Ukraine’s red alert

  • Russia’s old attitude

The long ongoing proxy warfare in Ukraine formally entered the religious realm this week when the Russian Orthodox Church severed relations with Patriarchate of Constantinople – the historical seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity – on Monday to create a gaping fissure within the global Orthodox Church.

This was a reaction to the Constantinople Patriarchate giving Ukraine the autocephaly last week to establish its own independent church, not under Moscow Patriarchate’s authority.

Moscow’s reaction is in line with its annexation of the Crimea four years ago, with President Vladimir Putin vying to ‘safeguard the Russian speaking peoples’ in Ukraine, as the conflict in Donbass continues. The logical extrapolation of using the ‘Russian speakers’ as grounds for geopolitical manoeuvring would be the usage of adherents of Russian Orthodox Church still living in Ukrainian territory.

Having being born in the Kievan Rus, Moscow – and Saint Petersburg before that – has exhibited a sense of entitlement towards Ukraine regards of the shape and form Russia has been in at any point in time over the last chunk of the previous millennium. And while this entitlement stems from common origins, what it has also resulted in is grotesque crimes.

There are countless libraries’ worth of literature about Russian affiliation with what is now Ukrainian territory, but a recent example of a book that illustrates its darkest side is Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, written by Pulitzer Prize winning American Polish journalist Anne Applebaum.

The book provides new insights into the Holodomor – the famine in Soviet Ukraine during 1932-33 which killed at least three million people, the vast majority of which were ethnic Ukrainians. Underpinning Soviet collectivism as the root cause of the famine, Applebaum addresses the long mulled question of whether the millions of peasant family members were killed in Ukraine owing to their professional or ethnic identities.

‘The Ukrainian Question’ originates, at least in the ninth century Kyivan Rus, taking up a more concise shape by the 16th century when in 1569 it was inherited by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Did Joseph Stalin deliberately kill the Ukrainians owing to his established disdain for the members of the ethnicity in 1932-33, or was it a case of his policies taking most of their toll on the peasants in Soviet Ukraine, giving other parts of the empire also experiences famine?

Red Famine addresses this question thoroughly and gives a resounding, even if contentious, verdict.

Applebaum points to the verdict in the manner in which she lays out the book, beginning with the introductory chapter, ‘The Ukrainian Question’. And from the onset the author takes up the Ukrainian nationalistic viewpoint as the reference point for her historical interpretations of events that transpired in the area now known as Ukraine between the years 1917 and 1933, and more specifically 1932 and 1933.

But ‘The Ukrainian Question’ originates, at least in the ninth century Kyivan Rus, taking up a more concise shape by the 16th century when in 1569 it was inherited by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Here Applebaum establishes her understanding of the Ukrainian nation building over the past millennia, and underscores Russian antagonism to it, as manifested by the Soviet leadership. The follow up chapters on the 1917 revolution and the civil war in Ukraine over the next couple of years as it was being divided between the Soviet Union and Poland, reinforces this narrative.

‘The aftermath of the February 1917 revolution in St Petersburg was more complicated. The dissolution of the Russian empire briefly put power in the hands of the Ukrainian national movement in Kyiv – but at a moment when none of the country’s leaders, civilian or military, were yet ready to assume full responsibility for it. When the politicians gathered at Versailles in 1919 drew the borders of new states – among them modern Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia – Ukraine would not be among them.’

As Ukrainian nationalism gradually flourished in the 1920s, there was a cohesive plan to take it down by the end of the decade, argues the book, eventually overlapping with the collectivist agricultural policies, which eventually paved the way for mass deaths. But before that was the crackdown on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the 1920s, which means a circle is on the verge of completion a century later within Crimean proximity.

‘The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church declared itself fully independent in 1921; it rejected the authority of the Moscow patriarchate, decentralised the hierarchy, revived Ukrainian liturgy, and anointed a leader, Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkivskyi. Artists and architects in Kharkiv experimented with Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism, just like their counterparts in Moscow and Paris.’

Following a secret service report on agricultural policies in August 1932, Stalin blacklisted the collective farms in Ukraine that failed to produce their quotas, resulting in famine. This was coupled with mass confiscations, and blockade on Ukrainian peasants escaping into other areas seeking food. The gut-wrenching tale of millions of deaths that ensued are described with the needed gruesomeness, all the while the book converges on its core question.

Holodomor has been a binding force for Ukrainian nationalism and a constant reminder of a Soviet past that reinforces its hostility with Russia. Ukraine and 15 other countries recognise it as a formal genocide of Ukrainians perpetuated by the Soviet government.

Red Famine closes with the same query as the one it had opened with, as the ‘Ukrainian question’ remains at the heart of the book throughout its narration of the manmade catastrophe. But in signing off, the book emphasises on the lessons that can be extricated from the murderous chapters of the past.

‘If the study of the famine helps explain contemporary Ukraine, it also offers a guide to some of the attitudes of contemporary Russia, many of which form part of older patterns.’