Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Ukraine and Russia are ‘kin’, according to Andrew Wilson, a leading specialist from University College London, writing in 2005: they are ‘sibling nations rather than two parts of the same divided nation’. And he adds: ‘Siblings might be expected to have a love-hate relationship.’
In its widest sense, such an insight explains Ukrainian-Russian relations. It clarifies the intersection between Russian and Ukrainian lives during the Tsarist and Soviet past. This intersection did not only connect people of different nationalities; it ran straight down the middle of many of them. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, was a Russian who had Ukraine running right through him.
Khrushchev was born in 1894 in a village near Kursk, just east of the Ukrainian border, at a time when Russian and Ukrainian lands alike were part of the Tsarist empire. When he was fourteen, he went to work in Yuzovka, the industrial megalith that has been called Donetsk since 1961. (Donetsk is the heartland of the deposed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich.) Here Khrushchev found a skilled factory job, a wife, a decent standard of living, and an exciting social milieu. He left in 1918 during the Civil War, but he came back: for the rest of the 1920s he would be an upwardly mobile party official in Soviet Ukraine. Khrushchev eventually found his way to Kiev, before being posted to Moscow in 1929.
In 1938, he returned, this time as the boss of the Ukrainian republic. For a few months he was in ultimate charge of the Ukrainian part of the Great Terror, that Soviet-wide atrocity of 1937-8. During the Second World War he was a leading Party man at the front; he was often in Ukraine. From 1944 he was back in charge in Kiev. Half his time was spent rebuilding the catastrophically damaged republic. Typically, he aimed to develop innovative social provision for the Ukraine-domiciled elderly, at a time when there were no proper old age pensions anywhere in the USSR. He spent the other half of his time ‘pacifying’ the Western borderlands, which had only become part of the Ukrainian republic during the War, liquidating Polish and Ukrainian nationalists in the region round Lvov. Even when he returned to the centre to run the city of Moscow in 1949, he brought his Ukrainian entourage with him, men such as Vladimir Kucherenko, who would later help him to lead the vast housing construction programme.
By the spring of 1954, Khrushchev was close to the summit of power in the Kremlin. In April, he met a group of Ukrainian writers who were visiting Moscow. ‘The Russian and Ukrainian peoples are the most numerous in the Soviet Union,’ he told them, ‘the closest in all aspects of relations. We must strengthen this friendship.’ The words were ritualistic, and they were colossally forgetful. But perhaps many sibling relationships are sustained by ignoring the worst of the past. Khrushchev meant what he said. Today, with the Soviet Union long gone, the ethnic and political maps of Ukraine and Russia are even more complicated than before. Citizens of both countries are divided in their views. They sometimes express them viciously. Talk of invasion and war hangs in the air. But when the red mist clears, surely Khrushchev’s sentiment, wilfully half-true as it might be, will continue to make sense.
(Image: a young Khrushchev, from Wikipedia Commons)