THE year was 1990 and the first person I saw when I arrived at the meeting in Prague was a small, middle-aged Ukrainian woman, standing like a statue on the steps of the Obecni Dum, in the centre of the city. She was wearing national dress in the Ukrainian colours – blue and yellow – and holding a large Ukrainian flag; she spoke no English or Czech, but she was there to make a point.
The occasion was the founding assembly of an organisation called the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, designed to bring together citizens’ groups from across the whole of Europe and North America, as the Iron Curtain fell at last. There was funding from the office of the new Czech president, Vaclav Havel, and a mood of hope in the air, although those who arrived from Yugoslavia were already warning of a new war to come. One of the biggest delegations was from Ukraine, the largest country in Europe apart from Russia itself, with a land-mass almost twice the size of Germany’s, and a population of almost 50 million.
To anyone from Scotland, at least, it was obvious from the outset that the Ukrainian group involved a potentially fragile alliance between right-wing quasi-religious nationalists, and much more nuanced social-democratic intellectuals whose primary allegiance was to the ideals of civil liberty, democracy, and environmental sustainability, which they hoped to see realised in a new independent Ukraine.
This second group stayed with the assembly process through the next half-decade; none of them ever seemed to doubt that if the new Ukrainian republic followed the right path of democratisation, then the Russian-speakers of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland would happily join the Ukrainian-speakers of the west in building a new Ukrainian nation.
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For more than two decades, it seemed that their optimism was at least partly justified; as recently as a year ago, there were still major voices in eastern Ukraine arguing for the country to stay together, and for more talks about devolved regional government.
Now, though – while Britain obsesses about its forthcoming general election, and a sclerotic European Union struggles to digest the idea that one of its members might try a little gentle Keynesianism in response to recession – the great wheels of history have moved on.
Many western commentators seem reluctant to believe what is happening; but Vladimir Putin’s Russia has effectively declared an end to the relative European peace of the past two decades, and is beginning to take back lands it lost with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and which it sees as its own.
A year ago, Russia took back the Crimea, the beautiful southern peninsula on the Black Sea which only became part of Ukraine in 1954. This winter, it is engaged in taking back Russian-speaking east Ukraine, or shaping it into a country which will be a Russian satellite. Inevitably, people in other parts of eastern Europe with large Russian populations – notably the Baltic states, now EU and Nato members – are asking where Putin’s Russia will turn next.
It’s not my aim, here, to try to analyse whose fault it is, this recent frightening shift in the European political landscape. Many serious analysts blame Nato for the over-zealous recruitment of new members, for provocatively placing weapons close to Russia’s border, and for the role of western agencies in destabilising the elected pro-Russian Ukrainian government, which fell a year ago after a winter of demonstrations in Kiev.
Yet it is also true that Russia under Putin has become a dangerous autocracy, of the kind that often needs external wars to quell dissent at home. Its record on civil rights and freedoms is atrocious; and if gay, bisexual and transgender people are always the canaries down the coalmine of vicious and fascistic forms of government, then the story of the closing-down of their new freedoms in Russia in recent years should act as a warning to the whole of Europe.
Then, finally, there is the question of what should be done. The brute fact is that for all the fairly obvious parallels with the 1930s, Nato seems too feeble and divided to do anything, beyond inviting its member governments to slap a few more sanctions on wealthy Russian oligarchs trying to live in, or trade with, the West.
It is also clear, as ever, whose voices are not being heard: the voices of the ordinary people of east Ukraine, and particularly of the women, desperately trying to keep children and old folks and vulnerable dependents alive in bombed-out basements, in what were until a few months ago peaceful cities. In trying to broker a peace deal last week, Angela Merkel and François Hollande at least attempted to speak for those who just want this horrific violence to end; but the limited success of the ceasefire warns us that the men with the heavy weapons, and the dreams of restored Russian greatness, are in charge now.
As this tragedy unfolds, I keep remembering a conversation over a beer with one of those Ukrainian human rights activists, a small bearded man very interested in energy and the environment. He began – back then in 1991 or 1992 – to talk animatedly about the huge size of his country, and its energy potential; then he suddenly stopped, eyes full of tears.
“I forgot,” he said. “I forgot that my country is not the Soviet Union any more.” In truth, the end of the USSR was so sudden, and so absolute, that it left behind it huge reservoirs of shock, anger and disorientation, some of which, like deep bruises, are only now beginning to surface; not least in the toxic form of a reborn Russian nationalism that will smash cities, and destroy lives, to reclaim a notion of lost national pride.
However flabby, divided and even corrupt our institutions may be, however unfit to meet this challenge, we in the West need to start mustering a response that moves beyond mere military breast-beating or economic punishment; and begins, however slowly, to rebuild bridges between the people of Russia and the rest of Europe that will stand the strain of political change, and become progressively more difficult to pull down over time.