On December 8th, protesters in Independence Square in Kiev in Ukraine toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin.
At the same time in Moscow the Duma (Parliament) was debating whether to reinstate a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Lubyanka Square. Dzerzhinsky is known as the father of the Secret Service which at some point became the KGB. He was notorious for torture and executions during the Red Terror.
The Ukrainians are protesting their President’s reneging on his promise to sign an agreement with the European Union and turning towards Moscow instead.
Ukraina means “on the border” and is in fact on the border between Russia and Western Europe, facing both simultaneously. This Janus Syndrome has a long history.
In the 9th century Kievan Rus was a loose confederation of Slavic tribes. In 988 it converted to Christianity under Prince Vladimir. It was the birthplace of Ukraine, Russia and Byeloruss, and Prince Vladimir is their common ancestor. Legend has it that he was hesitating between Christianity and Islam but chose Christianity because it did not forbid alcohol. Later in its history Ukraine was ruled by Poland, then Lithuania and was occupied by Germany. It is now evenly divided between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. All Ukrainians speak Russian in addition to Ukrainian.
Russia was never reconciled to the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and is trying to recreate a loose economic federation of ex-Soviet states. So far Byeloruss, Kazakhstan and Armenia have opted in and Ukraine is being actively courted.
In addition, after the breakup, much of Russian history has remained in Ukraine. Along the Dnieper River you can see many more statues of Lenin, arm outstretched pointing toward the Workers’ paradise. Much of the Russian Fleet is still anchored in the port of Sebastopol. Odessa which was founded by Catherine the Great has a statue of the Empress of all the Russias. Yalta was the site of the Tzars Summer Palace and of course the town where the Yalta Conference between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill was held.
And so, understandably Russia very much wants Ukraine back in its sphere of influence. Russia also controls Europe’s supply of natural gas much of which flows through Ukraine. Putin is genuinely afraid of “encirclement by NATO” if Ukraine turns towards the West.
The European Union, on the other hand does not need to be burdened by another poor country when it has not yet fully absorbed Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal and other members. In this tug of war Russia clearly has the upper hand and Putin has many aces up his sleeve one of which is that he is unencumbered by any scruples. And yet the people of Kiev gather day and night in the bitter cold and continue to look west.
Which way will they turn?
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