The country of Ukraine, as we know it today, did not exist as an independent state until 1991. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence and began the slow and steady progress towards a functioning democracy. This progress has not come without considerable sacrifices that range from power hungry oligarchs suppressing political reforms, to outside entities attempting to influence and tamper elections. In the last 17 years alone the people of Ukraine have taken part in two revolutions to demand freedoms and a more democratic government. For such a young democracy the citizens of Ukraine have time and again proven their willingness to mobilize in support of more democratic freedoms. This push for self-determination is a relatively new concept for a land that has seen its fair share of hardships.
Prior to independence, Ukraine can be viewed historically as a kind of crucible between East and West. This divide was most prominent during the decades surrounding the World Wars. It can be argued that few countries over the last century have experienced as much hardship as Ukraine. From 1932-1933 the peoples of Ukraine experienced an artificial famine in what is today known as the Holodomor. This genocide was manufactured when Joseph Stalin seized control over thousands of acres of Ukrainian farms resulting in starvation, executions for possessing a single handful of grain, and the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. The Holodomor was meant to quell and extinguish Ukrainians who were in opposition to Soviet control. Millions also died fighting in World War II. The country’s geographic location resulted in occupation by both Soviet and Nazi forces and citizens faced retaliations from both sides. Following the war, like most peoples of the then Soviet Union, Ukrainians were not immune to Stalin’s wide sweeping purges. The 1980’s brought with them the disaster in Chernobyl, wherein thousands died, where displaced, or developed chronic health problems as a result.
All of these hardships have led Ukraine to where the country finds itself today. Again a catalyst between East and West. In 2014, Ukrainians took the streets to protests their president’s pivot away from the European Union towards Russia. It is important to note that not all of Ukraine was in favor of one over the other. However, the need for continued progress towards openness and democracy is a central force propelling all of the country forward. In the end these protests resulted in over 100 dead in clashes with police forces and diverging sides in the ideological battle. The president at the time fled to Russia and the people elected an interim government to oversee the transition for what they hoped would finally be, after 23 years of independence, movement towards true democracy devoid of outside influence. This transition too, has proven to be anything but simple.
In the days following the president’s flight to Russia, troops of the Russian Federation, wearing uniforms without national markings seized control over the coastal peninsula of Crimea. In the following months, within the eastern borders of Ukraine fighting between pro-Russian forces and pro-Ukrainian forces began warring over an area collectively known as the Donbas. This war has resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 Ukrainians in 3 years and the conflict is still taking place today. The depth and complexity of all of the previously mentioned conflicts and atrocities could take years to explain in full detail. The above text was only meant to provide a brief understanding of the bad hand dealt to the country and peoples of Ukraine. These events have marred Ukraine’s view of the future, however, resiliency still runs deep within their DNA.
As I write this, I am sitting at a café drinking coffee surrounded by indifferent families laughing and talking with their loved ones. The establishment is not unlike many you would find in the West. Popular tracks play in the background and the walls are adorned with various types of hipster artwork. The barista is a friendly man with a foot long beard, proudly wearing a Mumford and Sons t-shirt. Modern cars line the streets outside and beautiful parks scatter across the cityscape, themselves littered with bright flowers and quaint atmospheres. Life here is not that unlike the United States. Yet, I sit less than a two hour drive from the Russian border. The city I am in less than 300 miles from the ongoing conflict in the Donbas. This conflict, and the ideological gulf that now separates Ukraine from Russia, a country many citizens believe to be their historical brother, looms over all life in Ukraine. Its presence is felt overwhelming across the country. Yet the citizens continue to persevere. The country continues to work towards a more democratic society and a more inclusive culture. This progress is a battle many are willing to risk their very lives for every day. It is this historical battle, the fight of ideologies, the climax of wills between the people of Ukraine and their aggressive neighbor that is paramount to democratic loving peoples across the globe. Nothing illustrates the resilience of Ukraine quite like the country’s national anthem, poetically titled, “Ukraine has not yet died.”