Ukrainians may share an alphabet, primarily Slavic ancestry and primarily Orthodox religion with their Russian neighbours, but their 1300-year history and relative dominance by outside influences (both voluntary and involuntary) have forged a distinct identity – as distinct as the Dutch vs. Germans, or Americans vs. English. Warning! This is not a quick read. If you don’t have much time, or are only marginally interested in history, the YouTube below gives a pretty good 14 minute summary of how Ukraine came to be. However, I find it a bewildering list of names, each of which demand more explanation – hence the greater details below.
Geography of Ukraine
To understand the Ukrainians as a people, one first needs to understand the land they occupy. It is a large country by European standards; larger than France or Germany, slightly smaller than Texas. Ukraine’s geography consists of four main elements:
- Dense, marshy forests in the north, gradually becoming
- Flat grasslands, called steppes, in the south, part of what is known as the Pontic-Caspian Steppe.
- Many rivers running from north to south
- Few easily defensible borders in any direction.
Though much of Ukraine’s original plant cover has been cleared, three main zones of natural vegetation are still distinguishable. From north to south, they are the Polissya (woodland and marsh), the forest-steppe, and the steppe.
The Polissya zone lies in the northwest and north. Nearly one-quarter of it is covered with mixed woodland, including oak, elm, birch, hornbeam, ash, maple, pine, linden, alder, poplar, willow, and beech. About 5 percent is peat bog, a substantial portion is marshland, and the river valleys are floodplains. The Polissya contains the southernmost portions of the Pripet Marshes,
3. Rivers and Black Sea
One translation of the word Ukraine is “borderland”, and Ukraine’s borders have changed hundreds of times in their 1,300-year history. Major penetrations of territory now identified as Ukrainian have come by sea (Greeks, Romans, Turks), river (Scandinavian “Varangian”), by horseback across the steppes from the east (Sarmatians, Huns, Khazars, Mongols, Volga Tatars, – innumerable tribes), and by land from the west (Goths, Austrians) northwest (Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans) and northeast and east (Russians). All of these penetrations have left their their bloodlines in the baseline Slavic stock.
People of Ukraine
5500 years ago, the steppe area was dominated by the Yamnaya culture, considered to be the people who spoke the predecessor of all the languages in the Indo-European group, including English, Russian, Greek & Hindi. For more details, click here: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/languages-indo-european/
Greeks; by water from the south
Greeks established colonies on what are now the Ukrainian shores of the Black Sea as early as the 6th century BCE. (see map above). The Greek colonies coalesced into the Bosporan Kingdom in the 4th century BCE, which lasted as a Roman client state until the 4th century CE.
Greeks hung on to their small coastal enclaves for hundreds of years through invasions by Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Mongol-Tatars, and Ottoman Turks. Though some assimilation with their overlords occurred, their Orthodox faith proved a bulwark against complete absorption. The Greeks of present-day Ukraine are mainly the descendants of various waves of primarily Pontic Greek refugees and “economic migrants”, who left the region of Pontus and the Pontic Alps in northeastern Anatolia between the fall of the Empire of Trebizond in 1461 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829. Greeks lived among the Crimean Tatars until the Russian Empire conquered the Crimea in 1783. Then Catherine the Great decided to relocate the Pontic Greeks from Crimea to the northern shores of the Sea of Azov. New territory was assigned for them between today’s cities of Mariupol and Donetsk, covering the southern portion of the Donetsk Oblast in Ukraine. Other Greeks arrived in Ukraine even later, particularly, as Greek Communist refugees from mainly Greek Macedonia and other parts of Northern Greece, who had fled their homes following the 1946–1949 Greek Civil War. By the 2001 census 91,500 Greeks remained, the vast majority of whom (77,000) still lived in the Donetsk Oblast.
Goths, (from the north); Huns, Bulgars, Khazars (from the east)
Here’s a list (lifted from Wikipedia) of some of the peoples who roamed the steppes of Ukraine/Russia. Click each group name to be taken to a Wikipedia article on them.
