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Ukraine — a historical overview


An entry in a prestigious encyclopedia says: “Ukraine is a country located in Eastern Europe, the second largest, after the Russian Federation, on the continent. It is bordered by Belarus on the north, Russia on the east, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea on the south, Moldova and Romania on the southwest, and Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland on the west; in the far southeast, Ukraine is separated from Russia by the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. Ukraine has an area of 233,100 square miles (603,700 square kilometres). The capital is Kiev (pronounced Kyiv in Ukrainian), located on the Dnipro River in north-central Ukraine.”

Ethnically, most of the people living in Ukraine are Ukrainians whose native language is Ukrainian, which is one of the East-European languages, with Russian and Belarusian being close relatives. Ethnic Russians are the largest minority, with Belarusians, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews, Greeks, and other ethnics having sizeable communities.


In 1621, an allied Cossack-Polish army inflicted a crippling defeat
on the Turks thus effectively putting a curb on the Turkish expansion into Europe.
A group of Cossack descendants reenacted the events of the distant past.


Emergence on the map

Though Ukraine has been an independent state since 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an average westerner, or for that matter anyone else in the world, knew very little of Ukraine, a country larger in size than France, with a population of almost fifty million people. Most of the countries of the world have their embassies and consulates established in Kyiv, and reciprocally, Ukrainian embassies and consulates are to be found in most countries of the world. Of course, trade partners and investors knew more about Ukraine than the average citizens of foreign countries but for the general public Ukraine was “somewhere there,” a place of unknown geographic location. For many of those who knew something about Ukraine, it was “part of Russia”; others, if asked about Ukraine, could remember that it was the place were the biggest nuclear-power station disaster took place “some time in the 1980s.” Still others, those who care for sports, would probably remember that Klychko from Ukraine was the current heavy-weight world champion, and that Shevchenko, a soccer star who plays for Milan, Italy, and who has been recognized as the best soccer player in Europe of 2004, is originally from Ukraine.

The presidential elections in Ukraine in the fall of 2004 made Ukraine, surprisingly enough, front-page news all over the world. Like most other post-Soviet states (except for the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and Georgia which had its own revolution more than a year ago) Ukraine was known to be a state politically lethargic, ruled by former soviet apparatchiks and party bosses with an autocratic president, with endemic corruption, one of the worst in the world, an underdeveloped market economy that had little chances to generate much interest in the world’s economic community.

Suddenly and unexpectedly things changed. At the runoff of the presidential election, one of the candidates, the prime-minister, who had been put forward as a candidate and promoted by the president, used “the administrative resources” available to him, enormous pressure, subservient media and open fraud and falsifications to rig the election in his favour. When the results were announced, millions of people in Ukraine “rose from their knees” to stand up for their right to choose president freely and openly. They felt they had been fraudulently manipulated and duped, their human dignity infringed upon. Peaceful protests that erupted all over the country, demanded that justice be restored. Millions of supporters of the candidate, whose victory had been stolen by fraudulent means, wore arm bands on their sleeves, scarves and hats of orange colour, the colour of the campaign of their candidate. The Orange Revolution was not only noticed as a major political event of 2004 in the world — it was hailed as a striving for democracy, freedom of speech and human rights in a nation that was shedding its soviet totalitarian past to join the community of democratic nations.


Prehistory and history

The word “Ukraine” has been obviously borrowed by English from the Ukrainian language. Óêðà¿íà, pronounced ookrayina, is a word that can be interpreted as a derivative of the word okrayina, that is “borderland”, or of the word krayina, that is “a country.”

The controversial issue of the name has not been settled yet by historians and linguists. The detractors insist on the “borderland”; the glorifiers prefer “the country.” More or less consistently, the people, living in what today we call Ukraine, began calling their homeland Ookrayina from the fifteenth century onward, but the history of this land (which for convenience we shall call “Ukraine”) goes back thousands of years.

