Few may have noticed Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s innocent gaffe when he introduced Volodomyr Zelensky to the House of Commons and mentioned ‘The Ukraine’. The name itself means borderlands, frontier, and there is a similarly named area (‘Krajina’) in Croatia. Adding ‘the’ suggests it is the frontier of someone else, Russia, rather than a free and independent state.
Ukraine is indeed a borderland, but it is the borderland of Europe, lying (to steal the title of the excellent Penguin history of Ukraine by Serhi Plokhy) at the ‘gates of Europe’. Its wide plains have functioned as a bridge between the Black Sea and the Baltic, making it a strategically desirable territory to control. Its rich resources, sprung from the mud of its extremely fertile soil, have also made Ukraine economically desirable. The contest for its soil has mattered not just to its neighbours but to consumers of its grain as far afield as the United States. This can be traced right back to the ancient Greeks, who founded colonies in Crimea that sent food to Athens.
It has always been a meeting place of very different cultures. In the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus was fascinated by the customs of the partly nomadic peoples of what became Ukraine: the Scythian horsemen, skilled archers who built an empire stretching across the flat lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Later conquerors would include Germanic Goths and an array of Turkic peoples, including the extraordinary Khazars, whose pagan rulers summoned preachers of all three Abrahamic religions and chose Judaism because (it is said) the Christian and Muslim preachers had admitted that they preferred it to one another’s religion. In the early Middle Ages this massive Jewish empire apparently fostered peaceful relations between the religions.
Part of the story, the part that Putin holds dear, concerns the establishment of a kingdom around Kyiv in the same period, whose ruler eventually adopted Greek Orthodox Christianity. Intense nationalism in the twentieth century saw historians do battle over the question whether the founders of the Kyivan state of Rus were Slavs or Vikings, for whom the routes down the broad Dnipro (Dnieper) River were the best trade route to the Black Sea and Constantinople. The answer predictably, is that it was a common effort. In the late Middle Ages the merchants of Genoa lined the shores of Crimea with towns and fortresses, from which they sent vast quantities of grain all the way to Italy. The major Genoese base at Caffa (modern Feodisiya) in Crimea was host to a population of maybe 50,000 inhabitants. Now and for centuries to come grain could be obtained so cheaply that it was often no more expensive in western markets than the grain produced locally. In many respects this held true till recently, but grain prices have soared and the UK alone spent about $220 million on Ukrainian grain in 2019. As exports dry up during Putin’s war, the effect on prices will be dramatic, not to mention the likelihood of famine in African countries dependent on Ukrainian grain.
This dependence on grain was also the unmaking of Ukraine when Stalin’s henchmen requisitioned the food grown by those farmers who were deemed to be prosperous ‘kulaks’, creating a famine during which maybe 12 million, maybe more, peasants starved to death. The Holodomor is one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. Soon after, Hitler dreamed of the wide expanses of Ukraine as the perfect Lebensraum, living space, for his master race, not leaving much room for the Ukrainians except as the conqueror’s slaves. Putin has many motives for his attack on Ukraine, but he desperately wants its resources. Far from being a ‘frontier’ Ukraine is an exceptionally valuable piece of real estate. Putin’s assumption was that he could topple Volodomyr Zelensky’s government by capturing the capital, and Ukraine would fall neatly into his hands. Yet recent statements from Russia have stressed first the aim of acquiring control of south-eastern Ukraine, while in late April the intention of entirely closing off Ukraine’s access to the sea has been spelled out with precision: Odessa is now a target, and has begun to suffer bombardment.
The tsars yearned for access to the sea. One possibility was the Baltic, where Peter the Great built St Petersburg at the start of the eighteenth century. But another more lucrative possibility was the Black Sea, open all year, through which Ukrainian grain had been flowing for centuries. At the very end of the century Catherine the Great seized on the opportunity created by victory over the Turks to transform a sleepy village into a city supposedly named after the great traveller Odysseus, while its hinterland was given the name Novorossiya, ‘New Russia’. Nor did tsarist dreams stop there. Even at the start of the twentieth century they had not forgotten Tsargrad. The idea of a Russian conquest of Istanbul and the return of Constantinople to Orthodox Christian rule was irresistible. Its emotional power was enormous, but control of the straits leading from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean was also a longstanding ambition. Catherine even coveted Minorca, at that point ruled by Great Britain.