- Cimmerians 12th–7th centuries BC
- Dacians and Thracians (Getae) 11th century BC – 3rd century AD
- Scythians 8th–4th centuries BC
- Sarmatians 5th century BC – 5th century AD
- Ostrogoths 3rd–6th centuries
- Bulgars (Onogurs, Proto-Bulgarians), Bulgarians 4th–21st centuries:
- Huns and Avars 4th–8th centuries
- Alans 5th–11th centuries
- Eurasian Avars 6th–8th centuries
- Göktürks 6th–8th centuries
- Sabirs 6th–8th centuries
- Khazars 6th–11th centuries
- Magyar tribes (Hungarians) 7th–9th centuries attested but probably from earlier
- Rus’ people, Kievan Rus’ 8th–13th centuries
- Pechenegs 8th–11th centuries
- Kipchaks, Cumans (Polovtsians) 11th–13th centuries
- Mongol Golden Horde 13th–15th centuries
- Cossacks, Kalmyks, Crimean Khanate, Volga Tatars, Nogais and other Turkic states and tribes 15th–18th centuries
- Russian Empire 16th–20th centuries
- Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus 19th–20th centuries
- Soviet Union 20th century
In the 7th century, the territory that is now eastern Ukraine was the centre of Old Great Bulgaria – more Turkic peoples from the east.
At the end of the century, the majority of Bulgar tribes migrated in different directions, and the Khazars took over much of the land.
Khazars from the east become Jews – “When Ukraine Was Run by Jews”
Once upon a time, a king decided Judaism was the one true religion. But the Khazar Kingdom didn’t last long.
As Ukraine writhes in crisis with sovereignty over Crimea hanging in the balance, it’s an apt time to revisit a time when the region was a Jewish kingdom. Not that this is a call to Israel to throw its hat in the race for control of Crimea.
The Crimean Peninsula has changed hands and rulers time and again. One such occasion was some time in the 4th to 5th century, when a Turkic horde invaded from Mongolia-Siberia and settled the western steppe, mainly the north shores of the Caspian and Black seas. The invaders were a loose confederation of semi-nomadic pagan tribes, who gradually assumed control over the variegated local population. It took time, but by the mid-7th century, a state had taken shape: the Khazar Kingdom.
This kingdom grew in power and wealth, mostly from taxing the Silk Route to China and other important trading routes between the Arabian and Persian kingdoms and Europe. The people of Khazar constituted numerous ethnic backgrounds and spoke many languages. They also practiced different religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the ruling elite was a Turkic aristocracy speaking a Turkic language and practicing a Turkic form of paganism called Tengriism, which focused on a sun deity called Tengri. That is – until at some point in the 8th or 9th centuries, the ruling elite converted to Judaism.
This conversion is confirmed by Jewish, Persian, Arab and Byzantine sources. Khazar sources do not exist and no archaeological evidence has been found. One interpretation is that only a thin, elite segment of the population converted while the bulk of the populace remained religiously diverse. Legend, and letters from a Khazar monarch preserved in Jewish sources, relate that King Bulan decided to convert after a series of angelic visions told him to seek the one true religion. In his most famous book “The Khuzari,” Judah Halevi provides a slightly different version: Bulan had invited Christian and Muslim philosophers to explain their beliefs, when a rabbi came in and argued the case for Judaism. The king was convinced and converted together with the aristocracy.
Some scholars have suggested that the real reason the Khazar elite decided on Judaism was to take up an Abrahamic religion that would ingratiate them with their Christian and Muslim neighbors on the one hand, while not take either side and thus raise the ire of the members of the religion not chosen. Whatever the reason, the Jewish kingdom didn’t survive for long. Incessant wars with Islamic kingdoms in the 9th century and then the rise of the Rus in the north during the 10th century precipitated the decline of the Khazar kingdom, until its ultimate destruction by the Rus in the second half of the 10th century.
It has been suggested that Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of these Khazari people, but this is unlikely, based on genetic studies – and the fact that only a very thin segment of the Khazar kingdom had apparently ever converted to Judaism.
Slavs; from the north
Notice that the one people NOT mentioned among Ukraine’s early inhabitants is the Ukrainians. Where did they come from?
