"One isn't going into who's right and who's wrong. But facts, after all, are facts."
By Biswajit Choudhury

Moscow, July 8 - Russia and Ukraine, currently engaged in a political-military standoff, are bound by 1,000 years of history which they find it difficult to shake off. That's the feeling one gets almost instantly even during a brief visit here.

Thus it was at an international conference at the grand 16th-century Gostiny Dvor exhibition hall.

Ukraine looking westwards to join the European Union is at the heart of its recent troubles with Russia, because the links between the two nations are deeply intertwined through bonds of culture, religion, marriage and language. The Ukrainian and Russian languages are quite similar while many people read each other's literature too.

TV programmes in Ukraine switch frequently between Ukrainian and Russian as most Ukrainians are bilingual, said Ukrainian Konstantin Kostyshyn, serving delegates at the conference. He is among the millions of Ukrainians working in Russia.

Linguistic kinship leads one back to the origins: To the kingdom of Kievan Rus formed in the 9th century by a federation of Scandinavian Norsemen and easterly Slavic tribes centred in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, which the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus refer to as their birthplace.

By around 1700, Ukraine had been incorporated into Russia's Tsarist empire, while it was after World War II that the secondmost populous of the 15 Soviet republics began to enjoy an almost special status in the Soviet Union.

With Ukrainian culture being celebrated during the Soviet period, ties between Russians and Ukrainians deepened and were much closer than those with other ethnic groups. Communist party leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were from Ukraine, while Khrushchev's act of transferring Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 testified to the strength of these ties - until violent opposition protests late last year led to the ouster of the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian president.

In Soviet times, many people would come to study in Moscow, and then get married here. Ukrainians and Russians because of their language similarities found it easier to intermarry, so there are many family ties between us, Anna Brekhova, an executive who has studied in the Moscow State University, told IANS.

Russians and Ukrainians are also united by their common faith in Orthodox Christianity ever since 988, when the Kievan Rus' Prince Vladimir baptized his people into Eastern Orthodox Christianity, thus laying the foundations of the modern Russian church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is the country's largest by following, according to observers, with a strong presence in the central, southern and southeastern parts.

In these disturbed times, the church is wholeheartedly for unity of a people who share a common culture, heritage and language, Oleksandr Kimbirskiy, a Ukrainian monk from Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the historic Monastery of the Caves that features in Unesco's list of World Heritage sites, told this visiting IANS correspondent.

It is the ambition of certain politicians that is dividing the people and has led to the present problems, which should be resolved without outside interference, added Kimbirskiy, who was witness to the anti-Yanukovich protests in the Maidan square located close to the monastery.

The second largest Ukrainian Orthodox Church is that of the Kiev Patriarchate, the product of a 1992 schism in Ukraine's Orthodox community following the break-up of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's gaining independence in 1991. Followers of the Kiev Patriarchate make up the majority in the western half of the country, which had once been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Ukrainian nationalism developed late in the 19th century in the western half that had never been part of Tsarist Russia. The two halves were united in 1939 as a result of the partitioning of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is this western half that has provided the push to Ukraine's re-orientating westwards, as well as the strongest opposition to Moscow.

Last month's signing of a trade pact between the European Union and Ukraine flagged off the process of its eventual entry into the EU.

More than half of Russia's gas exports to western Europe flow through pipelines in Ukraine, which itself is one of the largest markets for Russian natural gas. Based on their special relationship, Russia has allowed Ukraine annual discounts of $15 billion on sale of gas, before supplies were stopped last month following a long-standing price dispute.

Russia has historically absorbed nine-tenths of Ukraine's high-value exports, while Russian companies are among the biggest investors in Ukraine, contributing over seven percent of foreign investments in 2013.

Speaking of Ukraine's eastern regions, which has a majority of Russian speakers, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said on television: I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the Tsarist days, Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government.

One isn't going into who's right and who's wrong. But facts, after all, are facts.

(Biswajit Choudhury can be reached at [email protected])

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