It’s Not ‘The’ Ukraine

The country is much more than a sphere of influence.

Two people walk past a large relief at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.
Chris McGrath / Getty

Not so long ago, most Americans didn’t know better. They spoke of a country called The Ukraine. By appending the article to the name, they were inadvertently insulting the nation, as if Ukraine were merely a region, an object of subjection. For most of Ukraine’s history, that’s how much of the outside world treated it: as a swath of black earth ripe for conquest, whose fertile fields could feed empires.

Even now, as Russia threatens to invade Ukraine, it is talked about as an abstraction—a passive victim of great-power politics. Perhaps this explains why many foreign-policy realists and much of the American public are so willing to readily sacrifice the country to Russian President Vladimir Putin. They see Ukraine as part of a sphere of influence, not a collection of human beings.

I can understand the impulse to write the Ukrainian people out of the calculus. In honesty, I first approached the nation with preconceptions that I now consider embarrassingly crude. Over time, however, I found myself swept up in the nation’s struggle to free itself of corruption, authoritarianism, and its dark past. I came to believe that Ukraine matters because its fate is, in some sense, our own.

My grandmother grew up in the bloodlands, the perpetually contested soil of western Ukraine. In her childhood, her hometown of Kolki kept changing hands—first Poland ruled it, then briefly the Soviet Union. In 1941, when my grandmother was a teenager, Nazi Einsatzgruppen invaded Kolki and torched the synagogue with her grandfather locked inside. That night she fled for her life, walking east until she reached Kazakhstan.

A few years later, when news arrived that the Russians had liberated Kolki, she determinedly made her way back. She was greeted as an unwelcome specter. One man informed my grandmother that her sisters and mother could be found in a mass grave in the forest. Another man told her that if she stayed longer than one more night, Ukrainian thugs would make sure that she joined them.

When I first visited Ukraine, in 2002, I couldn’t see past its Soviet-era dinge or shake off the admittedly overwrought—if historically informed—suspicion that every person I met might wish me dead. My reason for traveling to the country was, frankly, esoteric. I had come to report on the stalled careers of two Nigerian soccer players who found themselves playing for a midsize club in western Ukraine, where the home fans sometimes greeted them with monkey noises and accused them of stealing spots on the roster from hard-working local lads.

On the streets of Lviv, I passed fading Yiddish signs on the sides of buildings. I thought that my grandmother would probably have disapproved of my presence; she would have filtered my visit through her memories of the night her synagogue burned, and worried about my safety. Every dish seemed to include a submerged hunk of pork, as if testing my allegiance to dietary laws. As I pushed the traiyf around with my spoon, my translator told me that he didn’t know why people kept denying the fact that his nation’s brutal oppressor Joseph Stalin was a stealth Jew. In the market, I browsed wood-carved trinkets of Jewish men with hooked noses, as if re-created from illustrations in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

I didn’t think much more about Ukraine again until eight years later, when my mother asked me to visit the country with her. This was, in its way, another reportorial trip. We arrived in search of the family that hid my grandfather during World War II. Because the memories were so traumatic, they had barely been transmitted. My grandmother met my grandfather just after the war, as he emerged from hiding. He hardly spoke of his experience, how the Nazis murdered his first wife and 7-year-old daughter, and how he escaped by dint of a pure accident of timing. His nightmares led him to hang himself in the back of his store in 1954, despite having built a new life, with a new family, in a new country.

My mother and I drove to his village, if it even could be described as that: 20 or so houses lining a pockmarked road. We used our one piece of forensic evidence, a photograph, to identify the house of the man who’d taken in my grandfather after his family was killed.

A woman named Anna emerged from the neighboring property, her head wrapped in a scarf, her gnarled hand wrapped around a knotty cane, not a tooth in her mouth. She ran her fingers along the ridge of my brow and told me that it belonged to my grandfather. She pointed into the fields and said my grandfather had played in them with his daughter. We hadn’t even known her name, but Anna did. “We called her Asya,” she told us.

History, which I had considered dead and buried, suddenly reached out of the grave and wrapped its arm around me.

One Ukrainian had threatened to kill my grandmother; another had saved my grandfather in an act of heroism that never aspired to more than neighborly kindness. As we ate lunch, I realized that my existence owed itself, in a sense, to the big-heartedness of Ukrainians. History is as variegated as the woods where we went to recite a prayer at our family’s mass grave.

(My mother wrote a beautiful book about our trip, he says with filial pride.)

Listen to The Experiment podcast: How Franklin Foer’s family story debunks a myth that Putin tells about Ukraine.

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Then came the events of late 2013 and early 2014. For the second time in the 21st century, Ukrainians took to the center of Kyiv—a plaza known as the Maidan, or Independence Square—and demanded democracy. They wanted to break free from the oligarchic power structure, which kept them chained to Russia and bled the country of its resources. The protesters demanded that leaders finalize an association agreement that placed their country on a trajectory to join the European Union. The event came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity.

The revolution was ignited by a Facebook post written by a young journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, born in Kabul, Afghanistan. When I spent time with the Nigerian soccer players, I witnessed racism in its raw form. The Revolution of Dignity showed another side to the country: Here was a nationalist protest in the name of cosmopolitan dreams—and it threatened Russia profoundly.

