August 13, 2021

Ukraine’s 1991 independence: aspirations, dedication and the sacrifice of millions


For many reading this column – certainly those of the older generations – 1991 is a year that is embedded in our consciousness. After seven decades of brutal oppression under the Soviets – occupation, war, famine, and Gulags – Ukraine achieved independence. Thirty years later, it remains independent, and, despite the serious external and internal challenges, Ukraine is here to stay.

In some quarters, there exists the perception that Ukraine’s independence was handed to it on a platter or, pardon another idiomatic expression, fell into its lap – that Ukrainians really didn’t do much to achieve it in the years leading up to dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not so!

However, it is true that the unraveling of the “evil empire” and the independence of the “captive nations” of the USSR happened more rapidly than almost anyone expected.

Americans who today are over the age of 40 or 45 lived in a Cold War reality that saw the existence of the Soviet Union as a very long-term, if not permanent, proposition. If when I started working at the Helsinki Commission on Soviet issues in late 1981, I had been told that Ukraine would be independent exactly a decade later, or even that the Berlin Wall would fall in eight years, like most everyone else, I would have been highly skeptical, to say the least. Even as Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) were starting to take root later in the decade and there were rapidly growing indications of the Soviet Union’s economic and social vulnerabilities, most of us would have doubted that the Soviet Union’s dissolution would come about as rapidly as it did.

But just because Ukraine’s independence happened much more quickly than anticipated – and peacefully at that – this does not mean that it occurred effortlessly.

First, there were the struggles for Ukraine’s national liberation throughout the 70 decades of Soviet rule that were brutally crushed, especially during and after World War II. Many families of The Weekly’s readers, including my own, experienced death, imprisonment, exile and other repression – sometimes for even the mere suspicion of support for Ukraine’s freedom. Even manifestations of Ukrainian linguistic, cultural and religious identity were often cruelly suppressed during Soviet rule, especially under Stalin.

Soviet tyranny failed to vanquish freedom-loving Ukrainians. During the 1960s and 1970s, and especially following the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, Ukrainian dissidents, notably the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group, carried the torch. They focused on the denial of human and national rights and the pursuit of self-determination. Many were imprisoned or forced into internal exile; several died in the Gulag as late as 1985.

In the late 1980s, with glasnost and perestroika came an easing, though not outright elimination, of repression. This was in part due to considerable Western pressure on the Soviet Union to respect human rights, especially from the United States and Canada.

As Soviet control diminished, Ukrainian cultural, social and political activity flourished.

Informal groups as well as unofficial newsletters, journals and other publications proliferated, ranging from those advancing the restoration of the Ukrainian language and cultural heritage and preserving historical monuments to those shedding light on the so-called “blank-spots” in Soviet Ukrainian history and exposing Stalin’s crimes, including the Holodomor. Others focused on the environment. The trauma of the 1986 Chorno­byl nuclear catastrophe and the dismal state of the environment helped to catalyze the greater assertion of Ukrainian rights.

Numerous independent political groups, notably the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, helped lead to the creation in September of 1989 of the Popular Movement of Ukraine – Rukh.

Rukh consolidated these unofficial reformers, including many former Helsinki monitors and other dissidents, along with more reform-oriented Communist officials, whose cooperation proved to be essential. Rukh was instrumental in mobilizing and energizing the Ukrainian people.

As a sign of growing popular support, especially in Kyiv and western Ukraine, large rallies and other gatherings calling for greater respect and better care of the environment or for greater cultural, religious and political rights became commonplace. On January 22, 1990, over half a million people commemorated the anniversary of the January 22, 1918, declaration of Ukrainian independence by forming a human chain from Kyiv to Lviv. As with so many other expressions of Ukrainian self-assertion, this would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

Ukraine continued to move rapidly in the direction of self-determination leading to independence. Although the Communist party majority won the first-ever relatively free and fair elections in Soviet Ukraine in March 1990, the democratic opposition, consisting of Rukh members and a growing number of democratic opposition parties, won one-third of the 450 seats in the Ukrainian SSR parliament (Rada). Although a minority, they played a pivotal role.

Due in large part to the efforts of the democrats, on July 16, 1990, the Rada, by an overwhelming 355-4 vote, declared Ukraine a sovereign state – asserting the supremacy of republic law over Soviet law and its own independent foreign policy, among other attributes of independence (As a personal aside, one of my most treasured possessions is a copy of the sovereignty declaration signed by many of the democratic opposition deputies given to me by Mykhaylo and Bohdan Horyn during a visit to my Helsinki Commission offices in Washington several years later).

The momentum toward democratic, peaceful self-determination continued to grow. In October 1990, hundreds of thousands took part in rallies and strikes across Ukraine demanding independence and protesting a new Union treaty, which was Gorbachev’s attempt to avoid the disintegration of the empire by renegotiating the original treaty that established the USSR. Especially noteworthy that month was the student hunger strike/protest known as the “Revolution on Granite” which led to the resignation of the chairman of the Ukrainian SSR Council of Ministers – yet another unprecedented occurrence. And the Rada, with the democratic opposition often setting the agenda, passed laws giving the Ukrainian republic more control over its own resources at the expense of the central authorities in Moscow.

Gorbachev’s March 1991 referendum on maintaining the USSR as a “renewed federation,” resulted in a majority of Soviet citizens, including some 70 percent of Ukrainians, voting yes. However, a second ballot in Ukraine which asked whether Ukraine should be part of the USSR on the basis of the 1990 Sovereignty Declaration resulted in an 80 percent vote. While seemingly contradictory, it was an indication that the Ukrainian people wanted to see something more akin to a commonwealth composed of sovereign states. Not surprisingly, a third question asked in three western Ukrainian oblasts, which had long been in the forefront of Ukraine’s independence struggle, resulted in an overwhelming vote for an independent Ukraine outside of the Soviet Union.

The practical effect of this referendum was to provide the Ukrainian parliament an even stronger mandate to pass laws implementing the Sovereignty Declaration, and thus advancing independence.

A few months later, on August 24, 1991, shortly following the failed coup attempt in Moscow, Ukraine’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to declare independence. Even the hardline communists, who were increasingly disoriented following the coup and who witnessed the growing popular support for outright independence and against the Communist party (including a large, angry but peaceful, crowd outside the Rada on August 24) supported the independence declaration. While much can be – and has been – written about this historic day, I cannot but mention that the independence declaration’s principal drafter was democratic opposition deputy Levko Lukianenko, a former founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki group who had spent 27 years in the Gulag for his advocacy of Ukrainian independence.

Over the decades of Soviet misrule, millions of Ukrainians sacrificed dearly for their aspirations to live in a free, independent country. Also important to remember is that even during the more tolerant last few years of Soviet existence, Ukrainians displayed courage. There were still instances of arrests and harassment. Regular activists and even Rada deputies voting for greater Ukrainian sovereignty took varying degrees of risk, as they could not be sure of what fate could befall them should reactionary forces gain ascendance.

In a future column in this 30th anniversary year of Ukraine’s independence, I will focus on America’s reaction to Ukrainian independence, especially in the months leading up to the December 1, 1991, historic independence referendum, the event that arguably more than anything else drove the last nail into the coffin of the Soviet Union.