Orest Subtelny, History of Ukraine, 4th ed., 2009.


The New Era

A major theme in the history of the 20th century has been the struggle of nations against empires. Much like the ancient dinosaurs, the empires, which seemed to have been with us since the dawn of time, became too large, too unwieldy, and too ineffective to survive in a rapidly changing world. One after another they failed to prevent their subject nations from breaking away and establishing independent states. The Romanov, Habs-burg, and Ottoman empires disintegrated after the First World War. After the Second World War, the British, the French, and other European powers were forced to abandon their overseas domains. By the end of the 20th century had come the turn of the world's last empire, the USSR. In a desperate effort to adapt to modernity, the Soviet leadership attempted to introduce far-reaching reforms. But the reforms only allowed the long-repressed forces of nationalism and the inherent desire for self-determination among the Soviet Union's myriad nationalities to emerge and hasten the collapse of the ossified structure.

Ukraine had been a cornerstone of the Russian and Soviet imperial systems. As is usually the case with imperial rule, the centuries-old experience was not without its benefits. But with time the glaringly negative features of Soviet rule had come to the fore: the deteriorating economy and falling standard of living, the ecological devastation of the land, the past crimes of the regime, now being revealed for the first time, and the repression of civil rights and of the national consciousness and culture of the Soviet Union's many peoples. When the opportunity to choose independence arose, therefore, the people of Ukraine overwhelmingly embraced it. It was a decision of monumental significance, for it sounded the death knell of the USSR. And the disintegration of this regime provided Ukraine with the opportunity to return to the mainstream of global history. Together with the entire community of nations, Ukrainians commenced a new epoch, one in which empires were a thing of the past.

Reform and Its Unintended Results

The goal of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was to modernize the Soviet system in order to preserve it. But because change threatened the interests of the well-entrenched party apparatus, many of its members sought to block genuine reform by all means possible. This was especially so in the Ukraine of the arch-conservative Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. By contrast, the impact of glasnost, the new freedom of expression, was immediate and dramatic. Originally intended to restore the credibility of the regime and to prod the bureaucracy into action, it produced results that Gorbachev neither wanted nor expected. Instead of revitalizing the regime, glasnost became a means for the nationalities of the USSR to voice their grievances and aspirations.

In Ukraine, widespread anger at the government's handling of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl brought on the first major wave of criticism of the system. Resentment focused on the criminally negligent manner in which bureaucrats in Moscow had made decisions that directly, and tragically, affected the lives of the population in Ukraine. Moreover, the Chernobyl disaster roused the people to an awareness of other ecological crimes -manifest in the befouled air, the dying rivers, the poisoned soil -- that Soviet economic planners had perpetrated in their land. The new revelations, together with the declining standard of living, forced even the most loyal to question the merits of the system in which they lived.

Their appetite for criticism having been whetted, Ukrainians turned to other grievances. The rapidly deteriorating status of the Ukrainian language was a pressing and perennial concern, and not only were leading Ukrainian writers encouraged to speak out more boldly in protest, but on 11 February 1989, they created the Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society, the first large-scale organization in the republic that was not controlled by the party. An important by-product of the numerous, heated discussions regarding the ecology and the status of the Ukrainian language was that they mobilized many well-known members of the literary establishment and propelled them to the forefront of criticism of the status quo.

Attempts to deal with the "blank spots" in Ukrainian history followed. Notably, it was writers and journalists, not historians, who boldly broached topics that had long been considered taboo. Most dramatic and shocking were revelations concerning the Famine of 1932-33, the memory of which Soviet historiography had long sought to repress. Along with these revelations came sensational reports of the discovery of mass graves of Ukrainians shot by the NKVD in the 1930s and 1940s. As awareness of the extent to which their recent history had been falsified spread, many Ukrainians developed a thirst for non-Soviet, nationally oriented interpretations of their past. Interest in Cossackdom as a quintessentially Ukrainian phenomenon grew, culminating in massive celebrations in the summer of 1990 commemorating the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Zaporozhian Sich. Articles appeared presenting Mazepa's attempts to break away from Moscow as an act of patriotism rather than an incarnation of treachery. The efforts of the once-derided Ukrainian governments of 1917-20 to attain independence were now interpreted as the expression of legitimate national aspirations. Even the bitterly anti-Soviet struggle of the UPA was glorified, especially in the western regions.

As the nationally oriented interpretations of Ukraine's past gained in favor, so did national symbols. To the great indignation of the authorities, the long-banned blue and yellow flag of the national movement appeared in the spring of 1989, first in western Ukraine and then in Kiev, with increasing frequency. More Ukrainians learned the words of the proscribed national anthem and sported the nationalist trident on their lapels. These symbols seemed to perform a dual function: they indicated an individual's support for national aspirations and disdain for the Soviet system.

During 1989, the slowly but steadily growing tide of change in Ukraine crossed a critical threshold: it moved from verbal expression to political activity. A major breakthrough were the elections to the ail-Union Congress of Peoples Deputies, which took place on 26 March. By Western standards, the elections in Ukraine were far from fair: they were accompanied by numerous cases of vote rigging and intimidation by the party apparat. Nonetheless, the establishment candidates suffered many embarrassing setbacks. Moreover, widespread resentment over the party's attempts to manipulate the elections prompted opponents of the party to prepare more carefully for the next electoral campaign.


Throughout the year, "informals," that is, organizations not legally sanctioned, grew in number and variety throughout the USSR. Estimates placed their total number at about 30,000. In Ukraine, informals such as the Lions' Society (Tovarystvo Leva) were most active in the western oblasts. In early 1989, a number of these "informal" organizations, supported by well-known writers and scholars in Kiev, formed the Popular Movement for Restructuring in Ukraine (Rukh). As an indication of its support, the newspaper of the Writers Union, Literaturna Ukraina, published a draft of the program of the new movement. By the time the organization held its founding congress in Kiev, on 8-10 September 1989, it had about 280,000 members, and the number was growing daily. In its program, Rukh committed itself to upholding the sovereignty of the Ukrainian republic, to promoting the Ukrainian language and culture, to voicing ecological concerns, and to supporting the democratization of the political, social, and economic systems. Special stress was placed on the need to maintain the solidarity of all ethnic groups in Ukraine, and consequently, a significant number of Russians, Jews, and members of other ethnic groups joined the movement. Thus, although Rukh was a broadly based social, political, and national organization, it was not primarily a nationalistic one. The emergence of Rukh created a fundamentally new political situation in Ukraine: for the first time since the establishment of Soviet rule, the Communist party's monopoly on power was being challenged.

