Although their northern neighbours disparagingly refer to Ukrainians as ‘little Russians’, it was Ukraine that was home to the first eastern Slavic state. So historically Ukraine is the birthplace of Russia rather than vice versa. Another irony is that this initial state, Kyivan Rus, was founded in the 9th century by neither Russians nor Ukrainians, but by Vikings – an indication of just how much foreigners have meddled in the region’s convoluted history.
Invaded by Mongols from the east, encroached upon by Poland and Lithuania from the west and requisitioned by Russia from the north, Ukraine’s national culture was principally forged in the wild, Cossack-held steppes in the middle. The baton of nationalism was taken up again in the 19th century by western Ukrainians under Austro-Hungarian rule, but it took the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union for a centuries-old dream of an independent state to be realised.
Before Kyivan Rus, Ukraine’s prehistory is tribal. First came the Cimmerians in the 12th century BC. Then, fierce warrior Scythians from Central Asia settled the steppe in the 7th century BC, while Greeks from western Asia Minor established city-states around the Black Sea. The two groups formed a symbiotic relationship. The famous gold work found in Scythian tombs is believed to have been commissioned from Greek artisans; a fine collection is found in Kyiv’s Kievo-Pecherska Lavra (Caves Monastery).
Successive waves of nomadic invaders (Sarmatians from the east, Germanic Ostrogoths from northern Poland and Huns from Mongolia) continued to sweep into Ukraine. However, the Slavs, thought to originate from near the borders of present-day Poland, Belarus and northwestern Ukraine, remained untouched by these invasions. Turkic-Iranian Khazars from the Caucasus were probably the first to bring the Slavs under subjugation, in the 8th century AD.
Meanwhile, Scandinavians – known as Varangians or Rus to the Slavs – had been exploring, trading and setting up small states east of the Baltic since the 6th century AD. Travelling south from the Rus power centre of Novgorod (near modern-day St Petersburg) in 879, King Oleh stopped just long enough to declare himself ruler of Kyiv. The city handily lay between Novgorod and Constantinople on the Dnipro River, and under Oleh’s urging it became capital of a huge, unified Rus state. At its largest, under the rule of Volodymyr the Great (978–1015), this empire stretched from the Volga to the Danube and to the Baltic, its prosperity based on trade along the Dnipro. Despite Nordic rule, the territory’s underlying culture remained essentially Slavic.
As well as consolidating Rus territory, Volodymyr firmly established Orthodox Christianity as the pre-eminent religion. By accepting baptism in 989 and marrying the Byzantine emperor’s daughter (at Khersones outside Sevastopol), he opened the door to Byzantine artistic influences and cast Kyivan Rus as a European, rather than Islamic Asian, state. St Sofia’s Cathedral in Kyiv is still testament to Kyivan Rus’ greatness and the importance of Orthodox Christianity within the state.
After the death of Kyivan Rus’s last great ruler, Yaroslav the Wise, in 1054, the empire began disintegrating into separate princedoms. When Mongol warriors sacked Kyiv in 1240, it largely ceased to exist. According to Russian and Western historians, who believe present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all stem from Kyivan Rus, the centres of power then simply shifted north and west, with Russia evolving from the northern princedoms of Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal. Some Ukrainian historians, however, prefer to treat Russia as a distinct civilisation – emanating from and returning to Novgorod after 1240.
The Mongol invasion that sounded the death knell for Kyivan Rus in 1240 was led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu. As a result of his handiwork, a large swathe of the Rus empire was subsumed into the so-called Golden Horde (‘horde’ meaning region) of the Mongol empire. This encompassed much of eastern and southern Ukraine, along with parts of European Russia and Siberia, with the city of Sarai, on the Volga, as its capital.
Over time, Mongol leaders were gradually replaced by their Tatar colleagues and descendants, and when the horde began to disintegrate in the 15th century, it divided into several smaller khanates.
One of these – the Crimean Khanate – eventually became a client state of the Constantinople-based Ottoman Turk Empire in 1475. The Crimean Tatars, as the people of the khanate were known, made frequent slave raids into Ukrainian, Russian and Polish territory until the 18th century. When Russia overran Crimea in 1783, it retaliated. The Tatars suffered dreadfully and often have ever since. Reminders of their once-powerful civilisation can be seen in Bakhchysaray, which is finally becoming resurgent in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, from 1199 under the rule of Prince Roman Mstyslavych, the region of Galicia-Volynia (most of present-day western, central and northern Ukraine, plus parts of northeastern Poland and southern Belarus) became one of the most powerful within Kyivan Rus. This enclave’s geography differentiated it from the rest of the empire. It was far enough west to avoid conquest by eastern invaders like the Mongols and more likely to fall prey to its Catholic neighbours Hungary and Poland – or, later, Lithuania. More densely populated than any other part of Kyivan Rus, it developed a rich agricultural society.
