Thirty years ago, on 1 December 1991, Ukrainians turned up at the polls to participate in a referendum on their country’s future. An overwhelming 92% majority supported the declaration of Ukraine’s independence made by the parliament of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on 24 August that year. Nearly 32 million citizens (84% of the electorate) voted their country into existence and brought an end to the Soviet Union, which crumbled just one week later.
On 1 December 2013, once again, citizens of Ukraine demanded that their voice be heard. The previous night, a group of peaceful demonstrators who had been protesting President Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union had been violently dispersed by the riot police. The media disseminated footage of police brutality on a scale previously unseen in independent Ukraine. Twenty-two years after the referendum, Ukraine’s independence was being threatened with the potential of authoritarian rule. The next day, close to a million people took to the streets in central Kyiv. They started what would become known as the Euromaidan or the Revolution of Dignity. Three months later, the protests had ousted Yanukovych’s corrupt and murderous regime.
As it turned out, Yanukovych’s removal was not the end of the crisis: Ukraine’s statehood would now be in need of protection like never before. In 2014, the stakes in the fight for the country’s independence and European choice rose drastically. The successful popular uprising had the potential to inspire similar movements across the region and was perceived as an existential threat by the Kremlin. In response, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. The war that unfolded has already taken 14,000 lives, with no end in sight. As the world watches an unprecedented build-up of Russian forces in Crimea and along the Ukrainian borders with Russia and Belarus, protecting Ukraine’s independence is a task not only for Ukrainians themselves, but also for the international community. Russia’s hybrid warfare, which involves not only its aggression against Ukraine but also the escalating migrant and energy crises, threatens peace on the European continent as a whole.
Given Ukraine’s current place at the centre of geopolitical attention, it is time to take a closer look at the country that set off the collapse of the Soviet Union, that has repeatedly stood up against authoritarian threats, and that has defended itself against a far superior military power for the past eight years. Despite all this, and despite being the second largest country on the European continent with a diverse population of 45 million people and a flourishing civil society, Ukraine remains largely unknown to the outside world. This special publication of the Ukrainian Institute London explains how Ukrainian resistance strategies are reflected in the country’s literary, cinematic, and dance cultures, where Ukraine stands in relation to global issues, from the climate crisis to memory politics, and what the world can learn from Ukraine’s past and present.
On 1 December 2021, on the anniversary of the momentous independence referendum, let us take stock of what makes Ukraine – thirty years young and feisty – a treasure trove of untold stories.
Sasha Dovzhyk is the editor of the Ukrainian Institute London’s special publication London Ukrainian Review.
Image: Oleksandra Ekster, Sketch for Bacchante costume, Famira Kifared (detail), 1916.