Rus; by rivers from the north
A little after the Slavs exploded out of Polesia, about 750 AD, Scandinavian raider/traders (known as the Rus – rowers) used flotillas of Viking longboats (rowboats assisted by sails) to establish a trading post – later a city – Kyiv. While most land-based Slavs were content to farm their plots of soil, the water-based Scandinavians, known locally as Varangians wanted to control trade, and dreamed of capturing the richest city in the world – Constantinople. The Dnipro was their highway to riches and power.
The Varangians transformed Kyiv into the seat of a dynasty, (the Rurik), who controlled territory, (Kievan Rus’), that became, during the 10th and 11th centuries, the largest and most powerful state in Europe. Though the Rus’ were originally Scandinavian warriors and traders, they were a ruling minority, and over time were absorbed into the majority Slavic culture. Both Ukraine and Russia claim Kievan Rus’ as the foundation of their respective nations.
For more on the Kyiv/Constantinople/Moscow connection, click https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/byzantium-and-the-beginnings-of-ukraine-russia/
Ruthenia (Galicia-Volhynia); Lithuanians, Poles,
Following Yaroslav’s death (1054), Kyiv entered a long period of decline, documented beginning around the 12-minute mark in the above YouTube. Over time, shifts in trade routes undermined Kyiv’s economic importance, while warfare with the Polovtsians in the steppe sapped its wealth and energies. Succession struggles and princely rivalries eroded Kyiv’s political hegemony. The ascendancy of new centres and the clustering of principalities around them reflected regional cleavages—historical, economic, and tribal ethnic—that had persisted even in the period of Kyiv’s predominance.
In Ukraine’s history, the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia (1199-1349) played an extremely important role, becoming the new center of political and economic life after the decline of Kyiv. Territorially and politically, it united almost all ethnic Ukrainian lands. Geographically, western Galicia–Volhynia extended between the rivers San and Wieprz in what is now south-eastern Poland, while eastern territories covered the Pripet Marshes (now in Belarus) and the upper reaches of Southern Bug river in modern-day Ukraine.
Along with Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal, it was one of the three most important powers to emerge from the collapse of Kievan Rus’. The main language was Old East Slavic, the predecessor of the modern East Slavic languages, and the official religion was Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1791) was a country and a federation of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch in real union, who was both King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. It was one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th to 17th-century Europe. Polish and Latin were the two co-official languages.
The Polish-Lithuanian Union possessed many features unique among contemporary states. Its political system was characterized by strict checks upon monarchical power. These checks were enacted by a legislature (sejm) controlled by the nobility (szlachta). This idiosyncratic system was a precursor to modern concepts of democracy. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and by relative religious tolerance, however, the degree of religious freedom varied over time. The Polish overlords also attempted to expand Roman Catholicism at the expense of the Ukrainians’ Eastern Orthodox religion, which met with much resistance among its Slavic subjects.
Polish reduction of free Ukrainian peasants to serf/slave status, produced a reaction that looms large in Ukrainian legend – the Cossacks.
Tatars – Crimea
The word Tatar, which in Persian and Turkish means “mounted messenger” evolved in either Latin or French to become Tartar (after the Greek word for a mythical underworld deeper than Hades, Tartarus). Whatever the origins of the word,Tartar became the West’s name for the Mongol-Turkic invaders of the Golden Horde – Batu Khan’s extension of grandfather Genghis Khan’s empire, which extended from Korea to Hungary. Tatar was the Russian equivalent.
960 – A Jewish merchant and trader from Spain, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub (Abraham ben Jacob), travels to Poland and writes the first description of the country and the city of Kraków. Jewish traders are very active in Central Europe. Mieszko I mints coins with Hebrew letters on them, though some attribute the coins to the times of Mieszko the Old.
The first extensive Jewish emigration from Western Europe to Poland occurred at the time of the First Crusade (1098). Under Boleslaw III of Poland (1102–1139), the Jews, encouraged by the tolerant régime of this ruler, settled throughout Poland, including over the border into Lithuanian territory as far as Kiev. Boleslaw, for his part, recognized the utility of the Jews in the development of the commercial interests of his country. The Prince of Kraków, Mieszko III the Old (1173–1202), in his endeavor to establish law and order in his domains, prohibited all violence against the Jews, particularly attacks upon them by unruly students (żacy). Boys guilty of such attacks, or their parents, were made to pay fines as heavy as those imposed for sacrilegious acts.
