that a preferred relationship with Kiev precludes its simultaneous membership in a Russian-led alliance was not only unwise, but also unfair.
The Europeans seem to assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union through a set of economic alliances with former Soviet republics.
Eager to prevent this, Brussels tried to pull Ukraine fully in its direction, in disregard of its geographic sensitivity and social explosiveness.
Still, Yanukovych, too, made a big mistake, underestimating the popular energy he faced, and also failing to prepare the security forces for the challenge that awaited them in the streets.
It seems Yanukovych was not sure how to manage the crisis. First he thought he would contain the protests, and having failed at that he tried to storm them, declaring a “campaign against terror” – but he failed at that, too. Instead, unrest spread beyond Kiev, and government buildings and police stations were reportedly being seized throughout Ukraine.
The abrupt and unexplained dismissal of chief of staff Volodymyr Zaman and his replacement with an admiral enhanced impressions that Yanukovych is shooting from the hip while officials around him are divided over how to handle the situation.
UKRAINE is important for the world not only as a major grain exporter, but because it lies on the historic fault line between Europe’s original halves: Byzantium and Rome.
Few noticed it, but this week’s calls in the EU to sanction the Ukrainian government were opposed by three lesser members: Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. All three have little in common, hailing from different families of nations, speaking different languages and even using three different alphabets. They do, however, share the geopolitical heritage that places them on the other side of Europe’s ancient divide.
That is certainly how the Ukrainian crisis is seen through Putin’s prism. Brussels and Washington see the Ukrainian crisis as a clash of freedom and despotism, but to Putin it is a German-led and American-backed attack on a realm that naturally belongs in the Russian sphere. That is why Western sanctions against Ukrainian leaders cannot be effective, as Moscow will send Kiev billions if that is what its geopolitical priorities will require.
It has now been nearly a quarter of a century since the East Bloc’s dissolution, and the emerging picture is clear: the old East-West divide has not vanished, it only moved.
The political earthquakes every several years fall somewhere along the old-new, East-West fault line.
What began in 1991 with a war between German-backed, Catholic Croatia and Russian-backed, Orthodox Serbia, then traveled to the latter’s loss of German-backed Bosnia and Kosovo, and in 2008 arrived at American-backed Georgia, which sought to join NATO only to be invaded by Russia.
The Middle East, by the way, is an extension of all this, as Putin feels he was robbed of Libya, and is now fighting to protect his holding in Syria while cultivating a defection in Egypt.
Seen this way, Ukraine’s crisis is far from over, and may well linger and deteriorate. The land where millions were slain 75 years ago is once again bleeding, and the end of its agonies seems nowhere in sight.
On the margins of this drama, it should be noted that there are some 70,000 Jews in Ukraine. Chances grew this week that a good portion of them will ultimately arrive here.