“Russia was robbed,” wrote Vladimir Putin in a 5,000-word essay on “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. Modern Ukraine, Putin argued, “was shaped… on the lands of historical Russia” by the Bolsheviks, who had no regard for the history of Russia.
Putin’s argument is hardly new. Regime figures alternately argue that Ukraine is not a genuine sovereign state; that only its Ukrainian-speaking west is rightfully divided from Russia; or that Ukrainians and Russians are essentially one people, artificially separated. That line of thinking was taken to its extreme in 2014, when Moscow annexed Russian-speaking Crimea, in its view righting a historical wrong. The transfer of the territory from Russia to Ukraine in 1956 had been under the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; a nominal change at the time that became consequential when the USSR collapsed 30 years ago this December.
The argument is premised on a supposed division between different language groups. In the west of the country, annexed to the USSR in 1940 from Poland, Ukrainian is spoken. In the east and centre of the country, historically part of the Russian empire, Russian is much more common. It is that distinction which Russia plays on to undermine its neighbour’s statehood. The parts of Ukraine that interest the Kremlin are the east and centre: the Crimean peninsula, the borderlands of the Donbass, the Black Sea coast. “Kyiv does not need Donbass,” Putin wrote in his article.
Now geography is reasserting itself in the territories of the former empire, nowhere more so than in Ukraine, where a war continues to be waged between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
Lviv, in western Ukraine, only feels like a Soviet city during the drive in. Crumbling abandoned factories line the streets on the outskirts that ring the city. The same blocks of flats that can be seen across the territory of the former socialist empire line the city’s wide boulevards.
Approach the city centre, though, and the urban fabric changes completely. Reinforced concrete gives way to elegant sandstone buildings along cobbled streets. Mid-rise art deco buildings painted in elegant pastels are ornamented with cherubs and sculptures of toned men and women. Trams rattle along the winding roads. This is no longer Lvov, the city’s name in Russian, but Lemberg, as it was known in German under the Austro-Hungarian empire – more Vienna than Volgograd.
The city’s identity has been shaped by the succession of flags that have flown over the town hall. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following the First World War, it came under Polish rule with the re-establishment of Polish statehood. At the outbreak of the Second World War, eastern Poland was annexed to the USSR, under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Occupied by the Nazis in 1941, it was back under Soviet control by 1944. Although Lviv is at the centre of what the US historian Timothy Snyder called the “bloodlands” of Europe, it experienced relatively little fighting and, unlike other Polish cities, most of its architecture survived the war. Since 1991, it has been part of independent Ukraine.
In the city’s ethnic make-up, the lines were blurred, as so often in central Europe. Gravestones in the Lychakiv cemetery pay tribute to Lviv’s diverse history. Modern inscriptions in Ukrainian stand next to tombs of Poles and Austrians as well as Soviet-era plaques in Russian celebrating heroes who died defending the socialist motherland from the fascists. The city’s modern homogeneity is a historical anomaly, a product of the Holocaust, which emptied Lviv of its Jews, and of postwar population transfers between Soviet Ukraine and Poland.
This is central, not eastern Europe. Western Ukrainians think of themselves as different from homo sovieticus. “The Austro-Hungarian empire was freer than the Russian empire. People have freedom in their blood here,” one local official told me.
An 11-hour journey south on a clattering Soviet-era night train leads to the port of Odessa. At 9:30pm, the night train heaves out of Carpathia on its way to the Black Sea. Passengers pour glasses of vodka and cut slices of sausage in anticipation of the night ahead. I fall asleep as the train leaves behind Lviv’s Austro-Hungarian architecture. Seven hours and a few sudden stops and starts later, I wake as the morning sun peeks behind the window shutters.
The setting as the train pulls into Odessa could be anywhere in the old USSR: grey concrete walls, wheel-less Ladas propped up on breeze blocks, abandoned factories. The train finally arrives at the Black Sea, a giant banner atop the Stalin-era station welcoming visitors to the “hero city of Odessa”, an honour bestowed upon it by the Soviet government for its resistance to the Nazis’ Romanian allies.
Odessa, founded by the Russian empress Catherine the Great on the site of an Ottoman fort in the late 18th-century, has for centuries been as cosmopolitan a city as Lviv. Under the tsars and then the Soviets, Greeks, Armenians and Moldovans mingled with Russians and Ukrainians, forging the city’s reputation for easy-going cosmopolitanism underpinned by a commercial spirit.
