My father, Vladimir Iwasiuk, painted the picture above. My sister posed for the painting in the full Ukrainian traditional folk regalia, from the embroidered blouse and jacket to the headdress. This is what the country girls wore on festive days. But that was in the past. Ukraine has become a pawn in the chess game that Vladimir Putin is playing. Unfortunately, our President and the EU are playing checkers. I am of Ukrainian descent. My father was born in Czernowitz (the German version of the spelling), in western Ukraine. This was at a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire happened to be the owner of that part of the world. Ukraine has never been blessed with unity.
Its borders and territories have been disputed by all of its neighbors, each claiming a piece of it at various times. Great heroes have risen to fight for Ukraine in all those battles. Taras Bulba, a Zaporozhina Cossack (referring to lands – wild fields – around the lower Dnieper River), was one of them at the time the Poles were tearing off a chunk of Ukraine for themselves. Yul Brynner played his character in the 1962 movie by that name, well worth watching to get the flavor of the Ukrainian nationalist spirit.
In the 10th and 11th Centuries, Ukraine was the MOST POWERFUL NATION in Europe! That era was ushered in by Vladimir the Great around the year 1000. Ukrainians are very proud of their heritage and resent being lumped together with Russians, as they so often are. More than 70% of Ukrainians belong to the Greek Orthodox Faith. Medieval Christianity split into an Eastern and a Western theology in 1054 AD at the time of Ukraine’s Golden Age. The division occurred over a variety of doctrinal issues, such as the Pope’s infallibility, the worship of icons, the marriage of priests, the understanding of the trinity, and the three-bar Orthodox cross. This cultural factor imparts Ukraine with a distinct Byzantine flavor in its architecture, art, and clothing; something you can appreciate in the painting above. If you have ever seen Pysanky, the Ukrainian Easter Eggs, you will notice the very intricate style typical of Ukrainian design. Much of the Ukrainian traditions, designs, and dress have all but disappeared except in the remote regions.
The current crisis in Ukraine reflects the turmoil of centuries of unrest. East Ukraine has been given the better soil and has been referred to as “the breadbasket” of Russia. While the western part of the country is grassland, where the Cossacks ruled. They had a remarkable ability to handle horses, probably in part due to their having domesticated the horse in the first place ca. 6000 years ago. The East has been coveted by Russia ever since Catherine the Great, who, in fact, was not Russian at all. She was a German princess who became the Czarina when her husband, Peter III, was murdered by her lover’s brother. She started populating the eastern area with German farmers to till its fertile fields.
It has been said, “Russia without Ukraine is a country; Russia with Ukraine is an empire.” This was not lost on Joseph Stalin (or on Vladimir Putin, for that matter). Stalin claimed Ukraine for his own and demanded unreasonable production quotas of grain. When the farmers couldn’t produce that much, he decided to “collectivize” the land (steal it) and have the state administer it. The Ukrainian farmers, known for their independent spirit, objected. He proceeded to kill 11,000,000 of them (eleven million!) in what has become known as the Holodomor (killing by starvation), an unprecedented decimation of a people that is now recognized among the several infamous genocides of recorded history. It overshadows the Holocaust in sheer numbers of murdered humans. Stalin himself confessed this “man’s inhumanity to man” to Winston Churchill in a conversation that took place on August 16, 1942, as recorded in Churchill’s memoirs. Stalin had all the intellectuals rounded up and deported to Siberia to further eliminate resistance, where about another half-million Ukrainians (men, women, and children) died from hunger and exposure. Ukraine lost 25% of its population during the Holodomor. Eastern Ukraine was resettled with mostly ethnic Russians from the north. That is why eastern Ukraine is now Russian-speaking, Russian culturally, and Russian friendly.
The Russians had already illegally annexed Crimea on March 1, 2014. To show their loyalty to Putin and display their unity with the just-completed invasion of Crimea, the trigger-happy pro-Russian “breakaway” separatists of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, commanded by Russian Intelligence Colonel, Igor Strelkov, downed Malaysian Airline Flight 17, of July 17, 2014, with a BUK Russian missile. The flight was routed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The separatists saw this as an invasion of “their airspace”. That was the death of 283 civilian passengers, including 80 children. The whole affair is a bitter and tragic consequence of social, economic, and military meddling with the hordes of useful idiots that were manipulated by the criminal minds of a couple of ruthless dictators, past and present, intoxicated by the elixir of limitless power. The blame was laid at the feet of Russia and Vladimir Putin by the European Court of Human Rights! Stalin set it up, and Putin lit the fuse.
Now Putin’s mission is to rebuild the old Soviet Union. He has the old Communist revisionist version of history and is in the process of putting the pieces of the puzzle back together. Georgia, Moldova, Crimea, Kazakhstan, Belarus, the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and now it appears the rest of Ukraine, all are examples of how Putin plans to restore the past. It started with Stalin’s murder of one-quarter of Ukraine’s population and replacing them with Russians who now claim it as their country.
On a personal note, my Ukrainian grandmother, on my father’s side, survived more than thirteen years of imprisonment in Siberia. When Nikita Khrushchev took over, and the de-Stalinification of Russia ensued, she was released at age 80 for her son’s crimes (my father) of evading Stalin’s clutches by escaping from the Soviet Union.
Putin sees the opportunity to strike. The EU is totally dependent on Russia for its energy supply. We have given up our energy independence by closing the Keystone pipeline and stopping fracking. Germany has closed its nuclear power plants. We are seeing unbridled brute force from Vladimir Putin, not exactly brilliant or masterful diplomacy skills. But nevertheless, if you are not considering statesmanship, what do you expect from the mindset of a former East German-trained mid-level ex-KGB agent? Exactly what you see!