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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Ukraine: A brief history of the divided nation

        Ukraine, a country divided between East and West, had numerous difficult historical episodes. It is located in Eastern Europe, bordered to the north and east by Russia and Belarus, to the west by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, and to the south by the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. The modern Ukraine is divided in two parts by the Dnieper (Dnipro) River, which flows from north to south and into the Black Sea. This division is very important because Dnipro River constituted a border between Russian and Polish-Lithuanian controlled areas of Ukraine, and it still encounters references to Left Bank (eastern) and Right Bank (western) Ukraine.

Ukrainian cossacks
            Ukraine’s rich history dates far into the pre-historical period, but in terms of the first kind of state which arose on the Ukrainian territory it is important to mention Kievan Rus, from the 9th century AD. Later on, from 1240 to 1660s, most of Ukrainian lands were ruled by either Poland or Lithuania, which merged into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The name Ukraine and the whole concept behind that name, were first introduced to a broader Western public in 1660. That happened in the publication named Description d’Vkranie, issued by the French military engineer and architect Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, who spent several years working in Ukraine. He used the term Ukraine to denote all the provinces of the Kingdom of Poland that constituted the steppe frontier of the Commonwealth. During the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, some parts of Ukraine became the dominion of the Cossacks, who revolted several times against its rule. Their great rebellion ended when their leadership appealed to the Russian tsar for help, which would change Ukrainian history for the following 350 years. The Cossack leader Khmelnytsky accepted the Russian tsar’s overlordship of Ukraine and Russian tsar became the autocrat of all Great and Little Russia (Ukraine). 

        As a consequence, Ukraine was divided between Poland and Russia in 1667, after almost a decade of struggle between Russian and Poland. Russia received the Left Bank and Poland managed to retain the control over the Right Bank. Despite the fact that Cossack treaty with Russia was extremely unsuccessful, the importance of Cossacks for the formation of the Ukrainian identity is still very important. As a historian Serhii Plokhy states: “…the name Ukraine … had developed into a central element of Cossack identity and an object of ultimate political loyalty.” In the aftermath of the unsuccessful Cossack revolts of the mid-seventeenth century, the most of the Ukrainian lands fell under Russian control, which resulted in gradual strengthening of the tsar’s power. The term “Little Russians”, which referred to Ukrainians, was coined by Russians in order to discourage the rise of a distinct Ukrainian identity. Even though the Russian tsar ruled over Left Bank Ukraine, the Cossacks had some form of self-government, holding several territories. The most important of these territories was named the Cossack Hetmanate, while Russians called it Malorossiia (Little Russia).
           At the end of the 1700s, almost 90% of Ukrainian territory fell under the Russian control. Russian rule over the Ukrainian lands was very repressive, with the Russian tsar as the supreme authority.  The another major power which ruled over certain parts of modern Ukraine was Austria, which acquired eastern Galicia in 1772, after the partition of Poland. In 1774, Austria acquired Bukovyna, ethnically mixed region south of Galicia. Another land inhabited by Ukrainians was Transcarpathia, which had been under Hungarian rule since medieval period, and later it remained part of the Habsburg Empire (after 1867 it was known as Austria-Hungary). Later on, in 1795, Austria acquired the rest of Galicia, and merged its both parts into one single province. Ukrainians who inhabited territories annexed by the Habsburg Empire were called Ruthenians, and their historical path will be different from that of Ukrainians under the Russian (Soviet) rule. The middle of the 19th century was marked by the emerging strength of the Ukrainian national ideology, which was initiated by the group of small Ukrainian patriots in spite the possibility of tsarist repression. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and during the Civil War, the most peripheral parts of the Russian Empire declared themselves as independent. One of those states was named the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, and it was formed in 1917. This independence was short-lived, and eventually most of the Ukrainian lands were incorporated into the Soviet Union, while the remainder, located in western Ukraine, was divided among Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

         After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Ukrainian drive towards independence became stronger than ever, which eventually resulted in the declaration of independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Nowadays, Ukraine is state which made a complete drift toward European Union, while having significant issues with Russia.
Despite the fact that Ukraine still struggles with different issues related to its rich and difficult history, it is unquestionably true that Ukrainians managed to build their own national identity. As a historian Serhii Plokhy states:
“The modern Ukrainian identity developed out of the Ukrainian/Little Russian project of the Hetmanate, excluding Russians and Belarusians and taking over not only the formerly Polish-ruled Right-Bank Ukraine but also Austrian Galicia, Bukovyna, and eventually Transcarpathia, providing legitimacy for the creation of one nation out of historically, culturally, and religiously diverse regions.”
Euromaidan protests in 2014

