Ukraine Must Remain a Borderland

My essay on

A peculiar aspect of Ukrainian identity has been the perceived need to prove our own existence. I vaguely remember some sort of heritage day in grade school at PS 229 in New York City. The teacher corrected me when I described myself as Ukrainian—I was Soviet, she said, or Russian. That was fine with me at the time, though I also remember a look of horror on my mother’s face when I relayed the episode.

Looking back at the history of Ukraine, a country whose name is usually translated as “border land,” one finds instances of Poles referring to Ukrainians as “Eastern Poles” and Russians referring to them as “Little Russians.” I’m grateful that as of about a week ago, I will forever be alleviated of the long-standing need to prove Ukrainians exist.

Since the Mongols sacked Kyiv in 1241, the territory of today’s Ukraine has been the border between the agrarian civilization of the west, and the nomadic cultures of the steppe. Its aristocracy vanquished, Ukraine became largely a peasantry, and home to a very complex and evolving “Cossack” culture, which represented different things to different people—from an alternative and viable social order to, a Medieval feudal arrangement, to an unpredictable menace. The Cossacks remain very much part of Ukraine’s national myth.

At different times in history, Cossacks allied with Tartars to sack Moscow, allied with Poles to fight an invading Turkish Army, and made a treaty with Moscow to enable a rebellion against the Polish monarchy. Ukraine was a battleground on the border of empires, and seemingly remains so.

Understandably, most coverage of Ukraine’s ongoing crisis focuses on the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. The Ukrainian diaspora among whom I was raised are entirely on the side of the West.

Having grown up among these refugees who narrowly escaped forced repatriation into the hands of Stalin (see Operation Keelhaul for a dark and little known chapter of WWII history), I understand the resentment of Russia, the terror, humiliation, and the long shadow of the artificial famine 1932-1933 which killed millions of Ukrainians. I inherited this history. It still lives in my family and others like us. So I understand why I’m getting emails from old acquaintances urging me to contact my elected representative and demand Western intervention. But they’re making a mistake. Forceful intervention by the West is not what’s best for Ukraine for several reasons: . . . .