The centuries-long fight for Ukraine's national identity : Throughline Months before Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, he published an essay on the Kremlin website called "On The Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine." In it, he suggested that Ukrainians don't really have their own identity — and that they never have. Historian Serhii Plokhii says that couldn't be further from the truth. The histories of the two countries are deeply intertwined, but Ukrainian identity is unique. Today, we explore that identity: how it formed, its relationship to Russia, and how it helps us understand what's happening now.

Ukraine's Dangerous Independence

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

It seems like in Ukraine, it's one of those places where the past and present are almost, like - you know, they're not happening one after the other; they're almost happening simultaneously in people's minds because it's so present in so much of the conversation and identity today.

SERHII PLOKHII: It is because history is a very important part of our identity, either our personal history or history of the group that we are associated with. What you see today in Ukraine is really something that many other nations experienced. It is a war for independence. And the war for independence is very much about the formation of this new identity. And for that reason, history becomes really very important. And from that point of view, you're absolutely right. The Ukrainians place themselves in that historical continuum - how they think about themselves, about their country. So history - and not just today but also the future, the way - how they imagine their future. These things are really interconnected in the mind of many Ukrainians today.

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RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. This is a famous mantra from "1984," the dystopian novel by George Orwell. It points to the constant evolution and tension around how we see ourselves in the continuum of the past, present and future. We are prisoners of the moment. And for that reason, it's very difficult to recognize how alive the past is in everything, to see it in the machinery of our daily lives, especially when our perception is obscured by the complexity of events surrounding us. But sometimes something happens that brings it clearly into view.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Air raid sirens sounded in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Fighting in the streets as brave Ukrainians repel the Russian advance.

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ABDELFATAH: Last July, months before Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, he published an essay on the Kremlin website called "On The Historical Unity Of Russia And Ukraine."

PLOKHII: And what Vladimir Putin suggested was that Ukrainians really don't have a history of their own.

ABDELFATAH: Ukrainians don't really have a history of their own. Putin's essay alleges a lot of things, but it's this idea of Ukraine's lack of identity as its own country and people that's at the core of Putin's sprawling historical argument for why Ukraine should lean more towards Russia's influence than Europe or the United States.

PLOKHII: His suggestion is that the Ukrainians are really Russians - so no history, no identity, no legitimacy for the state, no right to exist.

ABDELFATAH: Putin laid out a vast, epic vision of Ukraine and Russia's shared history, pointing out the cultural and linguistic similarities between the countries. But the way he pointed it out fit perfectly into his narrative that the countries belong together - under his rule, of course. It was exactly what George Orwell warned of - who controls the past controls the present. And when Russia's invasion started and the columns of tanks rolled into Ukraine, we saw the past crashing into the present.

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ARABLOUEI: But what about how Ukrainians understand their history? How does it interact with their identity? What can that view of history teach us about why Ukrainians have opted to fight instead of surrender, to stay or, in some cases, return to face a more powerful enemy?

PLOKHII: I would say that identity - this is something that is happening deeper. That's the deep part of that story, which is very often overlooked. So it is extremely important. And it is also extremely important from the point of view of Ukrainians in Ukraine or Ukrainian response and Ukrainian thinking about themselves. And that's the deep part.

ABDELFATAH: This is Serhii Plokhii.

PLOKHII: I come from Ukraine. I teach Ukrainian and East European history at Harvard University.

ABDELFATAH: Serhii is also the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. He's written a bunch of books on Ukraine, including "The Gates Of Europe: A History Of Ukraine." Beyond his bona fides as a historian, Serhii has a fascinating perspective. He's Ukrainian but was born in Soviet Russia and has spent considerable time in both countries. According to him, Ukrainians aren't only fighting for the independence of their state; they're fighting for the survival of their identity because Russia has long been a neighboring power that's tried to wrestle control over the people of Ukraine to bring it under its influence.

And to be clear, Russia and Ukraine have been very, very closely tied for centuries. You can see that today with the amount of people who have family on either side of the border. But the things that make Ukraine distinct are rooted in a sense of autonomy and independence. The fight to preserve Ukrainian identity lives deep in the bones of the people.

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ARABLOUEI: In this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, Serhii Plokhii is going to take us into some of the key moments of Ukraine's history and his view of its relationship to Russia to understand how the nation's identity developed and how it plays a role in the conflict we see today - that conversation when we come back.

