“I rented a room from a pensioner while I lived in Kharkiv,” Andy told us, “Rent for a one-bedroom apartment runs around 7000 Ukrainian hryvnia (about $240) plus utilities, which is another 1000 hryvnia (about $30) approximately. The pensioner I rented from only charged me 2000 hryvnia (about $60) per month. I felt like that wasn't enough. So I gave her an extra 1000 hryvnia per month for food.”
For expats like Andy, one of the greatest experiences of living in Ukraine is befriending the locals. In certain cases, bonds of friendship can be formed through the Ukrainian hosts that rent out their apartments to American teachers. Such a friendship was formed between Andy and his elderly Ukrainian landlady, with whom he lived in Kharkiv.
He went on to say, “We got along great. She would sit in her room and watch her Turkish soap operas and I went to my room, did my work, and sometimes we talked. But there was a bit of a language barrier there. My Russian isn't great, but we got everything done.”
And then the invasion began.
“I’ve got to give her a lot of credit because when the war started, she knew exactly what to do. This old lady loved to remind me that this wasn't her first war. She was very calm the entire time. I never once saw her panic.”Ukraine has experienced a lot of hardships throughout its history, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, younger generations of Ukrainians have been able to live relatively stable and peaceful lives. However, it is a different story for the older generations.
“This is not my first war,” said Andy’s landlady. It is a poignant reminder of a history of violence in Ukraine.
The 20th century was tough on the country of Ukraine. Spurred on by the 1917 February Revolution (also known in Soviet historiography as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution, or the March Revolution), between 1918 to 1921, Ukraine fought a War for Independence, which resulted in the establishment of a Ukrainian republic. This was later absorbed into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1922 to 1991.
Life under the USSR ushered in one of the deadliest periods of Ukraine’s history. Forced collectivization was established from 1929 until 1933. As a result, in Ukraine alone, 1.2 million people were killed or deported to gulags as part of the Soviet scheme to consolidate individual land and labor into collective farms called Kolkhoz.
This collectivization was further driven by the early manufactured famines that the USSR subjected Ukraine to between 1921–1923 and 1946–1947, which killed 1.5 million Ukrainians. These manufactured famines were a common tool used to feed the Soviet machine, as well as suppress uprisings, sow discontent, and validate the taking of property from citizens.
The Great Purge (indicating the purging of communist party ranks) from 1933 until the 1950s, also known as the Great Terror in Ukraine, was indicative of just how fearful the Soviet Party was of the people it repressed. As a result, in 1933 the Party expelled some 400,000 people. As the practice persisted, it soon came to mean almost certain arrest, imprisonment, and often the execution of anyone deemed unfit for party membership.
But nothing could prepare Ukraine for its most infamous and deadly genocide: Holodomor. While the country had experienced two manufactured famines in the 1920s and 40s, Holodomor’s deadliness is unparalleled. From 1932 to 1933, 4.5 million Ukrainians were killed and starved to death. The genocide saw Soviet forces reject outside aid, confiscate household food, and restrict population movement. It also targeted grain production in the country. Ukraine was famous as “the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.”
Yet Ukraine’s hardships did not end with Holodomor. Forced deportations in the country continued from 1939 to 1941, killing 24,000 and displacing another 300,000 Ukrainians. The War against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed 153,000 between the years of 1942 and 1959. The deportation of Crimean Tatars from their native Crimea displaced 200,000 people. And up to 1000 people were imprisoned as political dissidents between 1960 and 1988. Ukrainian political prisoners comprised an estimated 65% of the prison population in Soviet gulags.
As for the violence and hardship brought about by different wars, there are still elderly citizens in Ukraine who lived through the horrors of the Second World War, when their country was a contested battleground between the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army. Although no wars were fought on Ukrainian soil between World War II and the War in Donbas, soldiers of the Ukrainian SSR were among the Soviet forces deployed to Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, which took place from 1979 until 1989. The Soviet Union suffered over 14,000 casualties throughout the war, with over 3,000 of those deaths being Ukrainians.
Yet, as the Soviet Union crumbled, Ukraine was able to gain its independence in 1991. Since then Ukraine has sought to shed its imperial Russian history and embrace its own culture, language, history, and identity. Though Ukraine maintained warm relations with Russia in the years following the collapse of the USSR, it was in 2004 with the election of the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko that the world began to take notice of Ukraine’s desire for a future free from Russian rule. Following the 2004 presidential election, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich was declared the president. However, allegations of a rigged election triggered mass protests across the country, a period which became known as the Orange Revolution.
Following this series of protests, a re-run of the election was held, in which Viktor Yushchenko became the true, democratically-elected president of Ukraine. Yushchenko’s administration made promises to bring Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence, and move the country closer towards the European Union and NATO. However, Ukraine’s prospects of a European future were challenged in 2010, when the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich managed to become president.
In late 2013, Yanukovich’s intentions to keep Ukraine under Moscow’s rule were made clear when he suspended trade and association talks with the European Union and planned to restore close ties to the Kremlin.
This was the turning point that led Ukraine to the Maidan Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity. This revolution saw a series of protests in early 2014, which were mainly focused around Kyiv’s Maidan Square. The protests turned violent, with Yanukovich’s armed police forces killing several protesters. This tragic event led to the ousting of Yanukovich, who then fled to Russia immediately afterward. This was the event that triggered the Russian Federation to turn its military war machine against Ukraine. Following the removal of Yanukovich, Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and launched its hybrid war in Donbas. Eight years have passed since then, and now Ukraine is engaged in an all-out war with the Russian Federation.
Russia’s violent obsession with Ukraine seems disturbingly tied up with the idea that Russia is entitled to Ukraine. These can be seen in Putin’s comments about the fall of the Soviet Union being “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” coupled with his consistent efforts across a number of former Soviet States to re-establish Russian control. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine is proving to be yet another chink in the history of violence that echoes out from the memory of the USSR.
Coming Next - Part IV: As the Invasion Begins