Popular support for Rukh grew rapidly, but it was unevenly distributed. To an overwhelming extent it was based in western Ukraine and among the Kiev intelligentsia. In eastern and southern Ukraine, where the party maintained an iron grip, support for Rukh was minimal. To. publicize its goals and attract new members, Rukh made use of another new feature of the glasnost era, the mass demonstration. As early as 1988, mass demonstrations in support of national issues, involving as many as 50,000, even 200,000, had taken place in Lviv. In the next year, they became frequent in Kiev. The largest mass demonstration was the Rukh-sponsored human-chain organized on 21 January 1990 to commemorate the union of the ZUNR and UNR in 1919 and to symbolize the solidarity of all Ukrainians. It stretched for 300 miles from Lviv to Kiev and attracted about 300,000 participants.

Rukh was not the only widespread anti-establishment movement to appear in Ukraine. In July 1990, the miners of heavily Russian and Russified Donetsk and Dniepropetrovsk staged a massive strike that eventually involved 250,000 workers. They too came out against the privileged position of the Communist party. Initially, they were unwilling to ally themselves with Rukh, considering it to be too nationalistic. But in time and as a result of the mediation of the more nationally conscious miners from Lviv oblast (Chervonohrad), the miners and Rukh seemed on the verge of finding common ground.

The new politics

In this climate of unprecedented activism and excitement, Ukraine prepared for its first relatively free elections. They were held to select deputies to the republic's parliament (Verkhovna Rada) and the local councils. The contenders were, on the one hand, the candidates of the newly formed Democratic Bloc, which included Rukh, the Helsinki Watch Committee, ecological groups, and numerous "informal" organizations and, on the other hand, the Communist party candidates. While the latter had control of the media, positions of influence, means of exercising coercion, and huge financial resources, the former counted on momentum, enthusiasm, and the protest vote to offset the Communist advantages. The results of the elections, held in several stages on 4-18 March, were ambiguous: as expected, the Communists won the majority of seats. But the Democratic Bloc did surprisingly well, especially in Kiev and, even more, western Ukraine, where almost all the elective positions were won by non-Communists. Especially noteworthy was the fact that former political prisoners such as Levko Lukianenko, Viacheslav Chornovil, Bohdan and Mykhailo Horyn, and Iryna Kalynets won convincing electoral victories. As a result, 90 of the 450 seats in the new parliament went to the Democratic Bloc, while the hard-line Communists, often referred to as the "group of 239," retained the majority. Despite the fact that they greatly outnumbered their opponents, for the first time Communists had to face a legal opposition in a parliamentary setting. They clearly found the experience disconcerting. Indeed, the very formation of the new parliament was an event of great significance: before, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine had been the most powerful political body in the republic; now, like other countries in the world, Ukraine had a parliament where popularly elected deputies, under public scrutiny, were expected to represent the interests of their constituents. The parliament soon became a new locus of political power in the land.

Capitalizing on the euphoria of the moment and the confusion of its opponents, the Democratic Bloc achieved a major victory in parliament when, on 16 July 1990, it pushed through the historic declaration of Ukrainian sovereignty, which formally announced the country's intention to control its own affairs.

The Communists

Accustomed to an orderly, predictable, and tightly controlled political system, the Communists were shocked by the previously unimaginable developments of 1989 and early 1990. Moreover, from their point of view, matters went from bad to worse. On 28 September 1989, soon after the Rukh founding congress, the ailing Shcherbytsky finally stepped down from his post, and shortly afterward he died. Communist hopes that his successor, Volodymyr Ivashko, might stabilize the situation crumbled in July 1990, when Ivashko unexpectedly abandoned the Ukrainian party for a high party position in Moscow. Leonid Kravchuk, the former secretary for ideology in the Communist party, was chosen to replace Ivashko as chairman of the republic's parliament, and Stanislav Hurenko became leader of the Communist party. Meanwhile, thousands of members began to abandon the demoralized party. Widespread hostility to the Communists, who were ever more frequently accused of parasitism and self-interest, reached a point where in western Ukraine statues of Lenin began to be removed .

But although these developments in Ukraine, as well as in the USSR as a whole, threw the Communist establishment off-balance, they did not fundamentally weaken its control of the major levers of power and influence -- the media, the police, the KGB, the military, industry, and the collective farms. So when students in Kiev staged a successful hunger strike in early October 1990 in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and forced the resignation of

Vitalii Masol, the Communist chairman of the republic's Council of Ministers, the Communist establishment in Ukraine decided that matters had gone too far. An indication of its new, get-tough approach was the arrest, on clearly contrived charges, of Stefan Khmara, a west Ukrainian deputy noted for his radically nationalistic and anti-Communist views.

Meanwhile, serious weaknesses, exacerbated and exploited by the Communists, began to appear among the proponents of change in Ukraine. After its initial successes, Rukh, suffering from poor organization, a shortage of fresh ideas, and in-fighting among its leaders, began to lose momentum. Its strength was further sapped by the appearance of several political parties that, with the exception of the relatively strong Ukrainian Republican party, led by Levko Lukianenko, were small and weak and fragmented the democratic forces.

Opponents of Ukrainian sovereignty were able to capitalize also on the fact that for centuries Ukrainians had been prevented from developing a sense of national solidarity and territorial integrity. Conservatives did not find it difficult to play on the differences between east and west Ukrainians. In the heavily Russified Donbas and Donetsk regions as well as in Odessa and other parts of southern Ukraine, voices were heard advocating separation from Ukraine. In Transcarpathia, there were some who argued that the autochtonous population were Rusyns, not Ukrainians. And Crimea, largely Russian and completely controlled by Communist hard-liners, actually declared its autonomy from Kiev.

