Ukraine’s Struggle For Independence

Michael Kurth Friday, May 6, 2022 Comments Off on Ukraine’s Struggle For Independence
Ukraine’s Struggle For Independence

To justify his recent invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin claimed “The Ukraine” is historically part of Russia and the Russian and Ukrainian people are one and the same. Most Ukrainians, however, would disagree with Putin’s interpretation of history. To understand Ukrainian nationalism and the peoples’ passion for independence and freedom, it is necessary to understand their history.

Russia gets its name from the Rus people who were Vikings from central Sweden. The Vikings are best known for raiding coastal areas of Europe and sailing across the North Atlantic to Iceland and eventually North America.  

But the Rus were “river Vikings.”  They sailed down the Volga and Dnieper Rivers to the Black Sea, establishing towns and villages from whence they controlled the lucrative trade routes that stretched from the Baltic all the way to Bagdad.

As they settled this region, the Rus Vikings encountered the vestiges of the eastern Roman empire. The Roman empire was split in half in the third century. The western part was governed from Rome, which would become the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, while the eastern part — known as the Byzantine Empire — was governed from Constantinople, which was the seat of the Orthodox Christian Church.  These two branches of Christianity were often rivals, and the Danube River was generally the dividing line between them. When one travels along the Danube today, to the west most churches have steeples and the written language uses the Latin alphabet, while to the east, the churches have the domes characteristic of the Eastern Orthodox Church and most written language uses some version of the Cyrillic alphabet.  

When the blonde-haired, blue-eyed river Vikings arrived in this crossroads of cultures, they often inter-married with the local population, which included Serbs, Slavs, Turks, Tartars and Cossacks, and they adopted the Eastern Orthodox religion.  In the ninth century, they formed a powerful and prosperous multicultural state known as the Kievan Rus. 

The Kievan Rus lasted approximately three hundred years; then the Mongolian hoards swept in from central Asia and Constantinople fell to the Muslims. The Ottoman Empire controlled most of this territory. 

Ukraine served as a bulwark against both the Mongols and the Ottomans, fiercely defending and preserving their identity and Eastern Orthodox faith. 

If you are getting confused by all this history, that’s OK. Just remember that the word Ukraine means “borderlands” or “the frontier.” And that pretty much sums up its existence: it was a wild, somewhat lawless, region, which passed from one empire to the next, while never being conquered or belonging to anyone — at least not for very long. 

In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great managed to wrest Crimea from the Ottoman Turks and this borderland became part of the vast Russian empire, although the desire of the people was just to be left alone to engage in trade and to harvest their crops. 

Towards the end of the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution swept across the Russia empire, with Marxism replacing the Orthodox Christian faith as its official religion or “anti-religion.”  The Ukrainians rejected Marxism, and in 1918 declared themselves to be the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic. But Ukrainian independence did not last long, as the Red Army re-established Russian control over the region in 1919; proclaimed it to be the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic; and launched a program of “Russification.”  

In the early 1930s, more than four million Ukrainians starved to death in a devastating famine known as “Holodomor” when Stalin seized the farmers’ crops and sent them to feed factory workers as part of his effort to industrialize Russia. He then brought in ethnic Russians to replace the Ukrainians who had perished.   

Thus, when the German Army drove across Ukraine in 1941 in a failed effort to capture the Russian city of Stalingrad (Volgograd), many Ukrainians saw the Germans as their liberators and took up arms. Some fought with the Nazis — giving rise to Putin’s claim of having to “de-Nazify” Ukraine — although most Ukrainians were simply taking advantage of the situation to fight for Ukrainian independence from Russia.  

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine quickly proclaimed its independence, although Russia continued to have great influence over its government affairs, primarily through the wealthy oligarchs who took control of the former state-owned enterprises of the Soviet Union. 

In the fall of 2004, there was a runoff election for president of the Ukraine between Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt oligarch and Russian puppet, and Viktor Yushchenko, who favored closer ties with Europe and even sought to have Ukraine join the European Union. It was an ugly campaign in which Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned. He survived, although he was left permanently disfigured. Many observers believed Putin’s fingerprints were all over the poisoning.   

When Yanukovych was proclaimed the winner, massive protests broke out; these were known as the “Orange Revolution.” The Supreme Court ordered a new election, which Yushchenko won handily. But this was not the end of Yanukovych. He returned to power in 2013 when Yushchenko’s coalition fell apart. He then cancelled the Ukrainian parliament’s agreement to join the European Union, announcing that instead he was going to seek closer ties with Russia.  

Again, the Ukrainians took to the streets, but this time it was not peaceful. Yanukovych had snipers try to take out the leaders of the protests and the police violently attacked the protestors.

Yanukovych ultimately fled to Russia, where he remains today.

A Lake Charles resident and filmmaker, Justin Roberts, is preparing to travel to Ukraine to make a documentary about the humanitarian crisis brought about by Putin’s invasion.  Roberts graduated from McNeese State University and enlisted in the Army as a chaplain. He was sent to Afghanistan, where he went into battle with soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division carrying a camera rather than a gun. He left the army suffering from PTSD and made a powerful, award-winning documentary — No Greater Love — about the men he served with in Afghanistan and how they were adjusting to civilian life.  

After Roberts’ home was destroyed by Hurricane Laura, he started a digital series called Do Good that raises support for disaster relief nonprofits. 

His current endeavor is to travel to Ukraine and make a documentary film about the humanitarian crisis resulting from Putin’s invasion. His partner in this project is Samuel Cook, a Lake Charles resident and West Point graduate, who started a software tech company in Ukraine, where he has lived for the last four years.

Roberts and Cook will head to Ukraine shortly to begin filming. They have interviews set up with Volodymyr Zelensky and the Klitschko brothers. They will embed with the Ukrainian military to document the suffering of civilians and the efforts to bring them humanitarian relief and help them evacuate to safety. For more information about their project, or to help fund it, go to Do Good Prospective at

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