Chaos and mayhem in Kiev, Ukraine.   We lived there from 1999 to 2001 while my wife was assigned to our embassy there.  In fact we rang in the year 2000 less than 100 miles downwind from Chernobyl which many feared would “react” violently to the YK2 bug.  The fear was so prevalent that all embassy staff except for “key” personnel were allowed to leave the country while we entered the new century.  Our whole family agreed to stay with my wife and face the threat together.  Of course we were so filled with Ukraine champagne, which usually comes in bright red color, we didn’t pay much attention to the doomsday warnings.

The Dnieper River splits the country into two distinct cultures, Ukrainian to the west and Russian to the east.  One thousand years earlier the river divided the land into the land of the Kievan Rus to the west and the Tatars to the east.  The Kievan Rus established the first major empire in the slavic heartland and Kiev is called the “Mother City of Russia.”  Tatars was a name given to all the Asiatic origin groups living to the east of the river.  I recall seeing one of my favorite operas, “Prince Igor,”  in Kiev reflecting on the fact that the story evolving on the stage had played itself out in that very location with the Rus gazing down from the heights of Kiev over the river to the flat lands of the Tatars.

A great city and a great land.  However, following independence after the fall of the “Evil Empire,” otherwise known as the  USSR, in 1991, the country informally split along the mighty Dnieper.  To the west stands the Ukraine of the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the stories of Sholem Aleichem which gave birth to the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”  It was also the land constantly fought over by Poland and Russia in which the Cossacks loomed large giving birth to the legend of Taras Bulba.  To the east stands  Russia under the name Ukraine.  Here are the famous black earth farms that made Ukraine the “bread basket” of Russia.   This was the land that gave the USSR perhaps its most colorful ruler, Kruschev.  It is also the center of Ukraine’s heavy industry and massive arms factories that turned out most of the USSR’s nuclear missiles.  And it is linked to the Crimea, the large peninsula come island won by force of arms by the Russians from the Turks.  The Crimea with its seaside resorts at Yalta and Sevastapol, which is still Russia’s main naval base.

So the modern story of Ukraine is one of two societies struggling to co-exist.  The armed rupture we now witness is rooted in this cultural divide.  The spark is the move by the government to strengthen ties with Russia, which is favored by those living to the east of the Dnieper,  while the west wants to link itself with the European Union.  The specific issue is money, Russia is offering Kiev a huge loan to help it overcome its economic straits.  However, the EU is not responding with a similar offer.  The “Ukrainian” side knows that it holds a bad hand since there are no funds coming from the EU, while the “Russian” side has a firm offer of funds from Moscow.   The “Ukrainian” side has thus taken to the streets to replace monetary incentives with chaos and mayhem.

Ukraine is a prize for the Russians and the EU.  It is the largest country in Europe after Russia.  It has considerable promise based on a very well prepared and educated population.   There are good prospects that the land could divide along the Dnieper with the west joining the EU and the east aligning itself with “Mother Russia.”  The struggle is likely to be long and violent.