Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part II: 1801-2001 – From Napoleon’s Empire to end of Empires?

Putin’s Perverse & Very Unorthodox History:

In a letter of 10th March, H.H. Patriarch Kirill ‘of Moscow and all Russia’ replied to a letter sent on 2nd March by World Council of Churches (WCC) acting general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca asking the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to mediate so that the war can be stopped. His letter repeated the claims recently made in a newspaper article written by Russian President, Vladimir Putin, with whom the Patriarch is said to have a ‘close relationship’. In his letter, he did not undertake to mediate in order to stop the war but accused ‘Western leaders’ of bringing suffering not only to the Russian political or military leaders but specifically to the Russian people. He went on to assert that Russophobia is spreading across the Western world at an unprecedented pace. On the more recent causes of the conflict he wrote:

The origins of the confrontation lie in the relationships between the West and Russia. By the 1990s Russia had been promised that its security and dignity would be respected. However, as time went by, the forces overtly considering Russia to be their enemy came close to its borders. Year after year, month after month, the NATO member states have been building up their military presence, disregarding Russia’s concerns that these weapons may one day be used against it.

Moreover, the political forces which make it their aim to contain Russia were not going to fight against it themselves. They were planning to use other means, having tried to make the brotherly peoples – Russians and Ukrainians – enemies. They spared no effort, no funds to flood Ukraine with weapons and warfare instructors. Yet, the most terrible thing is not the weapons, but the attempt to “re-educate,” to mentally remake Ukrainians and Russians living in Ukraine into enemies of Russia.

Pursuing the same end was the church schism created by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in 2018. It has taken its toll on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

As far back as 2014, when blood was being shed in Kiev’s Maidan and there were first victims, the WCC expressed its concern. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, the WCC General Secretary at the time, said on March 3, 2014, “The World Council of Churches is deeply concerned by the current dangerous developments in Ukraine. The situation puts many innocent lives in grave jeopardy. And like a bitter wind from the Cold War, it risks further undermining the international community’s capacity to act now or in the future on the many urgent issues that will require a collective and principled response.”

That was also when an armed conflict broke out in the Donbas region, whose population was defending their right to speak the Russian language, demanding respect for their historical and cultural tradition. However, their voices went unheard, just as thousands of victims among the Donbas population went unnoticed in the Western world.

This tragic conflict has become a part of the large-scale geopolitical strategy aimed, first and foremost, at weakening Russia.


Source: History Today.
Catherine the Great, depicted above, was the founder of the Modern Russian Empire into which most of Ukraine was annexed in 1796.

In my first article on this subject matter, I wrote about the historical inaccuracies contained in Patriarch Kirill’s letter regarding the Medieval and Early Modern relations between the Kyivan Rus, ‘Ukraine’ and its neighbours, including the ‘Rus’, modern Russia and other ‘neighbours’ including Cossacks, Lithuanians and Poles. In this second article on the History of Ukraine, besides giving a factual account of relations between the country, Russia and ‘the West’ over the course of the previous two centuries, I also want to address the two further ‘justifications’ given by Patriarch Kirill, above, and President Putin that it is ‘the West’ in general and NATO, in particular, that has brought about Russia’s cataclysmic war with Ukraine through provocative military actions, and that those leading the Ukrainian resistance to Russians are the inheritors of a form of Nazism.

Napoleonic & Nation-State Europe in the Nineteenth Century:

To understand the contemporary history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, we need to look back to the time of the third partition of Poland in 1795, and to the effects of Emperor Napoleon’s conquests on central-eastern Europe before his defeat in Russia in 1812. At the time, Ukraine was an integral and significant part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Since 1789, Europe had undergone a generation-long convulsion that had left nothing untouched. Old states had been abolished and the world of the ancient régime was gone forever.

Napoleonic Europe in 1812.

While Napoleon concentrated his efforts on conquering both Western and Central Europe after 1799, the Tsar asserted Russian power in the Baltic and against Turkey. Alexander I, who became Tsar after the assassination of his father, Paul I in 1801, at first opposed France, but after the defeat of the Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz in 1805, and the Prussian-Russian force at Friedland in 1806, his mood changed. Following his treaty with Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807, the boundary between the French conquests and Russia, Europe was divided into spheres of influence. Napoleon gave the Tsar the district around Belostok and in return, the Tsar accepted the existence of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a potential threat to Russia’s Polish lands. After Napoleon’s crushing defeat of Prussia in the autumn of 1806 and his rapprochement with Alexander I at Tilsit in 1807, Poland’s chances of regaining its independence barely a decade after its extirpation by the Third Partition seemed strong. Napoleon’s establishment of the Grand Duchy composed of territories taken from Prussia’s share of the last partition was meant as punishment for his enemies, but he showed no inclination to permit a genuinely independent Poland. Thus, after Austria’s defeat by Napoleon in 1809, it lost West Galicia to the Grand Duchy.

In 1809, Sweden was forced to cede Finland to the Tsar, though Alexander and his successors ruled it as a separate Grand Duchy with its own laws. The Tsar’s forces then occupied largely Romanian-speaking Bessarabia and forced the Sultan to give it to Russia in 1812. Up to this point, Napoleon had been content to leave Russia to its own devices, and Russia was in any case distracted by its war with Turkey. But nothing could disguise Napoleon’s determination to draw Russia into his Continental System, designed to choke Britain’s trade with Europe. Finally, in 1812, Napoleon lost patience and made the ill-fated decision to invade Russia. Prussia and Austria bided their time and waited to see how the invasion would turn out.

From 1812, with Napoleon’s catastrophic defeat in Russia, in which his army of six hundred thousand vanished into the steppe and the snow, the defeat of Napoleonic France suddenly became a probability. Driven out of Spain and then defeated by a coalition army at Leipzig in 1813, in 1815 the Imperial French forces suffered their final defeat at Waterloo in Belgium. Yet, although the representatives of the victorious powers who had assembled in Vienna to determine the future of Europe were joined by a common desire to restore the world lost after 1789, they were forced to recognise that no such course was open to them in practice. Thus, the Holy Roman Empire and its constellation of feudal principalities and mini-states were summarily abolished by Napoleon in 1806 was not restored. Instead, they drafted the boundaries of a thirty-nine member German Confederation, paying lip service to the notion of a common German identity that had been so strongly displayed during the war of liberation against Bonaparte after 1812. Yet the ‘new order’ established at Vienna was also profoundly conservative and the victorious allies agreed to meet periodically to settle any disputes which might threaten the peace and their hegemony as a guarantor of this. This “Congress System” proved inadequate for dealing with the crises that arose after 1815. It soon became clear that it had only been the overwhelming threat of Napoleonic France that had kept the Allies united. The disappearance of that threat after Waterloo revealed the continuing rivalries and differing interests of the four Great Powers who had vanquished it. Nevertheless, the boundaries established between them in 1815 proved remarkably stable over the next century, especially when compared with the twenty years of turbulence that had preceded the Congress.

Napoleon’s eventual defeat in 1815 meant a restoration of tripartite control of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia. The new division of spoils gave west Poland and Gdansk to Prussia while Austria surrendered its claim to West Galicia, which in common with the remainder of the Grand Duchy came under Russian hegemony, in exchange for Tarnopol. Alexander ruled this so-called “Congress Kingdom” of Poland as just another part of his empire, despite its constitution which made it a personal union with Russia. But it was the decay of Ottoman power in Europe during the nineteenth century which was the key factor in destabilising post-Napoleonic Europe. Moldavia and Wallachia were the first to rebel against Turkish rule in 1821, with the encouragement of Alexander I’s Greek minister, Capodistria. Despite the failure of these uprisings, the Greeks then started a more effective rebellion, backed by idealists such as the English poet Lord Byron. The British, French and Russians sought to temper Turkish reprisals for these revolts, leading to the annihilation of the Ottoman fleet at the decisive battle of Navarino in 1827, which cleared the way for an independent Greece to finally re-emerge in 1830. By then, Moldavia and Wallachia had become autonomous in 1829, emerging as the United Provinces in 1859, having also gained a part of Bessarabia from Russia in 1856, giving them access to the Black Sea. The provinces became Romania in 1861.

The Eastern Balkans and the Black Sea, 1815-61.

The great Polish rebellion of 1831 was easily defeated by the Russian army and provided Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, with an excuse to tighten his control. The ancient university city of Cracow survived 1815 as the Republic of Cracow, the last remnant of self-governed Polish territory until 1847, when Austria annexed it in agreement with Russia and Prussia, despite the protests of France and Britain. In 1848, a series of revolutions rapidly engulfed Austria and Hungary and spread throughout Central Europe. They had, however, retained sufficient power to hold the line in 1848-49, albeit at great cost and in part because of the divisions within liberal-nationalist ranks. But relations between Vienna and St Petersburg cooled rapidly, opening the way for Emperor Napoleon III’s campaigns against Russia. These, and the strains imposed on the Russians in fighting the Crimean War (1854-56, shown on the maps below) against a coalition of France, Britain and Turkey, showed that neither the Habsburgs nor the Russian Tsar remained strong enough to preserve the Vienna system by force.

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ at the Battle of Balaclava in a contemporary painting.

In addition to her gains in Poland, Catherine II (‘the Great’) had acquired Crimea (1783) and Odesa (1794). The primary aim of the Romanovs was to secure access to the seas through ports that were open to navigation all year round. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth-century Russian policy aimed at continuing the drive toward the Mediterranean and gaining control of the Straits at Constantinople. This desire resulted in the Crimean War and British intervention in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. Russia also claimed to be the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Turkish Empire, a claim that was rejected by Turkey. The British Government was forced to act by public opinion at home when Russia destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope. The allies, principally France and Great Britain, determined to destroy the naval station at Sebastopol and all the fighting was concentrated around this port. The allied troops were landed at Eupatori, marched southwards and met the Russians at the River Alma. Though victorious, they neglected to make a further speedy attack on Sebastopol, which was strongly fortified. To prevent a naval attack on the harbour the Russians sank some ships at the entrance. The siege lasted a year, from September 1854 to September 1855, during which time the Russian armies made three attempts to relieve the port, attempts which were repelled by the British at Balaclava and Inkerman, and by the Sardinians and French at Tchernaya.

