Kyiv is the cradle of not only the Ukrainian nationhood, but also those of Russia and Belarus as well. This has created a range of highly politicised interpretations and heated arguments about what came first: Ukraine or Russia? The irony, though, is that the original east Slavic state was actually founded in the 9th century by the Vikings who gave the name of their tribe to the country, which thus became known as Kyivan Rus.

Cimmerians to Khazars

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 Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra.

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.

Kyivan Rus

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 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’ 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. The centres of power then simply shifted north and west, with the Muscovite kingdom evolving from the northern princedom of Vladimir-Suzdal to eventually transform in what is now know as Russia. Another stronghold of Eastern Slavic statehood continued to evolve as the Princedom of Halych in the part of western Ukraine, currently known as Halychyina or Galicia.

Mongols, Tatars & Turks

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 now vanished 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 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, large number of the Tatars fled to the Ottoman empire and they gradually turned into a minority. Reminders of their once-powerful civilisation can be seen in the old capital of Bakhchysaray.


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 today.


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, this area 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 porohamy) on the lower Dnipro, in a fortified island community called the Zaporizhya Sich.

Although they were officially under Polish-Lithuanian rule from 1569, and sometimes joined the commonwealth army as mercenaries, the Cossacks were, for the most part, 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.

Russian Control

It's safe to say that without Ukraine and its abundant natural wealth, Russia would never have become such a powerful nation. Ukraine 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. At the same time, the Western-educated Cossack nobility, now firmly incorporated into the Russian ruling class, was at the forefront of empire building, modernising the state and reforming the Orthodox Church.

Under the Russian rule, Ukraine saw an unprecedented economic boom which made thousands of peasants flee poverty and religious persecution in the Polish-controlled lands. The growth was largely precipitated by the empire expanding into the sparsely populated steppe in the eastern and southern parts of what is now Ukraine. Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks were the largest group of colonists, followed by Jews, Germans, Greeks and Bulgarians, invited by the crown to cultivate the phenomenally productive land, which soon became known as the 'bread basket of Europe'.

This came at a price for the Ukrainian national idea, when in 1775 Catherine the Great ordered to destroy its last stronghold, the Zaporizhska Sich. The newly acquired lands in the present day Ukraine's southeast became the imperial province of Novorossia (New Russia), a term that was recycled in 2014, when Moscow set up puppet statelets in parts of the same territory. The first governor of Novorossia, Catherine's lieutenant (and lover) Grygory Potemkin, embarked on establishing new cities, such as Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipro), 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.

Civil War

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.

Soviet Power

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, with its own autonomous Communist Party, which initially conducted the policy of 'ukrainization', encouraging the expansion of Ukrainian language into political and cultural spheres. That ended with Stalin starting to stamp out what he called 'bourgeois nationalism' and eventually precipitating a famine, which the official Kyiv nowadays describes as a deliberate genocidal policy aimed at destroying Ukrainians as an ethnic group, even though similar man-made famines had been orchestrated by the Bolsheviks in Russia. Executions and deportations of intellectuals and political ‘dissidents’ followed. 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, many of them from Ukraine.

At the same time, 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 industries in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), and Dniproges, a huge hydroelectric dam near Zaporizhzhya.

Meanwhile in western Ukraine, now controlled by Poland, liberal nationalists were losing ground to radicals inspired by Mussolini's fascism and were adopting a tactics of terror attacks against the Polish authorities and Ukrainian moderates. Pro-Moscow Communists were also very strong, especially in Zakarpattia region, controlled by Czechoslovakia.


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 1.6 million of them Jews, were killed. Entire cities were levelled. 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 Soviet side. However, some nationalists hoped the Nazis would back Ukrainian independence and collaborated with Germany. These are often accused of playing a role in the Holocaust and of engineering what is known as Volyn massacre, an extermination campaign that targeted ethnic Poles.

All of this is a source of much postwar recrimination (and a very ill-informed 'debate' still occasionally flares up today when its suits the political aims of one group or another), but many partisans in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought both German and Soviet troops in a bid for an independent state.

In the end the Soviet army prevailed. In 1943 it retook Kharkiv and Kyiv 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 thousands 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 postwar 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 postwar period.

Postwar Period

For most, WWII ended in 1945. However, 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.

Ukraine acquired strategic technological and military importance during this era, and at least one Ukrainian rose to become a Soviet leader. Leonid Brezhnev graduated from metallurgy engineer to Communist Party General Secretary from 1964 to 1982. Brezhnev’s predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev (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 Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Despite that, the process of 'Russification', which involved squeezing Ukrainian language out of the public sphere, rapidly accelerated under Volodymir Shcherbitsky who led the Ukrainian Communist Party from 1972 till 1989.

Nationalism Reappears

The rotten underbelly of Soviet high-tech was cruelly exposed by the nuclear disaster at the power plant Chornobyl on 26 April 1986. Ukrainians weren’t just killed and injured by the radioactive material that spewed over their countryside, but also appalled 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. However, by then Kyiv was awash with rumours that something was afoot and many promptly decamped to the Carpathians and Crimea as fast as they could.

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 hardcore in the west started to take the rest of Ukraine with them. In 1988 marches rocked Lviv, and the Uniate Church, banned by Stalin in 1946, emerged from the underground as a proindependence 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.

Independent Ukraine

With the nationalist movement snowballing and the USSR disintegrating, many politicians within the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) saw the writing on the wall. After the Soviet countercoup 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, controversially extended by the new government in 2010 to 2042.