Religious activity

Radical changes occurred also in other areas of society, most notably in the sphere of religion. As the Communist ideology rapidly lost its appeal and Communist political control weakened, religious life revived with surprising speed. In western Ukraine the banned Greek Catholic church emerged from the "catacombs" and demanded restoration of its former status. Its new-found confidence was based on mounting popular support, reflected in the increasing number of west Ukrainians, both the young and the elderly, who returned to the open practice of their traditional religion. The festive and massive celebrations of the Christmas holidays in January 1990 were an especially telling demonstration of the Ukrainian Catholic church's resurgence. Soon afterward, on 26 January, the Catholic hierarchy, led by Bishop Volodymyr Sterniuk, called a synod, which declared the forced liquidation of the church in 1946 to be null and void. Immediately thereafter, the hierarchy launched a drive for the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic church and the restoration of its former properties. Meanwhile, about 2000 parishes in the western oblasts returned to Catholicism, and the democrat-controlled Lviv oblast council sanctioned, despite Orthodox protests, the return of St George's cathedral in Lviv to the Catholics. In March 1991, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, the highest-ranking Ukrainian Catholic prelate, left Rome and returned to Lviv to lead the 5 million members of his church. An impressive high point in the revival occurred in August 1992, when close to a million faithful participated in the transfer of the venerated Patriarch Iosyf Slipy's remains from Rome to Lviv.

Fearful of losing ground to the resurgent Catholics at a time of reviving national consciousness, the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine changed its name to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in January 1990. It continued, however, to recognize the leadership of the Patriarch of Moscow. In the spring of 1990, a new contender for Orthodox loyalties appeared when the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church (UAOC), banned since the 1930s and based abroad, reemerged. At a synod in June, the clergy and about 1650 parishes that had defected from the Moscow patriarchate chose the venerable Mystyslav Skrypnyk, leader of the UAOC in the West, as its patriarch. In October 1990, he returned to Kiev after a forty-six-year absence.

The revival of religion, however, brought some difficulties with it, notably the renewal of old religious feuds between Catholics and Orthodox. The feuds were especially bitter in the western regions, where communities were often split over the question of whether to remain Orthodox or to return to Catholicism. Conflicts about which group had title to church property added fuel to the fire. There was also growing friction within the ranks of Ukraine's 35 million Orthodox, with some choosing to join the newly re-instituted UAOC and others remaining faithful to the Moscow-controlled Ukrainian Orthodox church. Even this last body became fragmented. The controversial Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev broke with Moscow in the spring of 1992 and proclaimed himself leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate. Although he had the support of President Kravchuk and parliament, only about 350 parishes recognized his authority. Meanwhile, the majority of Ukraine's Orthodox, led by thirty bishops and numbering more than 5000 parishes, proclaimed their loyalty to the newly elected Metropolitan Volodymyr of the Ukrainian Autonomous church (formerly the Russian Orthodox church). For better or worse, pluralism now became a fact of life in religion as well as politics.

Change and its opponents

By the end of 1990, the euphoria, optimism, and activism of the previous year had waned considerably. In their place came a growing concern about the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, which, many Communists argued, was the result of the "ill conceived and chaotic reforms" introduced by Gorbachev and his reformers. Unsettling contradictions permeated many aspects of life in Ukraine and the USSR in general. On the one hand, five years of perestroika and glasnost had brought radical changes. The Communist ideology, the very basis of the Soviet system, was increasingly acknowledged to be fatally, irreparably flawed.

The legitimacy of the Communist party's claim to a leading role in society (and to control of much of its wealth) was therefore called into question. The once-scorned market economy was viewed with mounting favor. A revival of national consciousness, spurred by strong anti-centrist attitudes, was clearly evident in Ukraine and all the other republics of the USSR. And, perhaps most decisive, there was a noticeable waning of the psychology of fear that had for so long allowed the few to intimidate the many.

On the other hand, the years of perestroika had brought relatively little in the way of concrete structural change in Soviet society. The Communists still dominated the social, economic, and political establishment. Indeed, they seemed to occupy a no-lose position: if structural reforms remained minimal, they would retain their privileged positions, and if a market economy were introduced, they were best positioned to take advantage of new opportunities. The tyranny of the bureaucrats remained unshaken. Moreover, empty store shelves frequently confronted the harried consumer, and the price of the few goods and services available continued to rise at an alarming rate. Little wonder that large segments of the population, particularly the less sophisticated, blue-collar workers and villagers, not to mention the hard-line Communists, appeared ready to accept a return to the "old ways."

Nationally conscious Ukrainians, however, could point to some positive developments during this period. Support for Ukrainian sovereignty appeared in unexpected quarters. Characteristically cautious and circumspect, Leonid Kravchuk more frequently expressed his commitment to self-determination. In parliament, a small but growing faction of Communist deputies, the so-called sovereignty-Communists, emerged as a contemporary version of the national-Communists of the 1920s. Moreover, as the referendum of 17 March indicated, many Russians and other non-Ukrainians in the republic were not averse to sovereignty if it would improve their standard of living.

On the international level also, there were encouraging developments. For generations the world had remained oblivious to Ukraine and Ukrainians. But as it became apparent that the USSR was disintegrating, the aspirations of its second-largest republic, which equaled in size and population the major countries of Europe, attracted greater interest. A reflection of the new attitude was the visit of the American president, George Bush, to Kiev in July 1991, even though the president disillusioned many of his listeners by lecturing them on the dangers of nationalism and separatism.

By the summer of 1991, the sense of general apathy, political paralysis, and debilitating self-doubt had deepened. The economy continued to deteriorate, raising doubts about the state's ability to feed its population in the coming winter. Three key political issues loomed large in Ukraine: the drafting of a new constitution, the election of a president, and, most important, the new union treaty, which was to give the republics greater power in a fundamentally restructured and decentralized Soviet Union. The significance of the proposed union treaty for Ukraine could hardly be exaggerated: at issue was the question of whether or not Ukraine would become a full-fledged sovereign and independent state. It was clear that crucial decisions would have to be made soon. The question was who would make them and how they would be made.

