Ukraine’s Thousand Year Wait


Kherson, Ukraine - War with Russia
Kherson, Ukraine – War with Russia

From a historical point of view, Ukraine has been unlucky. Being at the center of Europe, it was caught between four different layers of civilization – western and eastern, northern and southern. For Ukraine, this has become, if not a tragedy, then an eternal problem. From the very beginning of its existence, the peoples who inhabited this territory had to fight back from both western and eastern neighbors. It was attacked from the north by Scandinavian tribes; from the south by the Crimean Tatars and Turks. The Girl in Kherson. Ukraine was constantly in search of allies to survive. But the fact that Ukraine was the heart of Europe left a strategic chance to become an area of peace, not conflict, and a bridge of understanding and partnership between civilizations different in mentality and culture, religion and tradition.


Ukraine’s problem was also that it was constantly part of another state or a foreign empire. Even though it lies at the heart of Europe, it has never had a well-known history either to itself as a nation or internationally to other European nations. Only “on the third attempt” of becoming a nation state – after Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1654; Mykhailo Hrushevsky in 1917; and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 – did Ukraine finally gain its independence.

What then is Ukraine now that it is a nation state rather than an administrative region of another country? It may come as a surprise that it is one of the largest states in eastern Europe and geographically the second European state after Russia (603.5 thousand square kilometers), comparable in size to France and Germany. Ukraine’s population is roughly similar in size to Spain’s and ranks just below thirtieth in the world, but is on a downward trajectory, falling from 51 million to around 44 million in 2020. It is unevenly distributed across the country. The eastern industrial regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv), closest to Russia, and the Carpathian regions (Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Chernovtsy), furthest away from Russia, are the most densely populated. Relatively sparsely populated are some areas of the Ukrainian Carpathians, Polesia, and southern regions (Volyn, Zhitomir and Kherson).

Ukraine has been inhabited by different peoples since ancient times. Today Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Jews, Poles, Tatars, Bulgarians, and others – more than a hundred nationalities coexist on this land. Ukrainians are the titular ethnicity, making up the majority of the country’s population – about 78 percent in almost all regions except Crimea. Russians are the second largest group in Ukraine – about 18 percent and live mostly in the eastern and southern regions of the country which are closest to Crimea and the Black Sea. Then come the Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, and Bulgarians. The Orthodox population is predominant (88 percent). Numerous attempts to unite and create a single local church have been unsuccessful, however.2 The total number of Catholics in the country is around 4.8 million people. Muslims live mainly in Crimea (Crimean Tatars) and according to various sources number from 500 thousand to 2 million people. Crimea has around 2.3 million inhabitants, 65 percent of which are ethnically Russian.

Geographically, Ukraine has a multitude of neighbors. It is bordered to the south by the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, to the west by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, and to the north and northeast by Belarus and Russia. The biggest land border between Ukraine and Russia and Belarus is just over 3 thousand kilometers. The sea borders with Russia are 1,355 kilometers long, but they are still unresolved. The geographical center of Europe (according to measurements taken by both the military department of Austria-Hungary in 1887, and – by Soviet scientists after World War II – is located in the territory of modern Ukraine, near the town of Rakhiv in Zakarpattia region.

Even though Ukraine has only existed as an independent nation state for close to three decades, the history of its people is unique. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became the third nuclear power after the United States and Russia. Instead of vying to maintain that position, Ukraine showed the world that a could and should give up nuclear weapons and concentrate on peaceful co-existence when it renounced them in 1994.

Culturally, Ukraine is the country of the legendary soccer coach Valery Lobanovsky, the famous footballers Oleg Blokhin and Andrey Shevchenko, but also, no less famous, poets and writers Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka, philosopher Grigory Skovoroda, and very young poets, writers, scientists, and ambitious politicians of the new generation. Ukraine can also be rightfully proud of its scientists, Nobel laureates – physiologist Ilya Mechnikov, physicist Landau and economist Simon Kuznets, engineer Evgeny Paton, surgeon Nikolai Amosov and many others.

What is “Ukraine”?

To understand better why the events taking place in Ukraine have such significance, it is necessary to have a grasp of the long history of its people. It is not only the land of Yaroslav the Wise but also of the “free Cossacks,” led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and his army, who were not afraid to challenge the Turkish Sultans, and Ukrainian Hetmans Peter Sagaidachny and Ivan Mazepa.