We shall not look too deep into the past and shall begin our brief outline of Ukrainian history from about the fourth millennium BC. In the past century archeology accumulated enough evidence to suggest that in various parts of Ukraine there emerged a culture that was given the name of “Trypillian” (derived from the name of the place where many of the artifacts of this culture were unearthed). The Trypillian people knew animal and land husbandry, they built large, two- or three-story houses, they produced art. And it is very likely that they were the first in the world to domesticate the horse. The horse is the “proudest conquest of Man,” said the French zoologist Le Comte de Buffon.

Some of the linguists are of the opinion that it is in the territory of Ukraine that the Proto-European language had its roots, and it was from there that the movements of people who later spoke Germanic, Romance, Slavic and other Indo-European languages, began. The modern reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language shows that the Proto-Indo-European community knew and talked about dogs, horses, sheep, and almost certainly cows and pigs. Probably all these animals were domesticated. At least one cereal grain was known, and at least one metal. There were vehicles with wheels, pulled by teams joined by yokes. Honey was known, and it probably formed the basis of an alcoholic drink related to the Ukrainian med and the English mead. Numerals up through 100 were in use. All this suggests a people with a well-developed technology characterized by simple agriculture and polished stone tools or even copper- or bronze-using.

In later times, migration and settlement patterns in the territory of the present-day Ukraine varied fundamentally along the lines of three geographic zones. The Black Sea coast was for centuries in the sphere of the contemporary Mediterranean maritime powers. The open steppe, funneling from the east across Southern Ukraine and toward the mouth of the Danube, formed a natural gateway to Europe for successive waves of nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. And the mixed forest-steppe and forest belt of North-Central and Western Ukraine supported a sedentary agricultural population, linked by waterways to northern and central Europe. The marchlands of these zones were frequent areas of both military conflict and cultural transmission. Beginning in the 7th–6th centuries BC, numerous Greek colonies were founded on the northern coast of the Black Sea, in the Crimea, and along the Sea of Azov; these Hellenic outposts later came under the hegemony of the Roman Empire. During the 1st millennium BC the steppe hinterland was occupied successively by the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians. These peoples maintained commercial and cultural relations with the Greek colonies. According to some historians, the Cimmerians and Sarmatians were of the Iranian stock, whereas the sedentary Scythians, as opposed to the nomadic ones, could have been linked to the Trypillian culture.

A period of great migrations began with the descent of the Goths from the Baltic region into Ukraine about AD 200. They displaced the Sarmatians, but their own power was broken about 375 by the invading Huns from the east, who were followed in the 5th–6th centuries by the Bulgars and Avars. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, part of the Ukrainian steppe formed part of the Khazar kaganate, a mercantile empire centered on the lower Volga River. The Pechenegs, who followed, dominated much of Southern Ukraine in the 10th and 11th centuries, and they were in turn succeeded by the Polovtsy. Throughout this period of nomadic invasions, only a few of the Greek settlements in the Crimea, notably Chersonesus, maintained a precarious existence, relying on the support of the Byzantine Empire.

There is no agreement among the historians as to the more or less exact location of the proto-Slavic tribes that expanded from their original habitat which is believed to have been in the area of the present-day eastern Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Neither was the direct continuity from the Trypillian culture people down to the Ukrainians of the later times firmly established. However, enough archeological and historical evidence has been amassed to make it possible to speak of such a continuity. It means that the Ukrainian people as a nation developed from the autochthonous core of the proto-Slavic tribes that had inhabited Ukraine as early as in the fifth millennium BC. Ukraine was claimed by many other peoples; waves of nomads rolled back and forth across Ukraine, but the autochthons stayed put throughout all the observable period of Ukrainian prehistory and history.

In the meantime, the East Slavs occupied the forest and forest-steppe regions of western and north-central Ukraine and southern Belarus. They expanded farther north and to the northeast territories. The East Slavs practised agriculture and animal husbandry, engaged in such domestic industries as cloth-making and ceramics, and built fortified settlements, many of which later developed into important commercial and political centres. Among such early settlements was Kyiv on the high right bank of the Dnipro River.