The attempted coup

On 19 August 1991, Communist hard-liners in Moscow made a desperate attempt to forestall the fundamental restructuring of the Soviet system. After detaining Gorbachev in Crimea, they proclaimed a state of emergency and formed an Emergency Committee to run the country. The hastily formed committee counted on supporters in the Communist party leadership, the military, and the KGB to help it preserve as much as possible of the old order. But astonishingly poor planning and the determined opposition of Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, and his supporters in Moscow foiled the plotters. In sharp contrast to Yeltsin, in Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk adopted a cautious, ambiguous policy: while declaring that the state of emergency was inapplicable to Ukraine, he refrained from openly opposing the Emergency Committee. By 21 August, it was clear that the attempted coup had failed. Yet despite the brevity and comic-opera flavour of the event, its consequences were epochal.

The attempted coup accelerated the processes that it had sought to forestall. It totally compromised the defenders of the old order, specifically the Communist party, which was implicated in the conspiracy. Moreover, the hallowed principle of Soviet (and Russian) centralism, which allowed a small clique in the Kremlin to decide the fate of the numerous nations that made up the Soviet Union, was dealt a fatal blow. In short, the failed coup created an opportunity for those who were dissatisfied with Moscow's rule to cast if off. Ukraine, particularly the democrats in parliament, seized the opportunity in dramatic fashion: on 24 August 1991, the Ukrainian parliament, by an almost unanimous vote, proclaimed the independence of the republic. The panicky and disconcerted Communist deputies managed to add the qualification that a referendum on the issue be held in December. An even more painful blow to the old order came on 29 August, when parliament banned the Communist Party of Ukraine for its involvement in the coup. Gorbachev resigned from the party in Moscow, and Kravchuk did likewise in Kiev. One by one, the other republics also issued declarations of independence, and in September the Baltic republics formally withdrew from the USSR. The Soviet Union's days were numbered.


The abortive coup of August 1991 brought the Communist experiment to an end. It also resulted in the disintegration of the world's last great empire. In its place there emerged fifteen new states. Unprepared for self-sufficiency, they inherited the enormous problems that the Soviet regime had failed to resolve. It was now the responsibility of Ukraine and the other newly independent states to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, from a planned economy to one based on market forces, from isolation vis-a-vis the world community to integration. Most pressing, they had to reverse the alarming decline in the standard of living that affected all the former Soviet republics. All this had to be achieved at the same time that the new states were attempting to reorganize themselves into viable political and economic units.

The dilemmas faced by Ukraine and the other republics were unique. Independent states that had emerged elsewhere during the 20th century had usually focused on transforming themselves from underdeveloped to developed societies. But most of the former Soviet republics were already relatively developed societies. Indeed, that was the problem. They evolved as components of a complex political and economic system designed to bind them together. For these new states to extricate themselves from the myriad ties that bound them to the wreckage of the Soviet Union, especially its economy, was difficult enough. But in the process they had to rebuild, simultaneously and totally, their societies so that that they could function effectively in a new, competitive world dominated by democracies with market-oriented economies. And rebuilding complex but deteriorating structures is a much more difficult and frustrating task than starting anew.

The political dimension

In Ukraine, post-coup developments revolved around two issues: independence and economic crisis. As far as the first issue was concerned, the changes were truly ground-breaking. But proclaiming independence was far from realizing it. First, the referendum of 1 December had to establish whether or not the citizens of Ukraine actually supported the declaration of independence. Moreover, presidential elections were to be held on the same date. The inhabitants of Ukraine thus were given an unprecedented opportunity to choose who should lead them and in which direction they should move.

Momentum in favor of independence grew quickly in the fall of 1991. It was fueled by both historical arguments and current considerations. Previously, most Ukrainians had been inundated with claims about the benefits of living in the Soviet Union. Now, for the first time many realized the full costs of the experience. Exposes of Stalinist crimes, particularly with regard to the Famine of 1932-33, added greatly to the people's resentment of Moscow, which the Chernobyl disaster had first aroused. But for the majority of citizens perhaps the most convincing argument for independence was that their rich land would allow them to lead a more prosperous life if it were freed from Moscow's exploitative grip. Even Communists had reason to vote for separation: they hoped it would insulate them from Russia, where Yeltsin threatened to prosecute the party for its crimes. The example of the Baltic withdrawal from the USSR encouraged Ukrainians to withdraw likewise. Independence, long viewed as Utopian and unrealistic, became logical, desirable, and attainable.

The referendum of 1 December was another watershed event. Over 90% of the voters cast their ballots for independence, a result far surpassing even the most optimistic projections. Equally surprising and encouraging was the fact that the vast majority of Russians, Jews, Hungarians, Poles, and other non-Ukrainians, as well as the Russified oblasts in the east and south, also cast their votes for independence. In the presidential elections, Leonid Kravchuk emerged with an impressive majority of 62%, and the former dissident Viacheslav Chornovil came in a respectable second. The voting, carried out in a calm, orderly fashion, left no doubt as to the will of the people. For the moment, at least, there was widespread satisfaction, even euphoria.

The repercussions of the referendum were immediate, dramatic, and far-reaching. Although the withdrawal of the Baltic states from the USSR and Russia's proclamation of sovereignty had indicated clearly that the Soviet Union was on the verge of disintegration, it was the results of the Ukrainian referendum that delivered the death blow. Gorbachev himself proclaimed that "the Soviet Union without Ukraine is inconceivable."1 On 7-8 December, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus met near Brest and formally dissolved the USSR, creating in its place the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But although these leaders were unanimous in their desire to abolish the centralized Soviet system, it would soon become evident that they were sharply divided as to the exact role the new entity they had created was to play.

For Ukraine, the next great issue was the world's reaction to its proclamation of independence. Some neighboring states, such as Poland and Hungary, immediately welcomed it. For them a Ukrainian state could serve as a convenient counterweight to a powerful and threatening Russia. Canada, with its large and influential Ukrainian community, was also among the first to extend recognition. However, the world's most powerful country wavered. Until the very end, the Bush administration tried to preserve the USSR, believing that its continued existence would best guarantee stability in Eurasia. Moreover, many of its policy-makers remained staunchly Russocentric in their thinking and could not conceive of the disintegration of the "one and indivisible." But on 25 December, Washington finally gave in to the inevitable and recognized Ukraine's independence. Within several months, most countries in the world had done likewise. Ukraine's lengthy isolation from the world finally was over.

