Ukraine Is At War – Things You Do Not Want To Know About Eastern Europe (#2)

Every time I tell someone that I recently traveled to Ukraine they suddenly go quiet and look at me with raised eyebrows. In their facial expressions I can tell what they really want to say, “Are you crazy?” Before they say anything though, I mention that I was in Lviv, that sparkling cultural and economic capital of the western Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the eastern Ukraine. I tell them that Lviv is in the “European” part of Ukraine. Of course, they have little idea of what that actually means. “European” in the context of Ukraine is code for a safe and civilized part of the country. The truth is that despite bad governance, endemic corruption and a reputation for lawlessness, for the traveler almost anywhere in Ukraine with the exception of the Donbas region is really safe, much safer than almost any American inner city.

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

Lviv (& Ukraine) Looks West – War Comes To The East
For those who have traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, they know that the city of Lviv is the epicenter of both Ukrainian nationalism and support for joining the European Union. These two ideas, on the face of it would seem to be incompatible. After all, nationalism is usually aligned with a yearning for sovereignty. Ukraine is already a sovereign nation and wants to keep it that way vis-a vis-Russia. For many years, the majority of Ukrainians in the western portion of the nation have favored joining the European Union. They would gladly give up a bit of sovereignty in the hopes of prosperity and security. Following the Russian takeover of Crimea and their continued aggression in Eastern Ukraine it is hardly surprising that the central portion of the country, especially the capital of Kiev also views the EU with favor. The European Union gives Ukraine the best opportunity for collective security. They cannot hope to defeat the nuclear arms wielding Russian military forces in a straight up one on one contest, but association (or membership) with the European Union would provide them a counterweight which might keep the Russian bear at bay.

Presently though, Ukraine is at war. It is a war between west and east, between western values and Putinism and most tragically between fellow Ukrainians whatever their ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. It can be called a border war, a guerilla war, a rebel war or Putin’s war, but Ukraine is at war with itself and also with Russia. There are those who will say that Ukraine is really at war with the Donetsk People’s Republic. At times over the past year that has been true, but this past summer when the “People’s Republic” was left to fight alone, the Ukrainian armed forces pushed them back. If not for Russian support the rebellion would most likely have been snuffed out and the whole sordid conflict ended. Tragically, the opposite has occurred. The war looks to continue and may well escalate. Slowly, the European Union, the United States and the popular media have come to recognize that this is a war. It is difficult to get specific figures for the casualty totals, but estimates now are given of over 5,000 people killed with many more wounded. The fighting continues to escalate with no end in sight.

A poignant reminder at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Lviv

A poignant reminder at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Lviv

Signs of Life, Signs of War – States of Tension
What does traveling in Ukraine while is at war mean for the traveler? A state of limbo is pretty much what I saw and felt in Lviv this past December. The war is there and it is not there. On one hand, there were men in combat fatigues at the train station getting ready for deployment to the war zone. On the other hand, people were still going to work, shops were open and there was even a Christmas market in the city center. Of course what else are people going to do? They have to go on working and living. Day to day life only stops during a modern war when the shelling and shooting comes to the front door. For Lviv the war is still hundreds of kilometers away.  Nonetheless, there are many signs of war in the city. They include pictures of Vladimir Putin with a Hitler moustache, a young lady asking for donations to support Ukrainian soldiers and memorial wreaths in the color of the Ukrainian flag laid at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in the city center. A man with no legs holds a cup to collect coins from passersby only a stone’s throw away from the famed Opera House. Was he a wounded war veteran or an invalid? Makeshift memorials have cropped up at the Lychakivkse Cemetery honoring those native sons of Lviv, many of them volunteers, killed fighting in the Donbas.

Then there are signs that the war is also felt on a much more personal level. I saw long lines in many of the banks, with none of the customers looking happy. More than once I noticed people feeding Euros into machines at banks, trusting their deposits to a machine rather than a human. There was always a husband or wife, friend or relative standing very close to them while they did this. Perhaps they were being guarded not so much from their fellow citizens, but from bank employees. The banks are running exceedingly low on Euros and dollars. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvna, has plummeted as the war in the east drags on. There is also a weird sense of strained normalcy that is just as disconcerting. A nation is at war, the people are struggling and the traveler is perfectly fine. The city and nation can use the income from tourism, thus they put their best foot forward. The citizens are helpful and pleasant. The hotels and restaurants are extremely cheap by western standards, but what kind of traveler wants to benefit from a nation’s misery?  A strange feeling of quiet guilt consumed me while I was there.