The very name “Ukraine” has its own historical explanation. The term is first mentioned in the Ipatievskaya Chronicle in 1187, and according to some scholars, comes from the Old Russian word “periphery”, which originally was applied to the border lands of Kyivan Rus, then the Polish state, and later the Russian Empire. This was the interpretation of the term used by historians. Until the end of the thirteenth century, this term is found in chronicles and meant a different “Ukraine”: the lands adjacent to the “Lyakh” from Volyn in the basin of the left bank (Ukraine to the right of the Dnipro river) along the middle course of the Southern Bug, and the north-eastern part of Galich land and the so-called Pereyaslav land (part of Kyiv and Chernihiv land). In the sixteenth century, the term “Ukraine” meant the border lands between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire (lands of the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks and Wild Fields). There were also terms such as “Ukrainian Russia Minor”, “Lithuanian Ukraine”, “Polish Ukraine”, “Cossack Ukraine”, but they did not stick. After the creation of the Novorossiya Territory, the term “Russia Minor” was used more often, referring to the Ukrainian lands stretching to the southeast.

Subsequently, the term “Sloboda Ukraine” became the most common name. This term is associated with “peripheral” territories, as Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Ukraine’s greatest historian, wrote in the early twentieth century. This did not mean “backward”, as Russian anti-Ukrainian propagandists insist, but “border” areas, because the lands of Ukraine were at the junction of three empires – Russian, Ottoman and Polish. From the end of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century “Ukraine” became a distinct geographical label, and from the eighteenth century it was commonly used, along with the church term “Russia Minor.”


As an alternative to “peripheral”, some Ukrainian historians and linguists have also put forward that the name “Ukraine” derives from the word “edge”, “kraina” (Ukr. “kraїna”), that is “country”, “land inhabited by its people”, called Ukrainians. At the same time, it is argued that in the Ukrainian language the terms “ukra§na” and “okra§na” have always meant Ukraine as a separate and independent territory. As the national consciousness of the Ukrainians grew, “Ukraine” began to be perceived not only as a geographical term, but also as the name of an ethnic people at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.



Ancient Ukraine



According to archeologists, the first homo erectus (upright man) appeared in the territory of Ukraine a million years ago, migrating from Western Asia through the Balkans and Central Europe – and were the first “Europeans”. Then, more than 150 thousand years ago, other “Europeans” appeared – the Neanderthals, and 30 thousand years ago – the cro-magnons, our almost-contemporaries.

Another key moment in the history of Ukraine is occupied by the Trypillia culture in the fourth and third millennium BC between the Danube-Dnipro rivers, the heyday of which occurred in the period between 5500 and 2750 BC Trypillian ceramics were one of the most advanced in Europe of that time, excelling in sophistication and painting. Some Ukrainian scholars argue that the Trypillians are the “ancestors” of modern Ukrainians. Whether true or not, they managed to convince Viktor Yushchenko, President of Ukraine (2005-2010).

Archaeologists are still arguing about the presence of the Cimmerians in the southern part of Ukraine and in other regions, but many authors link the “Cimmerian era” (second half of the eight and seventh centuries BC) to Ukraine’s Northern Black Sea coast. They were replaced in the seventh century BC by the Scythians, who displaced the Cimmerians from the Ukrainian steppes.

It is believed that the Scythians created their first state – the Scythian State, which fell to the Sarmatians in 200 BC. In the third century AD the Goths moved to Ukraine from the north-west and founded their own kingdom. In 375 BC the Goths were defeated by the Huns, who came from the depths of Asia, and migrated beyond the Danube to the borders of the Roman Empire, where over time they created their kingdom. The Hunnish empire, after suffering several defeats from the Romans and their allies, quickly lost power and disintegrated. After the Huns invasion, the hegemony over the present territory of Ukraine at the end of the fifth century passed to Slavic tribes. The left-bank part of the territory of Ukraine and Tauria became dependent on the Turkic Khazar Khaganate. At present, the northwest of Ukraine is considered the most probable origin of the Slavic tribes.



The Kyivan Rus and its disintegration (882-1240)



These Slavic tribes stood at the foundations of the origin of the ancient Russian state, first with its capital at Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, and then at Kyiv, known to the world as Kyivan Rus – ‘Rus’ meaning men who row, a word with a Viking origin like the first rulers. Kyivan Rus occupied a territory enormous for its time – from the Crimea in the south; the Dnistro river and the upper reaches of the Vistula river in the west in Poland; and up to the upper reaches of the northern Dvina river in the north, beyond Nizhny Novgorod. Karl Marx compared it to Charlemagne’s empire.

