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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #151

Tramping back to my hotel through the streets of Chernivtsi tonight, the former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Duchy of Bukovina, I started to understand the meaning of neglectful decay. This once grandiose capital city, standing tall and proud with its exciting melange of Austro-Hungarian architecture and cobbled streets, has been left fallow for far too long. Bukovina was historically a Romanian-dominated region inhabited by wealthy Transylvanians, known as ‘the Switzerland of the East’ by reason of its dense forests and mountain backdrops. It was considered a luxuriant and desirable place in which to place down roots, a tolerant environment amidst an ever-changing mosaic of competing claims to nation states in a febrile region of Eastern Europe.

The main streets and squares in central Chernivtsi retain the antiquated charm of what used to be a capital city of a wealthy region, but it is apparent from the most casual survey of what is left of Chernivtsi today that there was a determination to undermine Bukovina’s distinctive Romanian-Ukrainian cultural identity and the author of that determination was of course Joseph Stalin. Stalin did not like the idea of ethnic mosaics - communities of people from different cultures living harmoniously together, which is what Bukovina had historically represented - and therefore he was determined to destroy it. Between the two World Wars in the twentieth century, Bukovina was effectively ruled by the Romanian government in Bucharest notwithstanding northern Bukovina’s alignment with the so-called West Ukrainian People’s Republic. As the regular reader of these diaries will be aware, this was a short-lived statelet that emerged at the end of World War One in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the ethnic Ukrainian territory previously controlled by Vienna rather than by St Petersburg.

As the march towards war continued in the late 1930’s, the question of Bukovina’s future emerged as one of many issues in resolving the question of where the borders would lie between the intensely nationalist and fascist mores of Nazi Germany and the ostensibly universalist and communist ideology of the Soviet Union. In the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 in which Stalin and Hitler agreed to defer a seemingly inevitable Eastern European war by partitioning the Second Polish Republic between them, Bukovina was agreed tacitly to remain as part of Romania, outside the Soviet sphere of influence and in principle within the German fascist sphere of influence. However Stalin breached this detail of the Nazi-Soviet Pact when he invaded Northern Bukovina in 1940, the region that he considered predominantly Ukrainian. Just as he had annexed eastern Poland, which had a Ukrainian majority, he considered the region of Bukovina with a dominant Ukrainian population likewise legitimate Soviet territory as in his mind Ukraine was a vassal state of the Soviet Union: much like the thinking of Russian President Vladimir Putin today.

Hence Bukovina was partitioned in 1940 with the Soviet annexation of northern Bukovina, including Chernivtsi the sometime capital of Bukovina. The balance of Bukovina, now known as the Suceava County of Romania, remained part of inter-war Romania but the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 resulted in Bukovina being temporarily reunited as Germany occupied the territory of Ukraine that she considered Stalin had illegitimately taken from her. Nazi Germany also exercised dominant control over wartime fascist Romania. Stalin again redrew the borders in his favour as the Red Army advanced westwards through Bessarabia, Galicia and Bukovina in 1944, and he decided that, as he had decreed in 1939, Bukovina would remain partitioned.

What is now Chernivtsi Oblast in southwestern Ukraine would become part of the Soviet Union whereas southern Bukovina would be absorbed as part of the bizarre communist / fascist Soviet parastate that emerged under Soviet suzerainty under the leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu in the aftermath of World War Two. In the interim of the cosmopolitan liberal community of Bukovina, a region of moderate values to which the wealthy had emigrated, was ripped asunder. This included the massacres of uncountable numbers of Jewish people who had come to Bukovina, as they had to proximate Chisinau in what is now Moldova, to escape the European pogroms.

The net result of all this strife and conflict over the dissolution of the historically liberal, wealthy and moderate statelet of Bukovina - all of these things being qualities that totalitarians such as Hitler and Stalin absolutely loathed - is that the identity of Bukovina was mostly annihilated and the region has become a stale and neglected locus of decay. That is why, as I walked home tonight along those historical cobbled streets, I kept falling into cavernous craters in the streets and I looked up at the Habsburg buildings and I saw decaying masonry. I stumbled home in the dark along the streets of Chernivtsi, a once glamorous, sophisticated and artistic city, barely capable of seeing my hands in front of my face. How can it be that such a city, once sophisticated and liberal in its values, in which the Ukrainian, Yiddish and Romanian languages all operated side by side, has been left in such a state of disrepair. The answer is that the capital of Bukovina represented an anathema to the fundamentalist ideals of the twentieth century’s totalitarians. That is why it was dismembered and destroyed. And that is why the city is decaying under my feet as I walk home along its sad and bereft lonely streets after dark.

The Soviet Union despised the values of Bukovina because they represented intellectual liberalism and freedom of thought and ethnic tolerance and harmony: everything that communist ideological tyranny abhorred. That is why Chernivtsi was left to rot under the Soviet Union. Nevertheless now this is a city, and a region, that deserves renewed attention with its penetrating historical roots and its academic traditions captured in Chernivtsi’s extraordinary and historical multi-cultural university. Nobody outside Chernivtsi knows anything about Bukovina anymore. But we should learn. Bukovina was a most exceptional historical entity, in which different ethnic groups learned to live side by side amidst an environment of cultural harmony and tolerance and freedom: all fine European values.

I asked a young man (for every man in Chernivtsi who you will bump into is young; they get conscripted at the age of 25) how he would describe his national affiliation. He said: “from Bukovina”. I admired his answer. I am proud to say that within me, I aspire to have the spirit of Bukovina too.


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