The events in Ukraine have, for the past couple of months, gripped the world: from the protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square, the overthrowing of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government, and the breakaway status of Crimea, Ukraine has become the centre of attention for many news channels. But how much do we actually know about the situation in Ukraine or, for that matter, in Russia? The answer, for most of us, is probably very little. The nation which divides the line between the European and the Russian world has for a long time been caught between a rock and hard place in this regard but until the Ukranian protests began few paid attention to the eastern European nation. What many of us knew about Ukraine was limited to the massive explosion of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1989. Even within Europe, discussion of the nation – which is not a member of the EU – was limited in the media.
Russia, on the other hand, seems to perpetually infiltrate the western mindset and media. From the Cold War to fall of the Soviet Union and the more recent rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, nervous glances have been cast toward the world’s largest nation. To many, Russia has come across as the enemy in the ongoing dispute with the US, leading the way for criticism of Putin and Russia’s stance on Ukraine. As such, we’ve taken a look at some other memorable moments in Russian history which have perhaps contributed to negative perceptions of the nation. The country has an undeniably turbulent past, and has seen a series of conflicts since the Revolution in 1917 – which was, of course, in the midst of World War One. All these events took place during the twentieth century, giving a sense of the scale of disruption to these regions in recent years. In solidarity with Ukrainians, and indeed the many Russians who lost their lives as a result of these conflicts, here are the top 5 most controversial moments in recent Russian history.
5. 1980 Olympics and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
A decade before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, few imagined that this superpower would fragment so spectacularly. There were problems within the Soviet Union and the broader USSR, but not to the extent that the world’s largest nation would implode. That’s not to say that many nations were close friends of the Communist nation: the Cold War brought about a them-or-us mentality between east and west which came to a head in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Only the previous year, the Soviet Union had invaded neighbouring Afghanistan, sparking widespread condemnation from the international community. Ambassadors and envoys were recalled, curt press conferences were held and the US backed the Afghan resistance and as the Summer Olympics approached they urged the international community not to take part. The result was that 65 countries-including the United States, Canada and China- boycotted the event with President Carter leading the way. The Soviet Union did not formally withdraw from Afghanistan until 1989, a decade after the conflict began. War continued in the nation however, and the epoch is now seen as contributing to laying the foundations for the Taliban’s rise to power: Civil war followed in Afghanistan from 1992, until 1996, when the Taliban gained power.
4. The Winter War
In terms of international conflict, most of us tend to think of the early 1940s as dominated by the German invasions of Europe, the persecution of the Jews and Hitler’s fanatical rise to – and dramatic fall from – power. Of course, all this is true, but what is often overlooked is that there were several other conflicts and battlegrounds that made up the Second World War.
One such overlooked piece of history is the Winter War, which took place between the snow-covered nations of Finland and the Soviet Union. Finland’s close proximity to Russia and in particular the city of St. Petersburg meant that there was a long history between the two nations. When Germany declared war, the Soviet Union was, understandably, fearful of invasion. They saw Finland as their weak spot and so requested permission to occupy bases in Finnish territory. The Finns were scared of invasion from the opposing forces and refused – so Russia occupied them anyway.
At this stage, Finland was neutral in any international conflict so the Soviet presence changed things greatly for the nation. In addition there was little public support for the Soviets even before they invaded and when they did, the international community were almost united in disapproval. The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union but Finland, underprepared and unable to compete with the Soviet army, was quickly overwhelmed. A peace treaty was signed in Moscow in 1940, but to this day there is little love lost in Finland for Russia. Casualties on the Finnish side were high and during the Cold War the Soviet-Finnish border was perpetually poised for battle.
3. Chechen Wars
This is a more recent contender to our list in terms of conflict, but the state of Chechnya and the Russian Federation goes back many centuries: initial conflict over the area – which lies in the Caucasus region, close to the equally contested territories of South Ossetia and Dagestan – began in the nineteenth century. After the Second World War, the region was singled out by Stalin for collaborating with the Nazis and many Chechens were sent to gulags in Siberia. After Stalin’s death however, the majority of these people were pardoned and returned to their native lands. It was the fall of the USSR and later the Soviet Union which sparked newfound attempts by Chechnya to declare independence.
