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'Ukraine's independence is a miracle'

Dmytro Kaniewski
August 24, 2016

On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union following the failed coup in Moscow. DW spoke with renowned historian Andreas Kappeler, who has followed Ukraine's nation building since the 1970s.

Ukraine Militärparade 25. Jahrestag Unabhängigkeit
Image: Reuters/G. Garanich

"'Ukraine is not Russia' - and I was the first to make this claim," Andreas Kappeler said with a twinge of affable irony in his voice, making clear his reference to the book of that title by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. When the book came out in 2003, it sparked immediate controversy in Russia. But Kappeler has been making that case since the early 1970s.

Back then Kappeler was one of the very few scholars from outside of the bloc to closely study the complex multiethnic problems of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union, as well as the development of a modern Ukrainian national identity.

And it seems that Kappeler is dealing pretty well with his own multinationality: Born in 1943 in Switzerland, he worked for many years in Germany as a professor of East European history in the University of Cologne. In 1998 Kappeler moved to Vienna, where DW caught up with the renowned scholar.

Andreas Kappeler
Kappeler is cautiously optimistic that Ukraine will retain its independence this timeImage: DW/D. Kaniewski

'Russia's long arm'

Kappeler's colleagues sometimes call him a "discoverer" of Ukraine - before him, hardly any of his contemporaries or predecessors in Western Europe had conducted research on the vast territory. Back in those days, Ukraine, then still one of 15 Soviet republics, was largely perceived as "Russia's long arm."

"Honestly speaking, back in those days I could not imagine Ukraine's future as an independent state," Kappeler said, recalling his first visit, in 1970. He went back exactly 20 years after, in 1990, and found a very different country. The once-sleepy Soviet province had awoken, and Kappeler was eyewitness to its social transformation: Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms had paved the way to 1989's revolutions in Central and East European states and Germany's reunification in October 1990, and a national movement was taking root in Ukraine, as well. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was officially allowed to function again after a decadeslong ban, student hunger strikes helped lead to a collapse of the government, and mass independence demonstrations were held in various cities almost daily. All of that was accompanied by efforts to reinstate national symbols such as Ukraine's yellow-and-blue flag. Even the KGB - the omnipotent secret service that had played an instrumental role in suppressing opposition in the USSR - stopped short of mass persecution of ordinary demonstrators.

That the old system had been diminished seemed obvious, Kappeler said. But even then few in Western Europe or the United States foresaw the rapidly approaching birth of an independent state. "Ukraine's independence is a miracle," Kappeler said. "Although the Soviet system indeed died in 1991, it could not be ruled out that a part of the USSR had a chance to continue its existence in some other form," he added. "History shows examples of possible alternative developments of events."

Even after the independence declaration was adopted by Ukraine's parliament on August 24, 1991, foreign leaders remained skeptical about the significance of the event, Kappeler said. "Just one year before, Ukraine had adopted a declaration of a state sovereignty that in reality did not change anything. It was only after the Belavezha Accords that the West started to take this all seriously," he said, referring to tjhe December 1991 meeting in Belarus at which leaders of three former Soviet republics agreed to dissolve the USSR.

Twenty-five years on, Kappeler said Ukraine's very independence remained the nation's biggest achievement. Even if recent polls suggest that roughly half the population does not consider Ukraine to be fully independent, the country is back on Europe's geographic and mental map after decades behind the Iron Curtain.

Not all's well

Kappeler has a critical view of the transformations that have taken place across the post-Soviet states in the past quarter of a century. In Ukraine, for example, the economy has fallen dramatically since 1991, inflation has ballooned, and large-scale corruption continues to rise. Jubilation in the capital, Kyiv, after Maidan protesters forced out Russia-aligned President Viktor Yanukovych was short-lived - and almost immediately followed by Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the beginnings of what would become a bloody war against separatists in the east.

Still, Kappeler said, these events should be examined in a broader historical context: The building of a state has never been a walk in the park. "For Ukraine's nation-building process, the last two years are the years of defining significance," he said.

Both Ukraine and Russia are still in search of their post-Soviet identities and their places in a globalized world. Their troubled histories overlapped for many years, and their relationship will be overshadowed by recent conflict for many years to come, Kappeler said, adding that officials in Moscow remain uncomfortable with Ukrainian independence even 25 years on.

Ukrainians have been robbed of their independence several times, but Kappeler does not favor a cyclical view of history. The current government has the support of the EU and United States. This was not the case in the early 20th century, when the Ukrainian People's Republic ceased to existence following the Bolshevik invasion. Kappeler said he was optimistic that the country would fare better this time around. "Ukraine is indeed on the path of reforms - even if the progress is utterly slow." Both inside Ukraine and abroad, he said, the initial predictions of 25 years ago had perhaps been way too unrealistic: "We should have realized better that the fall of a Soviet regime alone will not turn a newly born country into a prosperous state overnight."