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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #121

To understand the cultural history of western Ukraine and the development of the Ukrainian nation state it is important to appreciate that this region has been buffeted between various imperial powers over the course of early modern history and therefore the emergence of Ukraine as a modern independent nation state has emerged only gradually since 1991. That independence was never really taken for granted, as Moscow maintained substantial de facto if not de jure influence within Ukraine even after formal independence; and it is the total elimination of insidious Russian influences within Ukraine’s society, economics and politics for which we are now fighting. Arguably the people within western Ukraine and in and around the city of Lviv understand this better than many because they have found themselves as parts of different empires for hundreds of years and they understand that this is Ukraine’s real chance to eliminate untoward foreign influences and to establish herself as a truly independent nation state that properly fits within the community of European nations.

To see how Ukrainians, and those in the west of Ukraine in particular, feel, it is important to appreciate the complex history of Lviv and the surrounding region. The recent history of western Ukraine was bound up with the so-called “Polish question”, which was not really a question at all (except for international diplomats) but a cause. After the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century, the territories of Europe in which people spoke Polish and had a Polish national identification became divided between a number of imperial powers and it was perceived by the international community that the division of Polish territories was important to preservation of European stability, as each of the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian states occupied a portion of Polish territory and this maintained the balance of power between them. This model of international relations in the region was much to the frustration of the Poles themselves, who naturally developed a self-determination movement. The balance of power however dramatically changed after German unification in 1871 undermined the concept of Austria-Hungary as an important political entity. Whereas Austria-Hungary’s model of federal imperialism, to coin a phrase, was based upon agreeable diplomatic relations between neighbouring vassal states whose royal families would marry into one-another, Germany embarked upon an exercise in military expansionism to include all Germanic peoples that would ultimately lead to World War One.

Before World War One, western Ukraine had been part of Austria-Hungary and Lviv’s distinctive and beautiful architecture is in large part testament to that period of harmony within one of the more beneficent models of European imperial rule, as culture, architecture and education were all promoted as a form of social glue. However World War One disrupted all of that and as Austria-Hungary was disbanded by the Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Polish question returned to the fore. Marxist revolutionaries in Polish territories were aggressively pushing the Polish nationalist agenda, and there was a desire amongst the principal negotiators at the Versailles conference to pre-empt the spread of Marxist agitation by creating a Polish state within approximately democratic parameters that would also not reward Russia, that had humiliatingly reached a peace treaty with Germany in 1917 making the efforts of the Western powers to defeat German Kaiser Wilhelm I more onerous and were now themselves in the throes of violent Marxist revolution. Therefore the Second Polish Republic, as it came to be known, would be carefully fashioned to include territories formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Ukrainian culture and traditions, and those parts of western Ukraine would not be ceded to Russia or what came to be known as the Soviet Union. These southeasterly parts of the Second Polish Republic, including the cities of Lwów (now Lviv) and Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankivsk), enjoyed an entirely different style of life and the promotion of Polish culture and civilisation in the inter-war period, whereas the rest of what is now Ukraine fell under the Soviet joke and was subject to Holodmor (a massive famine killing millions of peasants as a result of the forced collectivisation of Soviet, and predominantly Ukrainian, agriculture), Stalin’s purges, and all the other horrors of the early Soviet Union.

The maintenance of the western regions of Ukraine within the Second Polish Republic was secured only after a decisive victory by Poland in the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1922 in which Lenin’s Russia, herself in political foment as the Russian Civil War got underway, had sought to annul the previous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 in which Russia had agreed to cede control over Polish and other territories to Germany as the price of peace with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. As Lenin realised that Germany was inevitably to be defeated by the western Allied Powers notwithstanding the Tsar’s ignominious peace agreement with Germany, he withdrew from Brest-Litovsk, denouncing it as imperial treachery and seeking to re-take the territories from the nascent new Polish republic whose formation was envisaged the Versailles negotiators by denouncing it as a piece of Russian imperial treachery. Nevertheless the Imperial Russian Army, parts of which formed the backbone of the Red Army, had been so seriously depleted by conflict with Germany that it proved incapable of succeeding against a determined Polish military led by Józef Piłsudski, a major figure in early twentieth century Polish politics who led the Polish army to success against the Bolsheviks. Hence Soviet Communism was fended off for the people of western Ukraine until 1939 when Hitler and Stalin agreed between them to partition Poland once more in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The Second Polish Republic is worth many an essay on its own but the short version is that it started out as a parliamentary democracy faithful to the western liberal political values with which the Versailles negotiators hoped to imbue it but then as continental European instability increased during the inter-war period, in large part due to political instability in Germany created by the onerous peace terms imposed upon the Weimar Republic by the Versailles Treaty, Poland became increasingly troubled. In 1926 Marshall Piłsudski, who had retired modestly from public life after victory in the Soviet-Polish war, felt compelled to organise a military coup against the democratic government in the face of chronic political instability. He ran a regime of what we might today call “managed democracy” in the Sanacja movement, in which formal constitutional elections were maintained but those politicians who did not agree with his policies would be imprisoned or otherwise persecuted, and parliamentary elections would be manipulated to ensure the success of those parliamentarians that supported Piłsudski. The so-called April Constitution of Poland, approved in April 1935, introduced a strong Presidential system with authoritarian elements. Regrettably Piłsudski died shortly afterwards; he was seen as a unifying influence widely admired by Poland’s people as a voice of moderation. Thereafter Poland’s system of government start to look more akin to German or Italian fascism. This took place amidst increasing centralisation of the ostensibly federal system of government that afforded the Ukrainian-majority regions of the Republic substantial autonomy. At the same time, discrimination against Jews and Ukrainians became substantially increased.

Hitler and Stalin saw an illiberal, authoritarian Poland as rich pickings to stave off their own impending conflict, and the partition of Poland by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact some four years later was the result. That agreement triggered World War II.

Because the Second Polish Republic descended into authoritarianism, anti-semitism and anti-Ukrainian sentiment, many of the incidents of temporary Polish rule in Lviv and the other western cities in Ukraine have been partially expunged and Stalin expelled the Poles from the region in the course of reclaiming the territory from Nazi occupation towards the end of World War II. Nevertheless the fact the Lviv and western Ukraine suffered a shorter period of Soviet tyranny than the rest of Ukraine undoubtedly contributed to an enhanced polity in this region, in which pan-European values of democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, liberalism and tolerance and welcoming attitudes towards foreigners are felt more strongly than elsewhere in Ukraine. One thing we can be certain of is that life for western Ukrainians in the Second Polish Republic was better than it would have been in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930’s.

If you want to understand why Lviv has now become so central in the Ukrainian political and cultural renaissance, notwithstanding its location on the geographical periphery of the modern Ukrainian nation state, it is important to understand how frequently the borders and political philosophies governing this region have changed. It is the European ideal, that ultimately led to formation of the European Union, that these ceaseless bloody wars over political borders be replaced with a system of peaceful cooperation in which borders and concepts of national identity become ever less relevant, as Europeans pursue an ever more harmonious union of peoples.


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