Russia's response to the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state was an issue of special concern. In view of the overwhelming popular support independence had received in the referendum, the Yeltsin government had no choice but to recognize it. Nonetheless, for many Russians the "loss" of Ukraine was a painful shock. The event called into question their most treasured historical concepts. It threatened Russia's position as a great power and disrupted an already deteriorating economy. In psychological terms, it undermined the satisfaction many Russians had gained from their traditional role as "elder brothers." Moreover, it cut off the 11 million Russians in Ukraine from their brethren in the north. Understandably, from the outset relations between Kiev and Moscow were tense and even antagonistic.

Almost immediately, deputies in the Russian parliament raised the issue of Ukraine's borders, despite the fact that the Russian government had agreed to respect them. Specifically, they questioned the inclusion of Crimea in the new Ukrainian state, arguing that the transfer in 1954 of the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine had been an unconstitutional act. Their protests were reinforced in Crimea itself, where Communist hard-liners, allied with Russian nationalists, retained control. For its part, Ukraine insisted on the inviolability of its borders. The Crimean issue gave rise to another, that of the Black Sea fleet. Stationed in Sevastopol, this fleet of approximately 300 ships and 60,000-70,000 men was a concrete manifestation of Russia's age-old drive for warm sea ports. Because the ships were based on formally Ukrainian territory, Kiev laid claim to this holy-of-holies of Russian imperial history. Initial negotiations between Kiev and Moscow failed to resolve the issue, and accusations and counter-accusations multiplied.

But the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation that caused most alarm throughout the world involved nuclear weapons. Even before the collapse of the USSR, Washington and Moscow had agreed in the START talks to reduce their nuclear arsenals. With the formation of CIS, Ukraine declared its willingness to transfer the thousands of nuclear weapons on its soil -- at the time it was the third-largest nuclear power in the world -- to Russia for destruction. However, in return for disarming itself totally and voluntarily of nuclear weapons, it demanded adequate financial aid and security guarantees. Because this position threatened the ratification of the treaty concluded by Moscow and Washington, both turned their ire on Kiev.

Yet another complex problem that strained relations between Russia and Ukraine involved CIS. Essentially, Moscow envisaged CIS as a supra-national organization, with its own bureaucratic structure, that would coordinate the military, political, and, especially, economic policies of most of the former republics of the USSR. But Kiev, fearful that such an organization would be dominated by Russia, preferred to view CIS as a means for obtaining a "civilized divorce" from the former USSR or, at most, as a forum for discussing common, primarily economic, problems. President Kravchuk was clearly unwilling to allow the organization to impose any limits on Ukraine's sovereignty.

In the summer of 1992, some progress was made in defusing several of these dangerous confrontations. In June and August, Kravchuk and Yeltsin met in Crimea and agreed to place the Black Sea fleet under dual control for five years. Early in 1993, there were indications that Kiev and Moscow might agree on the division of the debts and assets of the former Soviet Union and on economic cooperation. There was also some movement on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Nonetheless, much remained to be done in the delicate task of restructuring the complex, asymmetrical relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

Domestic politics

While the achievements of the new state on the international level were considerable, the same cannot be said about its domestic accomplishments. Here the government could take pride in two major successes. Confronted with a potentially dangerous situation, it managed to maintain political stability and to avoid the ethnic conflicts that broke out in a number of former Soviet republics. Despite the fact that about 70% of the officer corps were Russians, the government also made progress in reorganizing the approximately 700,000 former Soviet soldiers in the republic into a Ukrainian army. Konstantyn Morozov, the minister of defense, planned to scale down this huge force to about 400,000 men by 1995 and to 200,000 by the year 2000. Nonetheless, Ukraine would have one of the largest armies in Europe. Yet these achievements were overshadowed by the government's inability to deal with the deteriorating economic situation. The problems it faced in this area were overwhelming, and none of the former Soviet republics, all of which confronted similar difficulties, had had notable success in dealing with them. Nonetheless, for over a year the administration of Prime Minister Vitold Fokin responded phlegmatically and unproductively to this pressing situation. In fact, it aggravated it by allowing corruption and abuse of office to reach unprecedented heights. The time wasted and the opportunities lost would cost Ukraine's citizens dearly.

Even the most basic aspects of state-building were neglected. A constitution, which might have provided guidelines for democratic behavior, was not completed. As a result, the question of whether Ukraine was to be a presidential or a parliamentary republic was left unanswered. That meant that the division of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of government remained unclear. Initially, President Kravchuk attempted to expand his powers and to establish a precedent for strong executive rule. He appointed presidential representatives in the oblasts, created an advisory council, or Duma, and issued decrees claiming the force of law. But by the fall of 1992, the parliament, presided over by Ivan

Pliushch, had begun to challenge him. Soon afterward, when Leonid Kuchma became prime minister, a triangle of contenders for political power emerged. Uncertainty spread as to who had the power to do what.

The question of whether Ukraine was to be a unitary, centralized state such as France or a federated republic such as Germany was also unresolved. It was complicated by the desire of former Communist party bosses to retain control of their old bailiwicks and by the hostility of some segments of society, especially in the Russified southeast, to what they perceived as the over-nationalistic policies of Kiev. As a result, separatist tendencies continued to simmer in such areas as the Donbas, Transcarpathia, and, most notably, Crimea. Encouraged by support from Russia, Communist hard-liners in Crimea forced Kiev on 30 June to agree to expand the already extensive autonomous status of the peninsula.

Increasingly, politics acquired a clear duality. On the one hand were ministries, laws, presidential representatives, and decrees. But they were often ignored. On the other hand was actual power on the local level. It rested in the hands of oblast councils, factory directors, and collective farm chairmen, most of whom were unreconstructed Communists who "ran their own show." The increasingly chaotic situation prompted some observers to quip that in Ukraine only two laws were operative: one was Murphy's law, the other was the law of the jungle.

Adding to the confusion was the proliferation of political parties. For many former Soviet citizens, learning to live with political pluralism did not come easily. They remembered, with some nostalgia, the much simpler times when one party controlled everything. The appearance of an opposition movement like Rukh had already disconcerted them. But when, after one year of independence, approximately fifteen political parties emerged, many citizens had difficulty distinguishing between pluralism and anarchy. Because the new parties were weak, small, and disorganized, they were unable to mobilize significant support among the people, especially as economic conditions worsened and apathy about political issues deepened. Nevertheless, they became a new focal point of political activity, one bound to complicate politics but without which the movement toward democracy was impossible.