Serfdom had disappeared in Prussia after 1807 and was abolished in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1848. As the map above shows, The 1861 abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire was supposed to ‘liberate’ more than forty million peasants, but the system of the ‘mir’ was retained (collective ownership of fields and responsibility for the individual in the community). At the same time, there was the promotion of secondary and primary public education and a university statute granting academic autonomy and also easing press censorship. Nevertheless, the hoped-for easing of social tensions did not come about. The peasantry, increasing in numbers, suffered because of a lack of landholdings and high levels of debt to the landlords; the peasantry was not trained in the independent administration of their holdings, which led to relatively low yields at a time of increasing tax burdens. The ultimate result was unrest and in 1863 there were serious political uprisings followed by an assassination attempt on the tsar in 1866 intensified the autocratic reaction as well as the revolutionary movement of the intelligentsia.

By the 1856 Peace of Paris, Russia lost control of the Danube delta and the neutrality of the Black Sea was guaranteed. This led to the transfer of Russian hegemony to France, but it also led to tensions between Austria and Russia in the Balkans. The Crimean War also exposed the backwardness of the administration, economy and army of the Russian Empire. In particular, serfdom obstructed any form of progress, whether in the moderate form of a head tax or the often arbitrary form of corvées. Alexander II decided on an autocratic revolution from above, to eliminate the powder keg within the state. After the Crimean War had checked Russian ambitions of reaching the Mediterranean, the Russians redirected the ambitions toward Persia and the Middle East, Afghanistan, Manchuria and the Far East. These expansionist moves led to further clashes with Britain until 1907, because they seemed to threaten British interests in India (the Afghan Wars) and China, leading to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902.

Florence Nightingale, the ‘founder’ of modern nursing and the Red Cross at work in the military hospital at Scutari.

The Rivalry & Clashes of Empires, 1871-1914:
The European Empires of 1871

The years 1871 to 1914 saw Imperial Europe at its zenith. Outside Europe, all the Great Powers bar Austria-Hungary but including Italy, established empires that extended across the globe; within Europe, they co-existed uneasily. Russia considered it essential that no other power achieved a position from which it could control the straits at Constantinople, through which passed most of the grain on which its economy, and hence her Great Power status, depended. Russia’s fundamental motive may thus have been defensive, but in practice, it varied between attempting to stabilise Ottoman rule and overthrowing it in the hope of replacing the empire with a string of submissive satellites. To Habsburg Austria-Hungary, Russia’s efforts seemed a dangerously threatening attempt to encircle the Habsburg monarchy with a crowd of irredentist Slav states under Russian protection. As revolts against Ottoman rule spread through the Balkans in the mid-1870s, Austria was reassured by St Petersburg’s acceptance that no new large Christian state should be created that might thwart Austria’s ambitions.

Map showing the formation of the two groups of European Powers, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, before the Great War of 1914-18.
These sketch maps were first published in 1936 (see below for details of sources)

But by 1877 Russian public opinion had pushed the Tsar into was in support of the Orthodox Christian Slav rebels. Under the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878 which concluded the war, the Russians chose to create a “Big Bulgaria” stretching across the southern Balkans. To Austria-Hungary and Britain, this seemed like the creation of a Russian puppet-state, which also left Constantinople vulnerable to attack. The Chancellor of the newly united Germany, Otto von Bismarck, stepped in to separate his two imperial allies before a further war broke out. The Treaty of Belin (1878) overturned much of the San Stefano agreements and preserved a pretence of Turkish suzerainty over a much-reduced Bulgarian principality. But however understandable the failure to grasp the Balkan nettle at the Berlin Conference, the problems of the region’s numerous ethnic, nationalist, imperialist and religious rivalries festered unchecked into the next century.

Imperial Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean

The boundaries between the Great Powers changed little in the century after the Congress of Vienna. Germany, although now united, Austria-Hungary and Russia still shared largely the same frontiers as those established at Vienna, and most observers could be forgiven for regarding them as permanent. But in practice, the emergence of small states on the periphery of the Powers, allied to tensions created by conflicting aspirations for autonomy and independence on the part of the many ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, marked the beginnings of a process that threatened those empires’ territorial integrity. In tandem with the Great Power rivalry, it created the pre-conditions that were to lead to the cataclysms of the First World War. Whatever its problems with regional nationalism, Russia, for its part, at least had a majority ethnic group. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia sought to increase their influence in central and eastern Europe.

A ‘Serio-comic’ map of Europe, 1899, reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

By the end of the nineteenth century, when the comic map above was published, parts of Europe had been transformed by a different kind of revolution than those of the first half of the century, an industrial one, like the one that Britain had begun to experience in the second half of the previous century.

The Russian Empire was catching up with the other empires. Taking coal production as an example, although by 1900 it was still only half that of French production, the increase in Russia’s growth since 1860 had reached 170 per cent, while French growth had slowed to twenty-eight per cent and Britain’s growth was at twenty-four per cent. In the late nineteenth century, Europe’s influence on the world at large seemed greater than ever. But the large-scale development of industry, the growth in towns, as shown on the map below, and the building of the railways also brought serious problems across the continent, as they had in Britain earlier in the century. Nevertheless, they also brought increased wealth and power. In Ukraine, the Donbas coalfield and the Yuzovka iron and steelworks led the way in the Imperial Russian Empire (see appendix one below for a case study of this). This European industrial supremacy did not last for much longer. By 1914, the USA was producing more iron and steel than the whole of Europe put together.

With Britain’s abandonment of its role as protector of the Turkish Sultan, a policy intended chiefly to contain Russian ambitions, the way was left open for Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece to attack Turkey in 1912, but dividing the spoils of this first Balkan War proved harder and led to a second war the following year. But it was the involvement of all these Empires which turned a regional conflict into a pan-European war. Especially after Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Russia was determined to resume its role as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and central-eastern Europe, if necessary against the Catholic Habsburgs rather than Muslim Turkey. With Austria and Russia members of two rival alliance systems, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, their rivalry in the Balkans threatened to suck all the Imperial Powers of Europe into military conflict. Although Italy was also, originally, part of the Triple Alliance, it also had claims on Habsburg territories up to the Alps and along the Dalmatian coast, and, as it turned out, was not a reliable ally. Romania was also allied to them but was obviously not a great power. Austria and Germany could not afford to abandon each other, therefore, even at the risk of a general European war.

Central-Eastern Europe on the Eve of the First World War.

The First World War & its Aftermath in Central/ Eastern Europe:

Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia in July 1914 following the Serbian-sponsored assassination of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo the previous month was the spark that lit the global conflagration which was referred to at the time as ‘the Great War.’ Once the Tsar had ordered a general mobilisation, there was little chance of extinguishing it, especially after Germany’s determination to smash through the Triple Entente that encircled it. If war did come, the Kaiser’s generals wanted it sooner rather than later: they were increasingly confident that they could defeat both France and Russia. However, by choosing to attack France first, through neutral Belgium, the Kaiser and his generals miscalculated, especially since they did not expect Britain to enter the war. While the Germans advanced into Belgium, the Russians, as they had promised the French, invaded East Prussia. An army of ten divisions advanced into the province from the east: another of the same size attacked from the south. The first actions went in the Russians’ favour, and two generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were ordered to Prussia to halt their advance. At Tannenburg, Ludendorff achieved a classic envelopment and almost completely destroyed the southern Russian force. Then he redeployed against the eastern army and drove it out of Prussia with crippling loss. The Austrians, who also had two fronts, launched their main offensive in a move north from Galicia into Russian Poland, but were caught sideways by the Russian counter-attack, a straight drive into Galicia from the east; despite German support, the Austrians were unable to recover and by the end of 1914 the whole of Galicia was in Russian hands.

In May 1915, a German force sent by Falkenhayn smashed through the Russian line in western Galicia. It then became the southern arm of a vast pincer movement against Russian Poland, the northern arm being provided by Hindenburg and Ludendorff striking south from East Prussia. By early August the Germans were in Warsaw; by early September they were masters of the whole of Russian Poland. In 1916, the Germans could always break through the Russian line if they wanted to and the Russians could punch a hole in the Austro-Hungarian front. Brusilov, the Russian commander in the south, did just that and was rewarded with a progressive collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in this sector that produced one of the most spectacular victories of the war. Czech and Slovene units had always performed reluctantly on the Russian front; now they simply threw away their weapons and ran. The Russians took a quarter of a million of them prisoner in the course of an advance that carried across the eastern half of Galicia. Other events of significance in 1916 included a major Russian advance in Caucasia and Germany’s creation of a Polish kingdom out of the Russian-occupied territories conquered by them, though they didn’t give this kingdom any of German Poland. Neither did it have a king.

The Russian Empire’s war effort was in serious if not terminal decline by the early months of 1917 and it was clear that before long, Germany would be able to dictate terms to it. The Russian peasantry had realised that the paper money the government was printing to pay for the war was in fact worthless. When they refused to accept it any longer, the towns got no food. In March (February in the Russian calendar), there were riots in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg); when troops were called in to put down the rioters, they joined them instead. Liberal politicians formed a parliamentary government and ‘soviets’ (trades’ councils) were set up among factory workers. Unlike after the 1905 revolution, however, the Tsar was forced to abdicate. Russia’s new leaders were quick to assure the British and French that they would honour the Entente, and that the war would go on, but the capacity to wage war was no longer there: the support systems had disintegrated and the troops wouldn’t fight any longer. The country drifted miserably along, its leaders helpless, their authority steadily waning. As the map below shows, the Germans were making additional progress on the eastern front, especially in Galicia and Livonia.

The Bolshevik Revolution, & the ‘Peace of Bread’, 1917-18:
Lenin was the first and founding head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1924 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924. 

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin, was a ‘man with a plan’, or rather a definite programme. When he arrived in Petrograd in April, from a lengthy Swiss exile, to assume the leadership of the ‘Bolsheviks’, Lenin insisted that peace should be their top priority, and he meant peace at any price. His supporters heard his views with dismay, his enemies with scorn, while the Kerensky government branded him a traitor so that he had to go into hiding. Over the next six months, however, the Petrograd Soviet came to see that this was exactly what the country and the revolution needed. In November (October in Russia), detachments of armed workers swept the Liberal government aside and put Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power. True to his word, he immediately asked the Germans for an armistice.

Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky, was a Ukrainian-Russian Marxist revolutionary.

Even as the terms were being discussed, the Germans were advancing towards St Petersburg. From 22nd December onward, Leon Trotsky conducted the peace negotiations as the representative of Russia, declaring an end to the war without accepting the German conditions. On the 10th, he briefly broke off negotiations and resumed the war, with the ‘rail offensive’. The Peace terms that Germany subsequently offered Lenin in March were very harsh: Russia would have to give up all claims to Poland, Lithuania and Finland and agree to make Ukraine independent. Lenin had already recognised Finland’s independence and was prepared to see Poland and Lithuania go too. They weren’t ethnically Russian and he believed in the principle of self-determination.