In memory and recognition of those who have fought for Ukraine

In memory and recognition of those who have fought for Ukraine

Life & Death In Lviv
This was the situation I experienced in relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan Lviv. It made me wonder what it must be like further to the east, closer to the war zone. The signs of war in Eastern Ukraine must be more visceral and violent. Nonetheless in Lviv the war is leaving its own scars. The bodies are being brought back home, volunteers for the army keep heading to the train station, the war continues. Who knows where and when it will end? Life and death go on. An entire city is in a state of perpetual tension, waiting for something horrible, miraculous or matter of fact to happen.


The Soviet Union: Fifteen Uneasy Pieces

With all the talk about Vladimir Putin trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union, it is only fitting that this effort to reverse engineer history comes from Russia. Many believe Russia was the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union was Russia. Those who confuse the two are both right and wrong. It is difficult to distinguish between the two entities. Perhaps it is best to say that without Russia there would have been no Soviet Union.  There still could have been a Soviet Union without a Ukraine or Belarus, the Baltics or Central Asian republics, but it would have been inconceivable without Russia. Even so, the Soviet Union beyond Russia was incredibly diverse and difficult to stereotype. The people and lands of these regions were integral to the Soviet state, so much so that they eventually helped bring this first communist empire to its knees.

Vladimir Putin & Mikhail Gorbachev - both products of the Soviet Union

Vladimir Putin & Mikhail Gorbachev – both products of the Soviet Union

A Soviet Jigsaw Puzzle
The Soviet Union was a multi-cultural state whose dominant majority was Russian, but it included a withering array of ethnic groups. This is to be expected from a nation that covered a large part of the Eurasian land mass, extending across eight different time zones. Most of these minorities lived in what were known as the Soviet Republics, though not all. For example, the Chechens, a Turkic people of Muslim faith, lived in the Russian part of the Soviet state.

Thus, even though the Russian Federative Soviet Republic (RFSR) contained 51% of the Soviet Union’s population, some of the 147 million people living in that republic were not ethnically Russian. To further confuse matters, there were no less than twenty-six Autonomous Republics at one time or another within the RFSR. One of the more significant achievements of the Soviet state was keeping all these disparate republics united under a single entity. This was mainly done through a highly centralized state utilizing violence and fear. Though this bonded the state together for a time, it turned out to be unsustainable in the long run. Nowhere was this truer than in the constituent republics of the Soviet Union.

Successor states to the Soviet Union - once republics, now nations

Successor states to the Soviet Union – once republics, now nations

Russia as the Soviet Union – A Geo-Political Oxymoron
Violence and fear could only go so far when it came to the fourteen other republics that made up almost half the Soviet Union. The majority ethnic groups in these republics were almost never Russian (Belarus being a notable exception), but their leadership largely was. For instance, future Soviet premiers such as Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev cut their political teeth running the Ukrainian and Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither belonged to the majority ethnic group in the republic they were leading. Then again, Josef Stalin was a Georgian leading a majority ethnic Russian state. This shows that Russia as a pseudonym for the Soviet Union was always something of an oxymoron.

The fourteen other republics of the Soviet Union – besides Russia – made up 49% of the population. Some of these contained large ethnic Russian populations who were transplanted into the Baltic and Central Asian republics to Russify the population and counter balance nationalistic sentiments. One of the republics where this policy played a prominent role was Latvia. Prior to its incorporation in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Latvians made up three-quarters of the population. By the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Latvians were a bare majority in their own land.

Lithuanians rally for independence in January 1990

Lithuanians rally for independence in January 1990

Little Lithuania Shatters the Soviet State
The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were the smallest of the Soviet republics and the last to be incorporated in the Soviet Union. One of them, Lithuania, started the chain of events which brought the Soviet system to its knees. Following the liberalizing reforms of the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980’s, an anti-Communist independence movement was voted to power in the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania.  In March of 1990, the representatives of this movement voted to re-establish the state of Lithuania. This was nothing more than a declaration of independence. The Soviet Union, led by Gorbachev, declared the Lithuanian’s actions illegal.