Kyivan Rus is also the cradle of Orthodox Christianity. In 988, Prince Vladimir baptized his subjects. Metropolitans appointed by Byzantium were at the head of its church. Vladimir’s son Yaroslav, known as Yaroslav the Wise, succeeded in securing the borders of Kyivan Rus, developing trade relations with the Byzantines, the Khazars, the Scandinavians, and the peoples of Europe and Asia.

Dynastic marriages were the key to medieval diplomacy and power, and Yaroslav was jokingly called “father-in-law of Europe”. He was married to Ingigerda – the daughter of Swedish King Olaf while his daughter Anastasia was married to the Hungarian King Andras, his daughter Elisabeth to the Norwegian King Gardardad, and his daughter Anna, known as Anna of Kyiv – to the French King Henry I (she was styled Queen of France). Arguably, Yaroslav was one of the first drivers of the integration of Ukraine into Europe and an invested supporter of a European union through peaceful means.

Yaroslav’s successors continued his international diplomacy. During the existence of Kyivan Rus, until its collapse, there were more than 100 dynastic marriages, from Russian-Polish, Russo-Hungarian, Russo-Byzantine, German, Lithuanian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, English, to Austrian, and Croatian.

After the death of Yaroslav the Wise, internecine wars began between the separate principalities of Kyivan Rus and its disintegration. Although Vladimir Monomakh managed to briefly strengthen central power, the disintegration of Rus proved irreversible. In addition, the southern borders of Kyivan Rus were constantly being raided, and a significant part of the population had to seek refuge in the more secure lands of Rostov and Suzdal, where new cities were founded.

Russian history glosses over the fact that a coalition of eleven Russian princes took Kyiv by storm in 1169 and subjected it to plunder. As the sources recount, they plundered and burned “the mother of Russian cities” for two days. Many Kyivers were taken captive. In monasteries and churches, soldiers took away not only jewelry, but also raided all icons, crosses, bells and vestments. The Saint Sofia cathedral was plundered along with other temples and for all the people in Kyiv there was “inconsolable sorrow.” It was the beginning of Kyiv’s decline as a center of power and in 1362 the city was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then a rival to the Grand Duchy of Russia and one of the largest countries in Europe.



Galicia-Volhynia princedom (1199-1392) and the period of Polish-Lithuanian rule (1385-1795)



One of the largest principalities during the period of the political fragmentation of Kyivan Rus was the principality of Galicia-Volhynia, which stretched over 116 thousand square kilometers. Prince Daniel of Galicia was even raised to the title “King of Rus” by Pope Innocent IV. In spite of its vassal relations with the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde, it pursued an independent foreign policy in Central and eastern Europe, competing with the kingdoms of Poland and Hungary as well as with the principality of Lithuania, and partnering with Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Teutonic Order. However, in 1392 the principality of Galicia-Volhynia was divided between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the lands of modern Ukraine in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were divided between its neighboring states.

Ukrainian identity, however, continued to persist as a result of the conflicts within Christianity. Poland and Lithuania were allied when the Lithuanian prince Yagaylo married the Polish queen Jadwiga and became the Polish king (under the name Wladyslaw). Their descendants ruled both states for the next three centuries, but Wladyslaw and Jadwiga were Catholics, which led to friction with the many Orthodox princes in their territory. Over a hundred years there were three civil wars, which resulted in a number of Ukrainian cities – Kyiv, Lviv, Vladimir-Volynsk, and much later (from 1760) Uman – becoming self-governing under, the “Magdeburg Law”. The imposition of Catholicism also led to the separation of Chernihiv lands in northern Ukraine to the Orthodox Grand Duchy of Moscow. In the rest of Ukraine large estates (latifundia) worked by the Ukrainian population were developed by Polish nobles.

When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided in 1795 between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Prussia got the capital and most of the Polish lands, Austria received Krakow and Lublin with their surrounding territory, including all of Galicia; whereas Russia received the West Belarusian and West Ukrainian lands (without Lviv), and most of Lithuania.



The Cossacks



In the history of Ukraine’s nation forming, the history of the Cossacks is very revealing. In the fifteenth century, much of the land in the southern part of Ukraine was sparsely populated and called “Wild Fields”. Here, at the lower reaches of the Dnipro river, beyond the Dnipro rapids, lived peasants who had run away from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian lands, and who called themselves the Cossacks. They were based on islands along the river, where it was easy to hide and they could easily defend themselves, and from where they could raid the Crimean Khanate to the south and the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Among the numerous rebellions against Polish-Lithuanian rule, the most successful was the rebellion led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648-1654), which led to the formation of an autonomous region, Hetmanshchyna (1649-1782). Initially Khmelnytsky tried to find support from the Ottoman Empire and signed a treaty with it in 1649. But, having received no firm guarantees (the Turkish sultan merely asked his Crimean Khan to assist Khmelnytsky), he also sought other potential allies. Not finding support, the Cossack leader began rapprochement with the Russian government, which provided military and material support to his army, recognized Khmelnytsky as Hetman (ruler), and invited him to accept Russian citizenship.

