When I arrived in Odessa in the spring of 2011 to do research on trade between Russia and the West in the 19th century, I imagined the relatively idyllic picture painted by financial observers of that period.
When our plane landed, I discovered that my spoken Russian was not good enough to bargain with the Gypsy cab drivers. I finally located someone who spoke a little German and a few words of English. I showed him the address of my hotel, and he looked me up and down, twice. When we arrived, I discovered why. "Russkaya mafiya," he said as I startled at the men in camouflage jackets who guarded the front gates with Kalashnikovs. Two sniper towers had sightlines that converged on our taxi. I had, apparently, booked a hotel in a Russian-mafia quarter. My broken Russian and my printed reservation got me in.
Outside the compound, I had seen poverty. Inside, I saw opulence: Humvees, late-model Benzes, and million-dollar summer homes of the newly rich Russians close to Vladimir Putin. My hotel room looked out onto a pool that looked out onto the Black Sea. Young women who brought to mind bikini models swam in the pool while boyfriends the age of their fathers watched from their deck chairs. This was the new Ukraine, and it was a long time in the making.
As a historian of 19th-century financial panics, I knew something that many commentators do not: Ukraine has some of the best and most productive land on earth, land that fed Europe for more than a hundred years after the French Revolution. It is hard to see that now. Ukrainians have suffered for a century for the wealth that lies just beneath their feet.
From my plane, I could see that neither the Russian Revolutions of 1905 or 1917, nor the Second World War, nor the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 had erased the sharp gridlines of the fields of the rich black soil of the steppes. Between the French and the Russian Revolutions, international trade in Ukraine’s wheat had been huge and important. And then it stopped.
Ukraine is in many ways a Russian version of the wild, untamed American West. Roughly translated, the region’s name means "borderland." Even before the French Revolution, the Russian Empire had sought access to a deepwater port for strategic reasons that also held overtones of a racial and religious crusade. (Putin’s regular use of the term mala Rossiya, "little Russia," to describe Ukraine is a direct reference to that long imperial tradition, one that many Ukrainians find insulting.) In roughly the same period that the United States displaced Mexico and Plains Indians in a rush to the Pacific, Russian forces pushed out Turks and Tatars in a drive south toward the Black Sea.
And just as the West is a large part of American ideology, Ukraine is a large part of Russian ideology. Americans attracted immigrants to the dangerous Western borderlands in the 18th and 19th centuries with the promise of free land and political freedom; Catherine the Great offered free land and local self-governance to German religious dissenters, Greek traders, and Jews willing to settle near the Black Sea, and Russian monarchs continued to look the other way as peasants escaped their lords into fresh land on the steppes. Legends and fables of medieval ancestors of the Russian kingdom, based in Kiev, formed a crucial part of national identity.
Ukraine could also be dangerous shorthand for liberty, from Pushkin’s banned poem "Ode to Liberty" (published and censored in 1817) to the failed attempt of the Decembrist uprising (1825) to demand for a version of Ukraine’s ancient system of elected Hetmans. Ukraine stood as a Russian symbol of freedom and a curb on autocracy.
The borderlands provided a buffer against powerful nomads, with Tatars the Russian version of Apaches. Soldiers who fought for the Russian Empire were paid with a house, several acres of land, and a yard, called a dvor. The odnodvortsy (single-yarders) were to be faithful buffers against the Tatars who might raid in reprisal for land taken from them.
But beyond the borderlands, beyond security, beyond free land, there was wheat. Wheat grown on the steppes to feed hungry Europe—and provide the Russians with the gold and gunpowder they needed to drive the Ottomans back to Anatolia and further the dreams of the most fervent Russian nationalists, like Dostoyevsky, of returning Istanbul to the hands of Orthodox Christians.
By 1852 half of all the wheat consumed in Britain came from abroad. Almost 40 percent of that came from Russia, while Prussia and the United States provided only 15 percent each. Britain so depended on Russian wheat that when the British blockaded the Russians during the Crimean War (1853-56), the price of wheat in Britain shot up two-thirds. The stop in trade worked both ways: The blockade of the Black Sea effectively bankrupted the Russian government.
Russian designs on the Black Sea and Crimea are not new, in other words. Russian military leaders and soldiers went to war over the area many times in the hundred years from the 1770s to the 1870s—while most of Europe was at peace. The wide streets of Odessa were laid out only in the 1790s, after the Ottoman outpost of Yeni Dünya was burned to its foundations, all traces destroyed. The Crimean War was a humiliating defeat for the Russians in large part because the other powers of Europe intervened against a Russia they saw as overly expansionist.
