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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Ukraine's History Has Often Been One of Outsider's Imperialism

Article edited by: Ana Torres

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks. It draws from this extensive article by Patrick Flamm and Stefan Kroll.

From the Late 18th Century to the Late 20th Century

This article focuses on research undertaken by Patrick Flamm and Stafan Kroll in their February 2024 article, specifically regarding the historical Russian/Soviet dominance of Ukraine. Ukraine has faced various imperial ambitions in its modern history. The foreign policy of the Russian empress Catherine II, in particular, shaped Southern Ukraine for centuries to come. She abolished the autonomy held by the Cossack Hetmanate in 1764 and formally annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783. She then embarked on a colonial project to build a ‘New Russia’, (re)naming the conquered lands with Greek-sounding names, resettling migrants from her empire and the wider Black Sea region, and expelling large numbers of Crimean Tatars. At the same time, the Prussian, Austrian and Russian empires partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which by 1795 had been destroyed. The Russian Empire now also controlled the Baltics, Lithuania as well as parts of Belarus, while the Habsburg Empire controlled the region of Galicia around the city of Lviv.

Sustaining Moscow and Vienna

It was the agricultural and energy resources from  Crimea, the Donbas as well as Galicia that soon played a critical role in the industrialisation and the economical sustainment of their respective imperial centres in Moscow and Vienna. Galicia, however, was the birthplace of the European oil industry, and the Donets River Basin soon developed into the centre of coal and steel industries in Imperial Russia. The new port city of Odesa developed into the largest export gateway for grain from the fertile Ukrainian steppe regions, with the first railroad in Southern Ukraine connecting the port to the agrarian hinterland, earning Ukraine the nickname of ‘Europe’s breadbasket’. According to Serhii Plokhy, in the mid-19th century, Ukraine accounted for 75% of all exports from the Russian Empire.

Ukraine’s Appeal to Russia

The social and economic history of Southern and Eastern Ukraine was significantly shaped by extractivist interests from a distant imperial centre in Russia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In the early 20th century, Ukraine, now part of the Soviet Union, found itself again at the centre of Moscow’s efforts for its economic development. According to Plokhy, the Soviet leadership saw Ukraine both “as a source of funds for industrialization, given its agricultural output and potential, and as an area for investment, given the preexisting industrial potential in the east and south of the republic”. Accordingly, a centrepiece of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan (1928–1933) was the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station in Zaporizhzhia, one of the largest power plants at that time, which was meant to power and stimulate rapid Soviet industrialisation while also flooding 50 communities. Furthermore, in an attempt to turn Ukraine into a defensive fortress for the Union, the Kremlin started several other large-scale industrial enterprises, such as the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

The Breadbasket of Europe: A Coin with a Horrific Flipside

Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation and ruthless grain procurement destroyed local social and economic peasant structures, forcing many to either work in farm collectives, new industrial projects, migrate or be displaced, or die from hunger. Close to 4 million people died from hunger in the resulting Great Famine or Holodomor from 1932 to 1934, an event that the US and most European governments today classify as a genocide, albeit not universisally recognised as such. The starvation of Ukrainians during the Holodomor reflects a cynical irony of history, being it one of the most fertile countries in the world. Hitler’s interest in Ukraine was primarily motivated by the fertile richness of its steppe regions, where he envisioned Lebensraum for German settler colonists, after having displaced and killed local populations, was meant to be created. The Second World War started by Nazi Germany cost the lives of almost 7 million Ukrainias, among them around 1 million Jews. As Plokhy concludes, “With its pre-1914 reputation as the breadbasket of Europe and one of the highest concentrations of Jews on the continent, Ukraine would become both a prime object of German expansionism and [a place to find] the Nazis’ main victims”.

The Case Study of Azovstal

Today, Ukraine is on the receiving end of an expansionist war again. Many will be able to recall the images from the city of Mariupol and the battle for the Azovstaal plant, where Ukrainians troops held out for weeks on end. But the steel plant also symbolises something else to Ukrainians: In post-Soviet Ukraine, the Azovstal plant was for many years heavily criticised by Mariupol residents because of the high levels of industrial air pollution, prompting several protests. Pollution levels in the city were around 10 times higher than the national average but environmental monitoring and tighter regulation were for a long time lacking. Critics and environmental NGOs argued that this was due to corruption and the influence of powerful oligarchs. The factory belonged to the Metinvest Mining and Steel group of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest person. Akhmetov was considered the most influential oligarch in Ukrainian politics. As such, he was also one of the main targets of President Zelenskyy ‘de-oligarchization’ policy.

According to Gorin, the economic legacy of the “Russian-Soviet industrial colonialism” kept the Ukrainian economy dependent on Russian supply and markets, especially with regard to natural gas through pipelines, chemical products as well as nuclear fuel and equipment, “which often acted as instruments of political pressure on the Ukrainian authorities and created obstacles to structurally transforming its economy”.

Why is it Important to Historicise the Russian and Soviet Domination of Ukraine?

Today, the former sites of Russian colonisation and industrialisation have become battlefields, sadly familiar from newspaper articles and the daily evening news. The war started in 2014 precisely in the industrial heartland of the Donbas region. And most will remember the name Mariupol and the Azovstal steel plant around it as a place where one of the early battles of 2022 took place. These places bring the imperial history of Soviet and Russian ambitions for Ukraine to the surface.


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