In 1653, Khmelnytsky sent the embassy to Moscow to Tsar Alexis with the request to accept “all his Malorossiya and all the Zaporizhzhian Hosts [armies] as his eternal possession, citizenship and patronage”. And after intensive exchange of diplomatic missions between him and Moscow in January of 1654 in Pereiaslav, not far from Kyiv, a secret council of representatives was held, who swore allegiance to Russia.

This event was widely referred to as “reunifaction” in historical literature written in Soviet times, although there was nothing to “re”-unify. Some modern scholars argue that only about 300 representatives of the Cossack nobility decided the fate of Ukraine for many centuries ahead and that the treaty to Moscow was not widely supported by other Ukrainian Cossacks. The treaty itself does not mention “annexation” but uses the word “protectorate”, indicating self-governing status of Ukraine. Certainly, the privileges and liberties for the Cossack aristocracy were preserved, as well as for the broad masses of Cossacks, whose lands and estates were not taken away, and for their children who had the same “liberties as their ancestors and their fathers”.

Khmelnytsky was unable to maintain the status quo and, as a result of the armistice in 1667 of the Russian-Polish war, the lands to the east of the river Dnipro (left-bank Ukraine) passed to the Moscow principality, and the right-bank Ukraine to the west remained under the authority of Poland-Lithuania. After his death, parts of Ukraine also came under Turkish rule, but Cossack self-governance continued in the parts of Hetmanshchyna that fell under Russian control. It had administrative and territorial borders with Russia, and customs duties were levied on imports. Private property rights were preserved and Russian laws did not apply to this territory (the courts applied Lithuanian law).

Khmelnytsky’s dream of a united Cossack Ukraine on the left and right bank of the Dnipro remained alive, however, under Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1687-1708), who maintained trade relations with European countries though diplomatic representation was limited to Moscow. Unrest ceased and agriculture developed thanks to free Ukrainian farmers who were not serfs like Russian peasantry. The system of taxes introduced by Mazepa led to a flourishing economy, the construction of new buildings, monasteries and city churches in the Ukrainian Baroque style, while book printing developed and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy became a university.

Despite initially having good personal relations with Peter the Great, Mazepa complained more and more that “Moscow wants to take the whole Ukraine into hard bondage”. Mazepa was forced to maintain Russian troops at the expense of Ukrainians, which caused discontent among Ukrainian farmers who bore the financial brunt. Ukrainian Cossacks were drafted into the Russian army, but their commanders were Russian or foreign treating Cossacks with contempt. Peter also increasingly demanded money from Mazepa to build his own new Russia, including melting Ukraine’s bells for weapons, which displeased Mazepa, who refused to destroy the churches, in which he himself had invested enormous funds. When the tsar refused to help him fight Poland (saying that even “ten men I cannot give you”), Mazepa dropped his alliance with Peter and turned to the Swedish King Charles XII. He was swiftly declared a traitor and, on orders from Moscow, Prince Menshikov massacred almost all the inhabitants of Mazepa’s official residence Baturin.

When the raids of the Tatars and Turks from the south stopped, the need for Cossacks in the Russian army disappeared, and the Hetman gradually began to lose his military importance. In 1781, Hetmanshchyna, their administrative domain, was subsumed under direct Russian rule. On the right-bank part of Ukraine the Polish order of old continued (mainly in terms of its cultural and educational life), while on the left bank most of the Ukrainian farmers now fell under Russian law and became serfs of their landlords.



Novorossiya and Donbas



The last Hetman in the history of Ukraine within the Russian Empire was Cyril Razumovsky. After the demise of the Cossacks, their elite was integrated into the Russian nobility. Many became influential politicians, generals or even rose to the Chancellorship of Russia, such as Alexander Bezborodko. The Ukrainian nobility was allocated vast lands in the south of the Russian Empire, referred to as “Novorossiya.”


The development of Novorossiya accelerated at the end of the eighteenth century under the leadership of Prince Potemkin, who had almost unlimited power to fulfill this task from Empress Catherine II. Under him, a new city, named after the empress – Ekaterinoslav (1776) now Dnipro, was built and, in 1783, Crimea was added to Novorossiya. Other subdivisions and reorganization within the Russian empire followed.

