Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine (Part II) Interview by Nadia K. McConnell with Dr. Serhii Plohii

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine (Part II) Interview by Nadia K. McConnell with Dr. Serhii Plohii

Without Rukh, without Ivan Drach and Myhailo Horyn There Would Be No Independence

Nadia McConnell: Speaking of Ukraine’s independence, I would like to ask you: how many times was Ukraine an independent state in the past, for how long, and is her present-day independence historically the longest?

Serhii Plokhii: Indeed, the Act of Independence adopted in 1991 was the fifth attempt to proclaim Ukraine’s independence in the course of the 20th century. The previous attempts were unsuccessful; some of them were particularly futile. For instance, the independent Carpathian Ukraine existed for a few days only. The Ukrainian state proclaimed by OUN in 1941 did not last a single day. Even the Ukrainian People’s Republic proclaimed in January 1918 had an intermittent and complex history. Therefore, it is hard to say how many days Ukraine’s independence lasted, in all, prior to 1991. For one, it had been intermittent. Besides, to get a partial independence from Russia, Ukraine had to become more dependent on other states, like it was under Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi in 1918. There is no doubt that in August 1991 we obtained the longest independence of Ukraine since the times of the Kyivan Rus. In other words, the independence under Hetman Khmelnytsky and Hetman Vyhovsky was much shorter than what we have today. The present generation of Ukrainians has lived with independence for a longer time than any other generation for centuries.

N.M.: I do not believe that everybody really has an appreciation for this fact that we will be able to celebrate 30 years of Ukraine’s independence, while previous attempts were very short lived. So, we need to think about why this declaration of independence has been more successful. I would like to talk about the events of 1989-1991 that preceded the Act of Independence. Let us talk about the events that were taking place and the impacts they had on Ukraine’s civil society as it later endorsed the call for independence. From the impacts of Chernobyl to the movement of “soldiers’ mothers” who wanted to protect the rights of their sons that had been sent to fight in Afghanistan. I think the commemoration of the Millennium of Christianity saw a sort of awakening within the Ukrainian society. How do you think those or any other events contributed to the strength of Ukraine’s proclaimed independence in 1991?

S.P.: All those factors have contributed to the advancement of independence. Chernobyl became the starting point of Ukraine’s modern politics, with the establishment of the first political party besides the Communist: the “Green World”. It signified mass mobilization. Another contributing factor that also facilitated mass mobilization was the return of legal status to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. That, once again, was taking people on the streets and delegitimizing the ruling authority. It is linked to the Millennium of Christianity, as the Millennium became a first step, and then it was followed by the UGCC legalization.

There were two things that the government could not ban. One was social mobilization on environmental issues related to Chernobyl. The other was about the freedom of religion. The government had acknowledged both of those demands as legitimate. A third factor of mass mobilization was industrial workers’ strikes, especially in the Donbas. Those three factors were the most salient. There were other factors as well, although less significant. You mentioned Afghanistan and the movement of soldiers’ mothers. Afghanistan remained an unknown war, for the most part. The government managed to hide the truth about that war better than about Chernobyl. The mobilization around this issue was limited to small groups, such as the soldiers’ mothers protecting their sons. That movement mattered, too – but it was less significant than the three other factors which were bringing people on the streets against the will of the Communist power.

N.M.: You have had a lifelong experience of living in Ukraine and then observing it intensely even after you moved away. My first ever trip to Ukraine was in 1990, to take part in the Human Chain for Unity, and over the next two years I must have made eight or nine additional trips, so I observed those events from an outsider perspective. And I was really struck by the strategic approach of the Rukh under the leadership of Ivan Drach and Mykhailo Horyn, in terms of how they activated and mobilized supporters.  It was extraordinary how they organized the Human Chain itself, in every detail. They had buses to deliver people from cities like Ivano-Frankivsk to remote locations, so that the Human Chain would stretch continuously from Lviv to Kyiv. But I could also see that there was no overall strategic plan of getting candidates for the March elections in 1990; some of it became spontaneous as different people would decide it might be an opportunity to win, and some of them did win, of course. In the parliament, they ended up with 125 members of the Narodna Rada (the Democratic Bloc) against 239 Communists.  These numbers show that the Democratic Bloc was a relatively small minority in the legislature. Yet, a few months later, in July, they were able to pass the Declaration of Sovereignty – which, for me, was a phenomenal success! And then, just a year later, the declaration of independence came in August 1991, and it was conditioned by getting the people to approve it in a referendum on December 1. How do you analyze that period, and how do you explain this success of the democratic forces, despite having such a small number in the parliament?