The Svyatoheorhiyivsky (St George’s) Church stands at the sight of the Battle
of Berestechko (it was fought in the year 1651 when the Cossack forces suffered a defeat).
The church which serves also as a monument, is one of the most original landmarks
of the typically Ukrainian architectural style.


Kyivan Rus

No exact date of the foundation of Kyiv has been established but most historians believe the fifth century to be a reliable estimation. As with other ancient cities, there is an appropriate legend that tells a story of Kyiv’s foundation (three brothers and a sister name the newly-founded city after their eldest brother, Kiy) but little is known about the earliest period of Kyiv. It is only at the end of the ninth century when the city emerged from the legendary mist to become one of the biggest urban centres in the whole of Europe.

The state that developed with Kyiv as its centre is traditionally called “Kyivan Rus.” Its rulers of the end of the ninth and early tenth century were of the Scandinavian origin which does not mean at all that the Kyivan Rus statehood was established by the Scandinavian princes. In the history of most European states there were times when these states were ruled by kings of foreign extraction. Take Great Britain, for example — Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Normans, French, Scots, Dutch and Germans were at one or the other time the rulers of the British Isles and of the British Empire. As late as the eighteenth century, the German prince who became the British king, George I, did not speak English at all (neither did the kings of the Norman descent from the eleventh to the fourteenth century).

From the end of the tenth up to the middle of the eleventh century, Kyivan Rus was at the pinnacle of its power and cultural development. Its territory stretched as far north as Novgorod and Pskov with the rest of the country occupying approximately the same expanse of land as today’s Ukraine does. Conversion to Christianity came rather late, at the end of the tenth century when most of other European states had been Christian for some time but it gave a powerful boost to the development of culture and to the establishment of diplomatic and other links with the rest of Europe. The Christian schism of 1054 ripped Europe apart and Kyivan Rus found itself in the orbit of Orthodoxy.

The second half of the eleventh century and the twelfth century saw a gradual disintegration of Kyivan Rus into more or less autonomous principalities with Kyiv retaining its prestigious position of a political and cultural centre.

In the rest of Europe, some countries, like France and England, began a slow climb to centralized monarchies; others, like Germany and Italy, remained broken up into small states with various degrees of independence until the nineteenth century.

By the end of the twelfth century the centrifugal processes in Kyivan Rus accelerated with local princes becoming more and more independent from Kyiv. It was in the twelfth century that one of the Kyivan princes (who, incidentally, was very much disliked by the Kyivans) founded a little town in the north of his dominions and gave it the name of the river on which it stood — Moskva, Moscow. Little did he know that this small town would become the centre of an enormous empire that would swallow his native land and even rob it of its name, referring to Kyivan Rus-Ukraine as “Little Russia.”

Kyivan Rus was a bulwark of European civilization, a sort of its easternmost Ultima Thule, at the edge of the Great Steppe, which was roamed by nomads who kept making incursions into the Ukrainian-Rus lands, some of which were widely disruptive and destructive. It was to escape from these incursions and raids that a considerable part of the population began to flee northward, settling down and mixing with the local population which was made up partly of Slavic ethnics and partly of ethnics of other backgrounds.

The thirteenth century turned out to be a tragic one for Kyivan Rus — a devastating invasion of the Mongols dealt a mortal blow to Kyivan Rus which had already been weakened by internal strife, with local rulers vying for power over Kyiv. The central areas of the country were turned into a waste land. A great many inhabitants were either killed, or died of hunger; many fled north and to other parts of what used to be Kyivan Rus that had been spared the horrors of the Mongol invasion.

Later, Moscow claimed to be the sole inheritor of the Kyivan Rus traditions, statehood and culture, turning Kyiv (by brutal force when it was needed to prove the point) into a provincial city with a glorious past but insignificant present. Even the language of Kyivan Rus was proclaimed to be the true Russian language with Ukrainian being just “a dialect.”

The ancient Romans, at the height of their imperial power, founded many cities, Paris and London among them, but the French or the Spaniards do not claim that the French or Spanish language is “the only true inheritor” of the language that was spoken by the Romans!

