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Ukraine on the brink

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Euromaidan in Kyiv

The political events transpiring in Ukraine are resonating around the world. So potentially destabilizing is Russia's invasion of Crimea, that many fear a return to cold war relations between Russia and rest of the developed world. Russia is on the brink of being expelled from the G8, and there are continuing fears of an outbreak, not of cold -- but of hot -- war between Ukraine and Russia.

Governments and citizens of countries on the perimeter of Russia -- Georgia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, to say nothing of Ukraine itself -- regard the invasion of Crimea with grave concern, if not alarm. It's hard to avoid not seeing parallels with the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, or indeed of Adolf Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938-1939, ostensibly to protect the rights of German-speaking people.

The Euromaidan demonstrations across Ukraine over the last four months have fired the spirit and imagination of Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike with a vision of people rising up to overthrow a corrupt regime implicated in widespread abuses of power, cronyism, and violations of human rights. The tipping point in this revolution came in late February when security forces under the control of former president Viktor Yanukovich, initiated violent repressions against protestors that left at least 77 dead. The people and Parliament rose in revolt, Yanukovich was impeached and fled the country, and a new national unity government was formed.

Boundaries and ethnicities

"Lord Durham said of Canada in 1838 that it consisted of two nations warring within the bosom of a single state and the conflict between French and English is still working itself out there over a century and a half later. How much greater the challenge was for Austria Hungary, which recognized ten or eleven main languages. This had not mattered for centuries, when people defined themselves by religion or ruler or village and not by nationality. By the late nineteenth century, however, nationalism - the identifying of oneself as a member of a group distinguished by language, as well as religion, history, culture or race was a force for change all over Europe." -- Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace

Krynski in UkraineI come from a family that straddles almost all the divides drawn by nineteenth century European nationalism. My grandfather's family came from Sudeten Austrian stock in what is now Bohemia in the Czech Republic. After the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), encouraged by Catherine the Great's (1729-1796) programs of agricultural reform, they migrated to Ukraine and settled in what is now the oblast (province) of Vinnytsia. My grandfather spoke German at home, Ukrainian in the village, and Russian in St. Petersburg where he went to university before accepting a post as historian at what was then Novorossiya University in Odessa. Cast adrift by World War I, he found himself marooned in Austro-Hungary, fell in love with a Moravian girl and eventually became the principal of a gymnasium in southern Poland, later moving to a town in what is now Belarus.

I recount this story because my grandparents, and their families did not particularly consider themselves Poles or Bohemians, Russians or Ukrainians, Austrians or Moravians -- they considered themselves … people. They all spoke multiple languages (my grandmother learned English in her sixties in order to come and visit us in Canada), lived in what are now many states, and partook of many cultures and cuisines. If the lens of identity were applied to them, they saw themselves as part of an educated, politically progressive-class [as a student in St. Petersburg, my grandfather was active in the Constitutional Democrat (Kadet) party], and at home in whatever linguistic or ethnic milieu welcomed their participation.

Henryk & Maria AdlerMy grandparents were members of what in the east is called the intelligentsia, educated citizens involved in civic, commercial, academic, or cultural professions. However, the farmers and fishers, peasants and proletariat that constituted a large swath of European citizenry, also frequently saw themselves in other than nationalist terms. As Margaret MacMillan points out in her recent book, "The War that Ended Peace", religion and ruler were important determinants, but village and region were perhaps even more so. If asked, people in the vast and interlocking Slavic expanses of Eastern Europe would identify themselves as Mazovians, Ruthenians, Polezians, Gorals, Hutzuls, Silesians, Volhinians, Galicians, Pomeranians, Bessarabians or members of any number of larger or smaller geographical entities. Where they lived was who they were. And that where increasingly encompassed more than one linguistic, ethnic, or religious group. While single villages might be mono-ethnic, the complex historical forces that had repeatedly swept back and forth across the European landscape often resulted in a complex jigsaw of human habitation.

The nineteenth century nationalist forces that Margaret MacMillan incisively documents, attempted to propel the political dialogue in the opposite direction. The decades leading to Word War I marked a zenith of imperialism, with virtually the entire global geopolitical discourse dominated by the scheming and maneuvering of the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Japanese Empire and their lesser rivals (the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch also had significant imperial visions). France, constituted as a republic, was an exception to the coterie of states lead by kings, kaisers, emperors, and tsars, but in foreign policy it embraced imperialist objectives with equal zeal.