S.P.: It goes without saying: there would have been no independence without the Rukh. And indeed, Rukh was a minority. The world is usually determined by a minority – when it is mobilized and has a viable alternative to propose. Although the Rukh was a minority, it had an idea, a viable alternative vision— first, the sovereignty, and later, the independence – which no one else could propose. In the situation of 1990-1991, it appealed to many different groups as a solution of their problems: from the National Communists who decided that they would benefit from the independence to the Donbas coal miners who assumed that the government in Kyiv would be closer and more responsive to them than the government in Moscow, to an ordinary resident in the East who had never thought about independence, but, what with the collapsing economy, began to think that Ukraine would do better on its own than within the Soviet Union. Thus, the idea proposed by a minority became very timely and gained a strong mobilizing power. One might say that this situation repeated the Ukrainian success of March 1917 – when Hrushevsky could not believe his eyes seeing how many people turned out for a pro-Ukraine political rally. At that time, the Central Council came up with an alternative that no one else could propose, which then was the autonomy for Ukraine. So, I totally agree with you.

You mentioned the amazing Human Chain that stretched from Lviv to Kyiv. And we know that it did not extend across all Ukraine – to Kharkiv, Simferopol or Donetsk. This indicates that, nationwide, the Rukh remained a minority, even though it was an important political player. Its influence was regionally contained. The independence became possible in 1991 because this idea got accepted by other players who had not been standing for it before – most importantly, the National Communists of Leonid Kravchuk. This was an example of the power of ideas, mobilization, and political leadership.

N.M.: Yes, that was something that I really grasped then: the Rukh’s leadership included both Communist Party functionaries like Ivan Drach, a member of the Writers Union, and recent political prisoners like Mykhailo Horyn, who had spent 15 or 18 years in the Gulag. Remarkably, this was a very strong partnership, and they were able to bring all of those groups together.

S.P.: They all started in the ranks of the same Komsomol, together with Viacheslav Chornovil; but then some of them decided to conceal their views and remain in the Party, while others were speaking out. However, one might say that there was no fundamental chasm between Drach and Horyn. That is why, when the Communist Party got banned, no one came out in protest. We talked about mass movements related to Chernobyl, the Greek Catholic Church, coal miners’ strikes… But there was never a movement or mass mobilization to defend the CPSU. For most people, membership in the CPSU was a required formality that did not reflect their free choice of ideas or orientations.

N.M.: Going to the Referendum vote, its sheer numbers were phenomenal: nearly 93% of the people of Ukraine voted for independence, over 50% in the Crimea, and in the Donbas area as well, and that is what secured Ukraine’s independence. So why has Ukraine chosen to celebrate her Independence holiday as an anniversary of the parliament vote in August rather than the day when the people democratically voted for their independence?

S.P.: I don’t think I can explain this factually because I was not involved in those decisions. But this is how I explain it to myself: throughout the referendum campaign it was emphasized that independence had been proclaimed, and now the popular vote only had to confirm it. Once that vote took place, it was hard to go about-face and say that we had not been independent then, but are only getting there now. Those who led the campaign for independence believed that August 24 was the day when they broke the shackles that bound them to Moscow, or to the Union, or to Russia, or to the Empire. That was the turning point. And then it only remained to do the paperwork – after the marriage had been dissolved.