But when it came to Ukraine, even he had difficulty in giving it up, believing, like all Russians, that it was an integral part of the ‘Motherland’. Still, if this was the added price of peace, he was prepared to pay that too, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (in Western Ukraine, see below) was signed in March, finally ending Imperial Russia’s war.

By August 1918, the Germans upped the price of peace still further: they wanted the rest of the Baltic provinces to be made independent, together with Georgia. Lenin gave way again, and when the Treaty of Berlin was signed that month, the former Russian Empire had lost a third of its productive land and a third of its people. With the exception of Georgia and the bulk of Ukraine, all these territories remained independent until at least 1939. Lenin hoped that some, at least, of the territories he ceded would maintain formal links with Soviet Russia, an idea wasn’t in itself naive – Finland, for example, would probably have ended the war as a communist state had the Germans not sent troops there to help the ‘White’ reactionaries to defeat the Reds (Bolsheviks). What was naive was to believe that the Germans wouldn’t intervene in this way. German forces quickly occupied all the ceded areas and made them into dependencies. Estonia, Livonia and Kurland were all earmarked for eventual annexation: Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Georgia would retain a degree of autonomy. No final decision was taken about Crimea or Bessarabia, the latter having already been annexed by Romania in April 1918 in compensation for their losses elsewhere, most noticeably in Dobruja, which had been divided between Germany and Bulgaria at Brest-Litovsk. By the Treaty of Bucharest (May 1918), Romania ceded Dobruja to Bulgaria and allowed their oil reserves to be exploited by Germany. Finally, after the breakthrough in Macedonia by the Allies in September, the Bulgarian army collapsed and an armistice was concluded at the end of October. By the Treaty of Neuilly the next year, Bulgaria lost all the territories it had recently acquired but retained access to the Black Sea at Alexandroupolis.

The Germans actually occupied considerably more Russian territory than they were entitled to under the terms of Brest-Litovsk. They took Belorussia simply to shorten their lines, but in the Black Sea region, where they advanced to the lower Don River and crossed from the Crimea to the Taman Peninsula, clearly aiming at taking over permanently. In due course, they would doubtless have extracted the third round of concessions from the Bolshevik government. Soviet power in this south-eastern area was then at a very low ebb. The Don Cossacks were refusing to accept the authority of Moscow, which had become the Soviet seat of government in March when Lenin decided that the Germans were getting too close to Petrograd. The anti-Soviet or ‘White’ forces that were rallying to the flag of General Denikin were proving more than a match for local Bolsheviks and, in Caucasia, in the far south, the Turks had reoccupied the towns they had lost in 1878 by the terms of the Berlin Treaty, together with everything else that German forces hadn’t already ‘nailed down. The two treaties, deeply unfavourable to Russia, revealed the shape of Europe Berlin hoped would be the outcome of the war. Germany’s subsequent defeat was to mean that little could be done to exploit the territories lost by Russia. Nonetheless, the German desire to lay claim to the resources of this vast region foreshadowed Hitler’s obsession with it twenty years later. By November, General Denkin was in complete control of the Kuban area: his success marks the formal opening of the Civil War between ‘Whites’ and ‘Reds’.

In February 1918, ‘The Peace of Bread’ was concluded by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, with Ukraine. This involved the recognition of the Ukrainian state, Ukrainian autonomy in Eastern Galicia, in exchange for the delivery of grain supplies to the Central Powers. By November 1918, when the armistice in the West was signed, General Denkin was in complete control of the Kuban area (as shown on the map below): his success marks the formal opening of the Civil War between ‘Whites’ and ‘Reds’. During the Armistice negotiations the Allies had insisted on the Germans withdrawing from their conquests in the east; the unwelcome result of this was that the Soviet forces occupied the Baltic states and Ukraine. The Allied reaction was to beef up the White forces – General Yudenich’s army in Estonia as well as General Denikin’s in the south – and support them in counter-offensives that by October 1919 had taken Yudenich halfway to Petrograd and Denikin more than halfway to Moscow. At the same time, the Poles occupied as much of Western Russian territories as they could.

Civil War, the Creation of the USSR & Inter-War Poland:

In Russia, 1918 had seen the formation of socially and politically diverse anti-Bolshevik groups (the ‘Whites’). They fought against the Red Army, organised by Trotsky. They fought in Siberia and the Ural-Volga area in the south. To safeguard their interests, the Allies landed their troops in Vladivostock, Murmansk, Archangel and all the ports on the Black Sea. In 1919, the Whites rejected President Wilson’s proposal for a conference of all Russian parties. By 1920, in any case, the Allies had withdrawn their troops and the evacuation of the last ‘White’ troops from Crimea had taken place. The Bolsheviks had cleared the country of the armies of foreign states and Lenin had supreme power. His aim was to create a world revolution, but he had first to reshape ‘Greater Russia’ itself. Conditions in town and country alike were appalling. His chief difficulty was to satisfy the peasants, who resisted attempts to confiscate their harvests. Famines in 1920 and 1921 compelled him to make concessions in order to restore some measure of prosperity to the country. By his New Economic Policy, announced in 1921, a certain amount of private trading in both town and country. By the Rapallo Treaty of 1922, Britain, Italy and France recognised the Russian Soviet Republic which in December of the same year, at the Tenth All-Russian Congress of Soviets became the USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics) consisting of the Russian, Transcaucasian, White Russian and Ukrainian republics.

On the death of Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin, son of a Caucasian (Georgian) cobbler was the secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Over the next five years, he gradually became the dominant influence in the party and eventually the de facto dictator of the USSR. His aim was to develop the resources of the country and make the Soviet Union a powerful state and improve the unfriendly relations that had continued with other nations in the wake of the civil war. He was prepared to delay the coming of the ‘World Revolution’ to secure these ends. This brought him into increasing conflict with Trotsky, who also objected to individuals having private rights or property in a Communist state. However, by 1927 Stalin was sufficiently strong to drive Trotsky and his followers into exile. He then introduced his Five-Year Plan, a grandiose scheme to speed up the development of the Union’s industries, education and agriculture. In agriculture, the number of state farms was increased; they were intended to be model institutions for the education of the peasantry into improving farming methods. The smallholders, the poorer peasants were encouraged to combine their tiny plots of land and farm the land collectively. The rich peasants, the kulaks, objected to the collective farms, and in 1929 Stalin determined to destroy them. They were deported to poorer districts or sent to labour camps. The resultant chaos and the continuing confiscation of harvests led to widespread famine, especially in Ukraine, where mass starvation led to the period 1932-33 becoming known as the Holodomor (see appendix two below).

Polish leaders realised that the war had given them an opportunity to finally gain their freedom, though at first, they did not anticipate complete independence and struggled only for self-government. Though the mass of Poles fought in the armies of Russia, an influential group supported Austria, led by Józef Pilsudski, who became the Polish Chief of State (1918–1922) and First Marshal of Poland (from 1920). In 1916, Russian Poland was overrun by the armies of the Central Powers; the Germans occupied Warsaw and granted a measure of independence that did not come up to the expectations of the Poles. In 1917 the Revolutionary Government in St Petersburg endeavoured to obtain Polish support against Germany by a more generous offer of self-government, but an independent state was proclaimed in Warsaw and Galicia soon after the collapse of the Central Powers on both fronts. The new state was represented at the Paris Peace Conference, where its independence was recognised internationally. The western frontier was agreed upon, with the provinces of Posen, West Prussia and Galicia included in the new Poland, as shown on the right-hand map below. The eastern frontier was settled provisionally.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Germans in Austria were forbidden to unite with Germany under article eighty of the Treaty of Versailles, despite being entirely German in language and culture. This was confirmed in the Treaty of St. Germain, by which Austrians in the Tyrol, Galicia and Bohemia were also left under alien rule. Control of Galicia, a wealthy area across the Carpathians, passed to Poland. The most dramatic effects of the Paris settlement were the resurrection of Poland as an independent state more than six score years after its partition. Its soil was fertile and productive, with coal, iron, zinc, salt and petroleum resources also contained beneath its earth. The western part of the region was inhabited by Poles, but in the eastern part, the people were Ruthenians, creating a difficult minorities problem. Attempts made by these people to unite with their fellows in sub-Carpathian Ukraine, newly independent of Russia, were frustrated by the Polish Government, and an insurrection in 1919 was ruthlessly crushed by Pilsudski. In April 1920, during the Polish-Russian War, he invaded and overran Ukraine, occupying Kyiv. When the Russians began a counter-offensive that brought the Soviet armies to the outskirts of Warsaw, the very existence of Poland was once again threatened. With the aid of the French, the Soviet army was driven back, and a further treaty was signed at Riga in October by which Poland secured more favourable eastern borders including lands in western Ukraine, ceded by the USSR. But the still indefinite eastern frontier with the USSR and the desire of the Ruthenian minorities in Eastern Galicia to join with Soviet Ukraine. The fear of Bolshevism and the general poverty and lack of infrastructure in the country proved too much for the inexperienced democratic Government. After 1926, the country was ruled by Pilsudski as a military dictator.

Central-Eastern Europe in 1925

Two new states had also been created at the Paris Conference: Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Of equal importance, the Paris Peace Settlement left every post-war state in central Europe with internal problems and potential border disputes. It proved easier to break up the multi-ethnic empires than to replace them with ethnically homogeneous states. Poland and Czechoslovakia both had large German minorities after 1919, as well as disgruntled Slav minorities. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia also had substantial Hungarian minorities, as did Ukraine (in its western sub-Carpathian region) and Romania (in Transylvania). Hungarian resentment at the loss of over two-thirds of its pre-war land and at the fate of more than one-third of the Hungarian-speaking population was to simmer throughout the inter-war period.

Territorial changes affecting Hungary (the beneficiary), Yugoslavia, Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine (Soviet Russia), 1938-41. The towns that were taken over as a result of the liquidation of Chechoslovakia, now in Ukraine, are Uzhorod (Ungvár) and Mukacheve (Munkaos), in the dark grey at the top.