Political and ideological diversity was most widespread in the so-called democratic camp. Like other mass movements, such as Solidarnosc in Poland or Sajudis in Lithuania, Rukh experienced an identity crisis after achieving, at least formally, many of its objectives in 1991. Some of Rukh's leaders, such as Ivan Drach, Dmytro Pavlychko, and Mykhailo Horyn, urged it to remain an umbrella organization of democratic associations and parties whose priority was to create a political base of support for the new Ukrainian state. It followed that Rukh's basic position ought to be one of cooperation rather than confrontation with the government. However, another faction, led by Viacheslav Chornovil, argued that because the new state was still basically controlled by the old Communist establishment, no genuine reforms were possible until that establishment was removed from power. This group called for Rukh to transform itself into an opposition political party. These differences, aggravated by personal ambitions and animosities among Rukh's leaders, confused and disillusioned many rank-and-file members and resulted in a sharp drop in membership. Attempts at compromise failed, and at its fourth congress, on 6 December 1992, Rukh in effect transformed itself into a party, led by Chornovil and consisting of about 55,000 members. In influence and popular support, it was now only a shadow of its former self.

Meanwhile, other leaders in the democratic camp were forming their own parties. Of these, the largest and best organized was the 12,000-member Ukrainian Republican party, led initially by Levko Lukianenko and then by Mykhailo Horyn. Other parties included the Democratic party, led by Pavlychko, and the Peasant Democratic party. In August 1992, these parties, together with the Prosvita Ukrainian Language Society and the Union of Ukrainian Students, formed a coalition called the Congress of National Democratic Forces whose main goal was to support President Kravchuk and the state-building process. Another coalition that emerged in 1992 was Young Ukraine. Its driving force was the Party for the Democratic Rebirth of Ukraine, led by Volodymyr Filenko. Other members of the coalition were the Social-Democratic Party of Ukraine, the Green party, and some representatives of trade unions and industrial as well as business interests. The coalition's main concern was the acceleration of economic reforms. On the extreme right, several ultra-nationalist parties, such as the Ukrainian Nationalist Union, the Ukrainian National Assembly, and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, emerged that were supported, in varying degrees, by the Bandera and Melnyk factions of the diaspora-based OUN. Some estimates placed the total membership of the aforementioned parties at about 45,000.

But what of the banned Communist party and its 3 million members? Since most rank-and-file Communists belonged to the party for career reasons, they left in droves when membership no longer offered any advantages. The banning of the party on 29 August 1991 frightened off many others. Despite these setbacks, however, it was to be expected that such a massive and ubiquitous organization would retain a considerable number of hard-core supporters, especially among the older generation. Within a month of the Soviet collapse, they emerged, proclaimed their continuing loyalty to communism, and organized themselves into the Socialist party, led by Oleksander Moroz. Although initially the party numbered a relatively modest 30,000, it could count on varying degrees of sympathy and support from displaced members of the former Soviet establishment and conservative elements in the population. Moreover, their sympathizers, the "group of 239," held a majority in parliament.

On 19 January 1993, Socialist deputies, together with those representing the directors of some of the country's largest plants and factories, tried to force President Kravchuk to sign a CIS treaty, which he had described as a step backward toward the restoration of the Soviet Union. The attempt failed. But it was a clear indication that the conservatives were preparing for a comeback. Soon afterward, the Socialists launched a recruiting drive and claimed that, in a matter of several weeks, they had raised their membership to 230,000. As the economic situation worsened and disillusionment with the new order grew, the Socialists demanded, with increasing self-assurance and vehemence, a return to the old ways.

Political and ideological divisions in Ukraine also had an important regional dimension. Democratic and ultra-nationalist parties were strongest in western Ukraine, where anti-Communist feeling was strong. The attitude was a reflection of nationalism's deep roots in the region, a tradition of anti-Soviet resistance, and the relative brevity of Communist rule in the region. In eastern and southern Ukraine, where national consciousness was much weaker and Soviet rule had existed considerably longer, pro-Communist sentiment was widespread. Clearly a product of the age-old East-West dichotomy, these regionally based ideological differences were a unique and crucial feature of the Ukrainian political scene.

The deteriorating economy

For the average citizen of Ukraine these political developments were of steadily decreasing interest and relevance. Indeed, many developed a revulsion from politics in general. Underlying their attitude was the failure of politics and politicians, Soviet or democrat, to ease the steadily growing misery of daily life. The inability of the Soviet regime to resolve this problem had hastened its demise; now there was a danger that if it failed to deal effectively with the economic crisis, the newly established Ukrainian state might meet a similar fate.

One of the most widespread arguments for independence had been that, by eliminating Moscow's exploitation, independence would materially improve the lot of Ukraine's inhabitants. This view was strengthened by the traditional stereotype of "rich Ukraine," a land blessed with an abundance of resources, that would bloom if properly treated. Many who voted for independence did so in the expectation that it would raise their standard of living. But that did not happen; the economic situation continued to worsen, and by early 1993, it was catastrophic.

Statistics provide only a pale approximation of the depressing reality. According to World Bank estimates, in 1992 alone Ukraine's economy contracted by 20% while inflation leaped by 2500%.2 The incentive to work, chronically weak, declined even more as salaries rapidly lost their value A major cause of inflation was that the government, in order to avoid massive unemployment, had printed ever-greater amounts of money to subsidize the numerous unproductive industries. Another source of inflation was the huge price increases on essential imports, especially oil and gas from Russia. Decision-makers confronted a no-win situation: either accept hyper-inflation or risk massive unemployment.

