On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union following the failed coup in Moscow. DW spoke with renowned historian Andreas Kappeler, who has followed Ukraine’s nation building since the 1970s.
“‘Ukraine is not Russia’ – and I was the first to make this claim,” Andreas Kappeler said with a twinge of affable irony in his voice, making clear his reference to the book of that title by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. When the book came out in 2003, it sparked immediate controversy in Russia. But Kappeler has been making that case since the early 1970s.
Back then Kappeler was one of the very few scholars from outside of the bloc to closely study the complex multiethnic problems of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union, as well as the development of a modern Ukrainian national identity.
Kappeler’s colleagues sometimes call him a “discoverer” of Ukraine – before him, hardly any of his contemporaries or predecessors in Western Europe had conducted research on the vast territory. Back in those days, Ukraine, then still one of 15 Soviet republics, was largely perceived as “Russia’s long arm.”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms had paved the way to 1989’s revolutions in Central and East European states and Germany’s reunification in October 1990, and a national movement was taking root in Ukraine, as well. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was officially allowed to function again after a decadeslong ban, student hunger strikes helped lead to a collapse of the government, and mass independence demonstrations were held in various cities almost daily. All of that was accompanied by efforts to reinstate national symbols such as Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue flag. Even the KGB – the omnipotent secret service that had played an instrumental role in suppressing opposition in the USSR – stopped short of mass persecution of ordinary demonstrators.
Kappeler said, these events should be examined in a broader historical context: The building of a state has never been a walk in the park. “For Ukraine’s nation-building process, the last two years are the years of defining significance,” he said.
Both Ukraine and Russia are still in search of their post-Soviet identities and their places in a globalized world. Their troubled histories overlapped for many years, and their relationship will be overshadowed by recent conflict for many years to come, Kappeler said, adding that officials in Moscow remain uncomfortable with Ukrainian independence even 25 years on.
Ukrainians have been robbed of their independence several times, but Kappeler does not favor a cyclical view of history. The current government has the support of the EU and United States. This was not the case in the early 20th century, when the Ukrainian People’s Republic ceased to existence following the Bolshevik invasion. Kappeler said he was optimistic that the country would fare better this time around. “Ukraine is indeed on the path of reforms – even if the progress is utterly slow.” Both inside Ukraine and abroad, he said, the initial predictions of 25 years ago had perhaps been way too unrealistic: “We should have realized better that the fall of a Soviet regime alone will not turn a newly born country into a prosperous state overnight.”