For the first five years of his rule, the Nazi dictator confined himself to chipping away at the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. He refused, for example, to resume the reparations payments imposed at Versailles, while in 1933 he took Germany out of the League of Nations. More seriously, in March 1935 Hitler reintroduced conscription and an airforce, both forbidden in 1919. In March 1938, Hitler’s pan-German ambitions became more apparent when in direct contravention of the Versailles Treaty, he engineered the unification (Anschluss) of his native Austria with Germany. By the following March, with the tacit blessing of Britain and France, who were anxious at all costs to avoid war, Hitler had also occupied the rest of the Czech lands, using at first the excuse that the country’s three-and-a-half-million German speakers had been persecuted by the Czechoslovakian government.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact & Partition of Poland, 1939-41:

Meanwhile, the poverty of the Polish people under Pilsudski’s dictatorship had remained acute. Pre-war emigration to the USA had practically stopped and there was much unrest among the national minorities in the mid-thirties. More than eight per cent of the population was Jewish, living mainly in the towns and seen as ‘a race apart’ by many of their new compatriots. They lived under almost unbelievable conditions of squalor and poverty and, given subsequent events, it is easy to forget that anti-Semitic agitation, as in Germany, was growing, providing the Polish Government with one of its major problems. But Poland as a whole presented a major obstacle to Hitler’s policy of Lebensraum.

… Poland’s isolation On 23 August, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed. Its secret clauses divided Poland between the two states along an agreed frontier in central Poland. This diplomatic coup convinced Hitler that the west would not intervene and on 1 September Germany invaded. But Ribbentrop continued to be concerned about the threat posed to any ‘necessary’ German incursions into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact that, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of the European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles before the USSR had come into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent were Belorussian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from ethnic Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarussians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

The Nazi invasion was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. The Soviet Union had so far made no more to invade from the east. With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September they did so, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Soviet leaders wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without meeting any significant resistance. Soviet forces crossed Poland’s eastern borders from Belorus and Ukraine, meeting only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September and by the 29th, Germany and the Soviet Union had partitioned Poland between them. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places, especially those with non-Polish majority populations. There was confusion in these places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the German Nazis, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lviv, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. The chief of staff of the XLVIII Panzer Corps on the Eastern Front, Friedrich von Mellenthin, who served at the Battle of Kursk, the Battle of Kyiv, and the spring 1944 retreat through western Ukraine, concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

Friedrich von Mellenthin

In his memoirs, Panzer Battles, published in 1956, Mellenthin, the Wehrmacht’s adversaries on the Eastern Front are consistently depicted in derogatory and racial terms, including in a section dedicated to the “Psychology of the Russian Soldier”. According to Mellenthin, a “Russian soldier” was a “primitive being”, characterised by “mental sluggishness” and lacking a “religious or moral balance”. He described them as “primitive Asiatics”. We don’t know whether this was the view that he held of them before Operation Barbarossa, however, when they were his allies in Poland.

It was not long before the whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once, the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France had declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the class enemies of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

The Nazi Conquests in the East to 1940

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940. By July of that year, when Hitler held victory celebrations in Berlin, Germany and the ‘Axis’ powers were masters, directly or indirectly, of the whole of Western and Central Europe, as well as much of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had made use of Hitler’s western offensive in order to occupy Finland and the Baltic states. But the difficulties experienced by the Soviet armies in obtaining these objectives suggested that it posed no threat to Germany. Hitler’s rhetoric about Lebensraum for German colonisation seemed about to become reality.

Operation Barbarossa & ‘Operation Blue’, 1941-42:

In June 1941 Hitler launched his greatest military gamble, the invasion of the Soviet Union. German forces proved unstoppable until they reached Moscow in December. On 22 June 1941, German forces, together with the allied armies of Hungary, Romania and Finland, threw three million men, three thousand tanks and 2,700 aircraft across a two-thousand-mile frontier with the Soviet Union. Geographically and numerically it was the largest military operation ever launched. The decision to attack the USSR was finally made in December 1940 when ‘case Barbarossa’ was laid down in Führer Directive number twenty-one. But Hitler had seriously explored the idea since the summer. The alleged weakness of the Soviet force after the Stalinist purges presented a tempting opportunity; while Stalin’s own ambitions in eastern Europe looked increasingly threatening. Above all, conquest in the east promised a vast area for exploitation, as it had done, briefly, in 1917-18, the ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) that Hitler wrote about in Mein Kampf. The fact that the space was already occupied by ideological and ethnic enemies of the Reich gave the operation the air of a crusade. Hitler’s crusade against communism, temporarily shelved by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, made the invasion a probable outcome, or at least a realistic prospect, however daunting.

Stalin remained impervious to all suggestions that a German attack was imminent in the summer of 1941. Local commanders made some limited preparations, but when German forces attacked almost complete surprise was achieved. Although Soviet forces had vastly more tanks and aircraft and approximately the same number of divisions, the poor quality of much of the equipment, coupled with the disorganization of the Soviet response, created ideal opportunities for the German armies to exploit.

During 1942 the main weight of the German military effort was concentrated on the Eastern Front. The Axis-allied forces attacked on three broad fronts; North, Centre and South, where Hitler insisted on an advance on economic targets in industrialised southern Ukraine and, in particular, on the oilfields of the Caucasus. Later in June, German forces launched ‘Operation Blue’, clearing Crimea and the remaining areas of southern Ukraine, before dividing the forces for attacks against Stalingrad and against the Caucusus oilfields around Maikop, Grozny and Baku. At first, Axis forces made remarkable gains. By September, the Red Army had been driven back into Stalingrad, which was expected to fall within a matter of days. By October much of Ukraine was in German hands and between two and three million Soviet prisoners had been taken in three months. Later that month, Hitler announced that victory had been achieved but his claim proved premature. By the end of November, the Germans were once more at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. Hitler’s Germany was at the peak of its power, certainly, but this was the limit of the German advance. As the winter set in, they were forced to ‘dig in’ while fierce Soviet resistance in Stalingrad, and the extended supply lines slowed the progress of General Paulus’s Sixth Army to a crawl. Overstretched forces in the Caucusus were halted and then slowly driven back by Soviet forces whose supply position picked up as Soviet factories made good the losses of 1941.

Map 1: The Turn of the Tide, 1942-43.

In November a powerful Soviet counter-offensive cut off Stalingrad and drove the German line back as German forces faced their first real defeats of the war. The Russian counter-attack continued into December, driving the Germans back more than a hundred miles and giving Stalin time to rebuild his shattered defences. During 1943, the Wehrmacht was forced to retreat on all fronts, though they still possessed formidable military strength. On 31 January Paulus surrendered. Since November, thirty-two Axis divisions had been destroyed. In the summer of 1943, Hitler ordered one last attempt to break through the Soviet front. ‘Operation Citadel’ drew almost one million men and 2,700 tanks to a narrow front around the city of Kursk, on the eastern edge of Ukraine. There the military leaders planned to encircle and annihilate a Soviet force of more than one million. Soviet preparations blunted the German attack between 5-13 July and there then followed a huge Soviet counter-thrust which broke the German line and in four months drove it back to Kyiv. Although the German army fought a fierce defence, each successive Soviet surge forced a further withdrawal. In the event, The Germans were defeated by the immensity of the task they had set themselves: the enormous distances involved, the severity of the Russian winter and the seemingly limitless manpower of the Russian army.

The extent of Hitler’s Europe (East) in 1942.
The red line marks the maximum extent of Axis military control. The brown area shows the Axis administration territories.

Nevertheless, the almost total conquest of continental Europe by the Nazis by the summer of 1941 provided the circumstances for a sharp change in the direction of German race policy towards the active pursuit of genocide. Hitler and the racist radicals in the Nazi movement had no master plan for the annihilation of non-Germanic peoples in 1939, but their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemy of German imperialism. When Germany found itself ruling very large Jewish populations after its conquest of the east, the régime began to explore more extreme solutions to the Jewish Question. The German ‘New Order’ was viewed from Berlin in terms of a hierarchy of races: at the apex were the Aryan (Germanic) peoples followed by the Latin and Slavic populations, and at the foot were ‘races’ – Jews, Sinti and Roma (‘gipsies’) – who were deemed to be Untermenschen (sub-human) and thereby unworthy of existence. The treatment of these ethnic groups began with a programme of ghetto-building or imprisonment, but the orders for Barbarossa deliberately encouraged the murder of Soviet Jews. In the Baltic states and Ukraine native anti-Semitism was whipped up by the Nazi occupiers and led to widespread racial violence and massacres.

There is strong evidence that in July 1941 Hitler ordered the physical extermination of the Jews (Adolf Eichmann), flushed with the prospect of victory in the USSR and the realisation that there were no longer any forces in Europe that could constrain a programme of annihilation. The systematic murder of the Jews began in late 1941 with the establishment of a series of ‘extermination’ camps in occupied Poland where victims were either gassed as soon as they arrived, or worked to death in the factories and quarries close to the camps. The occupation and exploitation of the western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, had long been the goal of Hitler’s Lebensraum policy. Although German forces never reached their ultimate objective of a line from Archangel to Astrakhan set by their Führer as the eastern boundary of his future empire, the organisation and exploitation of the occupied territories was commenced. A fluid area behind the front line was under military administration, but two Reichskommisariats were established, Ostland administered the territories of the former Baltic states plus Belorussia, while Reichskommisariat Ukraine administered the bulk of Ukraine (The Crimea remained under military administration and Sub-Carpathia, including southern Galicia, remained part of Axis Hungary, as shown below).

Resistance to the Reich

Extermination was placed on a ‘proper’ organisational foundation with the establishment of under the RSHA (Reichsicherheitshauplant) of a series of camps established in occupied Poland where victims were either gassed as soon as they arrived, or worked to death in factories and quarries close to the camps. The systematic murder of Jews began in late 1941, first of all with mass shootings in the occupied territories, and extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942. In 1943 and 1944 Germany put pressure on Italy and Hungary, its Axis allies, to release their Jewish populations to the Reich. When both states were occupied, any resistance to anti-Semitism was quashed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to the camps in Poland and Germany slaughtered in 1944 and 1945 in an effort to complete what Hitler saw as his chief legacy for Europe, a ‘Jew-free’ continent. Records remain inadequate, but approximately 5.3 million Jews and at least 250,000 Sinti and Roma were killed in the camps.

Jewish deaths in extermination camps 1942-45.

