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The Sky Turns Black from Smoke

Marci Shore—

The Sky Turns Black from Smoke

Close to midnight on Tuesday, 18 February 2014, twenty-one-year-old Misha Martynenko, reeking of smoke, returned to the Kiev apartment he shared with his mother, his grandmother, and his ten-year-old sister. He was wearing a white beaded cross around his neck. In his mother’s face Misha saw that she had aged several years since they had parted that morning. He looked in the mirror: his own face was the color of pallid charcoal. His eyes were bulging. He began to cry.

Nearly ten hours later Misha awoke still wearing clothing covered with soot and dirt. The city was the same color: that day the sky in Kiev turned black from smoke. On the streets surrounding the central square known as the Maidan, thousands of people were digging up bricks and paving stones to build barricades. They set fire to clothing and tires and anything else that could burn. They were defending themselves against the Berkutovtsy, the Ukrainian government’s specially trained riot police, storm troopers with gas masks whose eyes it was impossible to see. Their silver shields covered their faces and torsos, creating a moving bunker not easily penetrated by the Molotov cocktails. Far above the flaming barricades, on the rooftop of the high-rise Hotel Ukraina, snipers fired downwards, and bodies fell, corpses amidst black smoke.

One of those shot in the neck by a sniper was a paramedic named Olesia Zhukovska, who was wearing a white uniform with a red cross. She was exactly Misha’s age. As blood poured from her neck, she typed on her phone the Twitter message: “I am dying.”

The Land of Gogol

On Wednesday evening, 19 February 2014, the political scientist and prominent Ukrainian intellectual Mykola Riabchuk lectured to a crowded room in Vienna. Mykola spoke calmly, reflectively. Although he was not optimistic, he was hopeful. He had no doubts that the fight for freedom in Ukraine would continue. Perhaps this time the fight would not succeed; but Mykola was certain that, if not this time, then some day it would. He answered all questions undefensively. He said nothing to the audience of the fact that his wife and their twenty-six-year-old son were in Kiev, that his son, Yuri, had returned home at 4 that morning and was now on the Maidan once again, that Mykola did not know whether or not Yuri would be killed there that night, perhaps right now as he was speaking here in the library of the Institute for Human Sciences.

(His parents never asked him to stay home, Yuri told me when we met later in Kiev. “You cross a line . . . ,” he said.
“Did you think you could get killed?” I asked.
“Yeah, I did.”)

“What can we do?” asked a young Polish woman in the audience.

In response Mykola described a scene from Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector-General. At the end of the play a country squire named Piotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky approached the Inspector General from the capital of Saint Petersburg with a “humble request”: he begged his Excellency most worshipfully, when he returned to Saint Petersburg, to tell the tsar that there was a man called Piotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky who lived in this town. To simply remember that there was a man called Piotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky.

“Just remember,” Mykola answered the young woman, “that there is a country called Ukraine.”

The Grandeur of Its Intentions

“The first represents the exaltation of the executioner by the executioner,” wrote the French philosopher Albert Camus, describing the difference between Nazism and Bolshevism, “the second, more dramatic in concept, the exaltation of the executioner by the victims. The former never dreamed of liberating all men, but only of liberating a few by subjugating the rest. The latter, in its most profound principle, aims at liberating all men by provisionally enslaving them all. It must be granted the grandeur of its intentions.”

Twenty-first century Ukraine was heir to the grandeur of these intentions, to daring experiments. “Both Europe and Russia conduct research in our laboratory,” wrote the Ukrainian novelist Taras Prochasko. “They experiment, although they have no idea what the result of the synthesis might be.”

The experiments began long before the Bolshevik Revolution. For centuries the lands of today’s Ukraine were ruled from Vilnius or Warsaw. In the early modern period, these lands were divided between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the tsarist Russian empire. When in the eighteenth century the Commonwealth was partitioned by its imperial neighbors, Lviv and much of what is now western Ukraine was taken by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. Present-day Lviv, previously Polish Lwów, became Austrian Lemberg, the object of the Habsburg empire’s “civilizing mission.”

