In 2019, I got to meet a guy who had emigrated from Ukraine in the 1990s. I admitted that I was having trouble understanding Ukrainian politics and the ongoing presidential election, which appeared to be between a corrupt pro-Russian billionaire and a TV comedian.

“I can explain it to you,” Boris said, “but I don’t understand it.”

Back then, I thought of Ukraine as a place that I could get away with not understanding. That no longer holds.

The Russian invasion is like 9/11, an event that is going to shape the way the world works for decades. And like 9/11, it’s one that seemed to come out of the blue only because we weren’t paying attention.

It turns out that Ukraine was at the center of the earth-shaking events of the 20th century, and it’s impossible to understand what it means to be a nation or an empire without taking its history into account. So, in addition to following the dispatches from the Kyiv Independent on Twitter, I’ve been reading some history.

I recently picked up “The End of Tsarist Russia,” by Dominic Lieven, a 2015 book about the events leading up to the First World War, based on his research in previously sealed Russian archives. The first line got my attention:

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“As much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine.”

His argument is that despite our images of trench warfare in France, it was really a war between Russia and Germany over Ukraine, then a colonial possession of the Russian Empire.

Germany wanted Ukraine’s fertile land to feed its industrial workforce, and Russia needed its industry and population to remain a great power in Europe. The czar also believed it was his religious and historical mission to unite all the Slavic-language-speaking Orthodox Christians under his protection.

What did the Ukrainians want? No one asked. That’s not how empires work.

Lieven writes that the war between Russia and Germany ended with both sides losing and left out of the peace talks that chopped up their empires, along with those of Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks. Ukraine got a brief taste of independence before being swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1922, where it stayed until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The story is picked up in “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” a 2010 book by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. The orgy of mass murder that culminated in the Holocaust began in Ukraine, when Josef Stalin used famine as a weapon to force peasants to collectivize agriculture.

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Three million Ukrainians were starved to death, sometimes observed by guards in towers, while the Red Army shut down the borders preventing any food from coming in or any hungry people from getting out.

Snyder writes that Hitler also had his eye on Ukraine. His plan was to invade the Soviet Union and seize its oil and farmland. The “Hunger Plan,” developed by Hermann Göering, would have used famine to kill 30 million people and force eastern migration of most of the rest so he could resettle the land with German farmers overseeing some of the survivors, who would be forced to work the fields.

His model for a continental empire built on extermination, expulsion, and slave labor? Snyder reports that it was the United States: “The Volga River in Russia, (Hitler) once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.”

Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia was a failure, and the Nazi project turned to killing nearly six million Jews who were trapped behind their lines. The Red Army pushed the Nazis back to Berlin and reclaimed Ukraine and other Eastern European nations to rebuild their empire.

The Ukrainians finally got their independence in 1991, and have been struggling with corruption and inequality that have been common in the post Soviet word.

But if we are surprised to see them stand up and fight in the latest invasion, we shouldn’t be.

They are a people with a long history, but most of it as a part of someone else’s empire. What the world is seeing is not an East-West proxy war or two neighbors fighting over territory. It’s really an anti-imperial war of liberation.

Americans should know better than anyone that a former colony fighting on its own land for its independence is hard to beat. It’s the history of our revolution. It’s also the history of our involvement in Vietnam.

We don’t know how this war for Ukraine is going to steer history, but we can do our best to understand it.


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