In 1994 the Russian army entered the region to overthrow the separatist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev. The war which lasted two years was bloody and unpopular even within Russia. A ceasefire was declared in 1996 and a treaty was signed granting Chechnya increased autonomy. There was peace, until 1999, when Chechen fighters crossed into Dagestan to support the declaration of an independent Islamist state in the region, sparking the Second Chechen War: the war lasted a decade, caused massive loss of life on the Chechen side and has further polarised the Caucasus region. Sporadic violence is still a part of life in the region, which is spectacularly oil rich, in spite of its small size.
2. The Purges
A moment of tragic fanaticism and paranoia in Russia, the Purges are some of the darkest moments of the Soviet Union and demonstrate, for many, the risks of such an autocratic regime. The Purges took place in the mid-1930s in Russia after the joy and excitement of the establishment of the new Communist state had worn off. The country was lacking in infrastructure and technology and attempts to advance the state had been hard on the people. Leader Josef Stalin found the answer in ‘cleansing’ or ‘purging’ the Communist party of those who were less than committed or who did not hold true to the Party values. Party members were encouraged to denounce others, and public trials were held at Party meetings.
The most prolific of the trials were held in Moscow in 1936 and 1938 although the events were repeated in Party offices throughout the country. Fear spread across the country with those accused arrested in the dead of night, hastily tried and more often than not, found guilty. They were then deported to labour camps in the most inhospitable parts of the country or in others cases were executed. There was typically little hard evidence to convict members on, and accusations were frequently made out of fear, intimidation, or a personal grudge or dislike of a person. The secret police, or NKVD, were instrumental in spreading the sense of terror, with society becoming ever more introverted in an attempt to protect itself. After the war and Stalin’s death his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, publicly denounced the Purges and indeed much of Stalin’s regime. The majority of those held in labour camps in Siberia were released and pardoned in an attempt to reconcile Soviets with past events.
1. Ukraine, the first time around
It is a bitter irony that Russia’s present actions in Ukraine, which have provoked this retrospective, are reminding us of Russia’s past interactions with the region. The region has always been viewed as separate to Russia through linguistic and ethnic differences, yet paradoxically it’s also very close. Ukraine was part of the lands of imperial Russia under the Tsars as well as part of the USSR in the twentieth century. The differences between the two regions, however, both create the desire for independence in Ukraine and give Russians a sense of distance from the lands. Strategically, Ukraine is important to Russia: their lands are fertile and ideal for farming, they have a coastline along the Black Sea and their western border links with Europe.
In the lead up to the purges of the 1930s, Russia attempted to advance the farming industry in Ukraine both through the mechanisation of labour and the controversial collectivisation of lands. This meant that rather than each peasant farming their own strip of land through which they fed themselves, they all worked on enormous farms. The idea was that all produce would go to the State and would then be redistributed fairly to the people.
The reality was far from it: some lands yielded little or no food, while others produced ample foodstuffs. Peasants protested collectivisation but little attention was paid. In both arable and barren lands the people starved. Deaths from this period are well into the millions in Ukraine alone while in Russia many more starved. In Ukraine, a fertile country, food was centralised in Russia, and Ukrainians were left to starve in a period of history known as Holodomor.
Today the events are viewed as a genocide of Ukrainians who were left to starve and unable to cross the border into Russia where food supplies were being kept. While Ukraine declared the events a genocide in 2006, Russia still doesn’t recognise it as such – instead stating that the starvation was a larger part of history pertaining to Russians as well as Ukrainians. The starvation, along with the sub-zero temperatures of winter in Ukraine, meant that in some circumstances, cannibalism was the only remaining method of survival. Holodomor is the more telling example of the cruelty of the Stalinist regime for those in the USSR. The tragedy? Had collectivisation not been so forcefully implemented there would have been little or no food shortages in Ukraine, and many regions of Russia could have also escaped famine. Collectivisation was eventually determined a failure in the late thirties. By then as many as 4 or 5 million Ukrainians had died.