At the edge of the land: Ukraine

The word "krai" is a multi-faceted one in many Slavic languages. It variously means "country, land, edge, border, brink, and verge." The preposition "u" means to be, "by, to, at, near, or close" to something. Thus, the Ukraine -- close or near the country, land, border, or brink. It's a poetic name that resonates with nuances of meaning.  We have either arrived at the Promised Land, or are situated on the edge (looking in or out?). Intrinsic to the notion of a kraina -- an edge or boundary -- is that this is a place of juncture, where different entities come together. So, is Ukraine the land itself or simply the edge? Therein lies a critical aspect of the present situation.

Baptism of Vladimir the GreatThe history of Ukraine is endlessly complicated and fascinating. As a political entity it can be traced back to the rule of Vladimir the Great (980-1015) and Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054) who laid the foundations of what has subsequently been called Kievan Rus' -- a vast Slavic state that once extended from Crimea to Finland. This state, and in particular the adoption of Orthodoxy as a state religion by Vladimir in 988, together with his marriage to Anna, sister of Byzantine Emperor Basil II (Vasileos in Greek), has become an iconic and defining feature of Russian, slavophile identity (see below). This was the moment when the true faith was given to the Slavic peoples, and when the mantle of 'protector of the faith' passed from Byzantium to Rus'. 

It's an image central to the slavophile mythology; the notion that Russia has a special, spiritual destiny bound up in the land, the folklore, the language, the blood, and the people who live on the krai. That this Orthodox destiny is distinct from that of the west, where secular forces have diluted the faith. This notion exercises the same sort of power on the Russian slavophile imagination as the Backbird's Fields of Kosovo Polje, where the Battle of Kosovo took place in 1389, exerts on the Serbian imagination. These events have assumed mythic proportions in both cultures, and in some measure explain why nationalist Serbs cannot conceive of a Serbia without Kosovo, or slavophile Russians cannot imagine Ukraine as distinct from Russia.

Over the centuries, waves of Khazar, Tatar, Turkic, Mazovian, Lithuanian, Polish, Cossack, and German peoples swept back and forth across the green and verdant Ukrainian steppes, sometimes fleeing occupiers and wars, at other times conquering and colonizing. Each ebb and flow of this tide left its human diaspora, much as such waves mixed and remixed humanity across much of Europe. Although the current focus is on the Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking inhabitants of the contemporary Ukrainian state, there are populations of Hungarian, Romanian, Moldovian, Bulgarian, Polish, White Russian, Gagauz, Albanian, and Rusyn groups/ethnicities in various western regions of the country. In Crimea (see below) many Tatars (a Turkic-speaking ethnic group descended from Ghenghis Khan (1162-1227) and his successors in the Golden Horde), have returned to their homeland after mass deportation.

This complex history and potpourri of humanity were forged by nineteenth century nationalist forces, personified by poet and political polemicist Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) and political theorist Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841-1895), into a Ukrainian identity.

"The rising tide of nationalism brought with it endless and insoluble fights about schools, jobs, even street signs. The question on the census asking people to put down their mother tongues became a vital marker of national strength and national groups took out advertisements urging the "right" answers. Nationalist movements often overlapped with economic and class issues: Rumanian and Ruthenian peasants, for example, challenged their Hungarian and Polish landlords. Yet such was the force of nationalism that classes which in other countries formed socialist or liberal or conservative parties here split apart on national lines." -- Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace

Nestor MakhnoDespite their pivotal role in the formation of the Slavic identity, the people of Ukraine have often felt like lesser siblings, expected to align with the interests of their Russian brethren. This frustration exploded upon the dissolution of the Tsarist Empire of Nicholas II (1868-1918) and the subsequent Russian Revolution. A series of distinct and overlapping "Ukrainian" states briefly flourished in the interval between 1917 and 1920: the Ukrainian People's Republic, the Hetmanate, the Directorate of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the West Ukrainian People's Republic, the Hutsul Republic, and even the anarchist "Black" forces of Nestor Makhno (1888-1934), all of which appeared briefly in various portions of the Ukrainian landscape before being extinguished by Red (Bolshevik), White (Imperial), Polish, or Romanian forces, or by each other. In the end, on those fields, no longer green and verdant, lay some 1.5 million dead -- and worse was yet to come. Between 1932-1933 some 7.5 million people in Ukraine died of starvation and other depredations in a massive famine known as the Holodomor, now generally understood to have been largely manufactured by Soviet programs of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. These events have not been forgotten in Ukraine.