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BALALA BATTARY: Hey. This is Balala Battary (ph) from Baton Rouge, La., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part one...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Pledged companions

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ARABLOUEI: Before we jump into our conversation with Serhii Plokhii, let's go over some basics about Ukraine. It is a country in Eastern Europe that shares borders with Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and, of course, Russia. The country is a little smaller than Texas. On its southern border is a vast coastline that runs along the Black Sea and Azov Sea. Running right up the middle of the country is the Dnieper River. This is one of Ukraine's most important geographic features because it's made the country an important trading hub throughout history.

ABDELFATAH: And the river is probably what attracted one of the group's most important to Ukraine's early history, the Scandinavian Vikings, also known as the Rus, the root of the name Russia. At some point in the Middle Ages, they started moving in from the north and setting up trade posts along the river, where they met two other peoples - the Finno-Ugric tribes and the Slavs. The origins of the Slavic people are unclear, but they're an Indo European ethnolinguistic group that probably originated in Central or Eastern Europe. By the 10th century, the Rus came to rule over the native Slavic and Finno-Ugric people and, over time, intermixed with them. The result was a nation that would be called the Kyivan Rus. Most historians agree that both Russia and Ukraine can trace their origins back to this nation.

ARABLOUEI: Ukraine lies on the western edge of a vast flat grassland called the Eurasian Steppe. Nomadic groups of people migrated around this area and would periodically move further into Eastern Europe to conduct raids. In the 13th century, a federation of these nomads, known as the Mongols, attacked Ukraine and Russia and destroyed most of the Kyivan Rus state. It was a violent, brutal affair, but Mongol power would also wane. By the 15th century, Mongols had been mostly expelled from Ukraine. And according to Serhii Plokhii, that's when modern Ukrainian identity starts to form.

PLOKHII: Ukrainian history, early modern history is not so much focused on the Scandinavian Vikings or the Kyivan Rus but on the different category, social category, which is called the Cossacks.

ARABLOUEI: The Cossacks.

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PLOKHII: And the Cossacks are this advanced group of the settled population that moves into the steppe and tries to, for the lack of the better word, colonize it, in a sense of that they try to bring their agriculture. And of course, they get in conflict with the nomads that control the steppe. So the Cossacks is the story of the Slavic movement into the steppe areas that is common for the Ukrainians and for the Russians. But there is one big difference between the Cossacks of Ukraine and the Cossacks of Russia, and the difference is that the Cossacks of Ukraine were able to create a state of their own, that exists first independently, then as a dependency of the Russian czars and goes all the way in the last decades of the 18th century.

ARABLOUEI: Cossack is derived from the Turkic word for free man. Just the name tells you a lot about who they were - defiant, resistant and independent. History has given them the image of a wild, horse-riding pirate culture, and perhaps some of that description is true. But it's also true that in the 1600s, the Ukrainian Cossacks were able to establish some of the earliest versions of a Ukrainian state.

PLOKHII: It creates an elite of its own that creates high culture, that supports literature, supports the first modern university in the Slav - in the East Slavic lands, which exists still today, Kyivan Mohyla Academy. And that heritage is summarized today for people in Ukraine into one word, and that word is freedom.

ARABLOUEI: But we should be clear - the Cossacks weren't just some homogenous, heroic group of freedom fighters; they could be quite brutal. They also carried out massacres of Jews in the region in the 17th century. Yet today, for many Ukrainians, the Cossacks represent resistance to outside control.

PLOKHII: Cossacks became the symbol of this freedom and liberty because they existed on the edge of the established state, societies and empires and were challenging them, from the Russian empire to the Polish Lithuanian state to the Ottoman Empire. So the symbol of the Cossacks is really something that is really very important for Ukrainian identity, historical identity, cultural identity, the national mythology about the freedom-loving Ukrainians.

So on the one hand, you have these deep roots in the Kievan Rus. On the other hand, you have this Cossack heritage, which is very important for Ukrainians and which sets them apart, at least in Ukrainian thinking about that, from the Russians. For Ukraine, this is the central part of their early modern history.

ARABLOUEI: And that history remains a part of the present, woven into the "Ukrainian National Anthem."

PLOKHII: The Ukrainian anthem that is today, functions today, was written in the mid-19th century. And it starts with the words, Ukraine is not dead yet.

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GLOCAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing in Ukrainian).