For those people who could afford to pay the high prices, many necessary consumer goods were extremely difficult to find. But most people had only enough money to pay for food, and obtaining it became the main preoccupation of much of Ukraine's population. As far back as 1988, a Soviet government report had indicated that most Ukrainians were undernourished, that is, that they ate less than the recommended amounts of meat, fish, and dairy products. By 1992, their food supply had been reduced even further. Only the availability of relatively large quantities of bread and grain supplies prevented major food shortages. Whereas in 1989 about 15% of the population had lived below the poverty line, three years later the figure stood at over 50%.3 Particularly hard hit were pensioners and children, among whom signs of malnutrition appeared more frequently. The effects of Chernobyl, furthermore, still haunted much of the population. These miserable conditions discouraged childbirth, and as a result, in the early 1990s, Ukraine's death rate was higher than its birth rate. Moreover, corruption and crime reached epidemic proportions as many offenses, including murders, went unpunished. Often they were not even investigated by the understaffed, poorly paid, and frequently corrupt police force. As if all this were not enough, in 1992 Russia drastically reduced the amount of Oil and gas that it was willing to sell to Ukraine. The resulting energy crisis grounded airplanes and immobilized buses, private cars, and even ambulances. As Ukraine entered its second year of independence, the sense of malaise deepened among the people.

Opponents of independence were quick to blame Ukraine's withdrawal from the Soviet Union for these problems. The energy crisis had been brought on by independence, they maintained; in addition, factories had been cut off from their sources of raw materials in other republics, producers and customers had been separated by new borders, currency complications had arisen, and trade restrictions had been imposed. The republican components of the Soviet economic system, they claimed, were so interdependent as to be inseparable. Only the collectively undertaken efforts of all the former republics could solve their economic problems. For proponents of independence, the economic collapse was proof of the fundamentally flawed and irreparable nature of the Soviet economic system. They stressed that the economic decline had begun in the 1980s and had steadily gained momentum. While agreeing that economic cooperation with the former republics, notably Russia, was essential, they argued that each country must find its own way out of the economic dilemma because each had its own configuration of needs and problems. Increasingly, however, in spite of the divisions of opinion, independence forced Ukraine's citizens to evaluate their economic condition more realistically, and heightened their realization that they themselves must find solutions to their problems.

At first glance, Ukraine's economic strengths still appeared impressive. The country possessed several important industries, notably coal mining, metallurgy, and machine-building. Only a few years earlier, it had produced over half the USSR's chemicals. The shipbuilding industry also was extensive. By Soviet standards, agriculture was well developed, producing in 1989 about 21% of the former union's total agricultural output and more than half its sugar. Ukraine, moreover, has about 30% of the world's rich black earth. Labor was relatively cheap and plentiful, and the labor force contained a large percentage of people with secondary and higher education. The country had many scientists whose expertise could be utilized productively in industry.

Yet, upon closer perusal, many of these strengths proved to be illusory. Although the natural resources, particularly ion ore and coal, were in vast supply, the industries that exploited them were near collapse. Because of outdated technology, the costs of mining coal were greater than the profits generated. The steel industry, also in desperate need of modernization, was stagnant and uncompetitive on the world market. To modernize those industries required massive amounts of capital, which were not available. Attempts to find new ores were unpromising, and the indication was that Ukraine's role as a major supplier of raw materials might soon be over. Moreover, the steadily worsening energy crisis painfully demonstrated the Ukrainian economy's dependence on Russian oil and gas, a fact that had major political implications.

The litany of sorrows did not end here. Workers in heavy industry were disgruntled, and many were unskilled. About 70% of Ukraine's industrial output was concentrated in heavy industry, and close to 40% of that served the erstwhile Soviet military sector. Only 30% of industry produced consumer goods. Moreover, most factories were a source of pollution. Designed and formerly run by Moscow, the industrial base for which Ukraine now assumed responsibility was inefficient, unbalanced, and ecologically dangerous -- a drag on the economy rather than an asset.

The vaunted agricultural sector could not make up for industry's weakness. In fact, its production declined by 15% in 1992 alone. Because the money that collective farms received for their produce continually lost value, there was no incentive to raise production. The energy crisis paralyzed the transportation and distribution of food products. Moreover, the villages produced a disappointing surprise. For ages, a peasant's greatest dream had been to own his own land and to have as much of it as possible.

But now, when opportunities to return to private farming appeared, there was little enthusiasm for it. The opposition of collective farm officials fearful of losing their influence, difficulties in obtaining farm machinery, jealous neighbors, and the prospect of hard work discouraged many. Equally disquieting was the loss of the peasants' traditional sense of self-reliance, reflected in their failure to strike out on their own. Clearly this was yet another by-product of the collective farm system. Even more debilitating to agriculture was the continuing decline of the rural population. Between 1975 and 1990, it shrank by some 16%, from about 20 million to 17 million people.4 Although the countryside's economic importance remained very substantial -- as reflected in the fact that many urban families with ties to the village and its productive gardens were able to weather the hard times -- it declined significantly.

Unfortunately, there were few promising developments on the horizon. While projects for reforming the economy were plentiful, their implementation was painfully slow. The main problem was that the bureaucrats charged with introducing change were mostly former Communists who had little understanding of the reforms and even less desire to make them succeed. As for the West, the interest of Western businessmen in Ukraine was slow to develop. First, Western economies were themselves experiencing a slowdown; second, investment opportunies elsewhere in the world were more attractive than those in Ukraine; and third, until questions about ownership were resolved and a banking system had begun to function, few were willing to risk investing in Ukraine. By the end of 1991, there were only 250 joint ventures in the republic, employing a mere 20,000 people. Americans were involved in 56 of them, Germans in 42, and Austrians, Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians in about 20 each. Kiev attracted 75 of the ventures, Odessa had 34, Lviv and Donetsk had about 25 each.5 It did not appear that foreign investment could provide the impetus for an economic turnaround.

Because the lack of progress on reforms was no longer tolerable, on 30 September 1992, Vitold Fokin resigned, and on 13 October, parliament confirmed Leonid Kuchma, a deputy and a highly regarded factory director from Dniepropetrovsk, as the new prime minister. From the outset, the new prime minister applied an energetic, realistic approach to the daunting tasks before him, declaring forthrightly that "Ukraine does not have an economic crisis; it has a catastrophe."6 After obtaining sweeping powers for a six-month period to address economic problems, he introduced a series of measures that promised to enliven the stalled reforms. For many, the Kuchma government appeared to be Ukraine's last hope. But his determined moves aroused the opposition of the Socialists and other former Communists, who, with increasing aggressiveness, called for a return to the old order. Their actions, in turn, rallied the fragmented democratic camp to the defense of the government. A mixture of tension and despair gripped the land.