This lengthy backdrop, which only scratches the surface of the complex history of the region, sheds light on why Ukraine bolted like a shot out of the dissolving Soviet Union, declaring sovereignty in 1990 and independence in 1991. The declaration of independence was supported by a staggering 92.3 per cent of the population in a referendum in which 84.2 per cent of the population participated. The referendum was supported by majorities (most of them massive) in all 27 administrative regions of Ukraine, even in predominantly Russian-speaking regions such as Odessa (85.4 per cent) in the south, and Donetsk (83.9 per cent) and Luhansk (83.8 per cent) in the east. Even in Crimea, which has by far and away the strongest ethnic Russian identity (58 per cent of the population is Russian speaking), 54.2 per cent supported Ukrainian independence, and 57.0 per cent supported it in the regional capital of Sevastopol.

1991 Ukrainian Referendum Results

The steep cliffs of Crimea

The cliffs of CrimeaThere's probably no place on earth that has changed hands so frequently as Crimea. Known in antiquity as Taurica, it has variously been ruled by Cimmerians, Sythians, Bulgars, Greeks, Goths, Huns, Khazars, the Kievan Rus', Byzantine Greeks, Kipchaks, Ottoman Turks, the Tatars of the Golden Horde, Mongols, Venetians, Genoese, the Crimean Khanate, the Imperial Russians, the Soviet Union, and the Nazi Germans before finally coming to rest in the lap of Ukraine in 1954.

Salient to contemporary concerns are the Crimean Tatars, the living descendants of the Crimean Khanate (1441-1783) founded by descendants of Genghis Khan who decided to end their nomadic existence and settled on the north coast of the Black Sea. Crimea became their yurt or homeland. While other invaders came and went, the Crimean Tatars stayed, until 1944 when Josef Stalin (1878-1953), falsely accusing them of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, used the pretext to deport the entire nation, primarily to Uzbekistan. Some 194,000 were deported in a genocidal event called the Sürgünlik, or exile. Some 45 per cent of Crimean Tatars perished in the deportation. Stalin continued with a wholesale ethnic cleansing of Crimea and surviving populations of Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks were also deported from the peninsula. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union many Tatars have trickled back and there are now some 260,000 living in Crimea.

Also salient to the contemporary political situation, was the abrupt transfer, on February 19, 1954, of Crimea from its status as a province of Russia, to becoming a province of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, ostensibly a symbolic gesture on the part of Mother Russia to recognize the 300th anniversary of Ukraine becoming a part of the Russian Empire. How sincere this symbolic gesture was, or how grateful Ukrainians were for three centuries of Russian imperial rule is a moot point. The real reason may have been the fact that the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at that time was Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) who, while of mixed Russian and Ukrainian parentage, spent much of his life and political career in Ukraine.

As it currently stands, some 58 per cent of the Crimean population are ethnic Russians, 24 per cent Ukrainians, 12 per cent Crimean Tatars, and 6 per cent descend from other nationalities including Belarusians, Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. The history of this striking peninsula with its glorious white cliffs overlooking the Black Sea, allows for no simple answer as to who "owns" the land -- if, indeed, anyone can be considered to "own" the earth at all. 

The Ukrainian political landscape

Ukrainian Opposition LeaderThe contemporary Ukrainian political landscape is a complicated checkerboard of parties, charismatic figures, ideologies from every corner of the political spectrum, scandals, plots, and machinations. In the 2012 election, 24 political parties participated through an electoral system of proportional representation that awarded seats in the Parliament (Verhovna Rada) to deputies in the top five parties:

Party of Regions: a cobbled-together, generally centrist, pro-Russian, political grouping formally lead by Mykola Azarov but actually steered by its "honorary leader" and now ousted and exiled former president, Victor Yanukovich;

Batkivshchyna or Fatherland: a centrist, pro-European, populist grouping formally headed by the formerly jailed, and now freed, Yulia Tymoshenko. It is also a coalition of different groups, blocs and parties. The leaders of the current government, Oleksandr Turchynov (president) and Arsenniy Yatsenuk (prime minister) are members of this bloc;

United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), which means "strike" or "punch" in Ukrainian, in reference to its leader, former boxer Vitaly Klitschko (also a chess player with a Ph.D. in sport science): a liberal, pro-European, anti-corruption grouping which is also a coalition of two political blocs;

Communist Party of the Ukraine: an openly Marxist-Leninist party lead by Petro Symonenko; and

Svoboda the "All Ukrainian Freedom Union" party: an Ukrainian nationalist, populist, far-right wing party lead by Oleh Tyahnybok.