Even if Russia nominally accepted the fact of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence, the Kremlin treated it as a vassal state. Putin manipulated Ukrainian politics so that its corruption enriched his cronies and its leaders never deviated too far from his desired policies. The pipeline traversing Ukraine, which sends Russian gas to Western Europe, provided a massive pot of money that the Kremlin dispersed to serve its murky purposes. Meanwhile the Ukrainian state was deprived of cash that could have been spent on schools and roads.

Why did Putin cling to Ukraine? In 2014, his fear wasn’t Ukraine’s drift toward NATO. It was its drift toward the European Union, with its insistence on rule of law. To preserve his hold on Ukraine, Putin tried to instigate a counterrevolution in cities with large Russian-speaking populations. He invaded Crimea and the Donbas, threatening to carve the country into two. What he feared most was Ukrainian democracy, which would deprive him of influence over the colonial possession that he felt was his birthright.

Three months after the protesters in the Maidan expelled the kleptocratic pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, I returned to Kyiv. This time I was participating in a conference, organized by the historian Timothy Snyder, that brought in intellectuals from the U.S. and Western Europe for a display of solidarity with the new Ukraine. Bullets from snipers remained wedged in brick walls and lampposts. Barricades of tires still blocked the intersections of streets radiating from the Maidan.

I stayed up late getting to know a generation of young journalists who had boldly challenged the old order and championed the revolution. Having triumphed, they were preparing to embark on the hard work of entering politics and building a civil society.

At the conference, journalists shared rumors from the front lines of the Russian invasion. There was no defending Crimea or the Donbas, but Ukrainian resistance in the rest of the country felt almost miraculous. The Kremlin had tried to stoke the resentments of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Language has long been a great fault line in the nation. But after Russia waged war, Ukrainians began to see themselves as part of a common country, a common project. Putin’s imperial pretensions ignited a sense of Ukrainian nationhood that had long struggled to take hold.

And although Russian propaganda attempted to tar the revolution as the production of anti-Semitic hooligans, the nation had clearly begun moving beyond that ugly past. One poll showed that Ukrainians affirmatively wanted their daughters to marry Jewish men—and while that may sound like the punch line to a bad joke, it would have astounded my grandparents. More substantively, the country would eventually elect one of those Jewish men, Vlodomr Zelensky, to be its president. It didn’t just elect to Parliament the Afghan-born journalist whose Facebook post kicked off the revolution; voters also selected a wrestler of Rwandan descent. (At the Tokyo Olympics, he also became the first Black Ukrainian to win a gold medal.)

Lesya, the great-granddaughter of the man who saved my grandfather, joined me at the conference. She was a student in Kyiv and had protested at the Maidan. For all her education, Lesya admitted that she didn’t know much about the Holocaust—the catastrophe that bound us together. We went to Babi Yar, the ravine in the middle of the city where the Nazis massacred 34,000 Jews in two days. I’ll never forget the shocked look in her eyes as she read the monument’s placards and the magnitude of the event dawned on her.

At the conference, I spoke on a panel about history, memory, and the future of Ukraine. Lesya sat in the audience. As I recounted my grandfather’s story, I asked her to come onto the dais. It was an improvisation, and I worried that I might have imposed an awkward moment on her. But when she stood in front of the audience, she received an ovation. My lip began to quiver and suddenly I couldn’t hide my sobs. Standing on a stage in Kyiv, a few blocks from the Maidan, I felt overwhelmed by the contingencies of my own existence, by my feelings of gratitude for an event more than 70 years in the past, for the beauty of being in the presence of people seizing control of their own history.

So I guess it’s clear that I have my own emotional basis for dreading Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the United States also has intimate reasons for using every diplomatic and economic measure to defend Ukraine. Despite all the deserved criticism of American foreign policy in the 21st century, Ukraine is the place where the United States has best fostered democracy. The State Department has prodded the government in Kyiv to fight corruption. American NGOs have nurtured a robust civil society. Thanks to promises of American protection, Ukraine has had the confidence to step away from Russia’s authoritarian shadow.

One of the most poignant expressions of this idealism is a speech that then–Vice President Joe Biden delivered to the Ukrainian Rada in April 2014, soon after the occupation of the Maidan. Perhaps not surprisingly, he dispensed with the prepared text and riffed in his high folksy style. With all the requisite self-effacing caveats about not wanting to impose American values, he pleaded with the Parliament to combat corruption, especially in the energy sector, and to embrace democratic practice. But what’s most striking about the speech is its familiar tone: “We stand with you. And it is not just a foreign-policy judgment, it is a personal—it’s an emotional commitment.”

In a way, that line helps capture the core rationale behind the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy. From their very arrival in office, Biden and his advisers hoped to avoid a confrontation with Putin, because they didn’t consider him an important strategic competitor. Every phone call and meeting with Putin was taken in the spirit of prevention. Biden hoped to make Putin feel big so that he wouldn’t act out and distract the president from focusing his attention on China, the overriding priority of the administration.

From a cold, realist perspective, there’s perhaps an argument for abandoning Ukraine. But the bond that the president and State Department have with Ukraine isn’t cold. The object of Putin’s desire isn’t an abstraction to them. At core, they understand that it’s Ukraine, not The Ukraine.

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