A Soviet economic blockade and sporadic violence followed. Nonetheless, this failed to halt the Lithuanian movement towards freedom and democracy. The Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence in September 1991. Tiny Lithuania had set the precedent, other republics soon followed. By the end of that same year the Soviet Union had vanished. 15 republics became 15 different nations. The map of Eastern Europe and Central Asia would soon be re-drawn. New lines cut across ethnic and geographical fault lines. A geo-political Pandora’s box had been opened. The yearning for freedom shattered the Soviet state into fifteen uneasy pieces.

The Dustbin of History – The Future of the Soviet Past
The gigantic Soviet state, the largest nation in the world at the time and one of the biggest empires in human history, was brought down by one of its smallest members. The big, bad empire had been felled by the forces of nationalism and democracy. There was nothing the Russians could do, because at the time they wanted the same thing. Only later would nostalgia grow for the Soviet Union. The nostalgia has mostly been a creation of Putin-led Russia. It is notable that despite the fact that Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, not one of the 14 former Soviet republics which became nation states has united with Russia. Nostalgia is not the quite the same as reality.

The differences between the Soviet Republics were much greater than their similarities. What would a Turkmenistani have in common with a Russian, let alone an Estonian? Would Moldovans have any interest in Kirghiz affairs? The dissimilarities were, as they still are today, seemingly endless. The fact that the Soviet Union existed as long as it did shows the unifying power of the Communist ideology. Once Communism lost its allure the Soviet Union was no longer able to defy logic. The Soviet state was relegated to the dustbin of history. It is likely to remain there.


To Be Held Against Us – Russia’s First World War & The Process of Unforgetting

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, Russia is trying something totally different. They are actually erecting monuments commemorating their involvement in the war. The first ever national monument for the war on Russian territory has just been dedicated in Kaliningrad. This is rather astonishing. After all, more than nine million Russian men were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoners of war. That total was greater than the entire population of such wartime belligerent nations such as Canada, Australia, Serbia, Romania and Belgium. Despite their suffering, Russian soldiers did not get a single national monument to memorialize their sacrifice.  This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union which followed. The Bolsheviks would not allow any commemoration of the conflict which they termed a capitalist war. Conveniently they ignored the fact that the war caused dissension, bitterness, political upheaval and starvation which led directly to the Revolution.

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

Held Against Us – The Russian World War I Experience
How the Russian experience of the war would be viewed was accurately predicted by at least one officer during the conflict. In the dark days of December 1916, just months before the first revolution took place, a Russian General told his soldiers, “I have a feeling that, after all this is over, we are not going to be thanked for all the hardships and privations which we are going through now. Rather, that this is all going to be held against us.” Those words predicted both the immediate and long term remembrance of the First World War in Russia.

As Catherine Merridale states in her classic work Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia, “It (World War I) shaped the way even the revolutionaries saw their world, colored their view of death, brought millions of their future subjects into contact with violence and fear for three long years before they came to power and brought it to an end. It claimed not tens, but millions of lives. Because it was not commemorated after 1917, however, it vanished from the Bolshevik foundation myth. Few stories illustrate the power of social memory more clearly. There is no Soviet National Monument to the First World War.” The vast and dramatic effect of the war on Russia and what would become the Soviet Union are not in dispute. It is hard to imagine that without the cataclysm of World War I, Russia would have had the type of revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia may well have had a revolution anyway, just not one that would turn out to be as radical and deadly. The war had set the precedent for what was to come.

