WASHINGTON -- Anyone trying to make sense of the extraordinarily complex events in Ukraine the last few weeks will have to go back to the terrible days of yore when the Mongol hordes were, amazingly, able to ride their ponies as far west as the capital of Kiev.
It was called "Christian Kiev" in those days, and by all accounts it was a beautiful city with golden domes and ancient monasteries, some of which exist to this day. The city, which lies pretty much equally between Moscow and Warsaw, looked westward -- there is no question about that -- and had blossoming relationships with all of Christian Europe. It might have ended up as a Berlin, or at least a Krakow or Salzburg.
But the Mongol hordes, having devastated their way from the depths of Central Asia, leaving Moscow, Samarkand, Khiva and the north of India not only in ruins but infused with their brutal, autocratic ways, attacked Christian Kiev in 1240. The historians like to say they left this potential center of civilization in "a mountain of skulls." Silence reigned for generations.
Yet today, Ukraine is noisily back in the news. The stories stress massive demonstrations by hundreds of thousands in Kiev, many of them shouting, "Ukraine is Europe" (and, occasionally, "Revolution!"). They tell of the government's secret service trying to quell the protesters. They tell of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych sort of disappearing for a time, and they tell, mostly, of utter confusion.
But actually, the heart and soul of the confrontation is quite obvious. On the one side, in the protesters' minds, is the idea of an "Eastern Partnership" between Ukraine and the European Union (EU); on the other is a "Eurasian Economic Union" led by Russia. On the first side is the bureaucratic world of Western Europe, with all of its laws, commitments, promises and hope. On the second side is the same old Russia, with its threats, quasi-gulags and impositions by force.
The Ukraine story today is one of a clash of civilizations in the minds of the Ukrainians. At this moment, it is impossible to see whether East or West will win.
On the Eastern/Russian side, Ukraine is not the only player. Georgia and Moldova, former Soviet "republics," are expected soon to initial trade deals with the EU. Azerbaijan is talking with Brussels. The Baltic three -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania -- are longtime members of the EU and doing very well with the slow, but steady development the EU delivers.
But Ukraine is the diamond in the necklace Moscow is trying to bring back home to the 60 years of the Soviet era. It is a huge state, with 46 million people, vast farmlands and a terrible experience of its years under the Soviets (millions were deliberately starved in Ukraine in the 1930s by Stalin). Odessa in Ukraine's south is not only a beautiful cultural city, but the home port of the Russian fleet. In short, much is at stake.
Moreover, Ukraine is virtually cut in half culturally. In the eastern part, which abuts Russia, lie the oil and industrial wealth of the state, and most people speak Russian. In the western part lies Kiev, where people speak Ukrainian and carry signs at protests saying, "You cannot give us Europe. We ARE Europe."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having lost so much of the Soviet Union when it was destroyed in 1991, is determined, for obvious reasons, to keep Ukraine. But what he really offers is a return to the past. Incredibly, Russia is now touting the reign of the Romanovs, which ended with their mass murder by the Communists after 1917; recently, Putin even used the word "pogroms" to describe the Ukrainian protests. "Pogrom" refers very specifically to the violent destruction of Jewish villages in the "pale" of Ukraine in the late 19th century. You figure!
Ukraine's Russian-leaning President Yanukovych was on the brink of signing the protocols that would allow Ukraine to begin EU membership several weeks ago when he was called to Moscow by Putin. The Ukrainian returned after threats and promised deals with Moscow, and refused to sign with the EU.
As Gideon Rachman wrote recently in the Financial Times, the pro-EU meltdown in Ukraine "threatens President Putin's vision for Russia in the world. His main foreign policy goal is the construction of a sphere of influence for Russia, covering most of the old Soviet Union. Ukraine ... is meant to be the jewel in the crown."
One struggles to see how the old threats of Moscow can win, even over the undramatic bureaucracy of EU membership. One pauses, wondering whether the old Christian Kiev, comrade of Europe, not Russia, can really be reborn.
Yet there is little question that the masses of Ukrainians want Europe. They want to go home.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)