Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin spoke to the nation, accusing Communist leaders of “historical, strategic mistakes” that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
One of those leaders was Leonid Kravchuk, who died this week at the age of 88. Kravchuk, a former Soviet apparatchik who took the matter to Ukrainian independence and became his country’s first democratically elected president, may have done more than anyone else to overthrow the Soviet empire.
A cunning bureaucrat and shrewd tactician, he liberated Ukraine from Soviet rule without bloodshed. He outmaneuvered hardliners and kept Ukraine remarkably united despite its internal divisions.
Russia could not support the USSR without Ukraine, the Union’s second most populous state and also another Slavic state. As Serhii Plokhy describes in The last empirehis account of the Soviet collapse, “Kravchuk carried out a difficult balancing act, maintaining a veneer of loyalty to the center while aggressively promoting the interests of his homeland.”
Kravchuk’s life story followed his country’s turbulent history. He was born in western Ukraine in what was then Polish territory. As an eight-year-old boy living under Nazi occupation, he saw German troops execute Jews with machine guns. His father died in battle for the Red Army against the Wehrmacht.
He studied political economy at Kyiv University and joined the Communist Party and rose rapidly in its ranks. In 1990, as President of Ukraine’s Supreme Soviet, he became the country’s highest official.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, Kravchuk managed to exercise loyalty to his Soviet masters while speeding up their end.
Although Kravchuk refused to join Yeltsin’s active opposition to the 1991 coup, he criticized it enough to stay on the right side of history as the Putschists faltered. Then he left the party.
After the coup attempt, he supported the thousands of Ukrainians protesting in Kiev in favor of independence. He did so despite pressure from US President George HW Bush, who feared a chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kravchuk then supported a seismic declaration of independence in the Kiev parliament. Within eight days, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan followed suit.
Kravchuk persuaded Moscow by agreeing to put independence to a referendum. Gorbachev doubted that it would pass – it did so by an extraordinary 90 percent with a turnout of 84 percent. Kravchuk was elected president the same day. The former party leader of ideology and servant of the Soviet empire convinced the Ukrainians that he was really committed to the self-determination of their country.
One week later, Yeltsin arranged to meet Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, his Belarusian counterpart. In a hunting lodge in the Belavezha forest, Yeltsin argued that both Belarus and Ukraine should remain in a reformed union with Russia. But Kravchuk saw that any such scheme would be dominated by Moscow. He threatened to walk away and allegedly said to Yeltsin: “And who will you be when you return to Russia? I will return to Ukraine as president elected by the people, and what will your role be – the role of Gorbachev’s subordinates as before ? ”
He drew up an alternative plan for a looser Commonwealth of Independent States. Yeltsin agreed, seeing an opportunity to get rid of Gorbachev. The three leaders agreed to “hereby declare that the USSR as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality ceases to exist”.
Kravchuk later agreed to give up Ukraine’s share of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States and Britain – these proved worthless when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and orchestrated a separatist war in the Donbas region.
Kravchuk lost the 1994 election to Leonid Kuchma. It was the first undisputed transfer of power in democratic Ukraine and the last until Volodymyr Zelensky’s landslide in 2019. Kravchuk became a respected senior statesman who for a time presided over diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the Donbas region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “He was a person who was always able to find wise words and express them in such a way that they were heard by all Ukrainians. Especially in times of crisis. When the future of an entire country can depend on the wisdom of one person. ” Ben Hall