Until 1340 Galicia-Volynia (also called Halych-Volhynia) enjoyed independent rule under Roman, his son Danylo, grandson Lev and descendants, who kept the Mongols at bay and helped Lviv and other cities to flourish. Political control was wrested from this local dynasty by the Poles and Lithuanians in the 1340s, who split the kingdom between them and used it as a base to expand eastwards into other areas of Ukraine, including Kyiv. However, its brief period of early self-determination seems to have left Galicia-Volynia with a particularly strong taste for Ukrainian nationalism, which is still evident.
Later lionised – perhaps overoptimistically – by nationalist writers such as Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, the Cossacks are central to the country’s identity. They arose out of the steppe in the country’s sparsely populated mid-south. In the mid-15th century, it was a kind of no-man’s-land separating the Polish-Lithuanian settlements in the northwest from the Tatars in Crimea.
However, the steppe offered abundant natural wealth, and poorer individuals in Polish-Lithuanian society began making longer forays south to hunt or forage for food. The area also attracted runaway serfs, criminals, bandits and Orthodox refugees. Along with a few semi-independent Tatar bands, the hard-drinking inhabitants formed self-governing militaristic communities and became known as kozaky (Cossacks in English), from a Turkic word meaning ‘outlaw, adventurer or free person’. The people elected the ruling chieftain (hetman). The most famous group of Cossacks was based below the rapids (za porozhy) on the lower Dnipro, in a fortified island community called the Zaporizhska Sich.
Although officially under Polish-Lithuanian rule from 1569, and sometimes joining the commonwealth army as mercenaries, the Cossacks were largely left to their own devices. They waged a number of successful campaigns against the Turks and Tatars, twice assaulting Istanbul (in 1615 and 1620) and sacking the Black Sea cities of Varna (in today’s Bulgaria) and Kaffa (modern-day Feodosiya). While millions of peasants in the Polish-Lithuanian state joined the Uniate Church, the Cossacks remained Orthodox.
As Poland tried to tighten its control in the 17th century, there were Cossack-led uprisings to try to win greater autonomy. In 1654 the Cossacks formed their own so-called Hetmanate to assert the concept of Ukrainian self-determination. While initially successful, ultimately the Cossacks’ military uprisings only led to a change of overlord – from Polish to Russian.
Without Ukraine and its abundant natural wealth, Russia never would have been such a powerful player. It also offered access to the Black Sea, so after a series of wars with the Turks in the 18th century, Russia was keen to expand into southern Ukraine. Catherine the Great led the charge to colonise and ‘Russify’. In 1775, the same year she destroyed the Zaporizhska Sich, she annexed the region to the imperial province of ‘New Russia’ and charged governor Grygory Potemkin with attracting settlers and founding new cities. Potemkin helped establish today’s Dnipropetrovsk, Sevastopol and Simferopol, but died before Odesa was completed.
In 1772 powerful Prussia, Austria and Russia decided to carve up Poland. Under the resulting Partitions of Poland (1772–95), most of western Ukraine was handed to Russia, but the far west around Lviv went to the Austrian Habsburg empire. The Ukrainian nationalist movement was born in Kyiv in the 1840s, but when the tsarist authorities there banned the Ukrainian language from official use in 1876, the movement’s focus shifted to Austrian-controlled Lviv.
Following WWI and the collapse of the tsarist monarchy, Ukraine had a shot at independence, but the international community was unsupportive and none of the bewildering array of factions could win decisive backing. In Kyiv, the first autonomous Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) was proclaimed in 1918 under president Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Meanwhile, Russian Bolsheviks set up a rival Congress of Soviets in Kharkiv. Civil war broke out, with five different armies – Red (Bolshevik), White, Polish, Ukrainian and Allied – vying for power, while various anarchist bands of Cossacks (the most famous led by Nestor Makhno) roamed the land. Author Mikhail Bulgakov estimated that Kyiv changed hands 14 times in 18 months.
Just as any UNR victories in Kyiv proved short-lived, so too did the West Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR) in Lviv. Proclaimed in October 1918, it was overrun by Polish troops the following summer. Under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles negotiated after WWI and the following Treaty of Riga in 1921, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia took portions of western Ukraine, while Soviet forces were given control of the rest. Nationalist leader Semyon Petlyura set up a government in exile, but was assassinated in Paris in 1926.