The diaspora and independence

The changes in Ukraine elicited great excitement in the diaspora. For generations, it had steadfastly espoused the cause of Ukrainian independence. Indeed, much of its organizational infrastructure was geared toward working for this goal. Therefore, for many emigrants, especially those who belonged to the strongly politicized post-Second World War wave, the emergence of a genuinely independent Ukrainian state represented the culmination of their personal and communal aspirations. The euphoria in Ukrainian communities abroad was all the greater because it was not dampened by the depressing realities of everyday life in a post-Soviet environment.

The diaspora in the West mobilized its resources to help the homeland even before the proclamation of independence. The initial catalyst in this effort was the Chernobyl disaster. Despite the fact that in 1986 the Communists still firmly controlled Ukraine, communities abroad, most notably in the United States and Canada, dispatched shipments of medicine, clothes, and food to the victims, especially the children. As the Kiev government acknowledged these efforts, the image of the diaspora held by Ukrainians in the homeland began to change. Previously, Ukrainians abroad, except for the tiny pro-Communist cohort, had been largely ignored by the Soviet media. If they were mentioned at all, it was invariably as treacherous lackeys of capitalism and imperialism. After the Chernobyl relief effort, however, the diaspora increasingly came to be viewed as consisting of long-lost brethren who were ready and willing to offer assistance in a time of need.

Aid from the diaspora soon expanded to include those individuals and movements in Ukraine who called for independence and the rejuvenation of national culture. Thus, when Rukh was formed, Ukrainian Canadians established a well-organized support group, the Canadian Friends of Rukh, which provided valuable financial and technical assistance to the reformist forces. Similar groups were established in the United States. Meanwhile, contacts between the long-separated diaspora and homeland expanded rapidly. Generally, they took the form of family reunions, visits by business people to their homeland to explore investment opportunities, tours by leading reformers from Ukraine of the communities abroad, and reciprocal visits by musical ensembles. Especially fruitful were the contacts and exchanges established between Ukrainian scholars and students in the West and those in Ukraine. One of the by-products was the establishment of the International Association of Ukrainianists, which, in turn, organized the first International Congress of Ukrainian Studies, in Kiev in August 1990.

After the proclamation of independence, the diaspora continued to provide significant aid to the new state. Ukrainians in the United States and Canada vigorously lobbied their governments to grant recognition to Ukraine. Because Russia took over the former Soviet embassies and Ukraine lacked the foreign currency to purchase new ones, the diaspora helped by providing offices for Ukrainian diplomats in England and Australia and collected funds for the Ukrainian embassy in Washington. In Canada, the Huculak family of Toronto funded the purchase of Ukraine's embassy in Ottawa. Many Ukrainians trained in the West placed their expertise at the disposal of the new state and some served in advisory positions in the government. In an effort to mobilize Ukrainians abroad to even greater exertion in behalf of the homeland, on 21 August 1992, the first anniversary of Ukrainian independence, the government organized the World Forum of Ukrainians in Kiev.

Many in the diaspora had always believed that their primary obligation vis-a-vis Ukraine was to preserve those institutions and values that had been repressed by Soviet rule. With the attainment of independence, many concluded that the moment had arrived to return much of what they had preserved to its place of origin. The most obvious examples were the return to Ukraine of ecclesiastical leaders such as Cardinal Lubachivsky of the Ukrainian Catholic church and Patriarch Mystyslav of the UAOC. In the political sphere, Mykola Plaviuk, president of the Ukrainian National Republic's government-in-exile, presented his mandate to President Kravchuk in recognition of the fact that the diaspora accepted the legitimacy of the Kiev government. Meanwhile, the Bandera faction of the OUN, led by Slava Stetsko, attempted to expand its diaspora-based organizational network to Ukraine. Organizations such as the scouting movement Plast and the Union of Ukrainian Women (Souiz Ukrainok) also proceeded to reestablish branches in the homeland.

But it was not long before some in the diaspora concluded that their efforts were unappreciated, ineffective, or subject to exploitation. Many others worried that the limited resources of the diaspora had reached the point of exhaustion. In Ukraine, many were disillusioned when promises of aid from abroad were not fulfilled, or when help fell below expectations. The new situation also raised conceptual issues. During much of the 20th century, community activists in the West had viewed themselves as the sole and genuine spokespersons for Ukrainain national interests and concerns. But when the Kiev government took over this role in fact as well as in theory, confusion spread among these community leaders as to what their new role should be. Indeed, questions about the future of the diaspora and the need to maintain its traditional "preservative" function were raised with increasing frequency. Nonetheless, in both the diaspora and the homeland there was widespread satisfaction that the sterile confrontations of the past had been replaced by productive cooperation.

At the beginning of this book, we noted that statelessness and foreign control of the socioeconomic modernization in Ukraine would be its central themes. To a large extent they helped to elucidate why such a potentially rich land remained poor and oppressed, why Ukrainians, despite their long and colorful history, had a weak sense of national identity, and why they were virtually invisible in the world community. Today Ukraine has corrected one of the two great anomalies of its history: it has attained independence and been recognized as a full-fledged member of the community of nations. But the problem of modernization, of improving living standards, remains unresolved. In the present depressing economic circumstances, some call for a return to the security of the old ways; others want to press on more energetically toward the new and untested; many are willing to go in any direction that promises relief from the bleakness and misery of daily life. Failure to implement modernization clearly threatens what has been achieved in terms of independent statehood. Indeed, in this period of crisis, a sense of foreboding haunts many Ukrainians as they recall the collapse of previous, short-lived, attempts at independence. But unlike in the past, a new and heartening condition exists today: for the first time in centuries, the fate of Ukraine's people rests in their own hands.


1 Ukrainian Weekly, 24 November 1991.

2 Financial Times, 27 January 1993.

3 David Lane, Soviet Society under Perestroika (London and New York: Unwin Hyman, 1992), 172, and Susan Senior Nello, "The Food Situation in the Ex-Soviet Republics," Soviet Studies 44 (1992): 857.

4 David Marples, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report, 4 October 1991.

5 Svoboda, 23 January 1993.

6 Ukrainian Weekly, 29 November 1992.