Russian Troops marching toward the front - gone and nearly forgotten

Russian Troops marching toward the front at the start of World War I – gone and nearly forgotten

Konigsberg to Kaliningrad – The Prize & Price of War
It is fascinating that the first Russian national monument to the war has now been placed in Kaliningrad (Konigsberg, East Prussia during the war). Ironically this was a place the Russians were never able to occupy during the war. Early on, they attempted to besiege the city, but their effort was short lived. The Battle of Tannenburg further to the south destroyed the entire Russian Second Army. The First Army, which was given the job of investing Konigsberg then found itself in a fight for its existence. It soon gave up a siege which had barely begun. Soon the Second Army lost the First Battle of Masurian Lakes, causing a Russian retreat from Prussian soil. They would not return again until exactly 30 years later, now as the Soviet Army, during one of the final campaigns of World War II. Once again they found themselves on Prussian ground and this time they made sure it was the last. Within a year of their arrival, Prussia ceased to exist. Konigsberg was soon renamed Kaliningrad. Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russians kept this exclave of territory as a lasting prize from the Second World War. Konigsberg had been the seat of power for Prussian kings throughout the centuries. It was said to be the heart of Prussian militarism, a scourge that had scarred Russia and the Soviet Union badly in each of the two wars. By imposing Soviet style communism on it, they eradicated nearly every lasting vestige of its former Prussian self.

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral - Kaliningrad looms in the distance

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral – Kaliningrad looms in the distance

The Process of Un-Forgetting
The brand new, eleven meter high monument in Kaliningrad now stands as a testament to both the various groups who sacrificed so much during the war and also a process of un-forgetting that is slowly taking place. Three soldiers are portrayed: a nobleman officer, a peasant and a third who represents governmental workers and lower court officials. It suggests commonality, a shared unity among all three groups that must have been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the first two and a half years of the war. That unity eventually frayed as the empire suffered one catastrophe after another. It is hard to imagine how any other state could have stayed together under the circumstances. Considering the millions of lost lives, it is even harder to imagine how it lasted as long as it did. The eleven meter high monument is one of several that will be dedicated this summer. The piece de resistance will be unveiled this August in Moscow. These monuments can never make up for lost time, but at least do a bit of justice to the memory of millions who lost their lives.

The Triumph of Tragedy: Russia’s Role in Saving France During the Great War

“I will never forget that the Russian people gave millions of lives.” Those were the words of French President Francois Hollande in late May as he referenced the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. What Hollande was basically stating in so many words was that the Soviets were a major force in freeing France from German occupation during the war. This happened not by design, but by accident. That is an understatement of historic proportions. Eighty percent of German casualties during World War II occurred on the Eastern front while fighting the Soviet Army. If the Soviet’s had not provided the manpower or in a more cynical sense, the human material, the Nazis still might occupy France.

Russian Infantry during the Brusilov Offensive - heading toward victory and tragedy

Russian Infantry during the Brusilov Offensive – heading toward victory and tragedy

The Russian Army – A Miracle in Defeat
On June 6th, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Hollande will host Russian President Vladimir Putin at a state dinner in Paris. Surely, Hollande will use this occasion to once again remark on the great sacrifice of the Russian people during the war. A topic Hollande will most likely overlook though, is the Russian sacrifice for the Allied cause – namely France – during the First World War. The Russian army helped save France on at least two occasions during that conflict. The first was at the beginning of the war, when the Russians supported their French ally by mobilizing at what was for them, breathtaking speed. They quickly invaded East Prussia, which caused an outcry among German civilians. The fatherland was under threat from the eastern menace. This led the Germans to draw off forces from their attack on France in order to deal with the Russian threat from the east. The German forces sent to the Eastern Front arrived too late in order to make any real difference in the fighting. Nevertheless, an entire Russian army was destroyed at the Battle of Tannenberg.

Despite the ineptitude of their high command, the Russian forces in the east were still enough to keep tens of thousands of German forces tied down there. These same forces were of no use to the German Army as it attempted to sweep across northern France and destroy the French Army. The German juggernaut soon ground to a halt as its forces became overextended and exhausted. At the same time, the French won possibly their most crucial victory of the war, what has come to be known as the Miracle of the Marne. There would have been no miracle without support from their Russian ally. President Hollande will almost certainly fail to mention the Russian role in saving France during those late summer days in 1914.

Today, the First World War is still a controversial subject in Russia. The twelve million troops of the Russian Imperial Army fought with valor and courage on one of the most expansive war fronts in human history. From the shores of the Baltic to the beaches of the Black Sea the fearless Russian peasant was cannon fodder for a Tsarist Army that bled mother Russia white. In the process, the Russian Empire slid into dissolution and cataclysm while their Allies emerged victorious at the end of the war. World War One brought Russia two revolutions that then led to an ultraviolent Civil War, followed by the tyranny of Bolshevism. Hollande will almost certainly avoid reference to Russia in the Great War and Putin will be glad he did.