PLOKHII: The reference is to the fact that there was once a Cossack state. It was integrated by the Russian empire. The Cossack army was disbanded. The institutions were disbanded. The office of the Hetman, or the ruler of the Cossack state, was gone. But Ukraine is not dead yet because Ukraine, it's now something new. Ukraine, it's about who we are, how we feel. So we can exist as a nation, even when the state perished. It sounds like very pessimistic beginning of an anthem, but in reality it is a very, very optimistic one in a sense that, again, despite the fact that we lost the state, we are still alive.

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GLOCAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing in Ukrainian).

ARABLOUEI: That last line translates to, we brothers are of the Cossack heritage. It's important to note here that Ukraine achieved independence and sovereignty during relatively brief periods in their history. They spent much of the rest of the time under the rule of other major powers trying to achieve that independence. And identifying with the Cossacks remains a powerful symbol of that fight to this day.

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ABDELFATAH: I think for an American hearing this and thinking about what was going on as the Cossacks of Ukraine were sort of defying the empire, the Russian empire, it's important to, like - it's hard to know exactly what that meant without really fully understanding what the Russian empire looked like at that time - how and what the tension looked like, you know, between the broader empire and these Ukrainian Cossacks.

PLOKHII: A Cossacks state comes into existence in the middle of the 17th century, in the process of the Cossack revolt against the state, to which biggest part of Ukraine at that time belonged to was controlled. That state was called the Kingdom of Poland, which was part of a larger federation, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And the Cossacks rebel in 1648. They have a number of battles with the Poles. And that's how the state is being formed. But the war continued. And the Cossacks didn't think, didn't believe that they had enough, you know, that they were strong enough, actually, to maintain the state on their own. And they enter into the relationship with the state to the east and to the north of their land, which was called, at that time, the Muscovite state - so the origins of today's Russia. And they enter into agreement with the Russian czar, who takes them under his protection. And that happens in 1654. That's the beginning of the relationship between the Cossack state - Ukrainian Cossack state and what later would become the Russian empire.

They enter in that relationship on the basis of certain agreements and understandings - that the czar would allow them to have their army, to have their liberties, their freedoms. Basically, a protectorate was established, a Russian protectorate, and that was the Cossack state, which was already - at that time was known as Ukraine. But as things move further in the second half of the 17th century and especially into the 18th century, the empire violates more and more of the conditions of those agreements, limiting those freedoms that the Cossack state has. And as they become more and more successful, they are less and less interested in maintaining those freedoms that they once gave to the Cossacks. And by 1780s, the empire, the successful empire led by Catherine II at that time, it abolishes the Cossack freedoms and the Cossack statehood. So something that started as a military alliance, something that started as a creation of a protectorate, eventually ends with the full integration of the Cossack state.

ARABLOUEI: Soon after integrating the Cossack state into the Russian empire, Russian language and culture became more dominant in Ukraine. Many historians call this process Russification, and it happened in many parts of the empire. Many Ukrainians resented this process. And along with language came the expansion of Russian serfdom into Ukraine.

ABDELFATAH: Serfdom was the prevailing economic system in medieval Europe. By the 1300s, it had mostly gone away in Western Europe. But the leaders of Russia were strengthening serfdom in their empire, around the same time as American slavery. It was basically a process where peasants were more or less turned into economic slaves by legally tying them to the land they worked. It allowed the Russian elites to extract more wealth from their lands. And as you can imagine, many of the peasants wanted to do anything to escape it. One of the places they escaped to were the lands of the defiant Cossacks.

PLOKHII: I mentioned that Cossacks are symbol of freedom, and now it's a generic understanding of what freedom is. It's maybe about democracy. It's about independence. But at that time, in the 17th, 18th century, the freedom had a very specific sense, and that was freedom from serfdom, in particular.

So not all Cossacks were the former serfs, but significant part of them were runaway serfs. And for them, becoming a Cossack meant personal freedom. The steppe areas, which were very dangerous place to be and conduct any kind of activities, agricultural or any sort of a business because of this competition - they were also the place where the serfs were moving, even after the abolition of the Cossack state in the late 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. So the serfdom really arrived in southern Ukraine, in this area north of the Azov Sea, north of Black Sea, only in the first half of the 19th century, maybe 10 or 20 years before the serfdom as an institution was abandoned in the Russian empire. What does this mean? That means that while in the rest of the Russian empire a good part of the population, at least one-third, were serfs, in Ukraine, the population, the largest part of the population, had no experience of serfdom.