Despite Russian rule, few Russians moved to Novorossiya, then still a sparsely populated area. Instead, Tsarist authorities called for settlers and “Danube” Slavs who felt oppressed under the Ottoman Empire to move there, as well as Poles, Germans, French, Swedes and Swiss from Europe. It was a mass resettlement which occurred in the early nineteenth century. Settlers were guaranteed the status of free colonists and exemption for a time from taxes and military service. Instead, the “Trans Danube settlers” mixed with the local population, while Moldovans and Vlachs, Gypsies and Jews were also moved here. In the Kherson region alone, the Ukrainians made up 71 percent, and the Russian population only 5 percent.

After 1917 the term “Novorossiya” fell out of use as a large part of its territory was incorporated by the Bolsheviks into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR). In the part of Ukraine that remained independent, the term also disappeared. But the label in its Ukrainian spelling became relevant again in 2014, when a self-proclaimed confederative union of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics was created in eastern Ukraine as “Novorosiya,” although these territories had historically never been part of (Russian) Novorossiya before. Who introduced the idea will be discussed below. The term was also claimed by Ukrainian separatists in the Odessa and Nikolaev regions near the Black Sea.

Another region that is in the crosshairs not only of Russian and Ukrainian politics, but also of the international media, is Donbas. It is part of the Donetsk coal basin discovered in the eighteenth century: an area of about 60,000 km², with total coal reserves of 140.8 billion tons to a depth of 1800 meters. Its industrial development began in the late nineteenth century. Laborers moved there to work at the iron foundries. They were mainly Ukrainians from the right bank. The main investors in this region were Belgians, who founded its mining coal and building metallurgical plants, which is why the region was called “the tenth Belgian province”. Russia, held hostage by its backward technological skills, opened the door to foreign investors from Europe and America, who brought with them the latest technologies in the production of metal that the Russian military required.

The third important historical region in the north-east of Ukraine is Slobozhanshchina. The name itself comes from the type of settlement – “sloboda” (freedom), which had significantly more privileges than the inland provinces of Russia. During the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, this border region with Russia was actively settled by Tsarist authorities with right-bank Ukrainians from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and by serfs who had escaped from Russia. Settlers were expected to do guard duty and military service near the fortresses of the Belgorod frontier, which defended entry to Russia proper.

All these regions together – Slobozhanshchina, Novorossiya, Donbas, and Crimea – constituted a vast territory inf southeastern Ukraine, were densely populated and industrially developed.



The Ukrainian Question in the nineteenth century



By the end of the eighteenth into the beginning of the nineteenth century, the regions of Slobozhanshchina, Novorossiya, the right bank with the whole Dnipropetrovsk region, Donbas, and Tauria (together with Crimea) constituted the so-called “Great Ukraine” within the Russian Empire. After numerous resettlements, both domestic and foreign, the population in this territory represented by now a colorful palette of different ethnicities – Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Germans. The most numerous were the Jews, who settled throughout the right-bank.


The nineteenth century saw the emergence of national identities throughout Europe, and in the Russian Empire in particular. Initially, it was limited to culture and education and the nascent intelligentsia was mainly interested in the study of ethnography, folklore, language, and literature. This posed no direct threat to the Russian autocracy, whose highest circles were favorably disposed to the emergence of interest in cultural and national issues of the Ukrainian people. Moreover, after the Polish revolt of 1830-1831, it even supported the birth of Ukrainophilism in order to weaken Polish influence over its right-bank Ukraine.

On the eve of the abolition of serfdom, the Tsarist government promoted the study of the native language in schools among the local population (the first two years of study), the Ministry of Education allocated the necessary funds to publish textbooks and literature in the Ukrainian language, and charity balls were held to raise funds for the publication of Ukrainian literature. True, a debate arose in Russian society: should the language spoken by the inhabitants of Ukraine be considered a Little Russian dialect or an independent Ukrainian language? A progressive part of Russian society perceived Ukrainian as an independent language, while others considered it “an adverb of the Russian language, corrupted by the Polish influence.”


Societies and fraternities sprang up – the Cyril and Methodius brotherhood, Hromada (Unity), Osnova (Basis) magazine, etc. – which supported the national idea of Ukraine in an abstract fashion without ever touching on the question of self-determination. This would not have been permitted as the idea of a “Great Russian Nation,” included all the Empire’s Slavic people. Even so, in the southwestern region of the Russian Empire (including the Kyiv region) a number of secret societies were formed with the active participation of Polish national liberation movement activists and they did set political goals and spread the idea of autonomy.