Imperial Russian and Soviet historians did their servile best to prove, ignoring the facts and casting aside common sense, that Moscow had historical precedence over Kyiv in everything that mattered in politics and culture. Ukraine was denied the right to have a history independent of the Russian history in spite of the fact that it was in Kyiv, in Ukraine, that the East Slavic civilization had begun and matured.


Aftermath and resurrection

Tragic as the Mongol invasion was, it did not destroy the Slavic culture as it was upheld in the Halytsko-Volynske Principality in the western part of what used to be Kyivan Rus. This principality proved to be strong enough to withstand the pressure both from the east and from the west, fending off the attempts of the western crusaders to subjugate it. One of its rulers was crowned king, and his kingdom preserved, to a great extent, the cultural heritage of Kyivan Rus.

A considerable part of Ukraine later came under the domination of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but still it preserved much of its cultural originality and national identity. The official language of Lithuania in the 15th century was what is called “Old Ukrainian”; the city of Kyiv acquired the status of a free city which it was granted under the Magdeburg Law.

The neighbouring countries of Poland and Muscovy, and Turkey whose power and ambitions kept progressively growing, attracted by the fertility of the land and advantageous geographical position of Ukraine, wanted to establish their control over this country.

In the meantime, the Zaporizhian Sich which emerged as a sort of a Cossack state in the area around the southern reaches of the Dnipro River, gradually acquired the status of an upholder of freedom and cultural traditions. The Cossacks took it upon themselves to defend the Ukrainian lands against the Crimean Tartar raids which were encouraged by Turkey, and other enemies. In the mid-seventeenth century, after a period of wars of independence, Ukraine once again emerged as an independent state formation. In 1654, the Ukrainian Hetman (military and state leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky, in the face of an imminent invasion from Turkey and Poland, their combined superior strength and his own lack of military resources, was forced to sign a treaty in the town of Pereyaslav with Russia which put Ukraine under the protection of the Russian tsar. As later events showed, it proved to be a turning — and tragic — point in the history of Ukraine. Russia was quickly becoming an empire and an independent Ukraine was not something it would tolerate. Only five years after the treaty in Pereyaslav was signed (the treaty gave considerable rights and privileges to the Ukrainian landowners and nobles, Ukrainian clergy and autonomy for the Zaporizhian Sich Cossacks), a much stricter control was established by Russia over the hetman and the Cossack starshyna (self-government); the number of Russian troops stationed in Ukraine also grew significantly.

In the early 18th century, an attempt of Hetman Ivan Mazepa to break free from the Russian clutches failed. The last vestiges of autonomy were done away with; no traces of former liberties were left and serfdom was introduced. At the end of the 18th century, Ukraine was torn apart by Russia and Austria.


The Carpathians is the land of ancient mountains, of the salubrious air,
of majestic evergreens, and of villages, which hide in the valleys or are perched
on the mountain slopes, and which are inhabited by people who have retained
many national traditions of the old times.


National awareness

In spite of the loss of statehood, prominent cultural figures of Ukraine, and later an ever widening circle of Ukrainian intellectuals, never abandoned the hope of restoring Ukraine’s independence. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an upsurge of activity in the national liberation movement and a growing national awareness gave the movement the muscle and blood. The First World War triggered revolutions as a result of which three empires collapsed — The German, the Austrian-Hungarian and the Russian. Thus favourable conditions were created for Ukraine to make a bid for independence. On January 22 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed a sovereign state, and its first president was Mykhailo Hrushevsky, an eminent Ukrainian historian, political and public figure.


Soviet Ukraine

The period of time from 1917 to 1921 proved to be the years of great trials and tribulations for the Ukrainian people. The Civil War raged in the land with many sides vying for power: the Russian White Guards; the German forces; the Bolsheviks and their Red Army; the Polish army, and the Anarchists — there were too many of them for the Ukrainian armed forces to deal with. The situation was further aggravated by rampant banditry and attempts by Britain, France, Greece and Rumania to join the fray and get whatever advantages they could out of the confusion. The successive Ukrainian governments fighting against overwhelming odds, succumbed and the power was eventually seized by the Russian Bolsheviks, alas not without help from their Ukrainian “communist comrades.” In 1922, Ukraine became “a soviet socialist republic,” one of several in the “the friendly family of nations” — the Soviet Union.