The political system is dominated by personalities, sometimes at the expense of policies, and many of the blocs have poorly defined ideologies and rapidly-shifting agendas. Hanging over the political landscape are the long shadows of the Ukrainian oligarchs, a group of hyper-wealthy bandit-industrialists who have profited massively at the expense of the state and the people.

As of February 27, 2014 Crimea has been occupied by Russian military forces that daily consolidate their grip on the region. The shadow of further Russian aggression hangs perilously over the rest of the Ukrainian state. To add even more pressure to an already hyperbaric political system, Ukraine hovers on the edge of bankruptcy with Finance Minister Yuriy Kolobov estimating that the country requires $35 billion USD to survive for the next two years.

Euromaidan in LvivIt is important to emphasize, however, that since its rebirth in 1991 Ukraine has understood itself to be a part of the commonwealth of European nations, not only in terms of economic development, but also in terms of its cultural connections and its aspirations to become a democratic, pluralist state. This was evident at the moment of its creation, and has been the predominant direction of its foreign policy for the 24 years of its existence. Even the deposed and manifestly corrupt ex-president, Victor Yanukovich, governed on the basis of a pro-western orientation that sought closer links with the European Union.  Hence the shock that reverberated across the country when on November 21, 2013 Yanukovich abruptly announced a suspension of trade and association talks with the European Union, and a strengthening of political and economic ties with Russia.

Slavophiles versus Westernizers

Alexander HerzenRussian political and historical philosophy has long been caught in the tension of a fundamental dialectic: is Russia a participant (albeit an outlier) in European civilization, or does it somehow have its own unique identity and destiny? On the one hand were figures such as Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (1729-1796) who embraced western civilization and sought to open Russia to its artistic, cultural, technological, agricultural, economic, financial, industrial, and other influences. In the nineteenth century, writers like Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) became advocates of strengthening Russia's ties to the west and developing it along European social-democratic models, a group that became known as the "Westernizers."

On the other hand were traditionalists who understood Russian identity through a mystical sense of the land and its people, the defining character of the Orthodox Church, and the autocratic traditions of the tsars. This thinking coalesced in the nineteenth century in a movement called slavophilia that rejected the corrupting view of western rationalism (and the pluralistic, democratic, and revolutionary currents that were then in circulation). Its intellectual founders, who included Aleksei Khomyakov (1804-1860), Ivan Kireevsky (1806-1856), and Konstantin Aksakov (1817-1860), saw Peter the Great and Catherine the Great as purveyors of corrupting influences that needed to be purged in order to return Russia to its spiritual roots. They rejected both capitalism, and the emerging ideas of socialism or communism, as misbegotten children of Western decadence.

The political offspring of slavophilia was Pan-Slavism, a mystical, nationalist movement that saw all Slavs as being one people under the rule of the Russian tsar. Slavophile writers such as Mikhail Katkov (1818-1887) denied the separate cultural existence of Ukrainians (the so-called "little" Russians) and Belarusians (the "white" Russians), seeing them all as components of  a "great" Russian culture and state ruled by the tsar. In this view, even the Ukrainian language was superfluous and detrimental, although Aksakov thought it had a limited utility in countering the influence of Polish civilization in western Ukraine. Similarly, in this view the Eastern Catholic Church of Ukraine (Orthodox in its outer forms while being part of the Catholic communion), a strong component of Ukrainian identity, could be understood as a heretical departure from Orthodoxy.

Vladimir Putin: The empire strikes back

Vladimir PutinThis history of slavophilia is one dimension of Vladimir Putin's neo-slavophile conception of Russian civilization. Under his stewardship the role of the Orthodox Church in providing a defining character for Russia, has assumed greater prominence, as have the various other folkloric and mystical trappings of the slavophile vision. Western notions of pluralism, democracy, and freedoms of speech and of the press, are considered as polluting, foreign influences. Although Marxism has been cast into the historical dustbin, capitalism certainly has not, and the Russian oligarchs continue their massive profiteering, albeit under the firm grip of an authoritarian state directed by Putin.

