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Time for the sunflowers to bloom again in Ukraine


When Ukraine’s khaki-clad President Volodymyer Zelensky addressed the Australian Parliament on Thursday and raised his fist in victory, I couldn’t help but feel a bright yellow sunflower bloom in my heart.

When he told Australians that Russia had brought back the “worst pages of the 20th century” and the “evil that humanity thought they had forgotten about a long time ago”, it reminded me of the spirit of the Ukrainians I have met in their country and the world over.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky receives a standing ovation after addressing a special sitting via videolink in the House of Representatives.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky receives a standing ovation after addressing a special sitting via videolink in the House of Representatives.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Thirty years ago I was sent on assignment to Ukraine. It was less than a year after the 1991 referendum that formalised Ukraine’s departure from the Soviet Union. The Balkan war was raging in not far off Bosnia, and I was reporting on the Hungarian-speaking minority in western Ukraine.

As with post World War I and II, eastern European nations were remaking themselves: literally, as their boundaries were redrawn, and metaphorically, as they established new identities, free from the yoke of Russian domination. Often this resulted in a rise of local nationalism.

I was sent to Uzhhorod, a medieval city on the river Uzh, near the border of Slovakia and Hungary. The downtown train station was emblazoned with the obligatory Soviet-era mural, of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space in 1961. The city was a mix of architectural styles. Throughout its more than 1000-year history, Uzhhorod had repeatedly passed from hand to hand, changing its rulers regularly.

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The region was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a significant number of Hungarian speakers still live there, as well as in nearby Romania, Slovakia and Croatia.

Through its 72-year history, the Ukrainian republic’s borders have changed many times. A significant portion of what is now Western Ukraine was annexed by Soviet forces in 1939 from the Republic of Poland, and there was the addition of Carpathian Ruthenia from Czechoslovakia in 1945.

Whatever map you use to define it, let’s not forget Ukraine is Europe’s second largest European country after Russia. Aside from the Black Sea beaches of the Crimean peninsula, including its pearl, Odessa, Ukraine is a place of vast flat plains. It was a bleak, snowy place when I visited.



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