In practice, the wartime situation, partisan resistance and Soviet military recovery meant that the German plans to exploit the western ‘Russian’ regions, including Ukraine, were barely begun, however. Only the policy of “mass extermination” of Jews and other groups targetted as enemies of the Reich was continued on a huge scale, even as Germany was being pushed back on all military fronts from mid-1944 onwards. Apart from inflicting enormous loss of life and massive damage to property, the German occupation of Soviet Russia itself left no traces on the ground. After the expulsion of the Germans, the Soviet forces rapidly restored the former Soviet administration, albeit in areas racked by depopulation. The summer and early autumn of 1944 were a time of conflict between the Allies, not only over what seemed to be the eternal question of Poland but also over the post-war shape of Europe, and, most particularly, Soviet intentions towards the eastern European countries that they were shortly to occupy.

Towards the middle of August 1944, the Soviet general offensive began to slacken, Soviet armies outrunning their supplies since behind them lay an advance of some 350 miles. Soviet troops were on the East Prussian frontier and had bridgeheads on the Vistula and the Narew, while the Soviet command planned to wipe Army Group North off the map. The Finns had already abandoned the German-Finnish compact and late in August were suing for peace, harsh though the terms proved to be. In the event, the Romanians beat the Finns in the race to make peace. The Soviet hammer having battered three German Army Groups (North Centre and North Ukraine), it was now the turn of Army Group South Ukraine to fall under it. Even before a shot was fired, however, this Army Group faced disaster, hemmed in as it was between the Red Army was eager to fall on it and the Romanians, who were even more eager to betray it.

The Defeat of the Reich, 1944-45: Liberation, January 1944-March 1945.

On 20 August 1944, Malinovskii’s Second Ukrainian Front launched its attack, encircling five German corps in the Jassy-Kishinev operation, while Tolbukhin’s forces trapped the Romanian 3rd Army. But defeat in the field was outmatched and outpaced by political events when on 23rd August a coup in Bucharest knocked Romania out of the war with King Michael’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Romania’s declaration of war on Germany followed in a trice and Romanian troops were ordered not to open fire on the Red Army. The Romanian defection had cataclysmic consequences for Germany with far more than the fate of an Army Group involved: the fortunes of war in the entire south-eastern theatre had changed virtually overnight. With a German army hopelessly trapped and what was left of two Romanian armies laying down their arms, the whole of southern Bessarabia, the Danube delta and the Carpathian passes lay open to the Red Army. Henceforth neither the Danube nor the Carpathians could bar the Soviet advance and ahead of the Soviet armies lay the route to the Hungarian plains, the gateway to Czechoslovakia and Austria, as well as a highway to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

The Era of the Cold War in Europe, 1949-1999:

The Allies had considered the question of the post-war order in Europe as early as 1943, in Tehran, in November of that year. British PM Churchill and US President Roosevelt had agreed with Stalin that, should Hitler be defeated, the Soviet Union would be allowed to treat Eastern European territories its army had conquered as belonging to a Soviet sphere of influence. But the erasure of the Nazi map of Europe involved vast movements of population. Poland became an overwhelmingly Polish society for the first time, with half a million ethnic Ukrainians being ‘returned’ to Soviet-controlled Ukraine in 1946-47, as had been agreed at Yalta, many to certain death, allegedly for ‘collaborating with the Nazis’ (for more details of deportations, refugees etc., see appendix three below).

Cold War Central-Eastern Europe in 1949.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the map of the European continent was radically transformed. The most striking transformation was the shrinking of Germany, with Poland the principal beneficiary, and the division of what remained of the two countries. But Poland lost vast territories on its eastern border to the Soviet Union. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – together with Ukraine and Bessarabia, were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Austria was detached from Germany and restored to independence, initially under a Soviet-sponsored government, reluctantly recognised by the western powers. It gradually moved away from Soviet influence over the following ten years, but Hungary, bordering Soviet Ukraine, was not allowed to follow suit in 1956 following Stalin’s death. The two zones of Germany followed wholly divergent paths: while denazification in the west followed the Austrian model, with the first free elections permitted to take place in January 1946, in the east the Soviets moved quickly to eradicate all pre-war political parties other than the communists, simultaneously stripping Ukraine, for example, of industrial plunder for war reparation. Much the same was true of the rest of central-eastern Europe. Indeed, by 1949 it was clear that Stalin had created what was, in effect, a massive extension to the Soviet Empire, as well as a substantial buffer zone between the Soviet Union and ‘the West’. Western-Soviet relations were plunged into a ‘deep freeze’ from which they would not emerge for decades. The ‘Cold War’ had begun and, in escaping from Nazi persecution, much of Europe had simply exchanged one form of tyranny for another.

Given all these massive challenges for the victorious powers, the post-war borders of Europe proved remarkably resilient. For forty years after 1949, there were no major changes to the European map. Yet it was mutual hostility that provided the essential stability of the period of the Cold War. Eastern Europe was dominated by the communist Soviet Union, which imposed on it a repressive and economically backward rule. Western Europe, by contrast, was broadly democratic and economically vigorous. These divisions were underlined by rival military and economic blocs: NATO, the EEC (now the EU) and EFTA in the West; the Warsaw Pact and COMECON in the East.

The Fall of the Wall & Falling Dominoes, 1989-91:

Following the fall of the ‘dominoes’ and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the Soviet system through glasnost and perestroika failed to stem the swelling tide of liberal-nationalist ‘people-power’. In the Spring of 1990, Soviet public opinion, as the street demonstrations showed, was not just impatient, but also divided; on the ‘right’, the conservative communists complained that he was going too fast, whereas on the ‘left’ reformers felt that he was not moving fast enough. The Supreme Soviet responded by voting him sweeping presidential powers. On 11th March, Lithuania formally declared its independence. Vytautas Landsbergis, a musicologist, pictured below, was elected president, the first president of a free Lithuania for fifty years. He was a straightforward enemy of the Soviet state as constituted since the forcible inclusion of the Baltic countries at the start of the Second World War. His political skills were negligible and he had little conception of the need to assuage the dignity and self-esteem of a great country facing humiliation. Most western governments believed that Lithuania could singlehandedly destroy perestroika unless it developed a clearer sense of the art of the politically possible. Landsbergis showed no sign of doing so. Gorbachev attacked the action of the Lithuanians as “illegitimate and invalid” but was reluctant to use force to reverse it. At Malta, he had agreed with Bush not to do so, and in return, the US President kept his public remarks low-key. The US administration wanted to see the Baltic republics gain their freedom, but relied for world stability on a lasting relationship with a strong USSR.

Vytautas Landsbergis, first elected President of Lithuania, 1990.

As the chaos broadened and the crisis deepened in March, Soviet paratroopers occupied party buildings in Vilnius. On 25th March, Estonian Communists voted for independence; Latvia would follow in May. Meanwhile, on 28th March, already independent Hungary held its first free elections since 1945, which passed off completely peacefully. Struggling to retain control, Gorbachev imposed economic sanctions on Lithuania. He cut off oil supplies and eighty-four per cent of the flow of natural gas by pipeline, letting through just enough to keep essential services such as hospitals, going. He also prohibited the supply of other goods. The US considered, but rejected, sanctions against Moscow, despite lobbying in Washington from US citizens originally from the Baltic States. Instead, the administration threatened to withhold the signing of a projected trade deal with the Soviets. In Moscow, government officials saw Lithuania as the place where they had to make a stand if they were not to lose bigger republics like Ukraine as well. That would be an economic and political catastrophe from which Gorbachev would not recover. In April support for the Ukrainian nationalist movement, ‘Rukh’, was strong, especially in Galicia, which had been Polish-Ukrainian in the recent past. The Foreign Editor of the BBC, John Simpson (pictured below), visiting Moscow and Kyiv in April, was told by a Ukrainian friend that…

“You don’t see a single red flag flying there now, only the blue and gold flag of our Ukraine, the blue of the sky and the gold of the corn.”

John Simpson, BBC journalist, at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 1990.

As it happened, he was Jewish, and Ukrainians, like Lithuanians, had a powerful yet wholly unjustified reputation for anti-Semitism during the Second World War. It was claimed that the SS had recruited many of them for concentration-camp work and found them hard-working, brutal and obedient. When Simpson asked him why he, a Jew, had become a Ukrainian nationalist, he replied that in Lviv, the capital of Western Ukraine, politics was different…

… ‘Rukh’ isn’t like these other groups, ‘Pamyat’ and so on. It’s got some brains. When they found out in the elections Jews had voted almost one hundred per cent for Rukh, it changed its whole approach to us. Some of my friends and I had a meeting with the Rukh leadership. They agreed to set up Hebrew lessons, they decided to start demanding the right of emigration for the Jews. And you know what? They asked us for help in distributing their literature in Yiddish. … Oh yes, and one other thing. They came round to see us later, and said they’d heard there was a secret ‘Pamyat’ cell operating in Lviv. They offered us protection if we wanted it.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades, p. 299.

Clearly, the Ukrainian nationalists of the 1990s, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, had put clear blue and gold water between them and the war-time Nazi collaborators. They had already decontaminated themselves from the stain of anti-Semitism, if they had ever really needed to, more than thirty years ago. But Simpson did comment that the thought that Jews might vote for a Ukrainian nationalist movement and that the movement might protect them from violence as a result set his young friend laughing and shaking his head again. By contrast, in Russia itself, at that time, Simpson reported that anti-Semitism was growing fast. The Jewish demand for emigration enraged people who themselves would have liked to have left Russia but did not have the international support given to the Jewish refuseniks. One Jewish ‘witness’ and victim of the ‘resultant’ abuse told him:

People in shops and in the streets say to us, “When are you going to Israel?” or “What are you waiting for?” You find swastikas drawn on posters near where you live. They shout at us and our children. The mood is getting uglier: you can feel it.

So much for the bizarre claim that a country that in 2022 has a Jew as its President is somehow historically anti-Semitic and in need of denazification. Many of those transported and murdered at Auschwitz were sub-Carpathian Jews, some of them ethnic Hungarians, but others ethnic Ukrainians, as well as Poles. In the early 1990s, once the travel restrictions began to be lifted in Russia, hundreds of thousands of (mainly ‘Ashkenazy’) Russian Jews poured through central European airports en route to Israel. Few of them were firm Zionists and some were actually anti-Zionists. All of them were leaving behind a country, Russia (not Ukraine), in which anti-Semitism was on the rise again. They feared further ‘pogroms’, like those that Theodor Hertzl and his family had endured a century earlier, under the Tsarist régime, before escaping to Budapest.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, second from right, with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, summer 1990. Kohl pledged to curb German military strength and offered substantial financial aid. Eventually, Gorbachev agreed that Germany could be reunited, within NATO.