Resolutely conjoined to slavophilia is Russian Imperialism. While World War I effectively shattered the nineteenth century imperial paradigm -- and indeed, the actual Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires -- this notion never disappeared in Russia, and was soon transformed into Soviet Imperialism, which under Stalin became even more virulent, swallowing up all the former Tsarist spheres of interest in the Far East, Central Asia, the Caucuses, and the Baltic states, before metastasizing to devour the Balkans and much of central and eastern Europe. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union disintegrated, it appeared as if this imperial nightmare might finally have been laid to rest.

But it was not to be.

The Russian slavophile-imperialist vision is very much alive and living in the heart of Vladimir Putin. Since taking power in 1999, Putin has worked behind the scenes to rebuild a neo-slavophile and imperial Russia. It motivates the pending creation (in 2015) of the Eurasian Union, a supra-national economic union which it is hoped will counterbalance the economic muscle of the European Union. Russia is at the centre of the initiative, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia have agreed to participate, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are considering joining. It is clearly intended to re-compose aspects of the Soviet Union, as closer economic ties will inevitably entail closer political ones. The biggest fish that Putin would like to land on this expedition is Ukraine; hence the Kremlin's alarm at Ukraine's overtures to Europe, and therefore away from its orbit of influence.

Crimean diagnosis

"It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other" -- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

Sevastopol PlateSlavophile nonsense aside, there is a deep kinship between Ukrainians and Russians. These are peoples who have lived alongside one another, intermingling and intermarrying since time immemorial. At risk of offending one or other (or most probably both), and having a foot in both camps, I observe that both languages and cultures are mutually comprehensible. Although the 2001 composition of the Ukraine was 77.8 per cent ethnic Ukrainian and 17.3 per cent ethnic Russian, focusing on this fact presents a false dichotomy rooted in archaic, nationalist notions. These were foolish in the nineteenth century and they are trebly foolish in the twenty-first.

Like the neighboring Serbs and Croats, the fraternal semitic Jews and Palestinians, the scarcely discernable Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, or the Protestant and Catholic neighbours of Northern Ireland, Ukrainians and Russians are sibling peoples. That is not to say that they all have identical beliefs, any more than the people of the Balkans, the Middle East, or of Ireland are of a mind. However, in a twenty-first century context, what should come to the fore is the societal makeup -- the social and political views of its inhabitants. As we have seen, Ukraine is awash in political visions. Communist, Marxist-Leninist, socialist, social-democratic, populist, liberal-democratic, green, labour, centrist, patriotic, and neo-fascist political currents all swirl in the country. It is an unsettled political landscape, and little wonder given its youth. The British-Westminister parliamentary system (on which the Canadian political system is based) has had over three centuries to work out its kinks (and it is hardly perfect yet), whereas the Ukrainian political system is only 24 years removed from a totalitarian, communist pseudo-government that was preceded by centuries of Tsarist absolutism.

Ukraine and Russia have been neighbours since time immemorial -- and will continue to be. If Ukraine forges closer social, economic, cultural, and political ties with members of the European Union, it will not sever its connections to the continental mainland and sail out the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Strait -- it will remain where it is, wedded to Russia. Geography is destiny.

Ukrainian Demographics 

Throughout numerous conflicts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the German, Austro-Hungarian, British, Italian, French, and Spanish empires (and later states) were variously at each other's throats. World War I and World War II caused death and destruction at scales that were hitherto almost unimaginable. Yet now, some 70 years after the end of hostilities, under the aegis of the European Union and related political and economic institutions and structures such as the Schengen Area, these former dyed-in-the-wool enemies, exist in peace and cooperation. People, goods, services, and money move without obstacle in the region, and formerly protectionist regimes now work closely with one another in the context of a European Parliament.  No one debates the superiority of French, British, Italian, or German cultures or languages. None of these nations jockey with one another for territorial conquests. It's not a perfect system, of course, but who could have imagined such cooperation and consensus in Europe only 69 years after the death of Adolf Hitler and the end of the Third Reich?