Ukraine had probably never before experienced that much horror as it did being a soviet republic. The 1930s saw the famine (masterminded by Stalin and his henchmen) of staggering proportions which in 1932-1933 took lives of at least seven to ten million people; hundreds of thousands intellectuals and “other subversive elements” were either executed by Stalin’s firing squads or exiled to Siberia. The idea was to “liquidate” the very foundation, upon which the Ukrainian national identity could grow into a national liberation movement.

In the 1940s, Ukraine was the hardest hit in the war of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Three million Ukrainians died at the front, and five million perished in the areas occupied by the Nazis. The material damage to Ukraine was estimated to constitute about one thousand billion dollars. The Ukrainian Resurrection Army in Western Ukraine valiantly fought both the Germans and the Soviets against the overwhelming odds. Separate units of this army kept fighting long after the war ended in 1945.

The post-war reconstruction made Ukraine a rather developed industrial and agricultural land; Ukrainian culture was allowed to develop within the boundaries set by the communist regime; on the other hand, any deviation from the official line was fraught with danger of prosecution and imprisonment. Dissidents and “Ukrainian nationalists” continued to be arrested, tried and sent to concentration camps up to mid-1980s. The second half of the 1980s was the time of growing national awareness and social unrest. On July 1990, Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian parliament, adopted “The Act on State Sovereignty” which was a first step to regaining full independence.



On August 24 1991, Ukraine proclaimed its independence, and during the referendum held on December 1 of the same year, the Ukrainian people confirmed their choice of independent development by saying “yes” to it.

Ukraine faced a multitude of very difficult tasks which had to be solved within a short period of time: a new political system had to be built; new statehood principles based on law had to be introduced; a new system of national security and defence had to be created; new relations with other countries of the world had to be established; social, economic and ecological reforms had to be carried out; the nuclear weapons were to be scrapped. The enormity of all these large-scale, time-, labour- and finance- consuming tasks was further exacerbated by the multiple crises the country was living through — economic, political and psychological. On top of all that, Ukraine continued to deal with the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster (21 percent of the Ukrainian territory was polluted by the fallout of radioactive materials and it affected 7 percent of the Ukrainian population).

In 1996 a new constitution was adopted; the runaway inflation, which was endemic throughout the former Soviet Union, was curbed and the national currency, hryvnya, was launched. Ukraine was the first among the post-soviet countries to establish working relations with the European Union. A charter was signed with NATO in 1997. Over the years, Ukraine sent its peacekeepers to the Balkans, Africa and Iraq.

Over the years, during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, a corrupt and autocratic regime was gradually established. The mass media were bridled, initiative and free enterprise were stifled. Parliament was hardly less corrupt than the government. Those in power considered their personal interests and gain to be much above the interests of the state. President Kuchma survived several crises and scandals and finally forced the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to proclaim him immune from prosecution for whatever violations of law he may have committed during his presidency.

Things came to a head during the long-awaited presidential election in the fall of 2004 when the hopes of the Ukrainian people for a radical change were dashed by a massive electoral fraud perpetrated by the candidate who was supported by the president and his vast administrative power.

A peaceful revolution (those in power intended to disperse the protesters by sending special forces against the protesters but aborted the planned action which would have resulted in many deaths, at the very last moment) ushered in a new era in the history of Ukraine. The new president who supports the democratic principles, faces an enormous task of stabilizing the country, rooting out corruption, dealing with grievous economic problems that have accumulated over the years, and meeting the expectations and hopes of the people who backed him at the time of the national crisis.


The Crimean Peninsula is one of the most scenic and attractive regions
in Ukraine, with practically all the climatic zones, a great diversity of natural
and historical landmarks to be found there. The Crimea still bears traces
of the many ancient and modern peoples who have contributed to its rich history.
Photo by O. Kadnikov


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