In the early summer of 1990, the conditions to be attached to German reunification were hammered out. The Soviet Union failed to secure a transitional period in which the military forces in East Germany (DDR) retained “associated membership” in the Warsaw Pact, obvious nonsense, or an agreement on a hard-line plan whereby for three to five years the other powers would oversee Germany’s conduct. In London in early July, a NATO summit made a declaration of non-aggression with the Warsaw Pact nations. That helped the cause of German reunification, and Germany, meanwhile, helped itself by finally confirming its borders with Poland, promising to limit the future size of a German army, agreeing not to station nuclear weapons in East Germany and offering to pay the costs of removing half a million Soviet troops from the former DDR and resettling them in Russia. Kohl and Genscher went to Moscow together, and at a press conference on 16 July, Gorbachev declared, …

“ … whether we like it or not, the time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO if that is its choice. Then, if that is its choice, to some degree and in some form, Germany can work together with the Soviet Union.”

Left: January 1990. Right: December 1991, out of a job, Mikhail Gorbachev was hailed worldwide for his role in ending the Cold War, was ultimately rejected by his native Russia. Former US State Department analyst gave his verdict on the man, saying that while Gorbachev may not have been the main factor: “… what happened would not have happened without him. That cannot be said of anyone else.”

Gorbachev’s extraordinary statement was, as Chancellor Kohl put it, a breakthrough, a fantastic result. A fortnight earlier, at the Twenty-eighth Party Congress, Gorbachev had been ferociously attacked by party hard-liners for letting the Baltics go, weakening the Warsaw Pact, and undermining the ideological foundations of the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party. He was, nevertheless, re-elected its general secretary, and continued to commit the Soviet Union to uproot the cornerstone of its security policy since the end of the Second World War. On 3 October, East and West Germany (FRG/FDR) were joined; Germany was reunited.  The crowds and flags in the pictures on the right and below show that this was a popular political reunification, at first, within the European Union. The security and economic issues would be addressed later.

The Brandenburg Gate, 3rd October 1990.

Some historians say the Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall came down in October 1989: others say it was when the Soviet Union publicly reconciled itself to seeing a reunited Germany, whose invasion and defeat in 1941-45  had cost the Union more than twenty million dead, in a military alliance with the West. Since Germany had always been at the epicentre of the Cold War in Europe, Gorbachev’s statement in Moscow on 16 July has a strong claim to be considered the decisive moment of the Cold War’s ending. But if the contest was over, the contestants had not yet left the ring. There was still a great deal of unfinished business, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had marked the beginning of what has become known by historians as the ‘Second Cold War’, so also the summer of 1990 marked the beginning of two conflicts that still remained unresolved more than a decade later, one in the Persian Gulf and the other in what, then, was still part of the USSR, in Ukraine. The Soviet Union was still in being, though beset with problems, two of which were desperately difficult for Gorbachev to deal with. He was trying, as fast as he could, to reform both an economy that was rapidly collapsing and a system of government in which corruption had become a way of life.

He was trying to hold the Soviet Union together when every single member state sought independence or would do so very soon. On the same day that Gorbachev made his momentous statement in Moscow, 16 July, Ukraine declared its sovereignty, followed by Armenia, Turkmenistan and Tadzhikistan in August, and Kazakhstan and Kirghizia in October. In the same month, both Russia and Ukraine declared their state laws to be superior to those of the Union. In November, however, the Supreme Soviet declared this position invalid. Gorbachev proposed the setting up of a new central government that would have representatives in it of each of the fifteen republics. Boris Yeltsin, as leader of the Russian Republic, made clear that he did not want to see power concentrated at the centre, in Gorbachev’s hands. By the end of November, Gorbachev had shifted his position again, proposing a ‘new Union Treaty: a Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics’ with loosened ties between each republic and the central Soviet government. Meanwhile, the Supreme Soviet had been making fundamental reforms: on 1 October it passed a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and on 9 October legislation to bring in a multiparty system. They demonstrated that such huge constitutional issues could be settled by voting and diplomacy. The Media too were freed from state control.

Above: Ukrainians protest at continued Soviet domination. Ukraine was the first of several Soviet republics to declare its independence from the USSR and its sovereignty on 16 July 1990.

But the economy was a far more challenging task for Gorbachev to face: Just the prospect of radical economic restructuring threatened social chaos and caused immediate fear and distrust. To go from a command economy, where everyone did as they were told by the centre, to one that operated without central planning and control, leaving prices to market forces, was to travel a pathless route into unknown territory. Not many wanted to go that way, and the few who did had no route map by which to arrive at a clear destination. On 20 July a “five hundred day” economic programme to move the USSR towards a market economy was published. It proposed the sale of large numbers of state enterprises, the dissolution of state collective farms, currency reform and a new banking system. But Gorbachev’s nerve failed him, and the reforms were not introduced. Uncertainty was only making matters worse, and the Bush administration steadfastly refused to provide aid to fund the programme upfront, saying that it would only give it as a reward for implementing reform, not as an inducement. Moreover, concerned that Gorbachev might be deposed, the US continued to maintain a state of full military preparedness.

Towards the end of November (19-21), NATO and Warsaw Pact leaders met in Paris to sign a historic treaty setting reduced levels of conventional forces in the whole of Europe (CFE) from the Atlantic to the Urals. Disarmament was no longer simply about the ‘superpowers’ controlling the numbers of nuclear warheads. Negotiations had become multi-lateral and multi-faceted. It was against this background that, in Paris, the sixteen member-states of NATO and the six member-states of the Warsaw Pact countries published a Joint Declaration of non-aggression in which they stated that they no longer considered themselves enemies. As the Cold War ended with the former ‘satellite’ states freely placing themselves under the NATO umbrella, the conflict in the Middle East was about to go up in flames, quite literally. Together with the break-up of the Russian sphere of influence and the Balkan wars, this was to dominate the next generation of international relations.

Gorbachev’s Georgian Foreign Minister and ultimate ‘scapegoat’.

As 1990 ended, Gorbachev, under persistent conservative criticism, made a ‘sharp right turn’. The USSR’s Supreme Soviet, unable to agree on an economic programme, had granted Gorbachev special powers to rule by decree during the transition to a market economy. Firing his moderate interior minister and replacing him with the hardline former KGB chief, Boris Pugo, Gorbachev sent a clear reactionary signal on 17 December, saying that The country needed a firm executive rule to overcome the threat posed by the dark forces of nationalism.

By the end of the year, Shevardnadze had personally paid the price for the USSR’s concessions in Eastern Europe and on Germany, and support for the United States in the Persian Gulf.

He had been offered up as a scapegoat by Gorbachev to the conservatives. Knowing that he was about to be kicked upstairs as vice president, he resigned his post of Foreign Minister, warning that a hardline dictatorship was at hand, and returned to his native Georgia. Shevardnadze had played a key role in advancing ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ alongside Gorbachev. On 26 December 1990, the Congress of People’s Deputies approved new executive powers for the president. In Moscow, the following February, Gorbachev fought on. He held a referendum and won approval for his new Union Treaty; the Soviet Union was to be preserved as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which human rights and the freedoms of all nationalities would be guaranteed. Several republics boycotted the vote, and Yeltsin made it clear that he sided with the boycotters. In March, a coal miners’ strike began in the Donbas, in Ukraine, and mass demonstrations took place in Moscow, for Yeltsin and against Gorbachev, despite a ban and the presence of fifty thousand police and soldiers. The marches went off peacefully, but the ban and the massing of armed forces caused much offence. Gorbachev’s rightward turn had cost him respect among the reformers. The following month Georgia declared its independence from the USSR. Correcting his course, the Soviet president held talks with leaders of nine republics to formulate a political and economic reform package and a modified relationship between the capital and the republics. The leaders reached a new agreement on a treaty, called ‘Ninety-plus-One’. On 12th June, Boris Yeltsin was elected to the newly created post of president of Russia, in a landslide. Yeltsin received fifty-seven per cent of eighty million votes. He was the first democratically elected leader in Russian history.

Central-Eastern Europe, 1991-2001

The Failed Coup & the End of the Cold War:

At the end of July, at a summit in Moscow, Bush and Gorbachev signed START 1, beginning a new sequence of strategic arms reduction agreements. George Bush had undertaken to visit Ukraine, and went on to Kyiv after Moscow. The Ukrainians were hoping for US support in their move to independence from Moscow, but Bush perceived just how perilous Gorbachev’s position was and did not want to make it worse. Speaking publicly in Kyiv, he denounced the grim consequences of “suicidal nationalism.” Croatia, having left the Yugoslav Federation, and Slovenia, were already at war, so it’s unlikely that he was speaking about the Ukrainians, but they were disappointed by these remarks. The speech went down badly in the USA as well; where Bush’s critics dubbed it his “Chicken Kyiv” speech. In August, Gorbachev went on holiday to his villa at Foros on the Black Sea. Early in the morning of 19 August, as his holiday was coming to an end, radio and television started broadcasting an announcement in Moscow from the State Committee for the State of Emergency: President Gorbachev was ill and unable to perform his duties; Vice-President Yanayev had assumed the powers of the presidency; an emergency had been declared. It was, of course, as we now know, a coup but for the ordinary citizens of Moscow, Kyiv and Leningrad at the time, matters were very unclear. Where was Gorbachev? Perhaps he really was ill?

What had actually happened was that on Sunday 18 August, a delegation from Moscow hat arrived at the seaside villa to see Gorbachev. Before they entered, the president tried to telephone out, but the line had been cut. As Navy vessels manoeuvred near the shore, the five conspirators pushed their way in: They told Gorbachev that he should approve the declaration of a national state of emergency and sign it, or resign and hand over power to Yanayev. Gorbachev flatly refused. They left, putting Gorbachev under arrest, cut off from communication with the outside world.

The plotters in Moscow included several members of the government, among them Prime Minister Pavlov; KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov; Interior Minister Pugo; and Minister of Defence Marshal Dmitry Yazov (pictured above, right). Most of them had been urging Gorbachev for months to impose emergency rule and had now decided to do it themselves, hoping he would go along with it. He had underestimated their strength, but they had also underestimated his determination to resist. His refusal to give in was brave, but in Moscow, the real struggle was just beginning. In every Moscow ministry and in the republics, every civil servant had to make up their mind about what to do. Most watched to see how things would turn out, but enough of them, in government, the army and the KGB refused to obey orders from the ‘Emergency Committee’ to ensure that the coup went off half-cock. Gorbachev’s insistence on a transition to democracy was paying off. Resistance was led by the White House, the seat of the Russian Parliament, by Boris Yeltsin. He denounced the coup and those behind it, rallying support for the legitimate government and a liberal-democratic future rather than a return to totalitarian tyranny. He called for a general strike.

