In A Time Of War and Recession, Ukraine’s Independence Is more Important than Ever

Katya Soldak

Today Ukraine commemorates its 23rd year of independence from the Soviet Union as the military conflict in the East continues and NATO has confirmed that Russian artillery units are firing on Ukrainian forces inside Ukraine.

This Independence Day sees the country in pretty rough shape—fighting off Russian aggression while watching its economy contract 4.7% in the first quarter of this year. But despite all negatives, the country celebrates its Independence with a newly discovered sense of self and readiness to fight for its freedom fiercely.

This Sunday Kyiv will hold a military parade in Khreshchatyk, in the center of Ukraine’s capital’s and the cradle of winter’s revolution known to the world as Maidan.

The parade itself evokes mixed feelings in the Ukrainian public as the country mobilizes all its resources for what the government calls an “anti-terrorist operation” in Donbass and what to many citizens looks like a real war, with casualties and wounded, with the separatists armed with Russian weapons and Russian artillery operating inside Ukraine. The idea of holding a parade in such a time was criticized as unnecessary pomposity. But the president Petro Poroshenko, as well as his army commanders, decided to hold the parade anyway to demonstrate military capability and to lift the army’s spirit.

The support of Ukraine’s sovereignty increased to 90%, says Valeriy Khmelko, the president of research center KIIS in Kyiv. That’s almost the same as in August 1991, when 92% of Ukrainians voted for the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in a 84.2 % turnout vote. Soon after, the first president Leonid Kravchuk, was elected. The country got the freedom to rediscover its national identity and embarked on a brave but clumsy journey towards free market democracy.

The Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago but Moscow’s agony over the fall hasn’t ended. Moscow has attempted to keep a tight grip on neighboring countries like Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia. The Kremlin’s land-grabbing and Imperial ambition has resulted in military conflicts in Georgia, Chechnya and Transnistria. Russia’s war against Ukraine – which has turned into complex conflict between the West and Russia – exceeded any analyst and political expert’s pessimistic forecasts and seems to have brought back a cold war mindset.

As it turned out, the KGB’s tactics and strategies are still alive and flourishing; newly rediscovered Soviet propaganda came in handy in manipulating public opinion through the mainstream media in Russia; Russian president Vladimir Putin enjoys the high approval ratings in his country.

If, indeed, the iron curtain comes back, Ukraine wants to be on the Western side and has no interest in joining Russia, increasingly isolated by western sanctions. The Ukrainian people may not all be on the same page over their liking of the government in Kyiv or feel strongly about Ukrainian language, but they want to enjoy the liberties and business opportunities of the western world.

To Moscow the idea that countries like Ukraine have the right to choose their own path and move towards closer integration with Europe – escaping the Kremlin’s influence – is a source of instability and panic. They accuse the West, especially the American government, of manipulating Ukraine during its anti-government protests in Kyiv this past winter and deny the idea that the Ukrainian people may have been thinking for themselves.

But Moscow failed to understand Ukraine’s story, or they underestimate the power of the grassroots movement within Ukraine that has bid farewell to its Soviet past.

From the first days of its independence, it wasn’t easy for Ukraine. To break the Soviet economic ties and conduct necessary economic and political reforms was incredibly difficult. The country had to create it’s own currency and banking system.

For those who were closer to administrative resources and better-connected, with starting capital and an entrepreneurial spirit, it was a time of opportunities—the oligarchs who emerged are still very influential – Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoyskyy, Victor Pinchuk among others.

At the same time, besides the economy and politics, Ukraine has quickly drifted apart from Russia on the cultural front. Even during Soviet times, Russian and Ukrainians were never the same, but the Soviet ideology and propaganda unified them a great deal. “Homo Soveticus” was the general nationality that sort of united Russians, Ukrainians and people from other republics under its umbrella.

In the early 1990s, Soviet history books in Ukrainian schools had been replaced with books telling Ukrainian and Soviet history free of the Soviet ideological propaganda, with historical facts that were omitted before. Students learned about the struggle of living under the Soviet oppression, about the deliberate famine in Ukraine under Stalin that wiped out more than 10,000 million—now regarded by a number of countries in the world, including the United States, as genocide. Also taught are stories about many figures of intelligentsia arrested by the Soviet government, shot or sent to Siberia.

Books by pro-Ukrainian authors, deemed too avant-garde or authentic for the Soviet rule, were finally published and offered in Ukrainian literature classes. Poetry, prose and history, which the Communist Part didn’t allow for many generations, became part of the education system. A new culture quickly developed in the 1990s—Ukrainian rock, Ukrainian pop, Ukrainian experimental art, theater, youth festivals, you name it.

When Ukrainian media, including radio and television, started offering a variety of Ukraine-focused news and talk shows, the division between Russian and Ukrainian gradually increased, while the memories of the Soviet times, especially for the younger generations – those born after 1980 – began to fade. The East and the West of Ukraine peacefully coexisted, despite differences and the more pronounced Soviet stamp towards the border, but the idea of the territorial integrity and Ukraine’s sovereignty has never been challenged, until Russia’s actions this year.

The victims of Maidan and the victims of the war in Donbass paid the highest price any former Soviet country has had to pay for its independence. At this, yet another tragic moment of Ukrainian history, patriotism seems as high as ever. The Ukrainian anthem became a sort of prayer for many citizens, and traditional Ukrainian wear is in style.

Social activists paint everything in blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s national flag – from the statues of Lenin (still present in many towns) to fences and murals. Blue and yellow keeps popping up everywhere throughout the country and beyond, even in Moscow, outside the Kremlin.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said he hopes the new Parliament will have mostly pro-European and pro-Ukrainian members. So the country could continue on its path to becoming a truly independent and economically prosperous state. But for that, Russia would need to get its hands off Ukraine as soon as possible.

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