The path from open warfare to friendship and cooperation must of necessity involve many factors, but in my view, economic, social, and political stability lie at the core of the enterprise. If people and cultures experience tolerance and prosperity, it is remarkable how quickly animosities can melt away and give rise to political and societal values that are judicious and accepting. This should be the operative principle in settling conflicts from the Balkans to the Caucuses, from the British Isles to the Middle East -- and everywhere else.

So here is my prescription for a resolution of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis.

Russian citizens must try and impress upon Vladimir Putin -- or if needs be, his successor -- to abandon nineteenth century, nationalist, slavophile ideology and imperial ambitions. Defuse, rather than ratchet up ethnic tensions. Find mechanisms of cultivating social stability and economic prosperity. Economic relations should not be a zero-sum game. Good social, cultural, and economic relations between Ukraine, and the European Union, and Russia are not mutually exclusive -- indeed they can reinforce one another to everyone's advantage. Fomenting "wedge" issues to antagonize Ukrainian-Russian relations can only lead to counterproductive results. No one likes a bully, and bullying never produces a satisfactory outcome. There lies the "lose-lose" pathway of political relations.

Euromaidan in Kyiv

At the same time, Ukrainian citizens have an obligation to impress upon their leaders to act responsibly. The Ukrainian parliament's passage (by a bare majority of 51.5 per cent) on February 22, 2014 of a measure to repeal Ukrainian legislation that allowed for official use of regional languages in contexts such as courts, schools, and government institutions, was needlessly provocative and counterproductive. Implemented in 2012 this legislation allowed various cities and regions in Ukraine to employ Russian for official purposes, and three settlements in Western Ukraine have also done so for the Hungarian, Moldovan, and Romanian languages. This legislation made manifest linguistic and ethnic tolerance and inclusiveness.

Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed and six days later, on February 28, 2014, president Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the bill and ordered the drafting of a new law to, "accommodate the interests of both eastern and western Ukraine and of all ethnic groups and minorities." Nonetheless, such attempts needlessly and provocatively stir the linguistic pot, fomenting suspicions amongst Russian speakers.

Ukrainian citizens also need to impress upon their politicians that xenophobic, anti-semitic, nationalistic, anti-Russian, and quasi-fascist inclinations such as those displayed by Svoboda (and even more alarmingly by extremist groupings such as Pravyi Sektor, the "Right Sector") are unwise, inflammatory, and provocative. They will not help Ukraine draw closer to the European Union, nor will they improve relations with Russia. Such right-wing and primitive political tendencies are relicts of a bygone era and need to be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history if Ukraine wants to take its place in the community of progressive nations.

Crimean prognosis: Trimajsja

Welsford-Parker MemorialI have good friend from Sevastopol in Crimea. When she was in Halifax last year I took her to see the Welsford-Parker Monument, a triumphal arch, which is the only monument in North America to the Crimean War (1853-1856), an imperialist sideshow that began as a battle between the Russian and Ottoman Empires regarding the rights of Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Both France and Britain felt compelled to enter the fray to foil Russia's expansionist designs in the Black Sea region. Serving in the British forces were a handful of Nova Scotians, two of whom, Major Augustus Welsford and Captain William Parker, lost their lives in the battle of Great Redan in 1855.

On top of the monument (carved, incidentally from sandstone from a quarry in Mary's Point, New Brunswick where my family home is situated) stands a magnificent Crimean lion, and inscribed on the arch are the names, Alma, Balaklava, Inkerman, Tchernaya, Redan, and Sevastopol -- all locales where battles took place. Aside from two fallen soldiers, Crimea has no other connection with Halifax or Nova Scotia, and aside from my friend I wonder if any other Crimean has ever even seen the monument. It is a dramatic one, the second oldest in Canada, and stands in a cemetery as a reminder of the dead hand of imperialism. One that incessantly meddled in the affairs of states far and wide, redrawing national borders, and claiming uncountable lives along the way. It is surmounted by a noble lion, but in whose ambit lie only graves.

In parting from my Crimean friend I said "Trimajsja" in Ukrainian (in Polish, one says it as, "Trzymaj sie"). Trimati or Trzymac means to hold, and the participle "sja" or word "sie" makes it reflexive, hence to "keep yourself." It is an interesting metaphysical notion -- to keep oneself and one's identity intact. In Eastern Europe, it is a concept that has great resonance. And so I say to Ukraine, Trimajsja.

This is Part I of a series on the political situation of Ukraine. Part II is Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and Useful Idiots and Part III is Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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