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A short history of Ukraine

By Elisa and Anna Jakymin

‘It’s Ukraine, not The Ukraine.’ Following the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 marked a turning point in a centuries-long and turbulent history fought for by our forefathers. Given that the prefix was used by Soviet Russians to refer to Ukraine as one of its own, its deletion reflected the formation of a fully-fledged sovereign country. 

In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Empire, ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. The significance of this statement to Ukrainians cannot be overstated; a nation of people have not only had Ukrainian culture discredited, but have long resisted attempts to eradicate it completely. 

Kievan Rus’ (862–1242) was a medieval political federation that endured for nearly 400 years. Dominated by the city of Kyiv, it was comprised of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and part of Russia. After it fell to the Mongol invasion, the western part was seized by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which, at its height, controlled most of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Its demise culminated in the establishment of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569.

The Russian Tsardom had been seeking to expand from the mid-1500s onwards; the all-Russian nation was an Imperial Russian ideology which comprised Great Russians, Little Russians and White Russians, which respectively included Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians. When Eastern Ukraine came under Imperial Russian rule in the late 18th century, the Ukrainian language was banned from many walks of public life. The westernmost parts of Ukraine, in comparison, came under Austrian and Polish rule, where the Ukrainian language was preserved, and nationalist sentiment prevailed.

When the eastern part of Ukraine integrated into the Soviet Union in 1922, it was referred to as its ‘breadbasket’ thanks to its fields of wheat. In 1928, Stalin forced peasants to relinquish their land and join collective farms, with the aim of yielding more efficient production. When the government’s targets became impossible to meet, the state confiscated the farmers’ harvests, leaving them with nothing, and forcing them to die from starvation. While the famine was largely kept secret for several decades, records uncovered only in the late 1980s revealed graphic images of the starvation of innocent victims.

The Great Famine (Holodomor) of 1932–33 represents one of the most tragic chapters in Ukrainian history – killing at least five million. Russia does not acknowledge the event as an act of genocide to this day, but the Ukrainian population was decimated by a manmade famine under Stalin’s regime. 

By 1945, Stalin had taken control of all of Ukraine. A Russification began whereby ethnic Russians were settled into the abandoned homes of the famine’s victims. In a further assault on Ukrainian culture, intellectuals, teachers, writers and artists were arrested, deported or executed. Most universities taught exclusively in Russian, and highly paid and official positions were open only to Russian speakers.

In its first decade of independence, Ukraine was almost identical to Russia in terms of politics, business and culture. On the eve of Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, Putin travelled to Kyiv to persuade Ukrainians to vote for his nominated candidate. Sensing their country’s newly found independence was being threatened, the Orange Revolution began within weeks of Putin’s visit. Mass protests against a rigged election (which catapulted the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych into power), lasted for two months, resulting in the Presidential appointment of pro-Western Victor Yuschenko.

However, Yanukovych was elected a mere five years later, based on his false election campaign of promising to forge closer ties with the West. In 2014, after he signed a trade deal with Russia, Yanukovych was toppled in the Euro-Maidan Revolution. Crowds took to the streets of Kyiv once again; while the Orange Revolution had been peaceful, the Euro-Maidan Revolution spiralled into violence, involving brutal beatings by authorities, which killed over 100 civilians.  

Spurring the wrath of Putin, Ukraine found itself at war with Russia within days; a war that would endure for eight years and kill over 14,000 Ukrainians. Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, justifying its crimes over concerns about the fate of ethnic Russians in Crimea. While Crimea comprised an ethnic Russian majority at the time, the annexation made no reference to the Crimean Tatars, an Indigenous, Muslim Turkic population, who had been brutally repressed and deported decades earlier. 2016’s Ukrainian Eurovision Song Contest winner sang about her Crimean grandparents in the song ‘1944’, which echoes with disturbing familiarity today: ‘the strangers are coming, they come to your house, they kill you all and say they’re not guilty’. Since 2014, approximately 140,000 Ukrainians and ethnic Tartars have left Crimea.  

Since 2014, eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, have been controlled by two puppet governments allegedly established by Moscow. In contrast to the rest of Ukraine, the region is home to a large share of Russians and those aligned with Russia’s national interests. Fast forward to 2022 and Putin’s recognition of the independence of the two separatist regions has drawn widespread condemnation. He subsequently ordered his troops to ‘maintain peace’ in Donbas, launching an invasion into Ukraine in February 2022. 

While Putin seems to be stuck in the past with his tsarist ambitions, the conflict is shaping into a modern war, with the advent of social media enabling citizens to bear witness to history as it takes place. While Putin continues to insist that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’, Ukraine’s Maidan uprising and fierce resistance against the invasion present compelling evidence that the two countries are very different and, in fact, are moving in opposing directions. The invasion is only serving to strengthen Ukrainian resolve to protect their national culture, language, history and identity. 

Read Anna and Elisa’s accounts of tracing their family history in Eastern Europe here and here.

Anna and Elisa in front of St Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv. The original, built in 1108, was destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s. The reconstructed cathedral was completed in May 2000.

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