1264 – Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious issues Statute of Kalisz – The General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland, an unprecedented document in medieval history of Europe that allows Jews personal freedom, legal autonomy and separate tribunal for criminal matters as well as safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. The Charter is ratified again by subsequent Polish Kings: Casimir the Great of Poland in 1334, Casimir IV of Poland in 1453, and Sigismund I the Old of Poland in 1539.
1334 – Casimir the Great of Poland ratifies again the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland.
1343 – Persecuted in Western Europe, the Jews are invited to Poland by King Casimir the Great. After massive expulsions of Jews from the Western Europe (England, France, Germany, and Spain), they found a refuge in the lands of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the Jagiellon Era Poland became the home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, as royal edicts warranting Jewish safety and religious freedom from the 13th century contrasted with bouts of persecution in Western Europe, especially following the Black Death of 1348–1349, blamed by some in the West on Jews themselves. Large parts of Poland suffered relatively little from the outbreak, while the Jewish immigration brought valuable manpower and skills to the rising state. The greatest increase in Jewish numbers occurred in the 18th century, when Jews came to make up 7% of the Polish population.
1453 – Casimir IV of Poland ratifies again the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland.
1500 – Some of the Jews expelled from Spain, Portugal and many German cities move to Poland. By the mid sixteenth century, some eighty percent of the world’s Jews lives in Poland, a figure that held steady for centuries.
1547 – The first Hebrew Jewish printing house is founded in Lublin.
1567 – The first yeshiva is founded in Poland.
1580 – 1764 First session of the Council of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot) in Lublin, Poland. 70 delegates from Jewish communities (kehillot) meet to discuss taxation and other issues important to the Jewish community.
1606 – Poland first described as “Paradisus Iudaeorum“.
1623 – The first time a separate Jewish Diet (Va’ad) for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is convened.
1633 – Jews of Poznań are granted a privilege of forbidding Christians to enter into their city quarter.
1648 – Jewish population of Poland reaches 450,000 or 60% of the world Jewish population. In Bohemia Jews number 40,000 and in Moravia 25,000. The worldwide Jewish population is estimated at 750,000.
1648 – 1655 The Ukrainian Cossack Bohdan Khmelnytsky leads Uprising resulting in massacres of Polish szlachta and Jewry that leaves ca. 65,000 Jews dead and similar number of szlachta also. The total decrease in the number of Jews is estimated at 100,000. Poland loses 40% of her population during The Deluge. 
1750 – Jewish population of Poland reaches 750,000 which constitutes around 70% of the Jewish population in the world which is estimated at 1,200,000.
1773–1795 – Three partitions of Poland between imperial Russia, the Kingdom of Prussia and imperial Austria. Most of the Jews of Poland/Lithuania are now in Russia. Old Polish privileges of Jewish communities are denounced.
In addition to Ashkenazic Jews, who came primarily from central Europe, settled in Poland, then were annexed into Russia/Ukraine, a few Sephardic Jews settled in Ukraine following the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Also a few Jews were in the Greek Black Sea ports before the time of Christ. Wikipedia: “From 1880 to 1920, Odesa had the second largest Jewish population in the Russian Empire.” For more on the interesting history of the Jews of Odesa, click here:
Krymchaks and Crimean Karaites are Turkic-speaking Jews of the Crimea and Eastern Europe. The Krymchaks practice Rabbinic Judaism, while the Karaim practice Karaite Judaism. Whether they are primarily the descendants of Israelite Jews who adopted Turkic language and culture, or the descendants of Turkic converts to Judaism, is still debated, although the question is irrelevant as far as Jewish law is concerned, according to which they are Jews, regardless of whether by Israelite descent or by conversion. Source, Wikipedia
Romani people in Ukraine
Wikipedia: “The presence of a Romani minority in Ukraine was first documented in the early 15th century. The Romani maintained their social organizations and folkways, shunning non-Romani contacts, education and values, often as a reaction to anti-Romani attitudes and persecution. They adopted the language and faith of the dominant society, being Orthodox in most of Ukraine, Catholic in Western Ukraine and Zakarpattia Oblast, and Muslim in Crimea. For more, click here.
