Monday, February 24, 2014

Dreams of Kievan Rus

Last Wednesday I went to bed convinced war was coming in Ukraine, and not just because of the bloodshed on the Maidan in Kiev. The last headline I'd read before toddling off to the land of Nod said that Western Ukraine had declared independence. I imagined a clash between Poland and the EU and Russia through the heartland of Ukraine: tanks, planes, and all, a kind of two-way Operation Barbarossa. Well, thank God it turned out to be a rumor, although apparently government institutions in Lviv, cultural capital of the West, had indeed separated themselves administratively from the central government in Kiev. But that was before Yanukovych headed for the hills, or the Black Sea, or wherever he is. Now that he's gone there's more unanimity among the regions, and a bit more cohesion between the West and the center, but that still leaves the East, overwhelmingly Russian in language, as this map shows, and pro-Russian (although not necessarily pro-Putin) in sympathies. But those sympathies have been fluid for centuries. Kiev is, after all, the mother of Russian cities, as the capital of Kievan Rus, where Orthodox Christianity was adopted by Vladimir the Great, prince of Kiev, in around A.D. 1000. There have always been and will always be strong ties between Ukraine, especially the Eastern part, and Russia, which were one country under the Tsars, who called Ukraine "Little Russia," and the Soviets, who did their best to make Ukrainians detest Moscow by oppressing them under decades of famine and tyranny. But the ties persist. Indeed, the Crimea, now officially Ukrainian, is still the home of the Russian Navy. If the Russians wanted to make a move, they wouldn't have to go very far.

Mr. Putin is cannier than that, however. Whatever happens, he'll be the skeleton at the feast in Kiev. It's too early for Ukrainians to sleep easy. But one way or another, the people will prevail; and that alone is huge progress for an ancient dictatorship. As W. B. Yeats said, "The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each other on fair days and high days, and in how they farm and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage.” This nation lives again.

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