A history of conflict

How Ukraine’s bloody past informs its tumultuous present

By Christine Holbert
Reader Contributor

I recently spent six weeks in Ukraine, visiting family, traveling and promoting the new Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series at the Lviv Book Forum and elsewhere. That part of my trip was terrific: Spending time with family with whom I had reconnected last summer was heady and emotional and truly wonderful. Visiting the Carpathian Mountains —  having time to hike and explore them — was inspiring, as were all the historic, cultural and artistic places we traveled to. One of the highlights of these explorations was attending a Hutsul festival. The Hutsuls are a tribe of Ukrainians who live deep in the Carpathians and retain most of their ancient cultural and folk knowledge as they are less affected by the modern world in their isolated corner of the mountains. 

The author’s cousin Ruslan Koval is a commando of a volunteer group fighting in Donbas. Photo by Christine Holbert.

Promoting the Lost Horse Press books — and witnessing the astounding reception they received everywhere — was gratifying. To know that one’s work is appreciated and loved in one’s ancestral home is significant indeed. The largest bookstore chain in Ukraine now carries the Lost Horse Press translation titles, all over Ukraine. 

But while I was happily roaming the western part of Ukraine with my family and touting books at various poetry events and the Lviv Book Forum, a war simmered in the east, in Donbas.

As you read these words, Ukrainian troops remain entrenched along a 250-mile-long front in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There, Ukraine’s military continues to fight a trench war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries and Russian regulars. At least one Ukrainian soldier still dies in combat every three days. 

Civilians are still dying, too. So far, the war has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians — roughly half that number died after the Minsk II ceasefire went into effect in February 2015. With 1.7 million people who still can’t go home due to the conflict, who are internally displaced, Europe’s only ongoing land war is also the continent’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

In 1918, as the communists started starving the Russian and Ukrainian people into submission, the Americans reported it as a crop failure and famine. In 1932, the Americans ignored their murderous Russian allies’ implementation of the Holodomor (“death by starvation”) and called it “internal strife.” 

Up to 10 million Ukrainians died of starvation during 1932-1933 — even though Ukraine was, and still is, known as the “breadbasket of the world” because of its agricultural opulence. Meanwhile, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin moved Russian peasants into the Ukrainian villages to take their place. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin says he needs to “save” Russian-speaking peasants in eastern Ukraine, but Stalin is the one who placed them there.

In May 1945, the Americans and British sold Ukraine and 26 former free countries into communist slavery because their World War II ally Stalin wanted complete control of eastern Europe. In the latter part of the 20th century, Ukraine possessed the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world yet, at the urging of U.S. President Bill Clinton (along with Britain and Russia), the country agreed in 1994 to give up its nuclear armament on the promises of “protection” by the West and its formerly Soviet neighbors. But, when Russia invaded Donbas, stole Crimea and continues to this day to wage a simmering war, no help arrived. 

It seems Americans don’t really understand what is happening in Ukraine now, why it’s happening and how events in the past have resulted in today’s outcomes.

Related to that, the recently released whistleblower complaint is mind-blowing. There was a concerted effort to signal to the newly-elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, that a meeting with Trump — that was supposedly so crucial to the new president — and any further communication with or support to Ukraine regarding its struggle against Russian aggression depended directly on Zelensky’s willingness “to play ball” (Trump’s quote). 

These actions also included the recall of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence from participating in Zelensky’s inauguration (which was apparently agreed upon); pressure from Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who described people around Zelensky as “enemies of the president and of the U.S.”; and a campaign against the honest and hardworking U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled after a smear campaign organized by Giuliani and politicians in Ukraine who were primarily interested in their own political survival after the change in leadership.

Trump went so far as to suggest to Zelenesky that he retain the very prosecutor general that shared libelous and false information with Giuliani about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections (a complete hoax and conspiracy theory, by the way) and about the supposed pressure from current U.S. presidential candidate and former-Vice President Joe Biden to fire then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin primarily because of the supposed investigation into the gas and oil company on whose board his son, Hunter, sat. The Biden-Shokin story is also untrue, because the latter was sacked by Ukraine’s Parliament following widespread condemnation both at home and abroad of his stalling investigations into corruption and crimes against the protesters during Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

All this is much, much worse and damaging than I had imagined. I don’t know if the Republicans will be able to justify their inaction in the impeachment inquiry once this and other relevant information is in the open.

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