The First World War brought the old imperial Europe to an end. Early in 1917, bread shortages in frozen Petrograd led to demonstrations, strikes, and mutiny by Tsar Nicholas II’s troops. An empire fell. The tsar abdicated his throne. A precarious “Dual Power” took his place: fragile authority divided between a liberal Provisional Government and a socialist Petrograd Soviet. As the war against Germany and Austria wore on, disillusioned peasants began to protest. The Provisional Government convened a militia in the countryside; peasants seized land and refused to deliver grain. In the cities there were food shortages. Disenchantment radicalized the peasantry.

In April 1917 Lenin arrived in Petrograd—where, in his own words, he “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up.” In the midst of anarchy, the Bolsheviks made a radical choice. When in October 1917 Lenin and the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, they acted on behalf of a metaphysical proletariat—one yet to come into being.

Shortly thereafter, Ukrainian leaders in Kiev declared a Ukrainian National Republic. Galician Ukrainian leaders hesitated to join them; most then still wanted an autonomous Ukrainian crown land within the Habsburg empire. Soon, though, this became impossible: the Habsburg empire itself was no more. On 1 November 1918 the Ukrainian National Council declared a West Ukrainian People’s Republic, with Lviv as its capital; a week later Poland declared independence. Through most of November Polish and Ukrainian forces fought for Lviv in a battle that concluded with a Polish victory—and a Polish pogrom against Jews. Habsburg Lemberg, briefly Ukrainian Lviv, was now again Polish Lwów.

In March 1918, believing that the worldwide revolution would begin momentarily, Lenin negotiated a separate peace with the Germans. Yet in the lands of what had been the Russian Empire, the war did not end in 1918 at all; it bled into a gruesome civil war between the Bolsheviks and their assorted enemies, as well as between the Bolsheviks and newly independent Poland, created from disparate pieces of the German, Habsburg, and tsarist empires. Everywhere people fled violence and pogroms; the lands between Warsaw and Petersburg filled with refugees. Kiev, divided like Paris into a Left and Right Bank, was a large metropolis; even so, under the pressure of refugees, “the City swelled, expanded, overflowed like leavened dough rising out of its baking tin,” as Mikhail Bulgakov described in White Guard. By the time it was all over, Kiev had been occupied by five different armies. And four European empires had fallen: German, Ottoman, Habsburg, and tsarist Russian. Galicia and western Volhynia—present-day western Ukraine—belonged to newly independent Poland; Kiev, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Donetsk, and Luhansk—cities of present-day central and eastern Ukraine—were controlled by the Red Army.

In 1922, Lenin declared the formation of the Soviet Union, with the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as one of its founding constituent republics. Two years later, Lenin died. When Stalin came to power at the end of that decade, he ordered the collectivization of agriculture. With all means possible and impossible, Ukrainian peasants resisted the confiscation of their property and their land. Collectivization was bloody and savage; its effect on agricultural productivity was disastrous. After Stalin in 1932 raised Ukraine’s grain procurement quotas by 44 percent, the peasants could no longer feed themselves: Soviet law required that no grain be distributed to collective farm members until Moscow had received its share. Party officials, aided by regular troops and secret police units, waged a war against peasants who refused to give up their grain. The result of a poor harvest and draconian quotas was mass death. As Stalin forcibly requisitioned their grain, selling it abroad and using the hard currency to fund industrialization, Ukrainian peasants became emaciated, then swollen. Some resorted to cannibalism. In Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1934 more than three and a half million people died of starvation.

Then came the Stalinist Terror. Stalin declared that just as the socialist victory was assured, the class struggle paradoxically intensified. The enemy, ever more desperate, concealed himself: now he could be anywhere, including in one’s own bed. Constant vigilance was a necessity; no one was to be trusted. “Enemies of the people” lurked everywhere. They were plotters of counterrevolution; they were wreckers and saboteurs; they were capitalists and imperialists, nationalist conspirators and Trotskyite spies. Stalin had always blamed Ukrainians themselves for the famine; now this accusation took the fantastical form of an imaginary plot. It was the time of the Great Terror: mass arrests, confessions extracted by torture, hundreds of thousands of executions. In 1937 and 1938 the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, recorded 123,421 executions in Soviet Ukraine.