It is true that Russians and Ukrainians both emerged from a marshy, densely forested area (now called Polesia or Polissya), in the region bordering what is now Ukraine and Belarus. Genetically, the majority of Russians are identical to their East and West Slavic counterparts; unlike northern Russians, who belong to the Northern European Baltic gene pool.
A Timeline of Russian History.
Based on https://www.history.com/topics/russia/russia-timeline, with many additions by Don Buskirk and Wikipedia.
862: The first major East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, is founded and led by the Viking Oleg of Novgorod (although some historians dispute this account). Kiev becomes the capital 20 years later.
980-1015: Prince Vladimir the Great, who converts from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, rules the Rurik dynasty while spreading his newfound religion. His son, Yaroslav the Wise, reigns from 1019-1054 as grand prince, establishing a written code of law, and Kiev becomes a center of politics and culture in eastern Europe.
1237-1240: Mongols invade Kievan Rus, destroying cities including Kiev and Moscow. The Khan of the Golden Horde rules Russia until 1480.
From this point on, the histories and cultures of Russia and Ukraine diverge.
1240-1480: The Mongol Yoke. The following passage is copied from this Russia-friendly site: https://waytorussia.net/WhatIsRussia/Mongol-Yoke-History.html#:~:text=The%20Mongol%20Yoke%20%E2%80%93%2013%20to%2015%20Century.,the%20Russian%20principalities%20were%20vassalized%20by%20Mongol%20Empire. The two centuries of the occupation by Asian invaders influenced the Russian culture a lot and made Russia more different from the rest of Europe. The autocracy of Mongols was easily implemented into the culture and Russians also gained the inclination towards collective actions and decision-making, rather than individualism, which was more prominent before. Under the Mongols a small regional center, Moscow, developed rapidly. Moscow was just one of many small towns at the north east borders of the former Kievan Rus’. However several trade routes passed through the town. The other advantage of Moscow was a remote and forested location, which prevented frequent Mongol attacks. Finally, the transfer of power was also quite smooth among Moscow princes, and because of that the rapid development of the region was not slowed down by constant wars. Prince Daniil inherited a tiny principality of Moscow in 1303. He widely used the advantages of Moscow and started the development of Moscow as a regional center. Daniil and his descendants managed to establish a good relations with Mongols and used the decline of old principalities to increase the wealth and power of Moscow. Finally, towards the end of the 15th century Muscovy gained control over most of the Russian lands. Muscovy became powerful enough to claim independence. The key battle versus Mongols took part in 1480 at Kulikovo field near the Dnepr River. Russians defeated Mongols and Muscovy became an independent state. Note: Though in essence these statements are true, the phrase “field near the Dnepr river” is suspect, as no one knows exactly where the battle took place. According to Encyclopedia Britannica the hero, “Dmitri crossed the Don to face the Tatars….He was accorded the name “Donskoy” to mark his triumph on the Don.” Placing the battle “near the Dnepr River” puts it in the heart of Ukraine, adding to Russia’s claim to the region. The Don River is much further East.
1480-1505: Ivan III—known as Ivan the Great—rules, freeing Russia from the Mongols, and consolidating Muscovite rule.
1547-1584: Ivan IV—or Ivan the Terrible—becomes the first czar of Russia. The grandson of Ivan the Great expands the Muscovite territory into Siberia, while instituting a reign of terror against nobility using military rule. He dies of a stroke in 1584.
1570-1572: Russo-Crimean War. An alliance of Tatar and Turkish forces overwhelms Russian defenses and burns Moscow, leaving 80,000 dead and taking 150,000 captives. In 1572, Russians defeat the Crimean Tatars. Later, the Russian expansion turned to the Black Sea region and the Crimean khanate was invaded several times in the 18th century and finally conquered during the Russo-Turkish Wars (1568-1739).
Russians – Romanov Dynasty
1613: After several years of unrest, famine, civil war and invasions, Mikhail Romanov is coronated as czar at age 16, ending a long period of instability. The Romanov dynasty will rule Russia for three centuries.
1686: Russia defeats a Polish-Lithuanian-Cossack alliance and is granted possession of land East of the Dnieper River, including the west-bank Kyiv area.