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PLOKHII: They managed to live from one generation to another either as Cossacks or runaway serfs in this territory north of the Black Sea and north of Azov Sea. It's difficult, really, to overestimate the importance of this tradition, of this mentality, of this attitude toward personal freedoms that comes with really not experiencing much of serfdom in your history, including your family history.

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ABDELFATAH: The Ukrainian Cossacks had a complex relationship with the Russian empire that wavered between an alliance and outright rebellion. And when the Ukrainians rebelled, they rebelled against outside control, both political and economic. And that spirit would come back in full force when the Russian empire fell during one of the most important revolutions of the 20th century, a revolution Ukraine played a key part in.

ARABLOUEI: When we come back, the Russian empire ends, and Ukraine faces a whole new century of turmoil.

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JESSICA: Hi, this is Jessica (ph) from Dover, Mich., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part two - Century of Madness.

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ABDELFATAH: By the early 20th century, the Russian empire, which included much of Ukraine, was one of the poorest countries in Europe. The institution of serfdom ended in the 19th century, but the vast majority of the people were still poor, economically oppressed peasants and urban laborers. Yet they were able to organize, and by 1917, after several decades of hardship and war, the people of the Russian empire had had enough. A nationwide revolution erupted. And when it was all done, the Bolsheviks, a Marxist group led by Vladimir Lenin, had seized control of the country. While some people in Ukraine supported getting rid of the Russian empire, after the Bolsheviks took control, things changed. According to Serhii, once again, many Ukrainians resisted central power coming from Russia and its Red Army.

PLOKHII: They rebel against the Bolsheviks. They fight against the Red Army. And when you look at Ukraine, and southern Ukraine in particular, what you see is these peasant uprisings against the rule of the Communist Party that are the - really challenged the communist control and the communist power in the region. And this happens on a much, much bigger scale than it is happening in Russia, per se. So again, that lived experience of freedom really translates in this partisan warfare, this rejection of the authority, especially outside authority.

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ARABLOUEI: So a lot of what you've described is this tug of war between Ukrainian independence and defiance and outside powers trying to kind of wrestle control of the people of that region and of that area. How does this play out once the Soviet Union is formed?

PLOKHII: The Russian empire started its disintegration in the middle of the World War I and the Russian Revolution. But the Bolsheviks were able to glue it back. And they did that not just by the new ideology that was not nationalist anymore - it was some form of Marxism - but also by making concessions to the ethnic groups on the territory of the empire, recognizing their right to be a separate nation, at least rhetorically, recognizing their right to use their language, recognizing their right to use culture - so given these cultural rights, but not given political rights.

ABDELFATAH: By 1922, the Soviet Union was formed. You can think of it like a collection of states under one central government in Moscow. Vladimir Lenin was the leader, and countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Lithuania would be a part of the union.

PLOKHII: Ukraine was a separate state and Russia was a separate state, and then they formed one Soviet Union. Again, that was a facade, I said. The cultural rights were given, but political rights were not. Vladimir Putin claims that artificiality of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian statehood comes allegedly out of the fact that it was created by the Bolsheviks, which is as divorced from the reality, the historical reality, as it can be because what the Bolsheviks and Lenin did really for the first time, they created a separate state, a separate institutions and a separate territory for Russia, which became known as the Russian Federation, separating, at least symbolically, for the first time Russia proper from what used to be the Russian empire. Before that, there was no such separation.

ARABLOUEI: This is a really important point. What Serhii is saying is that the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union didn't create Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin claims. If anything, the Bolsheviks laid the foundation for a Russian state by endowing it with territory and declaring Russians to be separate from Ukrainians. And that Russian state had more or less the same geographic boundaries as today's Russia...

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ARABLOUEI: ...The one that Putin leads.

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ARABLOUEI: So during the post-revolution years, Ukraine became a very important part of the Soviet Union. Ukrainians made up the Soviet Union's second-largest ethnic group after Russians. It was a big agricultural center. It had manufacturing. And a lot of Ukrainians became key players in the Soviet power structure. And after the death of the Soviet Union's leader, Josef Stalin, in 1953...

PLOKHII: The regime had to accommodate the Ukrainian party elite, making it a junior partner to the Russians in the running of this Soviet empire. The way how it manifested was that in the '50s, '60s, '70s into early '80s, the leaders of the Soviet Union were actually the products of the Ukrainian Party machine, the Communist Party machine. So Khrushchev comes from eastern Ukraine.

ARABLOUEI: An ethnic Russian born just a few miles from Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev rose through the ranks of Ukraine's Communist Party to become Stalin's successor, leading the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.

PLOKHII: Brezhnev comes from eastern Ukraine.

ARABLOUEI: Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev as leader from 1964 to 1982.

PLOKHII: So the names of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, that I assume are quite known to the listeners, might be known to the listeners, are the best, maybe, image or two to keep in mind or something to remember when you think about the role of Ukraine in the Soviet Union.

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ABDELFATAH: So what about the role of the Soviet Union in Ukraine? Let's go back to the 1930s, when one of the darkest events of Soviet history happened in Ukraine.

PLOKHII: The man-made famine of 1932, 1933. That took up to 4 million Ukrainians that died, perished in that famine.

ABDELFATAH: The event Serhii is referring to is known as the Holodomor, which comes from the Ukrainian words for hunger and extermination. This is basically what happened. There was not enough food produced to feed the people of Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. Millions of people starved. The causes of this catastrophe are still debated by historians. Some believe it was the result of incompetent policies undertaken by the Soviet Union to collectivize agriculture. Others claim that it was an intentional policy under Josef Stalin's leadership to kill Ukrainians in order to put down any potential independence movement - or a combination of the two.

PLOKHII: And the famine was extremely important part of a broader shift in the government policy at that time because it also came with the attack on the Ukrainian culture, on the Ukrainian institutions. So famine is just one big symbol of the horrendous crimes of the regime against Ukraine in particular.

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ARABLOUEI: This was a key turning point in Ukraine's relationship with the Soviet Union. Another happened many decades later.

ABDELFATAH: There's a moment in 1986, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Obviously, it shook the world, but I think a lot of people don't realize Chernobyl is in Ukraine. And I guess I'm wondering how that moment impacted how Ukrainians saw themselves fitting into the Soviet Union.

PLOKHII: Chernobyl is one of two events associated with the Soviet Union that are mourned and commemorated in today's Ukraine. Chernobyl is another example of the same story. Because the industry in general in the Soviet Union and the nuclear industry, in particular, were highly centralized and was run from Moscow, the Chernobyl has been perceived in Ukraine as a crime committed by Moscow against the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian people.

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ARABLOUEI: During the Chernobyl disaster, a reactor at a huge nuclear power facility basically blew up and let out tons of toxic material into the nearby ecosystem. Up to 50 people died as a result. And in 2004, the U.N. predicted that as many as 4,000 more might eventually die from radiation exposure. Countless others became very sick, and the Soviet government tried to cover it up. It didn't work. It became international news and was seen as a clear signal of just how badly the Soviet Union was failing.

PLOKHII: The most important issue for Ukrainians was the issue of Chernobyl and the demand to the state, tell us the truth about what happened. We want to see the map. And the first mass mobilization around - against the Soviet state happens around Chernobyl. Out of that mobilization comes the popular movement of Ukraine, a big organization, umbrella organization for a number of groups and parties that eventually demanded the Ukrainian independence. So it would be impossible to imagine Ukraine's way to the independence without that wake-up call.

ABDELFATAH: The Ukrainian independence movement gained momentum after Chernobyl. And at the same time, other Soviet states were also beginning to leave the union. Soon, there was a call for a referendum on whether Ukraine should leave the Soviet Union and become an independent state.

PLOKHII: So when Ukrainians went to their referendum for independence - to vote - it was December 1, 1991. Ninety-two percent - a little bit more than 92% of them voted for independence of their country. Within one week, the Soviet Union fell apart.

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PLOKHII: By choosing their own independence, the Ukrainians also decided on the future of the Soviet Union because Russia didn't want and wasn't interested in continuation of this Soviet Union project without its second-largest partner economically, in terms of the population, but also culturally quite close partner. But centrality of Ukraine for the future of that place really didn't disappear. So what is happening today, this horrendous war, is a continuation of that story with Russia trying to restore its control, some form of control over the post-Soviet space. And that project cannot be successful, even half successful, if the second-largest player in the region is not on board.

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ARABLOUEI: When we come back, Ukraine's fight to stay independent after the Soviet Union.

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JOSH: Hi. My name is Josh (ph). I'm calling from New Paltz, N.Y. I love the show. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part three - a dangerous independence.

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ABDELFATAH: Ukraine emerged as an independent country with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it wasn't like the entire world was immediately supportive of that idea. In fact, in the years leading up to independence, the opposing sides of the Cold War - the United States and the Soviet Union - had separate and sometimes surprising reasons to view Ukrainian independence with skepticism.

PLOKHII: The United States didn't want the disintegration of the Soviet Union and did everything in their power at that time diplomatically, financially to keep the Soviet Union as long as possible. It sounds maybe counterintuitive, given that the Soviet Union and the United States were in - the major adversaries in the Cold War, but it makes perfect sense when you think that the Cold War was there and there was no hot war because there were nuclear weapons. And the U.S. main concern was the disintegration of the nuclear power that would lead to the war between the republics, like we have today war between Russia and Ukraine, when the republics would have nuclear arsenals and would have nuclear arms

ARABLOUEI: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union put a significant number of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So if Ukraine became independent, those weapons would become part of their defensive capability, and there would be a few nuclear states with, let's just say, a contentious history neighboring each other. Everyone was worried about that, including the U.S. But just before Ukrainians went to the polls...

PLOKHII: The United States changed track and sent signals that they would recognize independent Ukraine.

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PLOKHII: Once they do that, the U.S. has a very particular understanding of what the world is or what the world should be. And that understanding is that the world is composed out of independent states. And Ukrainians are, in that sense, on the same page as the Americans are. It was not the Russian thinking at all. What the Russians want to do is maintain their control over the area. So the Russian model from the very beginning is the model of the limited sovereignty of those republics. When Putin comes to power at the beginning of this century and this millennium, in the year 2000, his liberal economic advisers suggest that what should be done, Russia and this former Soviet territories are supposed to become part of the Russian liberal empire, meaning that it's basically a Western model, that we'll try to control them through economic means and keep them friendly and keep them dependent on us. And that didn't work. So Putin changes track, shifts gears and actually uses military option. This is the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and now all-out war in the year 2022. So this is the only instrument that is there in the imperial toolbox that Putin has today and used so indiscriminate.

ABDELFATAH: You know, going back to the idea of lived history, I mean, you were born in Russia, family is originally from Ukraine, you spent time in Ukraine, you know, as a child. So this is very - I imagine this is very close to home for you. So reflecting on these last few decades, I mean, what for you does this moment, this all-out war as you described, mean for you personally and for Ukrainians?

PLOKHII: It is really difficult to comprehend what is going on and what is happening. There was this assumption that the world really dramatically changed around the year 1991. Liberal democracy arrived, wars came to an end, it was the end of the Cold War. And that it really depends on the people and they can vote one way or another. Ukraine acquired independence through a referendum without a military confrontation, continued to exist as basically a very peaceful state in the sense that there was no enclaves, there was no mobilized minority movements or clashes in Ukraine. And when in 2014, on the account really of Ukrainians demanding from its government to stick to the promises, to sign association agreement with the European Union, not even joining the European Union, on that issue, they were attacked and invaded by Russia.

ABDELFATAH: In 2014, Russia invaded the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, eventually annexing it and assuming control.

PLOKHII: The Ukrainians couldn't comprehend that something like that could happen at all. And then they were not prepared to shoot at others and particular at Russians who were considered to be close, not just close neighbors but also in cultural and ethnic and other terms, close relatives. And Ukraine really mobilized after 2014, after losing part of its territories. But still till the very end, in Ukraine, no one believe that there could be another major war. Overall, both wars, 2014 and the war now of the 2022, caught Ukrainian society by surprise. And that, on many levels, was also my reaction.

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ARABLOUEI: Surprise, shock, sadness and anger - these are emotions we have heard from Serhii and many other Ukrainians and Russians watching this conflict unfold. The complicated dimensions of identity and geopolitics are all interacting and playing out in a tragic fashion. Yes, Ukrainians have developed a distinct identity since the time of the Cossacks, but Russia and Ukraine are clearly two countries that share culture and history that can't always be defined by borders and politics and wars. And for that reason, the destruction and chaos created by the invasion of Ukraine becomes more painful to watch.

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ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me...

ABDELFATAH: And me and...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

MANSEE KHURANA, BYLINE: Mansee Khurana.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

CASEY MINER, BYLINE: Casey Miner.

KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: Kumari Devarajan.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Jerome Socolovsky, Marci Shore, Amelia Glaser, Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was mixed by Josh Newell.

ABDELFATAH: Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter, @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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