Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated his view this week that the breakup of the USSR, which left Russia and Ukraine as separate independent states, was a great misfortune, and a disappointment to many people in both countries. Stephen Mulvey, who was a correspondent in Ukraine at the time, remembers it rather differently.

It was the moustaches that were one of the strongest signs that something was up. When I arrived in Kiev in June 1991, the Soviet Union still existed, but it was coming apart at the seams. The Baltic states had all but bolted from the Union, Georgia was getting restive, and Ukraine? Well, Ukraine’s leaders were being a bit evasive, talking about sovereignty, but also talking to Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow about reshaping the Soviet Union, making it looser, friendlier, with more powers for the republics. 

The men in moustaches were the clue that Gorbachev’s plan wasn’t going to work. These whiskers were thick and bushy, reminiscent of Freddy Mercury, or occasionally a walrus. They were already in parliament, many of them - writers, theatre directors, lawyers, former dissidents. Sometimes you would catch them in a traditional embroidered collarless shirt. They saw themselves as descendants of the Cossacks, the Ukrainian army of free men who built a fortress on an island in the River Dnieper and for a while in the 17th Century controlled a wide swathe of territory between Poland and Muscovy in the north, and Tatar Crimea in the south. These besuited latter-day Cossacks with briefcases were Ukrainian nationalists – a breed Moscow has always had problems understanding, and has always been inclined to see as dangerous radicals. They’d had enough of the Soviet Union, and so, it would soon become clear, had millions of Ukrainians.

Listening to President Putin you might imagine that the West has always been pushing Ukraine to break away from Moscow. Not at all. In August 1991 US President HW Bush came to Kiev and delivered his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech, as it came to be known, in which he said: “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”

To anyone in Kiev at the time it sounded ludicrous. There was no sign of ethnic hatred, no obvious threat of despotism. But the message was clear: Bush wanted the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev, to survive.

And they might have done, had it not been for events two or three weeks later, at the height of the Ukrainian summer. Gorbachev was holidaying on the Crimean coast. I was at a rock festival near the Cossacks’ former island stronghold in Zaporizha, in the company of thousands of young pro-independence Ukrainians. The sounds of rock and Ukrainian folk mingled late into the night. But the morning after, what a contrast: dirge-like classical music and a solemn voice on the radio announcing that power had been seized in Moscow by a committee who thought Gorbachev was preparing to go too far in decentralising the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, in his Crimean villa on the shore of the glittering Black Sea, was under house arrest.

The key events then took place in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin – president of the Russian republic - stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament. The putsch was defeated. The Communist Party was discredited. Gorbachev returned to Moscow a lame duck.

In the Ukrainian Parliament not just the men with moustaches, but nearly all of the formerly loyal pro-Soviet communists voted for independence, including Russian-speaking MPs in eastern Ukraine. In a referendum at the end of the year 92% of the country voted to back that decision.

President Putin says that Russia was going through such hard times in 1991, that it was incapable of protecting its interests in Crimea. But even the peninsula itself, over half voted in favour of Ukraine’s independence. (And this was even before many Crimean Tatars, who prefer Ukrainian to Russian rule, had succeeded in returning from exile in Central Asia.) It’s possible, of course, that some regretted it later. Many had high hopes for the new independent states in 1991 – Russia as well as Ukraine - and few of those hopes have actually been fulfilled.

Another of Putin’s famous statements on Ukraine, reportedly made to George W Bush, is that Ukraine is not “even a country”.  But if Ukraine were not a nation, it would be hard to explain why Stalin (apparently) felt threatened by Ukrainian nationalism and wanted to kill it off. In the 1920s and 30s the cream of Ukraine’s writers and intellectuals were executed. Millions of the peasantry died from starvation after their grain was taken away.

The Ukrainian national idea is surely here to stay, whether President Putin’s assertions that he won’t seize any more parts of Ukraine prove true or false. 

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Ukrayinska Dumka


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