Ukraine is currently suffering grievously. After nine months of brutal attacks and atrocities by the Russians, the Ukrainian citizenry is feeling pain, death and destruction to a degree that we here in the west can hardly begin to imagine. At least a hundred thousand Ukrainians have died, and the real number is likely to be much more, since statistics from the battlefield and from occupied territories are hard to confirm. Millions have fled the country while an equal number have been internally displaced. Many Ukrainians today are struggling in the cold, without power and water, as the Russians seek to systematically destroy all of Ukraine’s key civilian infrastructure. This is genocide at its most primitive level.
This is also nothing new. Ukraine has experienced many such episodes during its turbulent and difficult history. The invasions have been many; the numbers killed astronomical, the destruction beyond devastating. Since the tragic end of the Kyivan Rus empire some eight hundred years ago, Ukraine has experienced a constant stream of tragedies at the hands of brutal and aggressive neighbours.
In 1240, the Mongol horde swept through most of what is now Russia and Ukraine, destroying everything in their path. In December of that year, they laid siege and subsequently burned down Kyiv, killing most of the city’s 50,000 inhabitants. Other Ukrainian cities met with the same fate, and by the time the worst was over, an estimated half a million Ukrainians were dead. The Mongols settled in Crimea and southern Ukraine and for the next several centuries they and their Tatar and Turkish allies constantly raided what remained of the Rus state, looting, killing and carrying off Ukrainians by the tens of thousands into slavery in Turkey and the Middle East.
For the next four hundred years, most of Ukraine was divided under either Polish or Russian rule, and its inhabitants turned into feudal serfs. In the mid 1600’s, a large scale revolt led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky succeeded in establishing for a time an independent Kozak state, though eventually this was crushed by the neighbouring Russians and Poles. This was a period of constant warfare during which it is estimated up to four million people may died on all sides, including Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Jews.
The end of the Kozak state occurred early in the eighteenth century when Russia’s Peter the Great defeated the combined armies of Sweden and Kozaks under Hetman Ivan Mazepa. Peter’s army captured Mazepa’s capital city of Baturyn, and brutally massacred an estimated 15,000 of the city’s residents and defenders.
But the worst was still to come. In the twentieth century Ukraine suffered from two world wars. During World War I, the Eastern Front ran through the middle of what is now Western Ukraine, and the casualties, both military and civilian, ran into the millions. World War II was an even bigger tragedy as most of the fighting in the east happened in Ukraine. Up to 4 million civilians and close to that number of Ukrainians serving in the Soviet military died during the course of the war. Most of Ukraine was left as a destroyed, smouldering ruin.
But even all this death and destruction paled in comparison to the devastation caused by the Holodomor in 1932 – 33. Stalin, determined to stamp out the fierce resistance by the Ukrainian peasantry to forced collectivization of farms, engineered an artificial famine by confiscating all the food in eastern Ukraine and imposing a tight blockade preventing the starving masses from escaping. Historians are still debating how many died as a result, but most agree that it was somewhere between five and nine million people. This past week, most Ukrainians in both the homeland and in the diaspora commemorated this tragedy which is still being denied by the current Russian regime.
To all this, we can add the millions of Ukrainians that were purged during Soviet times, who were either executed or perished in the ruthless gulag camp system in Siberia. The Russians seem to have some kind of abnormal pathological hate for Ukrainians that drives them to try and destroy Ukrainians as a people, a culture, a language and a national state.
This war is but the latest manifestation of a cruel fate that history has imposed on Ukrainians. But as in the past, Ukrainians have risen to the challenge. They bear the pain and the grief, and refuse to be victimized. They have been hardened by eight hundred years of suffering without succumbing, and they will continue to persevere. Ukraine continues to live and to survive, and one day, hopefully soon, they will find the peace that they have been fighting for for so long.