            Consequently, it can be concluded that in spite of the historical difficulties related to the territorial division of Ukrainian lands, Ukrainians succeeded to create their nation and state. However, the complexity of the Ukrainian historical relations still remains an important issue in the era of the modern Ukrainian state, which became a sort of “battlefield” between East and West, with very unpredictable future for some parts of Ukraine. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Leopold II: the murder and exploitation of Congo

The story of the Congo is one of the most fascinating stories about European greed and lust for the vast African resources in the era of the expanding European colonial empires. It was an inspiration for the famous novel "Heart of Darkness", written by Joseph Conrad, which was later on an inspiration for the 1979 movie hit "Apocalypse Now", starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen (just in case you did not know).

Since the 16th century, the Congo River estuary had been a slave port, and most of the country was colonized by the late 1800s.  However, the rule of Belgian King Leopold II would be the most oppressive and terrorizing rule that Congolese people had ever seen. In the early years of his reign, he displayed an interest in African territories, which would eventually result in calling a conference in 1876, when he summoned famous humanitarians and travellers to come to Brussels. The conference had to show Leopold’s alleged philanthropic intentions, which served as a veil for his notorious desire for power and wealth. The participants of that conference established the International African Association, whose first chairman was the king himself. That organization would become his means to seize a new territory which would become the main source of his wealth. Leopold even employed a famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley as the main agent of his organization, whose aim was to open the Congo State for trade. Meanwhile, Leopold established a new organization called the International Association of the Congo, whose real aim was finding the rich source of ivory, which was the more expensive counterpart of today’s plastics.  In the following decades, Leopold’s greed would quickly reach its peak, causing the destruction of thousands of innocent lives.
After the Berlin conference (1884-1885), Leopold succeeded in gaining recognition from the major European powers, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Congo Free State by king’s royal decree in 1885. It is interesting that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in 1897, thirteen years after the Berlin Conference, when European powers partitioned Africa without consulting its inhabitants or concerning the ethical consequences of their decision.  Those consequences would be evident in a form of one of the bloodiest genocides in the human history.
In the following years, the minor white population began to drain ivory resources of the Congo, while the black people were forced to work hard as porters, including the children. This practice was based on the Victorian idea of white superiority in comparison with uncivilized and primitive black beings. The terror spread all over the country, black people were mutilated and hanged if they failed to fulfil the norms set by their superiors. Even Joseph Conrad himself acknowledged what he had seen during his travel towards the new workplace in Leopold’s state: “A great melancholy descended on me. Yes, this was the very spot. But there was no shadowy friend to stand by my side in the night of the enormous wilderness, no great haunting memory, but only,… the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.“ (Conrad) After this testimony of the circumstances in the Belgian Congo, Conrad saw more evidence of “the vilest scramble for loot”: “Met an officer of the State inspecting. A few minutes afterwards saw at a camping place the dead body of a Backongo. Shot?” (Conrad ) Skeletons, graves of the white men, and similar terryfing scenes throughout the Congo Free State convinced Conrad that intentions of whites in Africa are not as humanitarian as they were presented in Europe, because the only thing white people brought to Africa was indeed “the vilest scramble for loot”. However, the terror was not spread only by the officials and traders, because Leopold’s state was organized as a military one, with its own powerful military force.

The reign of Leopold’s terror was supported by the main military force formed in 1888, which was called “The Force Publique” whose members were from different parts of Europe.  Different companies which operated in the newly established privately run Leopold’s state were under protection of the Force Publique. It supplied them with firepower, even most of them had their own military forces. The horror-state formed in front of the European and American eyes, would eventually come to an end (at least in the form of the privatized company led by Leopold’s officials) in 1908, after becoming a Belgian colony under the rule of the Belgian government. 
In the end, Leopold's bloody African reign killed more than 10 million Congolese people, while leaving an enormously negative impact on the Congolese future, making that area unstable for decades.
INTERESTING FACTS: This picture was taken in 1958 in Brussels, the capital of Belgium (nowadays the capital of the European Union). The Congolese village was displayed in the form of the human zoo.