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Anti-government protesters guard the perimeter of Independence Square in Kiev.

Anti-government protesters guard the perimeter of Independence Square, known as the Maidan, on February 19, 2014, in Kiev, Ukraine.

Photograph by Brendan Hoffman, Getty

Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published February 20, 2014

The political crisis in Ukraine intensified Thursday into armed conflict, with bodies scattered throughout Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and the police now authorized to use live ammunition.

To get a historical perspective on the events, Eve Conant spoke to Serhii Plokii, a history professor and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. He reflects on Ukraine's rebellious past, why Moscow appears intent on wielding influence over the region, and the historical roots of what protesters fear will happen if their efforts fail. (See: "Photos: Ukraine's Ring of Fire.")

Locator map of Ukraine and surrounding countries.
MAP BY NG Staff

Historically, have you ever seen protests this violent in Ukraine?

No. In looking at the short history of Ukraine since its independence in 1991, this is the first time. Historically the Ukrainian elite has been able to find a negotiated compromise to problems. In 1994 there was a major economic and political crisis, and the president of Ukraine at the time—Leonid Kravchuk—allowed for early elections and the peaceful transfer of power.

The next crisis was 2004—the Orange Revolution. The level of violence was not like today. There were peaceful demonstrations that resulted in another round of elections and changes to the constitution. What's happening now in Ukraine goes against the grain of the past 20 years.

What about hundreds of years back, deeper into Ukraine's history?

Violence is not new for Ukraine. Before, it was in the context of the [1917 Bolshevik] Revolution and World War II. Joseph Stalin responded with violence toward the opposition, but in a different kind of way. What we had back then were the great purges, when people were arrested in the middle of the night. There was also the [1932-33] famine, when people starved to death.

Today the protesters are also afraid of purges; they fear that the end of the Maidan will unleash on them the same kind of terror as Stalin's purges. There have already been arrests, imprisonments, kidnappings, and killings—there are snipers using live ammunition—so in some senses it is worse than 1937, the height of Stalin's purges.

I understand that Russians who protested against Vladimir Putin in Moscow two years ago are still facing retaliation. Amnesty International has called on the Putin administration to drop charges against those who took part in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests.

Yes. There is no proof one way or the other, but many fear that what is happening in Ukraine will be the realization of the Russian scenario. It is very much on people's minds in Kiev. If the Maidan is dispersed, they are afraid the next steps will be arrests of people who took part in the protests, arrests of those who wrote blogs or appeared on radio interviews.

Both sides have claimed that agents provocateurs are responsible for some of the violence on the square.

There were accusations like that during the Orange Revolution, but again that never turned violent. There are accusations back and forth. There are credible reports that secret services were taking part in the violent dispersal of protesters.

Ukraine last experienced civil war in the years following the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsars. There is concern now that this violence could again escalate to civil war.

Everything is possible. But I don't see that happening at this point. For a civil war you need a more even split in society and a more equal level of mobilization. What is mobilized now is a portion of the populace against the government, the police and thugs hired by the government. It's not one social group against the other.

Can you talk a little bit about the "thugs"—or "titushki"—as this has been a much-discussed issue in Kiev.

The titushki are the groups that have been attacking journalists. The historical background for this is more from the past 20 years or so, when politicians have used these kinds of people to intimidate opponents during elections.

Why is Ukraine so important for Moscow?

I've actually just published my book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, which talks about the role of Ukraine in the last few months of the Soviet Union. First of all, Ukraine was crucial in 1922 to the formation of the Soviet Union—the arrangements of all the other republics were shaped by it. In 1991 it was not just Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev and the coup attempt, but it was also the Ukrainian referendum of December 1991 that spelled the end of the Soviet Union. Ninety percent of Ukrainians voted for independence. It was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet state.

Now Ukraine is the key country for anyone in the Kremlin who is thinking of reintegration of the former Soviet space. Given its role in history—in how the Soviet Union was formed and how it fell apart—Ukraine is the key element in this structure, even if it's a virtual structure now, not a real one. (See: "How History, Geography Help Explain Ukraine's Political Crisis.")

Is there anything in the coverage of events that you as a historian see as incorrect or a misunderstanding?

The basic misunderstanding is that there is a structural split between those who speak Russian and those who speak Ukrainian. Both languages are in fact everywhere. Protesters are united, both Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking [people] together. It's not as important an issue as people tend to believe.

Ukraine hasn't seen this level of violence in anti-government protests, yet it has a long history of rebellion, doesn't it?

There were a number of attempts during the [Bolshevik] Revolution to take over Ukraine. The victory was achieved at great cost, and even then it was only central and eastern Ukraine. The western part of Ukraine went to Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. It was only after World War II that most areas were fully integrated. It took the Bolsheviks over 30 years to get all of Ukraine. The nationalist underground armed resistance was fighting Soviet rule well into the early 1950s. Let's hope they find some compromise now. This is heartbreaking.

5 comments
J. Rawlyk
J. Rawlyk

"There was also the [1932-33] famine, when people starved to death."  Yes, estimates say 7-10 million Ukrainians starved.  Look and see where the food went.  This was no accident or act of nature.  Never forget Holodomor....

Jo-ohsama Tiana
Jo-ohsama Tiana

This is the most balanced and accurate summary/explanation of events in Ukraine by a Western media source that I've seen so far..


What I've read in publications like Washington Post and New York Times unfortunately has all the characteristics of being ordered and paid for by people who want to strengthen the idea of separatism in Ukraine and disunity on the Eurointegration issue..