However, after the second Polish revolt of 1863, when the Polish intelligentsia proselytized the unity of Poland, Lithuania and “Western Rus” (Ukraine) and created the idea of an independent Ukrainian state “from the Caucasus to the Carpathians,” Russian authorities began to see the Ukrainian national movement as a threat. Repression of prominent figures of the Ukrainian national liberation movement followed. The “Valuyev Project” (named after Pyotr Valuyev, the Russian Interior Minister) was introduced, which prohibited the publication of scholarly literature in the “Little Russian language,” except for “fine” writing, i.e. novels. As Valuyev himself wrote, the reason for creating this policy were “purely political circumstances – the emergence of separatist designs… under the pretext of promoting literacy and education”. It was the beginning of the Tsarist drive to assimilate Ukraine wholesale into Russian culture and life.

The next step in solving the “Ukrainian question” was the signing by Tsar Alexander II in May of 1876 of the “Emskogo Decree” in the German town of Bad Ems, which sought to limit the teaching of the Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire and the publication of any writings in the Ukrainian language. The decree was the brainchild of the assistant director of the Kyiv school district, M.V. Yusefovich, who accused Ukrainian teachers of wanting a “free Ukraine in the form of a republic, with a Hetman at the head” and was a bitter enemy of Ukrainophilism. The law became known as the “Yusefovich Law.”


The tsar’s decree forbade import of books written in Ukrainian into the Russian Empire from abroad without special permission, to publish original works and make translations from foreign languages. The only exceptions were “historical documents and monuments” and “works of fine literature,” with some restrictions and subject to prior censorship. Ukrainian spelling – “kulishovka” – was prohibited and only Russian orthography – “yaryzhka” – allowed. It was also forbidden to stage the Ukrainian theatrical performances (removed in 1881), any books in Ukrainian, or concerts with Ukrainian songs. In elementary schools teaching in Ukrainian language was prohibited, and Ukrainian books were removed from school libraries. The newspaper Kyiv Telegraph was also closed, and Ukrainian professors were fired from the Kyiv University.

In right-bank Ukraine, the Austro-Hungarian authorities, under whose rule the Galician lands fell, however, allowed Ukrainians to have their own publications, to study their language in schools and establish their own theaters, to develop Ukrainian culture. The Tsarist Emsk decrees ceased to have effect after the first Russian revolution in 1905, but in practice the ban on “anything Ukrainian” continued until the First World War.

The great upheavals that accompanied the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, caused by revolutions and two world wars, led to mass migrations of the Ukrainian population, mostly smallholders, to Russia, the Caucasus and the Far East, as well as to the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. But a historic new opportunity lay in wait after all its trials and tribulations.



The Russian Revolution and civil war in Ukraine



By the beginning of the twentieth century, Ukraine had settled into two parts much like the DDR and West Germany but for centuries instead of decades: the right bank, which gravitated towards its closest neighbors Poland, Austria and Hungary, and the left bank, which was drawn towards its closest neighbor Russia. In both cases, Russian was treated as the official language in Ukraine.

After the Revolution of 1917 in Tsarist Russia, left-bank Ukraine again regained the independence that it had lost under Catherine the Great. In the spring of 1917, Ukrainian political parties in Kyiv established the Verkhovna Rada (parliament). The Bolsheviks, for their part, as in Petrograd and Moscow, also tried to take power in Kyiv. This attempt, however, failed. Then in December 1917 the Bolsheviks left Kyiv, moved to Kharkiv, and there proclaimed themselves the seat of soviet power in Ukraine. At the same time, troops were sent from Moscow by Lenin to assist the Ukrainian Bolsheviks in seizing power in Ukraine. As the Red Army was successfully advancing and about to take Kyiv, the Verkhovna Rada decided to declare independence and establish the Ukrainian People’s Republic on January 22, 1918.

The Ukrainian People’s Republic first President was the famous scholar-historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who had previously been dismissed from his university post under the imperial “Yusefovich Law.” He restored the Ukrainian language as a state language and created the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, chairs of Ukrainian studies in universities, etc. It was a popular decision and the famous Ukrainian writer V. K. Vinnichenko, for example, wrote: “The Ukrainian people are Ukrainian, therefore all institutions should be for them as Ukrainian people: government, administration, school, court, and also the army”.