Alexei Brusilov - the best Russian Field Commander of World War One

Alexei Brusilov – the best Russian Field Commander of World War One

The Shock of Success – Brusilov’s Moment
A lesser known, but no less notable Russian sacrifice during the war that assisted the French cause immeasurably was the Brusilov Offensive which occurred in the middle of 1916. During the winter and spring of 1916, the French were stretched to the limit by the battle of Verdun. The army was literally hanging by a thread as it neared the limit of its manpower. The French high command, both political and military, literally begged their allies to engage Germany in battle so as lessen the pressure on the French forces holding on at Verdun. The British would not answer the call until they were completely prepared for what would become their disastrous campaign on the Somme in July. The Russians, despite their mass retreat in 1915, as well as the horrific debacle at Lake Naroch in March 1916, answered the French call for help. On June 4, 1916 a Russian Army on the southwestern portion of the Eastern Front began what would become one of the most shockingly successful campaigns of the entire war.

General Aleksei Brusilov, the ablest Russian field commander of the war, used innovative tactics to confound the Austro-Hungarian Army. Rather than carry out the usual, prolonged artillery barrage, followed by a massive human wave attack on a narrowly confined sector, Brusilov instead had his army attack all along the front after a short, precise artillery barrage. Since attacks were occurring in multiple areas it was very difficult for the Austro-Hungarians to know where to place their reserves to halt a breakthrough. Russian assault troops punched through, widened and exploited gaps that had been created in the enemy lines. Brusilov’s tactics turned out to be successful beyond even his wildest imagination. The Russians opened gaping holes and then quickly poured in reserves to further exploit them. Suddenly, their forces which had been stuck in a quagmire for months on end broke out into the open and were highly mobile. The Austro-Hungarians barely had time to react. Soon they were in a retreat, which was only exacerbated by panic. The result was that hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian forces were captured as well as two entire armies rendered unfit for combat.

Graves at Verdun - tragic monuments to the war of attrition

Graves at Verdun – tragic monuments to the war of attrition

Saving the French – Losing the War
The German high command’s focus turned away from Verdun. They had little choice but to transfer divisions away from the western front to the east in order to save the Austro-Hungarians from complete collapse. German forces soon came to the rescue, but it was a close run operation. Unfortunately, for Brusilov his troop’s incredible success meant they also outran their supply lines. He then reverted back to the same old deadly tactics of endless artillery barrages followed by narrow, suicidal attacks. The Brusilov Offensive, the greatest Russian triumph of the war, was a pyrrhic victory. By the end of the offensive, the Russians had gained hundreds of square miles of territory, but in the process lost upwards of 1.4 million men. Success was almost indistinguishable from defeat.

The victory that the Russians had gained helped their French ally much more than it ever would themselves. For the rest of the war, the Austro-Hungarians were never capable of independently carrying out an attack on the Eastern Front. Yet this meant that now the Russians would face more of their formidable German foe. Meanwhile in the west, the French gained the most from Russian efforts. The Germans had to give up the fighting at Verdun. The plan had been to defeat the French through a colossal battle of attrition. If the Germans had just been fighting the French or only on the Western Front this might have worked. Fighting the Russians as well made the German Army’s task almost impossible. The Russians had hundreds of thousands of men to battle Germany and its allies. These men might as well have been fighting and dying for France. The greatest Russian success of the war in retrospect was saving the French.

The Triumph of Tragedy
As France prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of both its victorious and tragic effort during the Great War, it will certainly focus on the eventual triumph of its forces during that defining conflict. Meanwhile in Russia, if the war is remembered at all, it will commemorate the tragic waste of the common Russian soldier’s life. The Tsarist Empire they fought for was ultimately lost. The war then led to a revolution that brought even greater suffering. As for any success, it ended up benefiting an ally who would soon forget Russia’s sacrifice and suffering. In France today, few remember, let alone know of the critical role Russia played in helping save it during the war. That is truly tragic.