In truth, in our country, like in many countries of the world people who speak different languages get along. And we all stand for European values like rule of law and responsible government, respect for human rights, democracy...

t i
t i

No mention of civil war at the beginning of the century, neither of Nestor Makhno, despite several attempts in the form of questions such as "Ukraine hasn't seen this level of violence in anti-government protests, yet it has a long history of rebellion, doesn't it?" or What about hundreds of years back, deeper into Ukraine's history?"  Just saying that the civil war included of the most important anarchist organization who played a major role during the period

Kizo Dovanovicra
Kizo Dovanovicra

It is painful looking at Kiev scenario what is happening there and listening all experts on history of Ukraine and the region. Parallel can be drown with Ukrainian and ex Yugoslav events, but wish I am wrong. In ex Yugoslavia the eastern parts (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia) are christian orthodox who were related politically, militarily and historically to Russia where the western parts (Slovenia and Croatia) were pro-German or so called pro-western, catholic societies. Yugoslavia split in bloodshed and although some argue it was not a civil war, I strongly believe it was in deed pure civil war in great extent. 


Yugoslav forces in 1990s did not react swiftly and the military remains passive until it was too late. Then the military itself split into "nationalistic" para militaries and the war started. 


The same scenario is seen in Kiev, the police forces being beaten without proper and brutal respond. On the other hand, the firstly called protestants and now revolutionaries have not much to loose except own lives so despite life loses they are ready to bitterly fight. 


Maybe it is a problem that so called opposition does not know what they want to fight for. They have had enough of poverty and aimless lives and only they know is that they want changes, drastic changes within their society. 

The core obstacle they see is the present government, despite democratically elected and voted by the majority of Ukrainians, presumably from the central and eastern parts of the state. 


When I earlier mentioned Yugoslav scenario that reminds me on the beginning of events in Ukraine now, the legitimate government in Belgrade was "supported" by London and Paris, the ex allies of Kingdom of Serbia prior unification of all southern Slavs republics into one state of Yugoslavia, where UNITED GERMANY in 1990 the economic powerhouse of United European States exercised their own political power over London and Paris forcing their policies to change in Berlin's direction - SUPPORTING THE SPLIT OF YUGOSLAVIA - where western republics of Slovenia and Croatia were recognised as independent states by AUSTRIA firstly and GERMANY secondly - AND THAN THE BLOODSHED STARTED - Belgrade believing having support from Moscow, London and Paris acted to protect Yugoslav state as whole, but Zagreb and Ljubljana supported from Wien and Berlin proclaimed succession from the rest of Yugoslavia (within communist-created national borders - lately recognised as sovereign states - ignoring the reality of nationalities being living there - where city of Vukovar or Knin with 98% of Serb population were "Croatian" towns). 


Now Ukraine has similar problem - West versa East!!! To prevent the escalation - the military MUST act swiftly, close borders and PREVENT WESTERN POWERS IN INTERFERING. Otherwise, the country will split according to Moscow's scenario - where most of eastern parts of Ukraine will be added to Russia including Crimea, central Ukraine will be pro-Russian as an independent state and the western Ukraine, a quite tiny state will be pro-western independent state. 


All scenarios are full of bloodshed and the Ukrainian people would suffer the most. 


It is important to change the policy of present state of economic and political welfare but unless the army acts instantly, the country will split into several small regions led by different political moguls, where in 20 years they will join again some kind of economic-political union. 


I wish to Ukrainian people to peacefully settle differences and expel all western "mind-creators" until the situation calms, than get those elections and change the economic system for more progressive and less bureaucratic. 

Igor Elisman
Igor Elisman

"The basic misunderstanding is that there is a structural split between those who speak Russian and those who speak Ukrainian" - there is a structural split between Western (Ukrainian speaking) and Eastern (Russian speaking) parts of Ukraine. This is true at least at the moment. Split is not among people but rather political influences from those parts of the country. Russian speaking cities such as Kharkov, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk, Donetsk and others do not want to do anything with nationalistic agenda of Western parts promoting Stepan Bandera's type of agenda. 


In terms of Russia trying to get influence back to Ukraine - it is understandable since during Soviet Union era, economic ties between Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics were working really well. Industries were tightly dependent on each other - raw materials, goods, services were coming back and forth between former republics. Culturally, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were very much similar having common roots. So it is important for Russia to restore former economic relations which will benefit both countries if done it right way. Closer relation with EU and West if done it right way may benefit both Ukraine and Russia.


In terms of current situation, it is naive to say but it is a shame to both US, EU and Russia for using Ukraine as a means to promote their own political and economic influence in the region. Unfortunately, the difference between today and past few centuries in terms of promoting their power is not that great, rather the means of how its done is more sophisticated and less visible. But in fact, instead of creating constructive approach where each part can find feasible economic solution, it has to be done in a such way where people would suffer, country would suffer, a lot of hatred and evil will born and spread in a wave creating potential worldly unrest and tensions.


No doubt, that current events in Kiev is provocation, coming from opposition site, with some of the opposition leaders used as pawns in this game. However, current government in Ukraine is not much better. I don't know details but some facts such as president's son is a billionaire is a good reflection of who they are. Definitely, there is a need for new government with independent view, good leadership and knowledge. 


One wish I want to have is to stop unnecessary bloodshed as soon as possible in a country where such events is very strange to observe.


I was born in Ukraine, USSR, than see it become independent country, immigrated to US, became a citizen here - so I can definitely have a little experience in what I am saying


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