Economic crisis forced Kravchuk’s government to resign in September 1992. Leonid Kuchma, a Soviet-styled rocket factory manager, came to power in July 1994 and stayed for 10 years. He abstained from applying shock therapy reforms, like the liberals in charge of the Russian government, which earned him respect from much of the population that lingers today.

During Kuchma’s tenure, the economy gradually improved. The hryvnya was introduced and inflation was lowered 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 often 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 Honhadze in 2000. Kuchma was widely rumoured to have ordered the killing. Although this was never proved, Honhadze became a posthumous cause célèbre.

The Orange Revolution

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 but 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.

Over the next few days and weeks Yushchenko supporters 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 Sq). They surrounded parliament and established a demonstrators’ tent city along Kyiv’s main Khreshchatyk boulevard to keep up pressure on the authorities.

The Yanukovych camp refused to respond to a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the election result and his 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, which Yushchenko won. The tent city was dismantled just in time for Yushchenko’s swearing in on 3 January 2005.

The Orange Glow Fades

Alas, the course of true reform never did run smoothly 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 Maidan in Kyiv, the Orange Revolution’s heroes had fallen out with each other.

Anyone able to follow the ins and outs of Ukraine's political scene after the Orange Revolution probably should have got out more. In the late noughties, the blonde-braided Yulia Tymoshenko, a weak president Yushchenko and a resurgent Viktor Yanukovych engaged in an absurd political soap opera featuring snap elections, drawn-out coalition deals, fisticuffs in parliament and musical chairs in the prime minister’s office. At the same time, the promise of stamping out corruption were never delivered – cronyism flourished, only with new actors.

Russia turned off the gas at opportune moments and the West got bored and moved on. The upshot was complete disillusionment with the Orange Revolution among the population and Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in the April 2010 presidential elections.

Yanukovych Years

Many feared that upon coming to power Yanukovych and his oligarch-backed, east-based Party of the Regions – allegedly behind the electoral fraud that sparked the Orange Revolution – would begin to gnaw away at democracy, press freedom and human rights. The new president confirmed everyone’s misgivings in 2011 when Yulia Tymoshenko was put on trial for abuse of office (basically for signing a 2009 gas deal with Russia that annoyed a few wealthy regime string pullers). This was seen in the West and by most commentators as nothing short of a political show trial and a successful attempt by the new regime to rid itself of any meaningful opposition. Intimidation of critical journalists, provocative language laws sceptically brought to parliament just two days after the Euro 2012 final (ensuring the country didn’t stay united for too long), jailing of other members of the previous government, inaction on corruption and a whole list of controversial laws and provocative campaigns have followed.

In late 2013, president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) led to huge protests in Kyiv and Lviv (as well as other west Ukrainian cities), which became known as the Maidan. In the course of winter, the protests grew into an urban warfare between riot police and hired thugs on the government side and a ragtag urban guerrilla army on the other. More than a hundred people died in clashes which eventually forced president Yanukovych to flee. Tymoshenko's allies Oleksandr Turchynov and Arseniy Yatsenyuk were appointed acting president and prime minister respectively.

Annexation of Crimea

Before Ukraine could take a breath, Russian special troops aided by local riot policemen started taking over government buildings and military facilities in Crimea. Locals, the majority of whom were ethnic Russians, either hailed the developments or remained apathetic. Only Crimean Tatars and a handful of Ukrainian activists attempted to voice their disagreement.

In the blink of an eye, Crimea had a new, Russia-backed government, which conducted a hastily organised ‘referendum’ on 16 March 2014. The new leaders claimed that 97% of the participants voted for the region to join Russia. A few days later Moscow formally incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation. This largely peaceful takeover drew comparisons with the annexation of Sudetenland by Hitler in 1938.

War in the East

Towards the end of March 2014, groups of militants and pro-Russian activists started attacking government buildings in various places across Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking southeast. In most places – most notably in Kharkiv – the government, aided by powerful members of business elites and nationalist paramilitaries, managed to quell the unrest. But events took a particularly nasty turn in Donbas region, where a heavily armed band led by Russian officer Igor Girkin seized the town of Slovyansk, which became the capital of an armed rebellion that instantly spread in much of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The rebels proclaimed 'people's republics' in these regions, which became a magnet for Ukrainian anti-Maidan paramilitaries and Russian irrendentists.

In response, the Kyiv government moved troops into the region, launching what it called an antiterrorist operation that soon degraded into a full-out war, involving tanks and heavy artillery.

In May 2014, the confectionery magnate and moderately pro-Maidan politician Petro Poroshenko was elected the president of Ukraine. He campaigned on the promise of ending the conflict with Russia – something he was in no position to deliver, because Moscow evidently had other plans.

In summer, the government efforts to revitalise the badly underfunded and demoralised army bore fruit. It started advancing on the rebels and seized Slovyansk. In July, a rocket widely believed to have been shot from a rebel position destroyed a Malaysian airliner, killing all passengers on board. The tragedy alerted Western governments to the situation in Ukraine and encouraged them to increase pressure on Russia.

But Moscow responded by beefing up the rebel force with modern hardware and sending whole units of professional soldiers (barely disguised as volunteers), thus inflicting a series of humiliating defeats on the Ukrainian army and forcing Ukraine to engage in peace talks that became known as the Minsk process.

The armistice agreements achieved in Minsk never succeeded in stopping the hostilities, but they turned the conflict into a low-intensity trench warfare, which still claims lives of both soldiers and civilians. More than 10,000 people died in the war, with no end on the horizon at the time of writing.