Ukraine's history is a bit of a mystery to most people in the West. Like other states, it has morphed from one thing to another according to the powers surrounding it, but there was a short period when it was truly free.
Like its present, Ukraine’s past is often seen in terms of split identity, torn between Europe and Russia, sitting along the fracture of different civilizations. For hundreds of years and for much of the 20th century, the country saw its fortunes determined by powerful outsiders. Russia claimed its birthplace in Kyiv. Those in the western portions, including the great nationalist hero Stepan Bandera—incidentally also a World War II-era Nazi collaborator—kept Ukraine pulled toward Europe.
But a less well-remembered historical figure offered a different vision, one opposed to both sides. Nestor Makhno wanted a radically independent, anarchist future in Ukraine, free from the pull of both east and west. For three years in the wake of World War I, he succeeded in constructing a free state along the banks of the Dnieper River, bridging the divide between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking peoples. It was an audacious, improbable republic, and though it crested a century ago, Makhno’s country is worth remembering because it was perhaps the last time Ukraine was truly free.