Moreover, when the Crimean War closed access to Ukrainian wheat, it led American railroad directors to plot out an alternative supply line to European dinner tables. Western railroads turned the United States and Russian borderlands into international competitors. That competition for Europe’s insatiable demand for food has made the United States and Russia competitors since 1870. No one follows wheat exports from the Ukraine more closely than the U.S. Department of Agriculture—black soil and the Black Sea continue to make the region America’s most direct competitor for wheat exports, more important than Argentina, Western Canada, or Australia.
Unlike in the United States, however, the polyglot, multinational aspect of the Russian expansion into the borderlands began to collapse just before the Panic of 1873. In the name of strengthening the nation in the face of competition, Russia threatened to conscript soldiers from the German farming communes, and many Mennonites and other German religious dissenters fled the black soil of Ukraine for the black soil of Kansas. Many Jews left too, after the Russian Okhrana, or secret police, began inciting peasants to commit anti-Semitic atrocities. The Jews had been among the largest traders in city markets, and the secret police feared that they were profiting at the nation’s expense. By the 1920s the region was importing wheat from elsewhere and facing famine.
Part of the problem was free trade. The Imperial Russian government was happy to sell wheat without tariff to Britain and Europe, but after 1873, ukases from the czar imposed steep taxes and duties on a vast array of foreign goods that might compete with Russian goods. Arbitrary power, according to Odessa’s committee of merchants in 1875, magnified the negative impact of the new tariffs.
Before the Russian Revolution, Communists in Europe debated free trade hotly, with Lenin and Trotsky believing that the United States had flourished without international trade (a deeply flawed assessment). But that was not just a Communist sentiment. The revulsion against free trade was common on the left, the center, and the right in Prussia, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Only the Communist Rosa Luxemburg, whose father had been a timber merchant, was prepared to defend free trade, asserting that while it contributed to booms, busts, and financial chaos, it also prevented national antagonisms. A world without robust international trade, Luxemburg predicted in 1905, would see nationalism, imperialism, and world war. She was right.
In Russia, Lenin and Trotsky’s argument for tariff barriers and a limited trade in commodity goods (mostly wheat and oil) won out, in part because Europeans refused to trade with them after the revolution. Putin’s nostalgia for a strong and independent Russia that can trade among its satellites is an attempt to replay the scenario that failed Russia in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1980s, but might somehow win the game this time.
The Ukraine was Russia’s golden egg. The empire, in ejecting Germans and Jews, almost strangled the goose. The Communist Party nearly finished the job. The Russian Revolution did not change beliefs that free trade was a sham or that strengthening the nation required squeezing the wealth out of Ukraine. The Soviet Union differed substantially from the Russian Empire, but both pre- and post-Revolutionary Russian governments saw the South as an expendable source of food and wealth. For the Soviets, affluent farmers, "kulaks," whom they believed were growing wealthy at the expense of the Russian people, had to be expelled and dispossessed during and after the First World War.
During World War II, the Germans occupying Ukraine systematically killed most of the Jews who remained, promising the rich black land to faithful soldiers and providing the Lebensraum necessary for German self-sufficiency. After the war, the Soviets expelled the Germans and other ethnic groups. Little is left of the polyglot parts of Ukraine besides the menus in the German beer halls and the Greco-Roman statuary.
America’s own brutal expulsion of Indians and Mexicans makes it awkward for the United States to criticize Russia. President Obama may be right that Russia’s recent actions violate the Ukrainian Constitution, but America’s designs on Texas and California violated Mexico’s Constitution. That said, the United States did not systematically exterminate its farmers, traders, and shippers the way the Russians did in Ukraine.
Today, Novorossiysk, honored as "Hero City" for its resistance to German occupiers during World War II, is Russia’s largest port for exporting wheat. If the country no longer needs another warm-water port, that leaves its deeper, uglier, and more genocidal designs on Ukraine. The Russian government’s greatest fear was that Ukraine would trade freely with the West, would make a deal with the European Union in which it would trade wheat for European manufactures, totally bypassing the Russian government. For Russians who believe free trade is a lie, who see it as a scam that will inevitably benefit kulaks, Jews, or Greek traders, a separate trading relationship that leaves Russia out is not acceptable.
That is what brought Ukraine to crisis in 2014. From the 1790s through two revolutions, free trade in Ukraine’s bounty is something the Russian government—and the Russian mafia in my little gated compound, the odnodvortsy of the 21st century—will not abide.
Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William & Mary. His most recent book is A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).