A brief history of Ukraine (Part One) - History Bombs
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A brief history of Ukraine (Part One)


Cover Image: The Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir in Crimea by Russian painter, Viktor Vasnetsov (1890)

What’s in a name?

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was commonly referred to as “the Ukraine”, a name derived from an ancient word meaning “the borderland”.

After independence in August 1991, the Ukrainian government declared the country would henceforth be called “Ukraine”, and drop the article.

Linguistically, this was appropriate as articles do not exist in the Ukrainian language. Yet there was a far more powerful reason for the change.

“The” defined the country in the context of a former ruler, as a component of the Soviet Union. Dropping the article was an assertion of autonomy; the emergence of a sovereign state stepping proudly onto on the global stage.

Viewing Ukraine in this context, however, as a “borderland” at the intersection of Western Europe and Russia, helps us to understand much of the country’s history, and can shed light on the conflict we see in the 21st century.

Kievan Rus’ (879 – 1240)

Long before the creation of modern European states, Kiev was capital to a powerful empire.

During the 10th and 11th centuries, Kiev was the most important seat of power in Eastern Europe, and it might surprise you to learn that the rulers of this iconic dynasty were actually descended from Swedish Vikings.

Whilst interpretation is disputed, according to Rus’ Primary Chronicle (thought to be written in Kiev by a monk called Nestor in 1113), a Viking chieftan called Rurik was invited to command over rival tribes in Eastern Europe. Rurik is believed to have been a member of the Rus’ people, originally from eastern Sweden.

Rurik founded a dynasty that comprised many Northern and Eastern European territories. Upon Rurik’s death, his successor, Oleg, captured the city of Kiev and moved the capital from Novgorod in modern-day Russia to Kiev, thus leading to the empire being named Kievan Rus’.

The Norsemen integrated with native Slavic, Baltic and Finnic tribes, and ultimately adopted Old East Slavic as their common language.

Russia, Belarus and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus’ as their cultural heritage. Indeed Belarus and Russia derive their names from this iconic empire.

A map showing the boundaries of Kievan Rus’ circa 1054 overlaying a modern map of Europe including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Vladimir I and Orthodox Christianity

Vladimir I, also known as Vladimir the Great, brought Orthodox Christianity to Kievan Rus’ in 988.

A descendant of Rurik, Vladimir ruled Kievan Rus’ from 980 – 1015. Initially a pagan, by the late 980s Vladimir considered it necessary to adopt a monotheistic belief and sent his envoys around the world to assess the world’s most important religions.

Following a plea for assistance from Byzantine Emperor Basil II who was facing a revolt, Vladimir agreed to help in exchange for marriage to Basil II’s sister, Anna. Marriage between a Byzantine princess and a pagan Slav was unprecedented, however Basil agreed on the condition that Vladimir converted to Christianity.

The Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir in Crimea by Russian painter, Viktor Vasnetsov (1890)

In 988, Vladimir captured the Greek town of Korsun in Crimea, which held much strategic significance, and it was here that he was baptised. Today the location is marked by St Vladimir Cathedral in the south of Crimea.

Upon returning to Kiev, Vladimir instructed residents to join a mass baptism in the Dnieper river, representing the Christianization of Kievan Rus’.

The baptism of Vladimir has become central to national mythology, not only for Ukraine but for Russia and Belarus also. One thousand years later, Orthodox Christianity remains the dominant religion in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Mongolian, Polish and Lithuanian rule

Following a Golden Age during the 10th and 11th centuries, Kievan Rus’ disintegrated.

As Rus’ power diminished, the capital itself fell to Mongolian ruler, Batu Khan, in the Siege of Kiev in 1240, resulting in Mongolian control of Galacia-Volhynia, which was predominantly located in modern-day western Ukraine and Belarus.

Mongolian authority continued until 1349, with Polish conquest and the incorporation of the territory into the Kingdom of Poland. Meanwhile, the heartland of Rus’, including Kiev itself, came under the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Ultimately, much of Ukraine became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Separately, the region of Crimea was controlled by Tatars between 1441 – 1783. Tatars are a vast ethnic group of Turkish origin. Notably, the Russian Empire defied a non-interference treaty to illegally annex Crimea in 1783.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent in 1619 overlaying a modern map of Europe. Note that Crimea in the south-east is excluded.

A Cossack state with Russian support

Life under Polish rule was extremely harsh for many in modern-day Ukraine. Suppression of the Orthodox Church and terrible conditions for peasants by Polish nobility resulted in a large uprising, led by the Cossacks.

The Cossacks were a group of self-governing communities native to modern-day Eastern Ukraine and Russia. Primarily Orthodox Christians, Cossacks have played a significant role in political and military activity in Eastern Europe for centuries.

In 1648, a Cossack attack under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky took Kiev and establishing a Cossack state, or Hetmanate, in what is now central Ukraine.

A map of Cossack Hetmanate of 1654 overlaying a modern map of Ukraine.

The rebellion relied upon support from his Tatar allies, yet in 1651 the Tatars deserted the cause, resulting in a crushing Cossack defeat to Poland at the Battle of Berestechko.

In need of a powerful ally, Khmelnytsky formed a military and political alliance with the Russian tsar and acknowledged loyalty to Russia.

From 1657 – 1686, Ukraine saw 30 years of devastating conflict between Russia, Poland, the Crimean Tatars, the Ottoman Empire and Cossacks. The escalating war resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and became known as “The Ruin”.

Finally, a peace treaty between Russia and Poland divided the Cossack Hetmanate between both powers in 1686, with Kiev annexed by Moscow.

The rise of ‘Russification’

During the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721) with the Swedish Empire, Russia was again at war over control of Ukraine. Russia’s Tsar, Peter the Great, recognised that Cossack and Ukrainian aspirations for independence threatened the ability of Russia to consolidate political and economic power.

This premise has been central to Russia’s view of Ukraine for centuries; a belief that Ukraine is rightfully a part of Russia, and an independent Ukraine presents a fundamental challenge to Russian prosperity.

Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great continued this process following the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), encouraging immigration into Ukraine, and especially to Crimea, to replace the predominantly Turkish population.

Following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empire in 1783, part of Eastern Ukraine was renamed ‘New Russia’ and settled by Ukrainians and Russians.

Through the process of ‘Russification’, which would later be witnessed in a number of countries, the Ukrainian language was suppressed, with Russian language and culture strongly promoted.

End of Part One (Read Part Two)

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