Above left: Tanks in the streets; attempted coup in Moscow. But the army was halfhearted in obeying the Emergency Committee’s orders. The plotters failed to seize power outright. Above right: Crowds surround the Russian Parliament building, some with Ukrainian flags, where Boris Yeltsin leads the resistance against the unconstitutional coup.

Those who agreed with Yeltsin, and had the courage to say so, went to the White House, ringed by troops and tanks, to declare their support. Shevardnadze was one of the first. At eight in the morning, eastern US time, President Bush met the press. He praised Gorbachev as “a historic figure,” hedged on Yanayev, but stopped short of outright denunciation when he called the seizure of power, “extra-constitutional.” He insisted that he would not seek to “overexcite the American people or the world. … We will conduct our diplomacy in a prudent fashion, not driven by excess.” This reaction was not much more than ‘wait and see.’

At Foros, meanwhile, the Gorbachevs, on a transistor radio their captors did not know they had, had learned what was happening in Moscow from the BBC World Service. Raisa Gorbachev, in her diary, expressed indignation at the news on state television. Gorbachev sent a message to Yaneyev: Cancel what you have done and convene either the Congress of People’s Deputies or the USSR Supreme Soviet. The first blood was spilt on the night of 20 August, when three young men were killed by armoured personnel carriers moving towards the White House in support of the coup. Had the ‘Emergency Committee’ been more resolute, many more lives would certainly have been lost. But they were hesitant, unsure of themselves, and of their support. The coup had failed. A delegation of the plotters reached Foros at 5.00 p.m the next day and asked to see Gorbachev. It included Kryuchkov and Yazov, but Gorbachev refused to see them until communications had been restored. When they were, Gorbachev rang Yeltsin, and shortly afterwards a Russian delegation arrived to bring the Gorbachev family back to Moscow. The conspirators resigned or committed suicide.

22 and 23 August 1991: Exiting the plane that Yeltsin sent for him, Gorbachev returns to a changed Moscow. Yeltsin was now in charge, and the next day, in the Russian parliament, he forced Gorbachev to read out documents implicating his own Communist colleagues in the coup against him.

All that remained was to establish the precise relationship between the Soviet Union and the individual republics. On the 20th and 21st of August, Estonia and Latvia declared independence, and Lithuania reaffirmed its declaration of 1990. The republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan and Armenia followed soon after. On 2 September, President Bush announced that the United States recognised the independence of the Baltic states. The Soviet State Council did so four days later and, on the same day, Georgia broke all ties with the Soviet Union. The republics voted to reject Gorbachev’s Union Treaty, favouring instead a confederation. On 30 November, Yeltsin’s Russia, as the leading power in the new association, took control of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and all its embassies abroad. On 8 December, in Minsk, Yeltsin for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk for Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich for Belarus, the three Slav states, without bothering to take the other republics with them, signed a pact ending the USSR and creating the CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States. They first informed George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev what they had done, humiliating the Soviet president, who the next day denied their right to have done it; but the Russian Parliament ratified and therefore legitimised the pact, and within days all but one of the other remaining republics joined.

US Secretary of State under George Bush

With James Baker, Bush’s Secretary of State, in Moscow a week later, the four republics possessing nuclear weapons – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – announced that they would abide by and implement the cuts in arms agreed by Bush and Gorbachev, and the three other states agreed to transfer their nuclear weapons to Russia, signalling that they no longer posed a nuclear threat to either the West or Moscow. On 25th December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was brought to an official end when the red flag with hammer and sickle was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. Mikhail Gorbachev ‘resigned’, commenting a few days later:

I do not regard the end of the Cold War as a victory for one side. … The end of the Cold War is our common victory.

But, for his part, in his ‘State of the Union’ address for 1992, an election year, President Bush chose to claim triumphantly that the United States had “won the Cold War”. Others have continued to claim the same for the past thirty years.

In the wake of the collapse of communist rule in the USSR and the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union, no fewer than twenty-two new countries, among them the fifteen former republics of the USSR, came into being. Thus the three Baltic states, Ukraine Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia gained independence that none of them had known since before the Second World War. These new states were not destined to remain in peace. Break-away movements emerged, threatening to inflict on the region a fatal combination of old hatreds and new destructive power. Transnistria declared independence from Moldova, Chechnya declared independence from Russia and Crimea sought to break away from Ukraine. Added to these divisions, civil war followed in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and from 1991 Yugoslavia simply imploded under pressure from long-suppressed inter-ethnic rivalries. A series of wars continued for a decade, forcing NATO to intervene to prevent genocide against the majority Albanian population of Kosovo. More peacefully, the general election of June 1992 led to Czechoslovakia breaking into two, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. By 1993, the euphoria following the events of 1989 had evaporated. Large parts of Eastern Europe were beset by instability, poverty, ethnic tensions and even outright war. It was, therefore, no surprise that the central European states looked to the west and the European Union. By 2001, most of the new democracies had applied to join both NATO and the EU. The ebb and flow of people across borders, and the changing nature of those borders, a process that Europe thought it had left behind in 1945, was returning with a vengeance.


Modern British-Ukrainian Connections – Three Case Studies:

Appendix One:
Hughesovka – A Case Study of the ‘Welsh’ city in Eastern Ukraine:

Since April 2014 Donetsk and its surrounding areas have been one of the major sites of fighting in the ongoing Donbas War, as pro-Russian separatist forces battle against Ukrainian military forces for control of the city and surrounding areas. Throughout the war, the city of Donetsk has been administered by the separatist forces as the centre of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), with outlying territories of the Donetsk region divided between the two sides. Donetsk International Airport became the epicentre of the war with almost a year-long battle leading to massive casualties among civilians and total ruination of the northwestern neighbourhoods of the city.

Donetsk, formerly known as Aleksandrovka, Yuzivka, Yuzovka (Hughesovka), Stalino is an industrial city in eastern Ukraine located on the Kalmius River in the disputed area of Donetsk Oblast. While internationally recognized as being in Ukraine, the city is under the de facto administration of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which claims it as its capital city. The population was estimated at 905,364 (2021 est.) in the city core, with over 2 million in the metropolitan area (2011). According to the 2001 Ukrainian Census, Donetsk was the fifth-largest city in Ukraine. Administratively, Donetsk has been the centre of Donetsk Oblast, while historically, it is the unofficial capital and largest city of the larger economic and cultural Donets Basin (Donbas) region. Donetsk is adjacent to another major city, Makiivka, and along with other surrounding cities forms a major urban sprawl and conurbation in the region. Donetsk has been a major economic, industrial and scientific centre of Ukraine with a high concentration of heavy industries and a skilled workforce. The density of heavy industries (predominantly steel production, chemical industry, and coal mining) determined the city’s challenging ecological situation. 

John James Hughes
Born 1814
Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales
Died 17 June 1889 (aged 74–75)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Buried: West Norwood Cemetery, London
Known as the Founder of the city of Donetsk
Engineer, businessman

The original settlement in the south of the European part of the Russian Empire was first mentioned as Aleksandrovka in 1779, during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. In 1869 the Welsh businessman John Hughes founded a steel plant and several coal mines in the region, and the town was named Hughesovka or Yuzovka (Юзовка) in recognition of his role (“Yuz” being a Russian-language approximation of Hughes). Hughes was born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, where his father was head engineer at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. It was there that Hughes started his career, under his father’s supervision. He then moved to Ebbw Vale, before joining the Uskside Foundry in Newport, Monmouthshire, in the 1840s. It was here that Hughes made his reputation and fortune, patenting a number of inventions in armaments and armour plating.

In the mid-1850s, Hughes moved to London to become manager of C.J. Mare and Company’s forges and rolling mills, which was then taken over by the Millwall Iron Works & Shipbuilding Company, part of the Millwall Iron Works, Shipbuilding and Graving Docks Company. Hughes was a director of the company when it foundered, and resultantly became manager of the residual Millwall Iron Works Company. In 1868, that Company received an order from the Imperial Russian Government for the plating of a naval fortress being built at Kronstadt on the Baltic Sea.

Hughes was born in Merthyr Tydfil CREDIT: Getty

Hughes accepted a concession from the Imperial Russian Government to develop metal works in the region, and in 1869 acquired a piece of land to the north of the Azov Sea from Russian statesman Sergei Kochubey (son of Viktor Kochubey). The worker’s settlement at the plant merged with Aleksandrovka and the place was named Yuzovo, later Yuzovka (Russian: Юзово, Юзовка), after Hughes. In its early period, it received immigrants from Wales, especially from the town of Merthyr Tydfil. He formed the ‘New Russia Company Ltd.’ to raise capital, and in the summer of 1870, at the age of fifty-five, he moved to Russia. He sailed with eight ships, carrying not only all the equipment necessary to establish metal works but also much of the skilled labour; a group of about a hundred ironworkers and miners, mostly from South Wales.

Welsh workers in the ironworks at Hughesovka, John Hughes is second from the right in the front row.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Yuzovka works were the largest in the Russian Empire, producing 74% of Russian iron in 1913. A period of relative decline in the early years of the twentieth century was followed by expansion during World War I. Many of the men who accompanied John Hughes settled in Hughesovka and brought their wives and families. Over the years, although a Russian workforce was trained by the company, skilled workers from the United Kingdom continued to be employed, and many technical, engineering and managerial positions were filled by British immigrants; who were overwhelmingly Welsh. A thriving expatriate community was established, living in good quality company housing, and provided with an English school and an Anglican church. Despite the cold winters, hot summers and occasional cholera epidemics, some families remained in Hughesovka for many years.

Henry Taylor of Blaenafon with workers at Hughesovka, the 1890s

At the beginning of the 20th century, Yuzovka had approximately 50,000 inhabitants and attained the status of a city in 1917. So, the modern Ukrainian city of Donetsk began as the ironworking town of Hughesovka, founded by John Hughes of Merthyr Tydfil. South Wales, especially the town of Merthyr, was at the forefront of the development of the iron industry in Britain and it is therefore not surprising to find Welsh people leading the industry across the world in the nineteenth century. Many Welsh workers were employed there from 1869 until they were expelled during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Hughesovka became Stalino in 1924 CREDIT: Getty

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 ended the Hughes family’s connection to the works. The Hughes brothers and almost all their foreign employees returned to Britain or other countries. The works were nationalised by the Bolsheviks in 1919. During Soviet times, the city’s steel industry expanded. In 1924 Yuzovka was renamed Stalin and then in 1929 Stalino, and in 1932 the city became the centre of the Donetsk region.

