Ukraine under Soviet occupation - a mail stamp in a series published underground by the Polish Solidarity movement in 1987.

Ukraine under Soviet occupation - a mail stamp in a series published underground by the Polish Solidarity movement in 1987. 

History of Ukraine, Opinion

Edited by: A. N.

Since communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in the Soviet space in 1991, those countries which recognized the communist period as one of foreign occupation have been far more successful in breaking with the past than have those who viewed the Soviet / communist period as part of their national histories.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, Ukrainian historian (Image: Hannah Beitzer)

Volodymyr Viatrovych, Ukrainian historian
(Image: Hannah Beitzer)

The countries which had been members of the Warsaw Pact in almost every case viewed their communist periods as an occupation by the Soviet Union, as did Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, whom the Soviets had viewed as legitimately part of the USSR but whom the citizens of the three and most Western governments did not.

The Russian Federation and the former Yugoslavia in contrast saw the communist system as one their ancestors had established and did not break with it, and the other former Soviet republics generally went along lest they spark anger in Moscow or within significant parts of their populations.

(There were some intermediate cases, like Azerbaijan, which viewed itself as the continuation of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic suppressed by Soviet troops but did not explicitly label the Soviet period as an occupation. Over time, several other post-Soviet states have moved in that direction.)

A major reason that some in these countries are thinking about declaring the Soviet period an occupation is that they can see that those countries which have done so have found it far easier to dispense with the communist past. Few, despite Russian obsessions, have expected that they would ever receive compensation.

Now, this issue has been joined in Ukraine. Volodymyr Vyatrovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, has declared that Ukraine must recognize the period it was within the USSR as “’an occupation’” by the Soviet regime in Moscow.

According to the historian, the Ukrainian government needs to declare itself the legal successor of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic which existed between 1917 and 1921. If it does so, Vyatrovych says, it will be easier for Ukrainians to see that they were occupied by a foreign power between 1921 and 1991 and easier too to dispense with things that power imposed.

Not surprisingly, his proposal has sparked outrage in Moscow and among some in Ukraine who say it is “fake” history and as a prelude to Ukraine making demands for reparations. (See, and

And also not surprisingly, Vyatrovych’s proposal almost certainly will be opposed by other countries and by many in Ukraine as a step that would only make resolving issues arising out of the Russian Federation’s Anschluss of Crimea and continuing intervention in the Donbas more difficult.

But the historian’s idea contains within it more than a kernel of truth; and consequently, even if it is not adopted officially as it is unlikely to be, it will inform the thinking of ever more Ukrainians and may make it easier for them to press for those steps necessary to escape the system that Moscow in fact did impose upon their ancestors.

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Edited by: A. N.

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