Most of all, it was the Jews who made Odessa’s reputation. The city was, at its peak, more than 40 per cent Jewish, the community centred on the neighbourhood of Modovanka, whose gangsters the writer Isaac Babel immortalised in his Odessa Tales. During the tsarist era, rampant anti-Semitism and frequent pogroms, such as that of 1905, believed to have killed about 400, undermined the image of Odessan liberalism which would later come to dominate the popular image of the city, as the historian Charles King wrote in Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.
Odessa formed some of the most consequential Jewish politicians of the 20th century, from Leon Trotsky, who studied in the city, to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, whose experience of Odessan anti-Semitism convinced him that Jews would never be welcome within gentile nations and needed a state of their own. “Wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell?” asks the mobster Benya Kirk in the Odessa Tales.
Babel, executed in 1940 by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, did not live to see how much worse life would get for Ukraine’s Jews. As in Lviv, the Holocaust emptied Odessa of the vast majority of its Jewish population, though they retained their cultural imprint on the city. Yiddish-inflected Russian still marks out the city’s distinctive dialect and its famous dry wit.
Odessa and Lviv embody the divisions in Ukraine perhaps better than any other cities in the territory that Kyiv controls. Ukrainophone, ex-Austro-Hungarian, central European Lviv contrasts with Odessa, founded by a tsarina, whose reputation was made in the Soviet era.
Ukraine’s linguistic divide is played up by outsiders who know little of the country, says Vladislav Davidzon, the author of From Odessa with Love. He argues that most Ukrainians, equally comfortable in both languages, do not see much political significance in their choice of tongue. Ethnic or linguistic divisions do not map well along political lines. “It’s absolutely true that Russian is the language of Ukraine’s neighbour and historical occupier – but this country has the lowest rate of people speaking the state language of any country in Europe.” (Just 55 per cent of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian at home, according to a 2019 survey by Pew Research.)
But real differences do exist. They revolve around, in particular, views of history. Especially since the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, which ousted the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, a revived Ukrainian nationalism, seeking to distance Ukraine from its Soviet past, lionises figures such as Stepan Bandera, a Second World War-era Ukrainian nationalist leader who pledged allegiance to Hitler. That reading of history appeals to Ukrainians in the west of the country but grates with those living further east.
Signs of the rehabilitation of Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), responsible for wartime anti-Jewish pogroms and the ethnic cleansing of Poles, are manifold in Lviv. A large thoroughfare in Lviv is named Bandera Street. There is also a monument to Bandera and a Heroes of the UPA street.
This expression of nationalism, largely embraced at the national level, alienates those in the east who are more comfortable with the Soviet legacy. It also serves to frighten some Ukrainians from ethnic or religious minority groups, according to Eduard Dolinsky, the director general of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. “A monument to Bandera is disgusting and a mockery. It’s a monument to a killer on the grave of his victims.”
Vasyl Filipchuk, a former Ukrainian diplomat, argues that western Ukraine’s post-communist rehabilitation of Bandera is one of the biggest obstacles to the creation of a consensual national narrative. It is not surprising that Odessans, coming from a city with impeccably maintained Soviet war memorials such as the Monument to the Unknown Sailor, feel unsettled in Lviv, he says.
In May 2014, Odessa was the site of one of the most contentious episodes of the early stages of the Ukrainian Revolution (when pro-EU, anti-Russian protests led to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government). As protesters and pro-Russian counter-demonstrators clashed in the streets, the latter retreated into the Trade Unions House. Shortly afterwards, a fire broke out. Although it is still unclear how the fire started – or which side caused it – the flames quickly spread, killing 46 pro-Russian activists. (Two of the opposing protesters were also killed.)
The episode was seized upon by the Russian state to allege that “Ukrainian nationalists” had massacred peaceful demonstrators expressing their desire not to give up close ties to Russia. It became one of the foundational myths of the pro-Russian separatist movement. Putin’s article this year raised the prospect of similar massacres being committed by “the followers of Bandera” in other Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities.
In the long search for a post-communist national narrative, in common with many of the other newly independent Soviet states, Ukrainian authorities looked to the past to write a new story for their country. Even if the war united many Ukrainians against Russia, the country’s recent embrace of western Ukrainian nationalism risks alienating those who have a different reading of the past. Thirty years after the Soviet Union fell, the divisions its authoritarianism masked continue to perturb Ukraine.