Under the Kremlin’s Watchful Eye: can Ukraine follow Estonia’s break from Russia?


In September 1939, Estonia and the USSR signed a Mutual Assistance Pact based on:

Recognition of the independence of state and non-interference in internal affairs of either party; recognising that the peace treaty of February 2nd 1920 and the treaty of non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of conflicts (dated May 4th, 1932) continue to constitute firm basis of their mutual relations and obligations. (FO 371/23689)

The Pact would not ‘in any way infringe sovereign powers of the [the] contracting parties’.

By June 1940, Soviet troops had invaded Estonia. Using a clause in the Mutual Assistance Pact – which allowed for Soviet aerodromes and naval bases in Estonian territory – as a pretext for a military blockade of the independent state, Stalin easily made one of several successful territorial acquisitions at the beginning of WWII.

Although German forces ousted their Soviet foe from Estonia in 1941, embarking on their own three-year occupation, by the end of the war the Estonia Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) had been reestablished. It would remain in place until 1991.

The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification
The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification

Estonia had been independent during the inter-war years, boasting a population with Germanic, Nordic and Russian influences. Ukraine, meanwhile, having declared a short-lived People’s Republic in 1917, was by 1921 a state within the Soviet Union.

Having also been occupied by both Soviet and German troops during WWII, Ukraine was in a similarly-weak position to Estonia when it was re-incorporated into the Soviet sphere in 1944.

Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII
Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII

Whereas Estonia had cultural, linguistic and geographical ties with Baltic Europe and Scandinavia, Ukraine had for several centuries been subjected to strong Russian influence. This influence, as this year’s protests attest to, has been hard to shake off.

The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-European interim government in Kiev has led to accusations from the Kremlin of an ‘armed mutiny’ backed by the West. Commentators fear a split between Ukraine’s pro-European and pro-Russian segments of the population that could lead to a fracturing of the state.

In February 1958, Estonian exiles in London celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of their state, which they refused to accept was a legitimate component of the Soviet Union. One point was made particularly clear:

The Republic of Estonia was invaded by the USSR in June 1940…To this day the Estonian people are kept in bondage by the Soviets and prevented from exercising their basic rights as an independent and sovereign nation. (FO 371/134617)

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has turned abruptly away from its troubled Russian past, joining both the EU and NATO and making itself a popular business and tourist location for Westerners.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has retained a degree of the Russian ‘bondage’ that the Estonians bemoaned in 1958.

With an economy heavily dependent on Russian patronage and energy imports, a large demographic minority of ethnic Russians and extensive land borders with Russian territory, it will take more than the ousting of a Kremlin stooge for Ukraine’s sovereign integrity to finally be resurrected.

National Archive Sources

FO 371/23689 – ‘Soviet Relations with Baltic States’ (1939)

FO 371/134617 – ‘Non-Recognition by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of Annexation to Soviet Union’ (1958)

Other Sources

For more information of Estonia-Soviet Relations see: Davies N, Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011)

Ukraine’s Demonstrators: nationalists or anti-nationalists?

Violence within the demonstration movement in Ukraine has been blamed upon the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), an ultra-nationalist splinter group that has broken away from the main Euromaidan movement. Their hero is Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era nationalist who initially welcomed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union as a means of achieving Ukrainian independence.

Ukraine's protests have spread across the country, gaining in violence
Ukraine’s protests have spread across the country, gaining in violence

Bandera was ultimately imprisoned by the Nazis – who had no intention of fostering nascent independence movements – before being assassinated by KGB agents in 1959 for his continuing anti-Soviet stance. Former President Viktor Yushchenko made Bandera a posthumous Hero of the Ukraine in 2010, an honour revoked by the subsequent pro-Russian government.

Ukrainian nationalism was an influential factor in both World Wars, although it remains difficult to define. Nationalism is a notoriously tricky concept, very basically described as a devotion to one’s country. Writing in 1941, Harold Weinstein attempted to understand nationalism in Ukraine and its potential impact on World War Two:

The development of a distinctive Ukrainian nationalism has always been hampered by the historical, linguistic and religious affinity of the Ukrainians and the Russians. 

Noting that Russia and Ukraine had been united between the 9th and 13th centuries, and again during the 17th and 18th centuries, Weinstein suggested that many Ukrainians had been assimilated into a ‘Great-Russian nationality’. This was strengthened, he argued, by the fact that even during their centuries of political separation, Russia and Ukraine were aligned in their opposition to shared enemies, including the Tatars and Poles.

Prior to WWI, many observers failed to see Ukrainians as distinct to Russians (see legend)
Prior to WWI, many observers failed to see Ukrainians as distinct to Russians (see legend)

A definitive Ukrainian nationalism only truly developed during World War One, Weinstein argued. This was fostered both by the Bolshevik movement in Russia, the collapse of the Tsarist system and a massive decline in agricultural productivity. Stirred by a ‘nationalist intelligentsia’ in Austrian Galicia (where many ethnic Ukrainians resided), the peasantry began to agitate for a free and independent homeland. Having been forced to fight for the Tsar’s disastrous army at the beginning of the war, the majority of Ukrainians became increasingly disenchanted with their historic union.

In 1918, Ukrainian nationalists declared independence and invited a German invasion to further their aims. This they repeated in WWII. Weinstein was unsure what role the Ukrainian nationalists would play in the outcome of WWII:

Large sections of the Ukrainian population have been bound more firmly to the Russians by cultural assimilation, by industrialization and urbanization, by the inculcation of Communist doctrines and Soviet patriotism, and by the abandonment of forced Ukrainization…On the other hand, Soviet policy has heightened the cultural consciousness of many Ukrainians, which, together with opposition to Soviet political and economic policies, may provide many potential supporters for an anti-Soviet régime. 

Substitute Communist doctrine for ‘Putin’s Doctrine’ and Soviet with Russia and a similar situation to today can be seen.

Ukraine and Russia’s history is inextricably linked. Is it unnatural that they should share a common identity? Are the anti-government, and by extension anti-Russian sentiments, actually a sign of anti-nationalism? Or is the separateness and uniqueness of the Ukraine in danger of being eradicated by Yanukovych’s regime, requiring the modern nationalists to forge a new national identity and welcome new ties with the rest of Europe?

By no means do all Ukrainians favour a loosening of ties with Russia
By no means do all Ukrainians favour a loosening of ties with Russia

A majority will soon arise to make the decision clear.

Source: H.R. Weinstein, ‘New Factors in the Old Ukrainian Problem’, Foreign Affairs (October 1941)