1689-1725: Peter the Great rules until his death, expanding Russia’s borders to the Baltic Sea in the north, and the Sea of Azov in the south, founding the Russian navy, and making Russia a maritime power. He built a new capital in St. Petersburg, modernizing the military and reorganizing the government. With his introduction of Western European culture, Russia becomes a world power.
1762: Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, takes power in a bloodless coup and her reign marks Russia’s era of enlightenment. A champion of the arts, her 30-plus-year rule also extends Russia’s borders. Poland is divided between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Former Polish territory became Russia, and, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
1774 – Crimea becomes a protectorate of Russia.
1783 – Russia annexes Crimea.
1792 – Ottomans cede control of land around Odesa to Russia.
1794 – Catherine ll founds city of Odesa.
1853-1856: Stemming from Russian pressure on Turkey and religious tensions, the Ottoman Empire, along with British and French forces, fights Russia and Czar Nicholas I in the Crimean War. Russia is crippled in its defeat.
1861: Czar Alexander II issues his Emancipation Reform, abolishing serfdom and allowing peasants to purchase land. His other notable reforms include universal military service, strengthening Russia’s borders and promoting self government. In 1867, he sells Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States, gilding the St. Isaac Cathedral domes in St. Petersburg with the proceeds. He is assassinated in 1881.
1914: Russia enters WWI against Austria-Hungary in defense of Serbia.
Russians – Lenin, the Bolsheviks and Rise of the Soviet Union
Nov. 6-7, 1917: The violent Russian Revolution marks the end of the Romanov dynasty and Russian Imperial Rule, as the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, take power and eventually become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Civil War breaks out later that year, with Lenin’s Red Army claiming victory and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Lenin rules until his death in 1924.
1917-1921 – The Ukrainian War of Independence. Ukraine, which included Crimea, the Kuban, and portions of Don Cossack lands with large Ukrainian populations (along with ethnic Russians, and Jews), tried to break free from Russia after the February 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg. Historian Paul Kubicek states: Between 1917 and 1920, several entities that aspired to be independent Ukrainian states came into existence. This period, however, was extremely chaotic, characterized by revolution, international and civil war, and lack of strong central authority. Many factions competed for power in the area that is today’s Ukraine, and not all groups desired a separate Ukrainian state. Ultimately, Ukrainian independence was short-lived, as most Ukrainian lands were incorporated into the Soviet Union and the remainder, in western Ukraine, was divided among Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny provides a context from the long span of European history: In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kyiv changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food. The Ukrainian War of Independence of 1917 to 1921 produced the Makhnovshchina, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (in 1919 merged from the Ukrainian People’s Republic and West Ukrainian People’s Republic) which was quickly subsumed in the Soviet Union. For more details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_War_of_Independence
1929-1953: Joseph Stalin becomes dictator, taking Russia from a peasant society to a military and industrial power. His totalitarian rule includes his Great Purge, beginning in 1934, in which at least 750,000 people were killed to eliminate opposition, and the Holodomor – a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians. Stalin dies in 1953, following a stroke.
1939: World War II begins, and, in accord with a pact between Stalin and Adolf Hitler, Russia invades Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland. Germany breaks the agreement in 1941, invading Russia, which then joins the Allies. The Russian army’s win at the Battle of Stalingrad serves as a major turning point in ending the war. Some Ukrainians initially regarded the Wehrmacht soldiers as liberators from Soviet rule, while others formed a partisan movement.
Some elements of the Ukrainian nationalist underground formed a Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought both Soviet forces and the Nazis. Others collaborated with the Germans. Some 1.5 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during their occupation. In Volhynia, Ukrainian fighters committed a massacre against up to 100,000 Polish civilians. Residual small groups of the UPA-partizans acted near the Polish and Soviet border as long as to the 1950s. Galicia, Volhynia, South Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and Carpathian Ruthenia were added as a result of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 and the Soviet victory over Germany in the Second World War, 1939–45.