On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany attacked Poland. German soldiers appeared briefly in Lwów, yet quickly—as agreed by Hitler and Stalin in the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—the city was taken by Stalin’s Red Army and integrated into Soviet Ukraine. The Red Army, it claimed, had come to liberate Jews and Ukrainians from Polish oppression. Once the Habsburgs had played the Poles against the Ukrainians; now the Soviets played the Ukrainians against the Poles. Refugees from German-occupied Poland poured into baroque, once Habsburg Lviv, together with Stalinist terror.

“They liberated us and there’s nothing to be done for it,” regretted Ukrainian composer Stanyslav Lyudkevych.

This was not the Ukraine the Ukrainians had wanted.

When on 22 June 1941 Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians welcomed the appearance of the Germans as an end to Soviet terror. In eastern Galicia, German soldiers arrived with Ukrainian auxiliaries, many of them members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists faction led by Stepan Bandera. As the Wehrmacht moved eastward in late June and early July 1941, Soviet NKVD officers made mass arrests—and in Lviv massacred thousands of their prisoners. German and Ukrainian nationalist propaganda both blamed the massacre on “Judeo-Bolsheviks” and called for revenge. Jews were forced to collect the corpses of the murdered prisoners. On 30 June 1941 Stepan Bandera’s fellow nationalist leader Yaroslav Stetsko proclaimed a Ukrainian state. A day later saw the climax of a Ukrainian pogrom against Jews. Germans filmed the pogrom; Ukrainians carried it out.

Ukrainian nationalists had hoped for autonomy under the Germans; they were disappointed. Shortly after the proclamation of Ukrainian statehood, the Germans arrested both Stetsko and Bandera. They also forced Jews into the ghetto. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, associated with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, carried out a gruesome ethnic cleansing of Poles in German-occupied former eastern Poland. By July 1943 Lviv was Judenrein. The following summer—on 23 July 1944—the Polish Home Army, anti-German Polish partisans loyal to the Polish government-in-exile, took partial control of Lviv, and fought Ukrainian nationalists. Four days later, the Red Army occupied the city center.

As the war came to an end, both Soviets and Ukrainian locals in eastern Galicia agreed on the desirability of expelling the Poles. “Population exchanges” were carried out between Soviet Ukraine and Poland; “ethnic unmixing” was the spirit of the moment. Moscow sent Russians and Ukrainians from the east to help integrate Galicia and Volhynia; locals were to be made into Soviets. This social engineering project played out against the backdrop of a partisan war fought by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army against Soviet forces; the Ukrainian death toll from the Soviet counterinsurgency was approximately 112,000. In the end, the Soviets won.

After the war the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic included the west Ukrainian lands of eastern Galicia and Volhynia, as well as Transcarpathian Ruthenia taken from Czechoslovakia, and northern Bukovina taken from Romania. It existed until 1991; that year the Soviet Union dissolved, and Ukraine—like Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other former Soviet republics—became its own country. It was a revolutionary moment without a revolution. The Soviet Union was not overthrown; it collapsed. As a result of that collapse, Ukraine received independence. The most breathtaking social engineering experiment the world had known had come to an end.

From The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution by Marci Shore. Published by Yale University Press in 2018. Reproduced with permission.

Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University and award-winning author of Caviar and Ashes and The Taste of Ashes. She has spent much of her adult life in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Sky Turns Black from Smoke

Twitter message: 3591168?lang=en.

The Grandeur of Its Intentions

Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 247.

Taras Prochasko, W gazetach tego nie napisza ̨, trans. Renata Rusnak (Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2014), 28.

“civilizing mission”: Larry Wolff, The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

Mikhail Bulgakov, White Guard, trans. Michael Glenny (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 57.

the famine, the Terror, ethnic cleansing: Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

Stanyslav Lyudkevych: Ola Hnatiuk, Odwaga i strach (Wrocław: Kolegium Europy Wschodniej, 2015), 194.

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