Thus handed to the Soviets, Ukraine was at the founding of the USSR in 1922. Behind Russia, it was the second largest and second most powerful republic in the union, but despite – or perhaps because of – that ‘little brother’ status, it came in for some particularly harsh bullying from the top. When Stalin took power in 1927, he looked upon Ukraine as a laboratory for testing Soviet restructuring while stamping out ‘harmful’ nationalism. In 1932–33 he oversaw a famine. Executions and deportations of intellectuals and political ‘dissidents’ followed, along with the destruction of numerous Ukrainian palaces, churches and cemeteries. During the great purges of 1937–39, an estimated one million people in the USSR were executed and a further three to 12 million (the numbers are difficult to quantify) sent to labour camps, a high proportion of them from Ukraine.
Even by the standards of Ukrainian history, WWII was a particularly bloody and fratricidal period. Caught between Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and an ongoing struggle for independence, some six to eight million Ukrainians, at least 2½ million of them Jews, were killed. Entire cities were ruined. The Red Army rolled into Polish Ukraine in September 1939, the Germans attacked in 1941, and the Nazis and their Romanian allies occupied most of the country for more than two years. Two million Ukrainians were conscripted into the Soviet army and fought on the Russian side. However, some nationalists hoped the Nazis would back Ukrainian independence and collaborated with Germany. This was a source of much post-war recrimination, but many partisans in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought both German and Russian troops in a bid for an independent state. The catacombs just outside Odesa sheltered a celebrated group of partisans.
In the end the Soviet army prevailed. In 1943 it retook Kharkiv and Kyiv – the latter on 6 November, now a national holiday – before launching a massive offensive in early 1944 that pushed back German forces. In the process any hopes for an independent Ukraine were obliterated. Soviet leader Stalin also saw fit to deport millions of Ukrainians or send them to Siberia for supposed ‘disloyalty or collaboration’. This included the entire population of Crimean Tatars in May 1944.
Towards the war’s end, in February 1945, Stalin met with British and US leaders Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta’s Livadia Palace to discuss the administration of post-war Europe, among other things. The fact that the Red Army occupied so much of Eastern Europe at the end of WWII helped the USSR hold onto it in the post-war period.
For most, WWII ended in 1945. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) continued a guerrilla existence well into the 1950s, taking pot shots at the Soviet authorities, especially in the Carpathian region. A government in exile was led by former partisan Stepan Bandera, until he was assassinated in Munich in 1959.
Elsewhere, Ukraine rapidly developed into an important cog in the Soviet machine. Eastern regions became highly industrialised, with coal and iron-ore mining around Donetsk, arms and missile industries in Dnipropetrovsk, and Dniproges, a huge hydroelectric dam near Zaporizhzhya.
While Ukraine acquired strategic technological and military importance during this era, at least one Ukrainian rose to become Soviet leader. Leonid Brezhnev graduated from metallurgy engineer to Communist Party General Secretary from 1964 to 1982. Brezhnev’s predecessor, Nikita Krushchev (Soviet leader from 1953 to 1964) was born just outside Ukraine but lived there from adolescence and styled himself as a Ukrainian. Khrushchev’s post-Stalin reformist agenda led him to create the Autonomous Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, and transfer legislative control over the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The brave new world of Soviet high tech was cruelly exposed by the nuclear disaster at the power plant Chornobyl (Chernobyl in Russian) on 26 April 1986. Ukrainians weren’t just killed, injured and appalled by the radioactive material that spewed over their countryside, but also by the way the authorities attempted to cover up the accident. The first Kremlin announcement wasn’t made until two days after the event – and only then at the prompting of Swedish authorities, who detected abnormal radiation levels over their own country.
As more information came to light, discontent over Moscow’s handling of the Chornobyl disaster revived nationalist feeling. Ukrainian independence had become a minority interest, mainly confined to the country’s west, but slowly, the hard-core in the West started to take the rest of Ukraine along with them. In 1988 marches rocked Lviv, and the Uniate Church, banned by Stalin in 1946, emerged from the underground as a pro-independence lobby. In 1989 the opposition movement Rukh (Ukrainian People’s Movement for Restructuring) was established. By 1990 protest marches and hunger strikes had spread to Kyiv.
With the nationalist movement bubbling up and the USSR disintegrating, many politicians within the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) saw the writing on the wall. After the Soviet counter-coup in Moscow in August 1991 failed, they decided that if they didn’t take their country to independence, the opposition would. So, on 24 August 1991, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) met, with speaker Stanyslav Hurenko’s wonderfully pithy announcement recorded by the Economist for posterity: ‘Today we will vote for Ukrainian independence, because if we don’t we’re in the shit.’ In December some 84% of the population voted in a referendum to back that pragmatic decision, and former CPU chairman Leonid Kravchuk was elected president.
As the new republic found its feet, there were more than the usual separation traumas from Russia. Disagreements and tensions arose, particularly over ownership of the Black Sea Fleet harboured in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. These were only resolved in 1999 by offering Russia a lease until 2017.
Economic crisis forced Kravchuk’s government to resign in September 1992. Leonid Kuchma, a pro-Russian reformer, came to power in July 1994 and stayed for 10 years.