1946. After World War II, some amendments to the Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR were accepted, which allowed it to act as a separate subject of international law in some cases and to a certain extent, remaining a part of the Soviet Union at the same time. In particular, these amendments allowed the Ukrainian SSR to become one of the founding members of the United Nations (UN) together with the Soviet Union and the Byelorussian SSR. This was part of a deal with the United States to ensure a degree of balance in the General Assembly, which, the USSR opined, was unbalanced in favor of the Western Bloc. In its capacity as a member of the UN, the Ukrainian SSR was an elected member of the United Nations Security Council in 1948–1949 and 1984–1985.
March 5, 1946: In a speech, Winston Churchill declares “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent” and the Cold War grows as the Soviets promote revolution in China, Asia and the Middle and Near East. In 1949, the Soviets explode a nuclear bomb, hastening the nuclear arms race.
Oct. 4, 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite that orbits the Earth in about 98 minutes and spurs the Space Race. In 1961, Soviet Yuri Gagarin becomes the first person to fly in space.
Russia – Gorbachev Introduces Reforms
March 11,1985: Mikhail Gorbachev is elected general secretary of the Communist Party, and, thus, effectively Russia’s leader. His reform efforts include perestroika (restructuring the Russian economy), glasnost (greater openness) and summit talks with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to end the Cold War. In 1990, he is elected president, the same year he wins the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end.
April 26, 1986: The Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident, takes place at the Chernobyl nuclear plant near Kiev in Ukraine. Resulting in thousands of deaths and 70,000 severe poisoning cases, the 18-mile radius surrounding the plant (and no longer home to nearly 150,000 people), will remain unlivable for some 150 years.
June 12, 1991: Boris Yeltsin wins Russia’s first popular presidential election, urging democracy.
Dec. 1, 1991: Voters approved a referendum formalizing independence from the Soviet Union.
Soviet Union Falls
Dec. 25, 1991: Following an unsuccessful Communist Party coup, the Soviet Union is dissolved and Gorbachev resigns. With Ukraine and Belarus, Russia forms the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most former Soviet republics eventually join. Yeltsin begins lifting Communist-imposed price controls and reforms, and, in 1993, signs the START II treaty, pledging nuclear arms cuts. He wins reelection in 1996, but resigns in 1999, naming former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, his prime minister, as acting president.
Dec. 26, 1991: The Soviet Union formally ceased to exist on 26 December, when the presidents of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (the founding members of the USSR) met in Białowieża Forest to formally dissolve the Union in accordance with the Soviet Constitution. With this, Ukraine’s independence was formalized de jure and recognized by the international community.
Dec. 1994: Russian troops enter the breakaway republic of Chechnya to stop an independence movement. Up to 100,000 people are estimated killed in the 20-month war that that ends with a compromise agreement. Chechen rebels continue a campaign for independence, sometimes through terrorist acts in Russia.
March 26, 2000: Vladimir Putin is elected president, and is reelected in a landslide in 2004. Because of term limits, he leaves office in 2008, when his protege Dmitry Medvedev is elected, and serves as his prime minister. Putin is then reelected as president in 2012.
2014 – Putin’s forces invade Donesk & Luhansk, and take control of Crimea.
2022 – Putin orders a ‘Special Military Operation’; a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Though Ukraine’s history can be traced back 1300 years, an ‘independent’ territory with the name ‘Ukraine’ did not appear until 1918, and then only briefly. Ukraine, the sovereign nation, has existed a mere 30 years. Today’s Ukraine is considered about 75% Slavic by ethnicity, but the terms ‘Slavic’ and ‘Ukrainian’ are not an indication of a ‘pure’ genetic type, nor a people with a unified opinion of its past or its future. Thousands of years passed before people called Slavs appeared in the land now called Ukraine – thousands of years of other peoples’ occupying the land and influencing it’s identity. Even when Ukrainians were in the majority in their land, they seldom had control over their destiny; were often subject to alien rulers and ideas from every direction. Sometimes a polyglot conglomeration of ethnicities and religions lived in relative harmony, other times they slaughtered each other while competing for dominance. Today most people living within Ukraine’s borders are united in opposition to an invasion by a former ruler – a ruler they have been resisting for 300 years – as they have been resisting others for a further thousand years. Should they succeed in repelling Russia, let us hope they manage to keep their unity, celebrate the diversity contained within their ethnicity, and nurture a respect for the rights of their many minorities.