Academic Bert Bruins says Ukrainian protesters who want to join the EU deserve our support
While scepticism of the European Union, (EU)and even talk of leaving it, are prevalent in England, hundreds of thousands of people in an independent country in Eastern Europe are out in icy weather to campaign for the right to become a part of the EU. Why?
For weeks now, massive demonstrations have been held in the central square of Ukraine's capital city Kiev, the Maidan, in support of a treaty that is seen as an essential step towards becoming a member of the EU. Not getting the financial bailout he hoped for and with a nearly bankrupt economy, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich balked at the last moment over the signing of the treaty.
In recent decades Britain has welcomed new EU members from Eastern Europe. There are good reasons why we in Britain should be as active in supporting the Ukrainian protesters. When the Ukraine became an independent country in 1991 after the Soviet Union imploded, it was a surprise. Russia's president Vladimir Putin has in the past derisively called Ukraine a "non-country".
To understand the motivation of the protesters we need to understand what happened before. Two big events happened in the larger region between 1,100 and 800 years ago that still affect what is happening today: Vikings from Sweden established the first sizeable trading cities and states in the Slavic north (Novgorod) and semi-nomadic south (Kiev) in the ninth century. In the 13th century the Mongols (Tatars) overran most of these states, forcing the local populations to pay tribute to them. The by then largely Slavic state of Kiev, was one of the main victims of this new order.
However the memory of this Orthodox Christian state with its great gates and golden domes, known as "Kievan Rus", attained almost mythical status in the north where the Tatar influence was less pronounced.
Eventually the northern city-state of Moscow, in competition with other longer established towns, came to see itself as the rightful inheritor of Kievan Rus and became the main seat of Orthodox Christianity in the East-Slavic world.
Then, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Moscow started to see itself as the successor state of the Byzantine empire with a duty to look after all Orthodox Christians.
West Ukraine was ruled by then by the superpower of Poland-Lithuania, but the south and east were still ruled by Tatars of the Khanate of the Crimea.
The autocratic state of Moscow (Muscovy) made slow headway in the north by conquering cities such as Novgorod and Suzdal. It also introduced serfdom in its territories, a development that was to have devastating consequences.
So the western parts of Ukraine were for a large part of their history part of Poland-Lithuania, and later on part of Austria-Hungary. The east and south became part of the growing Russian Empire in the 18th century when Catherine the Great's lover Prince Potemkin took charge after defeating the Tartars.
While Poland and Austria-Hungary were not democracies, they were positively enlightened compared with tsarist Russia.
As a result, western Ukrainians have mentalities that stem from having been part of a civic society, whereas Ukrainians in the east have largely known serfdom and Communism.
Both halves of the Ukraine suffered from anti-Jewish pogroms (under the Tsars) and terrible starvation and oppression (under the Communists) in the early decades of the 20th century.
They also experienced the devastation caused by the Nazi invasion. Then came the break-up of the USSR …
Britain has been at the forefront of expanding freedom and civil rights in the world, and our democracy, free press and independent judiciary are still a beacon to the citizens of Ukraine.
Also because western economic advisors with an overly idealistic free market agenda messed up the economic and political reform of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s I feel we have a duty to help clear up the mess.
What amazes me is the longevity of folk-memory. All people like freedom and people remember (often vaguely) who took these freedoms away from them.
Isn't it amazing that the events in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall have shown a retrenchment of Moscow's influence in exactly the reverse order of the growth of its autocratic power in the preceding five centuries?
The rise of Russia was largely forced by military power alone, however much Moscow's rulers have tried to portray it as a natural gathering of the Slavs under one banner.
And while the Russian Revolution created a radical break with the preceding Tsarist Empire, it is still worth noting the continuities: both regimes held a large part of their population in servitude.
If my account of the peeling away of suppressed nations from the orbit of Moscow in a reversed historic order is correct, then Ukraine is next in line.
This is why we in the West must support the protesters in the Maidan square in Kiev. They deserve to live in a state where there are free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary, all those things that we take for granted.
They, much more than we, know what a difference that makes.