During Kuchma’s tenure, the economy did improve. Today’s relatively stable hryvnia was introduced and inflation was brought down from a spiralling 10, 000% in 1993 to 5.2% in 2004, by which time GDP was growing at a rate of 9%. Kuchma’s reign is also remembered for its extreme cronyism. Foreign investors complained that companies being privatised were frequently sold to Ukrainian ventures with presidential connections, sometimes for well under market value, and international watchdog Transparency International named Ukraine the world’s third most-corrupt country.
One major scandal surrounded the mysterious beheading of campaigning opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000. Kuchma was widely rumoured to have ordered the killing. Although this was never proved, Gongadze became a posthumous cause célèbre.
Former central banker Viktor Yushchenko had proved too reformist and pro-European for his masters when he was Leonid Kuchma’s prime minister from 1998 to 2001. However, in 2004 as Kuchma prepared to stand down, Yushchenko re-emerged as a strong presidential contender.
Kuchma’s anointed successor, the Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, had expected an easy victory and the popularity of Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine) party looked threatening. During an increasingly bitter campaign, and seven weeks before the scheduled 31 October election, Yushchenko underwent a remarkable physical transformation – disfiguration that Austrian doctors later confirmed was the result of dioxin poisoning.
After an inconclusive first round, a second vote was held on 21 November. A day later, contrary to the exit polls and amid widespread claims of vote-rigging by overseas electoral observers, Yanukovych was declared the winner.
This was too much for Yushchenko supporters who, over the next few days and weeks, staged a show of people power unlike any Ukraine had ever seen. Despite freezing temperatures, they took to the streets, brandishing banners and clothes in the opposition’s trademark orange. They assembled to listen to Yushchenko and his powerful political ally Yulia Tymoshenko at mass rallies in Kyiv’s maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). They surrounded parliament and other government buildings and established a demonstrators’ tent city along Kyiv’s main Khreshchatyk boulevard to keep up constant pressure on the authorities.
The Yanukovych camp refused to respond to a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in the election result and his many eastern Ukrainian supporters threatened to secede if Yushchenko was declared president. Despite this, on 3 December the Supreme Court annulled the first election result, and the way was paved for a second poll on 26 December.
Viktor Yushchenko won that second election, with 52% of the vote compared to Viktor Yanukovych’s 44.2%. This result stood, despite numerous legal appeals by Yanukovych’s Partiya Regioniv (Party of the Regions), and the tent city was dismantled just in time for Yushchenko’s swearing-in on 3 January 2005.
Even with the political disillusionment that followed, the Orange Revolution was a watershed in the nation’s history. The historically passive Ukrainian population had stood up for its rights and, perhaps to its own amazement, learned it had the power to change things.
Alas, the course of true reform never did run smooth in Ukraine (to paraphrase a Time magazine observation on Russia) and anyone hoping for a fairy-tale ending would be swiftly disappointed. Less than a year after they had stood shoulder to shoulder on the maydan in Kyiv, the Orange Revolution’s heroes had fallen out with each other.
In September 2005 Yushchenko’s chief of staff resigned, alleging corruption on the part of several officials. That same month the president sacked the government of his former ally and prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. This removal of Tymoshenko, ‘Ukraine’s iron lady’, would eventually pave the way for Yushchenko’s resurgent political enemy Viktor Yanukovych to step into her prime ministerial shoes.
Every move Russia or Europe has made towards Ukraine in the post-revolutionary period played out through the prism of a polarised society. In December 2005 Moscow began demanding markedly higher prices for natural gas from Ukraine, and in January 2006 even cut off supplies in what was widely seen as punishment for Ukraine’s more pro-Western outlook (it declared that it wanted to join the EU by 2017). In June 2006 huge protests erupted when US and other NATO sailors arrived in Crimea for joint military exercises.
In elections held in March 2006 to try to break the ongoing parliamentary deadlock, Viktor Yanukovych’s party topped the poll and he became prime minister. This meant working alongside former enemy Yushchenko, whose own powers as president had now been diminished by constitutional amendments shifting greater control to parliament.
Yanukovych and the increasingly weak Yushchenko made noises about uniting the country, but their partnership just led to more bickering and a stalemate, which Yushchenko again attempted to break with a snap election in September 2007. This time Yulia Tymoshenko’s party topped the polls, but difficult coalition talks dragged out for ages, and there had to be two parliamentary votes before Tymoshenko just sneaked in for her second term as Prime Minister.
By now, ordinary folk were bored with what one analyst has termed ‘Ukrainian political porno’. Instead they were concentrating on booming business and taking pleasure in other victories, like hosting Eurovision 2005 and winning the competition to co-host (with Poland) the European Football Championships 2012.