Hoey: Putin’s dream of “Little Russia” is another nightmare


The author is a lifelong examiner of history and public policy.

Vladimir Putin had a sentimental but deadly dream.

He wanted to recreate “Little Russia,” as Ukraine has long been called by ardent Russian nationalists.

That dream appears to be turning into a nightmare for Mr. Putin as he discovers that Ukrainians don’t share his dream.

Ukrainians have their own country, and they wanted to keep it. It is their homeland.

Mr. Putin is fond of telling Westerners that both Russia and Ukraine trace their roots back to Kiev Rus, the ancient medieval state that centered on Kiev, or Kyiv as Ukrainians call their modern capital.

As with any founding myth of a people, there is some truth in these romantic musings but also many inconvenient and bloody facts that tell a much different story.

Too close for comfort

It is true that there are strong religious and cultural ties between the two countries.

As in Moscow, magnificent Orthodox churches rise above the Kyiv skyline. Over half the people in both countries claim Orthodoxy as their faith. The Russian and Ukrainian languages are part of the larger family of Slavic languages.

In Putin’s fairy tale of the past, however, many bloody events are glossed over and more-recent history is discounted.

He hearkens back to an earlier time. Look at any map of the Russian empire dating from the 18th to the early 20th century and you will see Kyiv located on the western edge of the sprawling Russian empire.

In the 19th century, Russian writers celebrated Ukraine as a romantic land of sweeping steppes where mounted Cossacks would defend Mother Russia from the grasping hands of Western invaders.

When the Bolsheviks toppled the tsarist regime, they laid claim to Ukraine as a part of their newly formed Soviet Union.

Collectivization, starvation

At first the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, recognized Ukraine as an independent republic within the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian language and some Ukrainian customs were tolerated.

In theory, if not in practice, republics like Ukraine were considered part of the revolutionary vanguard that would bring socialism to the whole world.

That began to change in the early 1930s in a story Mr. Putin would like to ignore. Joseph Stalin sought to suppress the Ukrainian language and discourage Ukrainian nationalism.

For Stalin, Ukraine was just a part of the old Russian empire, a region meant to serve the Soviet state, not its own people.

As a servile colony of Stalin’s Russia, Ukraine’s rich “black earth” was a national asset that could be used to make the Soviet Union an industrial power.

But the old family farms were inefficient. Stalin wanted more grain from Ukraine — grain he could export to buy modern factory equipment.

To fulfill this Five-Year Plan, peasants lost their land to collective farms. Grain was taken at gunpoint, even the seed grain needed for next year’s planting.

Emaciated people wandered the countryside, some even resorting to eating their dead.

Even when Stalin learned of the famine, and Ukrainians begged him for help, he kept exporting grain.

Ukrainians call this tragedy the Holodomor, a genocide most of the world has never acknowledged.

Famine and terror

In Soviet Ukraine, at least 3.5 million people died of hunger and hunger-related diseases. In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder describes the human cost:

To die of starvation with some sort of dignity was beyond the reach of almost everyone. Petro Veldii showed rare strength when he dragged himself through his village on the day he expected to die.

The other villagers asked him where he was going: to the cemetery to lay himself down. He did not want strangers coming and dragging his body away to a pit. So he had dug his own grave, but by the time he reached the cemetery another body had filled it. He dug himself another one, lay down and waited.

The Great Terror

The Great Famine was followed by the Great Terror of 1937-38. Stalin needed someone to blame for the famine. He found his scapegoat in local communist party members who had supposedly been overly zealous and Soviet citizens born in other countries, whom he accused of being spies and capitalists who had hoarded grain and let the people go hungry.

Those of Polish descent were often identified by the practice of their Catholic faith, such as carrying rosaries or showing up for Mass.

Black vans known as “black Marias” roamed the countryside looking for kulaks, saboteurs and wreckers, as the hapless victims were called.

Each local communist party had its quota to meet. In some instances, Stalin’s police would surround entire villages and then torture the men until proper “confessions” were obtained.

By the time the Great Terror came to an end, 681,692 people had been executed throughout the Soviet Union, many shot in the back of the head and pushed into mass graves.

No friendship by force

Mr. Putin, like any good KGB operative, wants to hide away this bloody history, as if it never happened.

But Ukrainians have good memories.

What Mr. Putin will not acknowledge is that Ukraine has changed dramatically in recent years. It never really was “Little Russia” in Ukrainian eyes and it certainly isn’t now.

Since 1991, Ukraine has been an independent nation and over time it has developed a thriving market-driven economy and a democratic form of government.

It is a modern European country almost the size of Texas with a pre-war population of 44 million.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine has free and fair elections, despite Mr. Putin’s attempts to subvert them.

Unlike in Russia, Ukrainians don’t go to jail for speaking their mind.

In his book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, historian Serhii Plokhy argues that Russian aggression in Ukraine “presents a major threat to international order, with its bedrock principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of nation-states, on a level not seen since the end of World War II.”

Mr. Plokhy wrote his book after Russia annexed Crimea but before the latest Russian attack on the Ukrainian heartland.

Clearly, the United States and its Western allies have failed to deter Mr. Putin.

The West, and more tragically Ukraine, are now paying the price.

That price goes up every day. Since Mr. Putin cannot defeat the Ukrainian army, he has turned to mass destruction, killing innocent civilians while targeting schools, hospitals and other places of no military significance.

These are war crimes pure and simple.

Now, Mr. Putin appears to be pulling back from Kyiv and setting his sights on claiming the Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine for his empire.

But friendship has to be a free choice. You can’t force people to love you, and you don’t create “Slavic brotherhood” by dropping bombs on people.

As Mr. Putin is learning, even overwhelming brute force has its limits; you cannot extinguish a people’s desire to be free.

Broken links

Tragically, many Russians have family and friends in Ukraine. These Russians do not understand why Mr. Putin thinks he has to take over and control Ukraine.

Ukraine is not a threat, in their eyes, it could be Russia’s friend.

In Kyiv shimmers the golden domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which houses beautiful mosaics and frescoes from the 11th century.

It could be a sign of the historic links between Russia and Ukraine.

But Mr. Putin is destroying links with every missile that continues to rain down on innocent civilians.

Mr. Hoey is a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.