The popular pro-Western revolution in Ukraine that has deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich is part of a far wider and longer historical tug-of-love between the West and Russia.
Who is chosen to succeed Yanukovich will decide whether it is possible to forge a permanent Ukrainian settlement that will satisfy both the European Union and Russia. The prospect right now looks bleak.
As candidates start lining up for the elections slated for May, no one has emerged with the suitable stature, political sophistication, public integrity and plain honesty needed to put to rest a lingering dispute about national identity that has cast a long shadow over the politics of Europe. Tensions between Russia and the Western European powers, particularly Germany, France and Britain, have been rumbling for centuries.
The Western nations have long viewed Russia as a nation of barely house-trained thugs and drunkards, clinging to the edge of the civilised world. Russians, meanwhile, think of Europe as starting at the Urals and rolling westward — with Moscow undeniably a European city. Mikhail Gorbachev, whose attempts at reforming Marxism-Leninism failed to keep the Soviet Union together, always put Western nerves on edge when he spoke fondly of Russia’s “common European home.”
The nature of this East-West divide was disguised after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, as the cultural chasm was redefined as ideological. From the time of Vladimir Lenin’s October Revolution in St. Petersburg, which ended the reign of the despotic tsars for good, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the West has thought of Russia as communist first and Russian second.
Many Western communists and socialists, however, believe themselves betrayed by Russia’s brutal version of “socialism” and point to other, less terrible variations of the creed, such as Italian or French communism. It is the Russian-ness of Marxism-Leninism, they claim, that ensured its barbarity and its ultimate demise.
From this viewpoint, the Cold War that dominated the second half of the last century can be seen as a prolonged European family spat.
We tend to think the Cold War, as its title suggests, was a war without pitched battles. The high points were Moscow’s efforts to starve Berlin into submission in 1948, circumvented by the Allied Berlin Airlift; and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev played nuclear chicken with the fate of the world. There were other proxy battles as well, in which the United States and the West countered Soviet expansion, such as the division of Korea and the Vietnam War.
But if the main Cold War battles took place largely outside of Europe, there were also courageous anti-Soviet revolutions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in which reform-minded “communists” tried to wrest their countries from the stultifying Soviet grip. Despite the ingenuity of Imre Nagy in Hungary, the communist rebel leader executed for leading the revolt, and Alexander Dubcek, whose “socialism with a human face” in the Prague Spring was also extinguished by Soviet tanks, Russia maintained its domination of eastern Europe.
It is often said that Poland’s successful anti-Soviet revolution of 1989 was the work of John Paul II, “the Polish pope,” President Ronald Reagan, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher coming together.
Though they played their part, the “pope, president and prime minister” version of events is a romantic conservative canard. The true hero of the Polish revolution was Lech Walesa, the shipyard trade unionist who, risking his life, led the labour strikes that eventually — after 11 months in jail for Walesa — forced the Polish Communist leaders to surrender to the popular will.
There were other significant battles behind the old Iron Curtain before the whole of Russia’s Eastern European empire freed itself from communism. Other old countries, such as the Baltic nations, revived under the new-found democracy made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though they contained — and continue to try to accommodate — large numbers of Russians who settled there during the Soviet occupation.
Ukraine’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1990 came as a surprise. For Ukraine is not just another Soviet satellite. It has always been thought of by Russians as an essential part of Russia and its common European home. During the Soviet years it was the breadbasket of Russia. Khrushchev, to Westerners the archetypal Russian for such stunts as banging his shoe at the United Nations, was born on the Russo-Ukrainian border and became head of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Ukraine demanding its freedom was like Massachusetts seceding from the Union.
Unlike some of the other liberated former Soviet states, Ukraine has been cursed by a poor economy, which has made many in the West wary of allowing it to become a full member of the European Union. It has suffered, too, from poor political leadership, widespread political corruption, and a failure of political institutions. Since establishing its independence, it has veered between flirting with membership in the EU and rushing to Russia’s embrace.
By 2004, free Ukraine was shaken by protests after a presidential election undermined by widespread government corruption and electoral fraud. The following year, after legal battles, Viktor Yushchenko was honestly elected president, despite his face being ravaged by dioxin poisoning by a political rival. Yushchenko beat Yanukovich, who went on to succeed him as president in 2010 and has now been driven into exile.
The presidential lists to fill the vacancy Yanukovich leaves behind have opened with the plaited former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, freed from jail by protesters but dogged by allegations of corruption, and a former world boxing champion, Vitali Klitschko.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has yet to mount his final defence of Ukraine. His ambition to return Russia to its former preeminence as a world power can be seen in his threat to veto U.N. action in Syria, in his encouragement of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in his mounting of the hugely expensive if slushy Sochi Olympics. For Russia to lose Ukraine is such a shaming prospect that Putin can be expected to intervene in Ukraine sooner or later, directly or by stealth.
It is at that point Ukraine needs an honest broker, a national hero, an upright apolitical politician to represent the national will, defy Putin’s bullying, and choose the best way forward for the nation.
So where is the Ukrainian Nagy? Where the Dubcek? Or Václav Havel, the soft-spoken poet and playwright who emerged as a white knight to free Czechoslovakia? As Putin starts battering at the door, can Ukraine find its own Nelson Mandela or George Washington to keep it free?
Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist