Yaroslav the Wise with Saint Sophia Cathedral in his hands beside the Golden Gates—the historic gateway of ancient Kyiv

Ukraine’s “Founding Fathers” Are Over a Thousand Years Old

When someone says, well, didn’t Ukraine belong to this empire or that empire, so therefore why should they have their own country? It’s clear this person’s scope of history is limited. Some people tend to think that history began around the time they were born. They should stop and consider, for instance, that as countries go, America is practically a teenager: it’s only 238 years old. To put that in perspective, the groundbreaking of the Notre Dame was 851 years ago. The world’s oldest city, Jericho, was established around 9,000 BC. Civilization is believed to be 44,000 years old, and throughout the millennia, every generation, every tribe had their great beauties and their great wits. They’re all dust now, and we will be too someday, and hopefully a thousand years from now pundits won’t forget us. But they may, especially if they have a political or financial agenda.

New York’s Jonathan Chait pointed out the latest disturbing column by pundit Stephen F. Cohen which claims that it’s a fallacy that Ukraine exists at all, and it’s also not true, Cohen claims, that this so-called Ukraine wants to escape Russia to unite with Europe. Cohen, a disgraced scholar, has been repeatedly called out in the press for spewing Kremlin lies. The shameful claim that “Ukraine does not exist” has also been made by Putin himself, whom Angela Merkel famously said is “living in another world.” Cohen and Putin both seem to be trapped there.

It’s odd timing that Cohen’s latest op-ed, insisting that Ukraine does not exist, came out just as Putin escalated his invasion of Ukraine. Despite sanctions, his country’s worsening economy, Putin, like a mad king, pushes on in his quest to establish what he calls Novorossia, or New Russia. Putin is trying to revive the imperialist work of his hero, mass murderer Joseph Stalin, who nearly wiped out Ukraine in his genocide famine of 1932 to 1933.

When Cohen appears on television or writes a column for his wife’s magazine, he sounds like a Big Tobacco spokesperson, the kind satirized in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. Sometimes Cohen likes to begin by winning over his audience by quoting the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Anyone who hears this would think, yes, I like Moynihan, he was an excellent statesmen, and I love that quote, go on. Yet when Cohen goes on, he sounds like Putin. And when faced with a highly-respected journalist in a debate on TV, Cohen likes to talk over that person, and make loud horse-like sighs of outrage as the person is speaking, and dramatically roll his eyes. If you’ve read Thank You for Smoking, you’d recognize these Big Tobacco spokesman tricks. They are manipulative, and clearly the work of someone who knows that facts are not on his side.

Now let’s examine Cohen’s insane claim that Ukraine does not exist. Ukraine is a civilization that’s at least 400 years older than Russia. A visitor to Kyiv will come across statues to the men and women who led the Kyivan Rus, a culturally advanced kingdom of the 9th century which had high literacy rates and generous rights for women at that time. Its princesses became queens of France, Hungary, and Norway. To illustrate how advanced they were, Anna of Kyiv spoke five languages fluently, including Latin and Greek; when she became Queen of France she wrote letters home complaining that the French couldn’t read and write, and they didn’t bother to bathe. After her husband died, Anna ruled France, earning the praise of the Pope, and her bloodline continued on through France’s kings. In coronations, including that of Louis the XIV, they used the ancient illustrated Gospel that Anna had brought with her from Kyiv. So hundreds of years before Russia even existed, Ukraine had already united with Europe by blood.

Why do the ancient stories matter? Because they’re passed down through generations of Ukrainians, establishing a national identity as oppressors came and went. Growing up in a World War II refugee camp in Germany, my uncle and other Ukrainian little boys whose families fled the Soviet Union would pretend to be the kingly warriors of the Kyivan Rus, acting out adventures in the woods. Visit any Ukrainian organization anywhere in the world and you’re likely to come across plaques, busts, or other tributes to Ukraine’s ancient founding fathers. This statue proudly stands in front of London’s Ukrainian Institute in Holland Park, of St Volodymyr, who chose Europe over the Middle East by baptizing his kingdom.

In some ways, it’s the oppression that Ukraine has had to overcome that has developed its culture of resistance, a readiness to die for freedom — a vow made by its national anthem — the song of the revolution of EuroMaidan. No one symbolizes this more than Taras Shevchenko whose thoughtful face looked out from protest signs at Kyiv’s barricades. Ukraine’s Walt Whitman, Shevchenko lived like most Ukrainians in the 19th century — oppressed under the Czar, (which just happens to be Putin’s nickname in his inner circle). He suffered imprisonment for his subversive poetry.

Shevchenko found a soul mate in African-American actor Ira Aldridge, who had escaped being sold into slavery in the South. The two men didn’t speak the same language, but they sometimes communicated by teaching each other the folk songs of their respective people, with their shared longing for freedom. When Shevchenko died, Aldridge, then the highest paid actor in the world who had broken down the color barrier of Europe’s theaters, toured Ukraine three times, introducing Shakespeare to the Ukrainian people. A legacy of their friendship existed in the refugee camps of World War II, where my grandfather and other Ukrainian refugees produced translations of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shevchenko’s poem, “Kavkaz” was a rallying cry during EuroMaidan. He wrote it in solidarity with the oppressed Caucasus, and called on all people — “from the Moldovan to the Finn” — to resist Russian brutality:

Struggle, and ye shall overcome the foe,
For God shall succor you in battle’s throe.
His strength is on your side, and freedom stands
With justice on the threshold of your lands!

In this video, a 21-year old Armenian named Serhiy Nihoyan, standing at a barricade on Maidan, recites verses from “Kavkaz.” Soon after, Nihoyan was shot and killed by the riot police — the first death in a revolution that would overthrow a tyrannical regime controlled by the Kremlin.

From an advanced civilization to a poet who fought with his pen, Ukraine’s national soul has only strengthened over centuries of oppression. That is why — despite Russian propaganda insisting otherwise — Ukraine welcomes people from all cultures: from the Afghani-born journalist who launched EuroMaidan with a Facebook update to the African-Ukrainians who wear flowers in their hair. It may have stunned the world that Ukrainians were willing to live in the arctic cold for months and give their lives to overthrow Putin’s puppet government, but to those who grew up on the poems of Taras Shevchenko, it came as no surprise.

Ukraine has and always will exist. Russia likes to claim that they were born of the Kyivan Rus. If Russia would like to call Ukraine its mother, then it needs to stop acting like a spoiled adult child and move out of the house, and try to make it on its own.

Ira Aldridge and Taras Shevchenko — Painting by Louis Picard

Anne of Kyiv, Queen of France (1024 — 1075)

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