Ruins of the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral, Donetsk, after its destruction by Soviet authorities in 1931. Image: Wiki Commons/State Archives of Donetsk region.

In 1929, when Yuzovka became Stalino, the USSR was producing, as Russia had done in 1914, about half as much steel as the United Kingdom, which in turn was producing half as much as Germany. Yet by 1937, when Stalin’s second five-year plan was completed, the gap had been virtually closed: The USSR was turning out considerably more steel than Britain and nearly as much as Germany. This achievement is visible on the map below in terms of urban population growth.

Stalin’s new industrial centres, including Stalino as the biggest, were dotted across what had been the ’empty’ corner of the continent. Renamed Donetsk (Donetske, according to the Kharkiv orthography) in 1961, the city today remains a centre for coal mining and for the steel industry. The works survived and prospered despite régime and socio-economic change, and Donetsk remains a major metallurgical industries centre today.

The re-built Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Jesus

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hughes_(businessman); https://www.peoplescollection.wales/collections/1850071; https://museum.wales/articles/1562/Working-Abroad—Welsh-Emigration-Iron

Appendix Two:
A 2012 article, “Wales and the forgotten famine” – The ‘Holodomor’ in Ukraine:

The cost of Stalin’s forced industrialisation in human terms was immense, and almost unimaginable to people in western Europe then, let alone today. The peasantry, who had to provide the initial resources, were plundered and left to starve. Much of the labour needed was obtained by arbitrary arrest and most of those arrested were callously worked to death. More than a million people were shot out of hand; ten times as many as those who later died in the war-time camps. To ‘save’ Russians and Ukrainians from the Nazis, Stalin murdered beat and brutalised them in a reign of terror that even Hitler had difficulty matching. Yet little was known about this outside of the Soviet Union, partly because western politicians and journalists of the time did not wish to admit to the terror. Only recently has the full scale of this become clear and widely known.

A Holodomor memorial at the Andrushivka village cemetery, Vinnytsia oblast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following article by Mick Antoniw, Welsh Assembly Member for Pontypridd, appeared in the Western Mail in early November 2012:

This weekend in Ukraine and in Ukrainian communities and homes across the world people will be commemorating the 79th anniversary of the “Holodomor“, the artificial famine created by Stalin which led to the deaths over an eighteen- month period during 1932-1933 of over seven million Ukrainian men women and children. The precise figures will never be known but estimates suggest between six and ten million died.

It is only in recent years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union that people in the West have become aware of this concealed and forgotten act of genocide.

As a child, brought up in a Ukrainian émigré community I became aware of the stories of the Holodomor. I grew up with some children whose families had survived and lived through these terrible events. In a hotchpotch community of the post war flotsam and jetsam of Ukraine, former soldiers from the Polish, Red and German armies, in some cases soldiers who had served in all three, ex partisans, nationalists, socialists, betrayed communists, ex-Gulag and concentration camp prisoners, former slave labourers and mere, ordinary refugees from the bombings and killings; all had their horror stories but all knew of and in some cases had experienced the Holodomor, the “death by famine”.

You might think that famine was nothing new; after all there was famine in the immediate post revolution period in Ukraine. However, this was different, a man-made famine which had as its main objectives, the forced collectivisation of land and the peasantry, and the wiping out of millions of Ukrainians and replacing them with more loyal, Russian speaking cadre, to appease Stalin’s feeling of political insecurity arising in central and South East Ukraine, the bread basket of Europe.

The famine also exposed the worst and the best in British journalism. The worst, typified by some of the left leaning journalists who visited and reported on the Soviet Union in glowing terms, feted and well looked after by the Soviet authorities they saw no famine. In fact suggestions there might be a famine on any thing like the scale suggested was immediately put down and rubbished as anti soviet or right-wing propaganda. Journalists of international acclaim such as the 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty were seduced by the Soviet propaganda machine into allowing their hearts to overrule their heads and their responsibilities as journalists.

British and indeed international investigative journalism failed spectacularly. On the other side, the best of British journalism was exemplified by journalists such as Malcolm Muggeridge and in particular Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. After graduating from Cambridge in 1930, Barry born Gareth made his first visit to ‘Hughesovka’ (Donetsk) where he saw the first signs of famine. In 1933 he visited Soviet Ukraine again and defied a ban on travelling to visit the famine affected regions. During his March 1933 “off limits” walking tour of Ukraine he witnessed the famine first hand and reported:

“I walked alone through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “there is no bread, we are dying.”… In one of the peasant’s cottages in which I stayed we slept nine in the room. It was pitiful to see that two out of the three children had swollen stomachs. All there was to eat in the hut was a very dirty watery soup, with a slice or two of potato. Fear of death loomed over the cottage, for they had not enough potatoes to last until the next crop. When I shared my white bread and butter and cheese one of the peasant women said, “Now I have eaten such wonderful things I can die happy.” I set forth again further towards the south and heard the villagers say, “We are waiting for death.”

During the famine around 20-25% of the population of Soviet Ukraine was exterminated including a third of Ukraine’s children. That the famine was a direct product of Stalin’s political leadership was illustrated by the gruesome statement of leading communist MM Khatayevich who summed up the official position:

“A ruthless struggle is going on between the peasantry and our regime. It’s a struggle to the death. This year was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We’ve won the war”.

Gareth Jones was vilified and ostracised for reporting honestly what he saw. He was nevertheless one of the few who stood up and maintained the highest journalistic principles. He was banned by the Soviet authorities from re-entering the Soviet Union. Two years later he was murdered in suspicious circumstances in Manchuria.

In recognition of Gareth Jones’ exposure of the famine a memorial plaque in English, Welsh and Ukrainian was unveiled in Aberystwyth in May 2006. In November 2008 I attended a ceremony in London at which his nephew was awarded the Ukrainian Order of Freedom. Wales has an unusual historic connection with Ukraine mainly arising out of its common industrial heritage. In Gareth Jones, Wales can be proud of something else; at a time when many turned a blind eye to the terrible events in Ukraine, it was a Welshman who stood up and told the world the truth.

Mick Antoniw, First posted on November 17, 2012, by AngloMagyarMedia.

The memorial plaque to Gareth Jones was unveiled in Aberystwyth in 2006.

Appendix Three: The Refugees’ Hymn – When are we going home?

The hymn How Great Thou Art owes much of its popularity to its extensive use in the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s. But it owes its origins to a trail leading from Sweden to Britain via central-eastern Europe.

The sleeve from Stuart K Hine’s 1958 album featured a collection of hymns and tunes from eastern Europe.

The words in English are a translation of a Swedish poem, O store Gud, by Carl Boberg (1859-1940), an evangelist, journalist and for fifteen years a member of Sweden’s parliament. He was born the son of a shipyard worker on the southeast coast of Sweden. He came to faith at the age of nineteen and went to Bible School Kristinehamn. He returned to his native town of Monsteras as a preacher and it was there in 1886 that he wrote his nine-verse poem, inspired to praise God’s greatness one summer evening while looking across the calm waters of the inlet. A rainbow had formed, following a storm in the afternoon, and a church bell was tolling in the distance. Translated literally into English, the first verse of his poem reads:

O Thou great God! When I the world consider

Which Thou hast made by Thine almighty Word;

And how the web of life Thy wisdom guideth,

And all creation feedeth at Thy board:

Then doth my soul burst forth in song of praise:

O Thou great God! O Thou great God!

Stuart K Hine’s postcard from western Ukraine in the 1930s.

Boberg’s verses were set to music in 1891 and appeared in several Swedish hymnbooks around the turn of the century. An English translation was published in 1925 under the title O Mighty God, but never really caught on. Earlier, in 1912, a Russian version by Ivan Prokhanoff had appeared. This was almost certainly made from a German translation of the original Swedish hymn. The English translation was the work of British missionary and evangelist, Stuart K Hine (1899-1989), who heard it being sung in Russian in western Ukraine, where he had gone in 1923. After singing the hymn in Russian for many years, Hine translated the first three verses while continuing his missionary work in the Carpathian mountains in the 1930s. The scenery there inspired his second verse which draws little from Boberg’s original poem while remaining true to its general spirit of wonder at God’s creation:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees:

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,

And hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;

Then sings my soul, my saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Stuart Hine wrote the fourth verse of his hymn when he was back in Britain in 1948. In that year more than a hundred thousand refugees from Eastern Europe streamed into the United Kingdom. The question uppermost in their minds was When are we going home?  In an essay on the history of the hymn, Hine wrote:

What better message for the homeless than that of the One who went to prepare a place for the ‘displaced’, of the God who invites into his own home those who will come to him through Christ. 

Contrasting with a third verse which is about Christ’s ‘bearing’ of our individual burdens of sin on the cross, the final verse is about our places among the multitudes on the ‘last day’, just like the mass of homeless refugees finding a temporary home in Britain:

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation

And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!

Then shall I bow in humble adoration

And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art! 

Seventy years ago, Stuart Hine published both the Russian and the English versions of the hymn in his gospel magazine Grace and Peace in 1949. It is perhaps worth remembering that, by then, many refugees from the Soviet Union had been ‘homeless’ for almost the entire decade. It was in 1940-41, following his ‘Winter War’ against Finland, that Stalin ordered the evacuation of Karelia with those returning forced to leave permanently. That was followed by the resettlement of two million Poles, mostly Catholic, from eastern Ukraine to northern Russia and the deportation to Siberia of Germans and other ‘unreliable’ peoples – Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Tartars, Kalmuks and Caucasians to Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of ‘ethnic Ukrainians’, especially Cossacks, were also transported there. To strengthen the ‘Soviet peoples’ (presumably the Russians, Georgians, Kazaks and Ukrainians), such deportations were continued after the war.

Refugees and displaced peoples after 1945.
Thirty million million Europeans, 60% of them German, lost their homeland. Almost all ethnic and national borders coincide since that time, also in eastern-central Europe. To care for the ‘displaced persons’ (D.P.’s for labourers, refugees of international background and the deported, the UN took over the 1945 UNRRA and transformed it into the IRO in 1947, which was then attached to the UNHCR in 1951.

O Lord My God rapidly caught on in evangelical circles both in Britain and the UK, as well as in Eastern Europe, despite (or perhaps because of) the oppression of the churches by the Soviet-style communist régimes that were taking control of the states where the hymn was first heard. 


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John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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