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Leonid Kravchuk: The man who buried the Soviet Union

Roman Goncharenko
May 10, 2022

Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine, was a Soviet apparatchik who made mistakes — but was nonetheless a stroke of good fortune for his country. DW's Roman Goncharenko looks back on his life.

Ukraine Ex-Präsident Leonid Kravchuk
Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

In every country, there is a number one: the first to become its head of state. In Ukraine, it was Leonid Kravchuk. An apparatchik responsible for ideology and propaganda, he found himself at the helm of the second-largest Soviet republic in the fateful year of 1991 — and became the man who led Ukraine to independence from Moscow. Kravchuk played a key role in the disintegration of the communist empire more than 30 years ago.

He died aged 88, according to Ukrainian officials and media reports on Tuesday.

'A monkey with a grenade'

Ukraine owes its first president a great deal, yet at home, his legacy is seen as controversial. Kravchuk's landmark decision, in the early 1990s, to relinquish the massive nuclear arsenal his country had inherited from the Soviet Union — the third largest in the world at the time — is considered his biggest mistake, especially since the annexation of Crimea and now, in the face of Russia's war in Ukraine. But this is unfair: Newly independent Ukraine was politically and economically weak, and hardly in a position to withstand the pressure from the West and Russia.

In an interview with DW, Kravchuk once described his country as a "monkey with a grenade." The cost and responsibility nuclear weapons entailed were too great for Kyiv to take on, he said, so the nuclear button remained in Moscow. Kravchuk did the right thing. Of course, he should have negotiated better security guarantees, but no one at the time thought that Russia would one day wage war on Ukraine. 

Ukraine's depressing reputation as a champion of corruption and missed opportunities also has its roots in Kravchuk's tenure. The criticism is justified. In particular, the bankruptcy of the Black Sea Shipping Company, which had hundreds of cruise ships stationed in Odesa, is a major blot on his record. But even his association with oligarchs, and his controversial support for pro-Russian forces, after his term in office do not change the fact that, in hindsight, his presidency was a stroke of luck for his country.

three men stand at a table
Former Ukrainians Presidents Viktor Yushchenko (left), Leonid Kuchma (center) and Leonid Kravchuk (right) at an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv in January 2014Image: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

The communist ideologue who changed sides  

Born in 1934 in a region that was then in Poland before becoming part of western Ukraine, Kravchuk was a farmer's son who climbed the Communist Party career ladder. He became a lecturer in propaganda, and in the final years of the Soviet Union he rose to the highest echelons of power — all the way to the politburo, or central ruling body, of Soviet Ukraine, where he headed the department that oversaw ideology.

In August 1991, the fate of the Soviet Union was sealed with the failure of the coup against its president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Leonid Kravchuk had been chairman of the Ukrainian parliament for just over a year. On August 24, 1991, under his leadership, the parliament voted in favor of Ukrainian independence, and three months later, on December 1, its decision was confirmed by referendum. Kravchuk was elected the first president of Ukraine that same day. About a week later, he, his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin, and the Belarusian parliamentary leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, signed the agreement that announced the dissolution of the USSR.

The power-hungry Yeltsin was clearly the driving force behind this declaration, but if Ukraine had not been involved, history would have taken a different path. Kravchuk was in the right place at the right time. He came across as moderate and statesmanlike, and was a compromise figure that suited both nationalists in western Ukraine and pro-Russian communists in the east.

Leonid Kravchuk
Leonid Kravchuk died at the age of 88Image: Olena Khudiakova/Ukrinform/IMAGO

Peaceful transition of power

Kravchuk steered Ukraine through difficult years. Europe's second-largest country, with a population of around 52 million, was forced to re-learn everything. It had no experience of being an independent state. Its transition from a planned to a market economy, and from party dictatorship to democracy, was a painful one. Millions of Ukrainians found themselves living in poverty. The shopping cart that came to symbolize the deprivations of the period was nicknamed a "kravchuchka."

But Ukraine survived — and Kravchuk should take some of the credit. For all his faults, as president he succeeded in maintaining peace and political stability in the country. This was quite an achievement at a time when most of the other former Soviet republics were riven by civil war.

Nonetheless, public opinion turned against him, and early presidential elections were held in the summer of 1994. Kravchuk lost to his prime minister, Leonid Kuchma. This, too, was a new and important experience: the peaceful transition of power. Many other ex-Soviet republics envied Ukraine for this. It was perhaps Kravchuk's greatest achievement, along with the survival of Ukraine as an independent state — something that was by no means inevitable.

This obituary was originally written in German.