At the same time, the Ukrainian government unsuccessfully negotiated with the Soviet Moscow government for the recognition of their new republic. For the first time in modern Russian-Ukrainian history, the question of the Crimea and its border territories reared its head. Initially, the republic included nine provinces – though not Crimea. Soon, however, two further Ukrainian provinces, and Crimea withdrew from Soviet Russia to join independent Ukraine. Even in the Bolshevik-Russian Donbas area, a splinter republic declared its separation from the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. This displeased Lenin, nor did the idea find support among the local population either and it disappeared.

Germany assumed the role of protector of Ukrainian People’s Republic. However, the arrangement with the Verkhovna Rada was purely financial, and the fact that the Germans and the Austrians were taking money out of the country made Germany and Austria-Hungary responsible for economic troubles in the eyes of the population. Ukrainian proponents of independence were now anti-German, as they saw the Germans as “occupiers”. Ukraine’s soviet supporters were also anti-German, because they believed that it was only under German pressure Ukraine had declared independence and separated from Russia. Over time, the Verkhovna Rada adopted this anti-German stance and on April 28, 1918, Germany carried out a coup d’etat. They arrested the government and installed the puppet regime of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky who cleaved to a pro-German course.

After World War I, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians fled from their parts of Ukraine, and the Bolsheviks solved the “Ukrainian question” militarily by invading. The Red Army gradually occupied Ukraine and proclaimed a soviet Ukrainian state. It was called “war communism” in Ukraine, and included red terror as well as “prodrazverstka”, taking all produce from farmers at a low fixed price. It also led to acute discontent by the summer of 1919. Requisitions made by Bolshevik “food squads” in favor of the Red Army and the Soviet government led to riots. Power in the country was slipping from the hands of the Bolsheviks. But Ukraine was also mired in civil war and internecine strife. Leaders such as the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petliura, on the one hand, and the anarchist Nestor Makhno, on the other, emerged.

The Bolsheviks skillfully played off the Ukrainian leaders against one another defeating Petliura with the help of Makhno’s armies and then wiping out Makhno. By 1921, soviet authority had been established in most of Ukraine and the UkrSSR was formed. Potentially significantly a century later, some western Ukrainian lands were not part of Soviet Ukraine and went to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. In December 1922, the UkrSSR, together with Belarus and Transcaucasia, under the auspices of Soviet Russia, created the USSR, which lasted until 1991.

The Bolsheviks who won in Ukraine promptly began a policy of Russification: the introduction of the Russian language in schools and universities, to the resentment of the Ukrainian population. Christian Rakovsky, comrade chairman of the first Soviet Ukrainian government, managed to convince the Bolshevik leadership at the Kremlin of the need to change tactics. In 1923, the equality of the Russian and Ukrainian languages was declared as part of the new Soviet policy of “cultural and national autonomy” for the peoples living in the USSR.

At the same time, the “korenizatsiya” (“Ukrainianization”) of the party and state apparatus began. From this time, the Soviet leadership began to assist in the development of the Ukrainian language and even Ukrainian radio broadcasting aimed at Ukrainians who lived in Ukraine and beyond – in other Soviet republics, such as Russia, and in other countries: Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Instead of Russians, Ukrainians were appointed to government positions in the UkrSSR.

In fact, Communist units were formed in Ukraine that worked with national minorities. Their work was coordinated by the subdivision of national minorities of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Four sections were created: Jewish, German, Polish, and Bulgarian; the formation of thirteen national districts (seven German, four Bulgarian, one Polish, and one Jewish) began.

The policy of “korenizatsiya” as a method of Bolshevik nation-state building, provided for the training, upbringing and promotion of native nationality cadres, consideration of national factors in the formation of the party and state apparatus, organization of a network of educational institutions of various levels, opening of newspapers and magazines in native languages, book published in the languages of indigenous nationalities; profound study of national history, revival and development of national traditions and culture, and equality of regional languages. The essence of the policy was the Bolshevik leadership’s attempt to control the processes of national-cultural revival in the UkrSSR and other satellite republics of the USSR.

Researchers distinguish three periods in the cultural policy of the Bolsheviks: the period of Russification in 1917-1922; the period of Ukrainianization in 1923-1932; and the period of Sovietization, which began in 1933 under the slogan of Stalin’s fight against the Ukrainian “nationalist deviation.” By this time in Ukraine, as in Russia, Stalin had carried out ruthless collectivization, leading to the end of freeholdings and the creation of poorly functioning collective farms. Many rich Ukrainians were resettled to Siberia, the Altai Territory, Transbaikalia, and the Far East.

