Next week, on August 24, Ukraine will be celebrating its official Independence Day. It does so amid no shortage of internal political turmoil and a continuing low-grade war on its eastern borders.
Ukraine has been struggling to assert itself as an independent democratic nation since it broke free from the repressive bondage of the USSR in 1991. Beset by persistent and never-ending aggression and subversion by its historical nemesis Russia, and tepid support from its supposed European and the western allies, its future is uncertain, and there is not particularly much for Ukrainians today to feel good about.
When one looks back at the past thousand years of Ukrainian history, one could reasonably conclude it was ever thus. For most of its existence, Ukraine has had to struggle to maintain its identity and independence against an onslaught of enemies and invaders from all directions. Struggle and tragedy have been the ever-present companions of Ukrainians throughout all those generations.
And yet, as we celebrate yet another Independence Day, it may be appropriate for us to focus not on the darker and painful aspects of Ukraine’s past, but on those shining and inspirational moments when the Ukrainian spirit showed its true strength, resolve and courage. There was a time, and in fact there were many times, when Ukrainians demonstrated what they were capable of. I would like to offer a few examples of this that we can all look back upon with no small measure of pride.
One of the most familiar of these was the remarkable life of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky. He started out as a low-ranked member of the Chyhyryn detachment of Kozaks. After being dispossessed of his lands by a Polish magnate he rebelled and helped organize a major rebellion against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which then ruled most of Ukraine west of the Dnipro River. His skill as a military leader and his personal charisma led to his eventually being named Hetman of all Kozaks. In a series of campaigns, he managed to defeat all the Polish armies sent against him, and push them all the way back into Poland. Although the Kozak state he created was eventually crushed by the Russians, he showed what Ukrainians are capable of when they are riled up and led by great and competent leaders.
Another great example was Hetman Petro Sahaidachniy, one of Khmelnitsky’s predecessors, whose military prowess was remarkable. In 1618, his Kozak army enjoyed a series of brilliant successes against Russian forces, pushing their way deep into Russia and eventually besieging Moscow, forcing the Russians to sign a humiliating peace treaty. Three years later, Hetman Sahaidachniy, together with his Polish allies, managed to defeat a 160,000 strong Ottoman army at the Battle of Khotyn, stopping a Turkish invasion of Western Ukraine.
Pylyp Orlyk was another Hetman worthy of mention, not so much for his military accomplishments, as for his intellect and statesmanship. As successor to the famous Hetman Ivan Mazepa, in 1710 he drafted a constitution for the Hetman state that could have served as a template all succeeding constitutions for newly formed democratic states. In it, he prescribed an elected parliament and a separation of government powers between the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government. Although his ambitions for an independent Ukraine were quashed by the Russians under Peter I, Orlyk created the standards that were later emulated by almost all future democratic state constitutions.
Any retrospective of the high points of Ukrainian history cannot be complete without highlighting the glory days of the Kyivan Rus state, which between the ninth and thirteenth centuries was the largest and most successful nation state in Europe. A series of brilliant leaders including Prince Oleh, Sviatoslav I, Volodymyr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise, managed to unite the Slavic tribes that lived in the vast expanses north of the Black Sea all the way to the Gulf of Finland into a might Kyivan Rus state which dominated Eastern Europe for some four centuries until the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. Their accomplishments in all aspects of civilization building and the spread of Christianity throughout Eastern Europe, were unparalleled for that time.
There is much in Ukrainian history that we can look back on and admire, and as the Ukrainian anthem reminds us, no invader or aggressor has ever succeeded in extinguishing us as a people or a nation, and no one ever will. Slava Ukrayini – Heroyam Slava! (Glory to Ukraine and Glory to its Heroes!)