Odessa was founded on the model the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa had applied to Trieste. It was to be open to people of all ethnicities and religions. Wealthy Greek shipowners gathered there and became even wealthier exporting Ukraine’s wheat. Its population was a mix of all the peoples of eastern Europe. In the nineteenth century it had many of the characteristics of the Mediterranean cities such as Salonika and Alexandria, where harmony between different groups alternated with tension. Enlightened governors such as the Duc de Richelieu generally understood that the city’s prosperity depended on a policy of tolerance. The large Jewish population of Odessa was sometimes the target of murderous pogroms, but it was also a place where an increasingly secular Jewish culture flourished, celebrated in the writings of Isaac Babel. Odessa’s wider intellectual life was vibrant. It was the city of Pushkin. Handsome palaces and villas were erected, though there was a wide gap between the wealthy elite and an impoverished proletariat. Its most famous structure, though, is the massive set of steps leading down from the city heights to the port, the scene of a hair-raising episode in Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin.
Odessa became the gateway to the massive agricultural resources of Ukraine, but its strategic significance for Putin goes way beyond that. Odessa is the gateway to south-eastern Europe. Odessa lies close to the breakaway territory Transnistria, the sliver of Moldova that is already patrolled by Russian ‘peace-keepers’. The idea of creating a land-link to Transnistria has now been explicitly stated by a Russian military strategist. It is important to remember (as Putin certainly does) that Moldova is not a member of NATO nor of the EU, but it is another former Soviet republic, having been sliced off Romania in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet pact. Under Soviet orders its language, which is a version of Romanian (its literary form is identical to Romanian), adopted the Cyrillic alphabet, becoming the only Romance language not to be written in Latin script. Complete control of the Ukrainian shoreline would be a disaster for Ukraine and it would enable Russian naval power to dominate the Black Sea, offering further leverage against Georgia, where Putin has already sliced off the coastal region of Abkhazia. Russian ambitions no longer extend, we can assume, to the conquest of Istanbul, but it is no surprise that President Erdoğan, who controls the route into the Mediterranean, is keen to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. The potential for conflict over control of the Black Sea will be vastly increased if Odessa as well as Mariupol fall to Russia.
The economic implications are enormous. Ukraine’s massive exports of grain and sunflower oil, which Putin ardently covets, will be blocked from access to Black Sea ports. Alternative export routes through Poland and Romania can only carry a fraction of what would be sent through Odessa, Mariupol and other Black Sea ports, although even before its devastation by the Russians Mariupol had already suffered from the effective blockage of the straits leading from the Sea of Azov into the Black Sea following the construction of bridges linking the eastern tip of Crimea to Russia. (It was the same in the fifteenth century; under pressure from Ottoman advances, Italian merchants trading in Crimea attempted to use routes down the Danube to export goods into eastern Europe from Crimea, where they had major trading bases, but nothing compared with access to the Black Sea and routes past Constantinople).
All this also has echoes of the Crimean War, which broke out in 1854, with Britain, France and Turkey ranged against the Russian Empire. One of the issues that sparked the war was Russia’s occupation of Moldova and its attempts to control the Danube delta. If Putin finds Odessa irresistible, then history may begin to repeat itself.
This article is based on pieces published by the Daily Telegraph in Spring 2022. The Ukrainian spelling of Odessa is Odesa. I have used double S simply because this is standard spelling in English.
Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, London, 2017.
Neil Ascherson, Black Sea, new ed., London, 2015.
Patricia Herlihy, Odessa: a History 1794-1914, Cambridge Mass., 1984.
Patricia Herlihy, Odessa Recollected: the Port and the People, Boston, 2018.
Neil Kent, Crimea: a History, London, 2015.
Charles King, The Black Sea; a History, Oxford 2004
Serhi Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: a History of Ukraine, London and New York, 2015