As a consequence of Stalin’s interference, a famine began in Ukraine that took the lives of millions of people. In addition, mass repressions began in Ukraine in 1933, and the most prominent figures of Ukrainian culture, intelligentsia and the Ukrainian elite were sent to camps and prisons. In 1938, the Soviet government announced the formal end of Ukrainianization and set a course for “accelerated assimilation” of Ukrainians with Russians. Russian laborers were sent to the eastern regions of Ukraine (including the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions). They settled permanently in Ukraine and were employed to build the giant factories planned under Stalinist industrialization of the USSR. At the end of the construction phase, the newcomers stayed to work in the factories, which is why Ukraine’s industrial cities are largely populated by people who are ethnically Russian.



Ukraine between Stalin and Hitler



On the eve of World War II, under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact signed by the Soviet and German governments in August 1939, virtually the entire western Ukraine was ceded to the USSR and “joined the friendly family of nations”. This meant that a part of Ukraine which had never been part of the Russian Empire now came under Russian dominion through the UkrSSR.

A year earlier, in 1938, as a result of the Munich Treaty, the autonomous Carpathian Ukraine, which was part of Czechoslovakia, was transferred to Hungary. Most of the western Ukrainian population were then deported by the Soviet government to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia. A significant portion of the Ukrainian population of these areas was later forced to emigrate to the United States and Canada. One of the authors of this book, Michael Stanchev, was born during the deportations in Kazakhstan, where his parents were exiled. It was an horrific tragedy for the residents of western Ukraine. Many towns and villages were deserted, and those who remained experienced the friendly “new Soviet order.”


Of the deported population, those who survived returned to their native lands only after Stalin’s death and the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, which began after 1956. At the same time, the inhabitants of western Ukrainian towns and villages deported from Ukraine were labeled by Stalin as “Banderites” after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian national leader who headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and fought for national Ukrainian interests first in Poland and then in Soviet Ukraine at the end and after World War II. Today the term “Banderite” has made a comeback and is once again used by Russian and pro-Russian propaganda to inflame tensions and provoke hostility between the western and eastern regions of Ukraine.

As a result of the Hitler’s attack on the USSR and the war that began in 1941-1945, Ukraine was occupied by the Germans and divided into the Reichskommissariat “Ukraine” and the District “Galicia”. In the latter police detachments and even the SS Division “Galicia” were formed from the locals, and the Ukrainian nationalist organizations were left relatively free. Not so in the Reichskommissariat “Ukraine”. An attempt by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) to create an independent state as protectorate of the Third Reich found no German support. As a result, the leaders of the insurgent movement, in particular Stepan Bandera, were arrested and sent to the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz, where they remained for the rest of the war.

Through Bandera’s followers, the idea of a united Ukraine lived on. In Nazi-occupied western Ukraine, its military branch UIA deployed guerrilla warfare. On Soviet territory, Ukrainian partisans fought under the command of the Soviet army. Soviet propaganda did not say a word about the involvement of the UIA, which fought behind the lines of the German army (apart from using the derogatory word “Banderites”).

Meanwhile, the front line of World War II swept over Ukraine twice, first from west to east, then from east to west. More than five million Ukrainians died in the war, and about two million were deported to Germany as forced labor. Approximately 700 cities and towns and 28,000 villages were destroyed. Over ten million people were left homeless. In view of this, Vladimir Putin’s comment that the USSR did not need the Ukrainians during World War II falls nothing short of being untrue.

In 1945, Stalin, paying lip service to international law, included Ukraine and Belarus as “independent” states in the newly formed United Nations, although they didn’t play any independent role. Both the army and foreign policy of Ukraine and Belarus were an integral part of the armed forces and foreign policy of the USSR. Throughout the period from 1944 to 1991, the UkrSSR was completely subservient to the policies of Moscow, and any manifestation of independence was punished without mercy and labeled as “nationalist” or “Banderite.”


When Petro Shelest, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and member of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, published a harmless book called Ukraina Sovetskaya Radianska (Our Soviet Ukraine) in Ukrainian rather than Russian, he was accused of nationalism and removed from all government posts.

Ukraine played a hugely important role in the Soviet economy, and its eastern regions were the mainstay of the Soviet military-industrial complex, coal mining and metallurgical industries, high-tech industries, and student populations. During years of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, the Ukrainian part of the soviet intelligentsia increasingly acquired a national flavor, as demonstrated by the first truly democratic elections to the Supreme Soviet of the UkrSSR, whose deputies proclaimed the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine. Finally, Ukraine was once again a unified state as it was under Yaroslav the Wise in 1054. It had taken almost a millennium to get there.

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