Seeds of Discord in Ukraine

tags: Russia, Ukraine, Crimea

Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William & Mary. His most recent book is A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

... Ukraine has some of the best and most productive land on earth, land that fed Europe for more than a hundred years after the French Revolution. It is hard to see that now. Ukrainians have suffered for a century for the wealth that lies just beneath their feet....

Russian designs on the Black Sea and Crimea are not new, in other words. Russian military leaders and soldiers went to war over the area many times in the hundred years from the 1770s to the 1870s—while most of Europe was at peace. The wide streets of Odessa were laid out only in the 1790s, after the Ottoman outpost of Yeni Dünya was burned to its foundations, all traces destroyed. The Crimean War was a humiliating defeat for the Russians in large part because the other powers of Europe intervened against a Russia they saw as overly expansionist.

Moreover, when the Crimean War closed access to Ukrainian wheat, it led American railroad directors to plot out an alternative supply line to European dinner tables. Western railroads turned the United States and Russian borderlands into international competitors. That competition for Europe’s insatiable demand for food has made the United States and Russia competitors since 1870. No one follows wheat exports from the Ukraine more closely than the U.S. Department of Agriculture—black soil and the Black Sea continue to make the region America’s most direct competitor for wheat exports, more important than Argentina, Western Canada, or Australia.

Unlike in the United States, however, the polyglot, multinational aspect of the Russian expansion into the borderlands began to collapse just before the Panic of 1873. In the name of strengthening the nation in the face of competition, Russia threatened to conscript soldiers from the German farming communes, and many Mennonites and other German religious dissenters fled the black soil of Ukraine for the black soil of Kansas. Many Jews left too, after the Russian Okhrana, or secret police, began inciting peasants to commit anti-Semitic atrocities. The Jews had been among the largest traders in city markets, and the secret police feared that they were profiting at the nation’s expense. By the 1920s the region was importing wheat from elsewhere and facing famine....

The Ukraine was Russia’s golden egg. The empire, in ejecting Germans and Jews, almost strangled the goose. The Communist Party nearly finished the job. The Russian Revolution did not change beliefs that free trade was a sham or that strengthening the nation required squeezing the wealth out of Ukraine. The Soviet Union differed substantially from the Russian Empire, but both pre- and post-Revolutionary Russian governments saw the South as an expendable source of food and wealth. For the Soviets, affluent farmers, "kulaks," whom they believed were growing wealthy at the expense of the Russian people, had to be expelled and dispossessed during and after the First World War....

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Ed

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