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

Cover Image: Taras Shevchenko photographed by Andrew Denyer (1859)

From imperialism to independence

In Part One, we learnt about European powers competing for control over Ukrainian territory, with a growing Russian influence, particularly in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

From 1800, Russian influence grew significantly, especially during the era of the Soviet Union, before the fall of the USSR in 1991 finally saw the emergence of Ukraine as an independent nation.

Let’s pick up the story at the end of Catherine the Great’s reign.

Russian rule and resistance

Following the death of Catherine the Great in 1796, Ukraine was not an independent state, but rather a collection of territories mostly controlled by the Russian Empire (apart from an important region in the southwest of the county which was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Catherine encouraged immigration into Ukraine from Russia, promoted the Russian language, and suppressed the Ukrainian language. This promotion of Russian values and clamp down on local culture was known as Russification.

Against this harsh Russian dominance, Ukrainian writers and intellectuals began to imagine an independent Ukraine. Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861) was a Ukrainian poet, artist and public figure who played an important role in articulating this national vision.

Shevchenko was convicted by the Russian authorities for promoting Ukrainian independence, and for ridiculing members of the Russian Imperial House. He was imprisoned in Saint Petersburg, exiled to a remote military garrison, and sent on dangerous naval expeditions by Tsar Nicholas I.

His harsh treatment showed that even in the 1850s, the notion of an independent Ukraine was totally unacceptable to the Russian elite.

Taras Shevchenko’s work was central to the creation of the Ukrainian national identity. Photographed by Andrew Denyer (1859)

Prelude to World War One

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, European powers had carved up the map of Europe amongst themselves following Napoleon’s downfall. During this process, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been granted control over a region in southwestern Ukraine.

During the 19th century, Russia and Austro-Hungary had very different visions for Ukraine’s future. The Russian Empire viewed Ukrainians as ‘Little Russians’, emphasising a shared ethnicity and a growing Russian-speaking population.

Austro-Hungary on the other hand were keen to diminish Russia’s influence on their eastern border, supporting Ukrainian independence, which was building momentum as a political movement within Ukraine.

This split alliance would have a profound impact in when war broke in 1914 between these two rival powers.

World War One

The implications of Russian and Austro-Hungarian rule created a deeply traumatic experience for the Ukrainian people during World War One.

Ukrainians found themselves on opposing armies in line with their territorial rulers. 3.5 million Ukrainians fought with the Imperial Russian Army, while 250,000 Ukrainians fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army. Many Ukrainians ended up fighting each other in a brutal conflict.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, violence in the region actually escalated further, as rival Russian factions vied for power in a devastating civil war.

Despite several attempts to form an independent Ukraine, no stability could be achieved amidst the chaos. Defeat in the Polish-Ukrainian War from 1918 – 1919 saw western Ukraine incorporated into Poland.

The Treaty of Versailles gave the Soviet Union direct control over Ukraine, which now became known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Inter-war period

In the 1920s and 1930s, a growing Ukrainian nationalist movement was met not with Russian suppression, but Polish. In Western Ukraine, the Polish government attempted to restrict the Ukrainian language and even the use of the term ‘Ukrainian’.

During the 1920s, there was also a brief period where Soviet leadership actually encouraged nationalism amongst Ukrainians, and directly promoted the Ukrainian language and culture. This was part of a wider policy of promoting Soviet-wide indigenous cultures called Korenisation.

The Bolsheviks also improved education, benefits, health care and women’s rights. These policies however, were soon to be drastically reversed in the 1930s after Joseph Stalin became leader.

A 1921 Soviet recruitment poster in the Ukrainian language using traditional Ukrainian imagery.

Stalin and starvation

As part of the Soviet’s centrally planned economy, agriculture was modernised across Ukraine and the means of production taken away from the peasantry.

Under Stalin’s brutal terms, collective farms were sometimes not allowed to receive any grain until they were able to supply unrealistically high quotas to the Soviet Union.

In a country that is now one of the largest producers of wheat in the world, mass starvation in Ukraine was almost unthinkable. Yet as a result of Stalin’s brutal orders, 3.9 million Ukrainians starved to death in a famine known as the Holodomor or the ‘Great Famine’.

This inhumane treatment of the Ukrainian people has since been recognised as a genocide. Stalin was found posthumously guilty for this atrocity at Kiev Court of Appeal in 2010.

World War Two

Following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland’s territory between themselves. Western Ukraine’s formerly Polish region became part of Ukraine and, for the first time in history, the nation was united.

Ukraine experienced Nazi occupation following Operation Barbarossa in 1941, as the Germans advanced across Ukraine.

Between 5 million to 7 million Ukrainians fought in the ranks of the Soviet Army and 1.65 million lost their lives. Over 6 million Ukrainians died during the conflict, including 1.5 million Jewish people, most notably in the Babi Yar massacre in Kiev.

A breakaway Ukrainian Insurgent Army movement arose in Western Ukraine, and carried out massacres of around 100,000 Polish people in a brutal act of ethnic cleansing.

When we consider that the UK and USA combined lost fewer than one million lives during World War Two, the lost of 6 million people was devastating for the Ukrainian people.

Soviet POWs under instruction from the Nazis to cover a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, 1 October 1941.

Soviet alliance after World War Two

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became leader of the USSR and emphasised ‘the friendship’ between the Ukrainian and Russian nations.

In 1954, Crimea was transferred from Russian to Ukrainian control. This has been described as a symbolic gesture, and Nina Khrushchev suggested, “Nikita Khrushchev was very fond of Ukraine, so to some degree it was a personal gesture toward his favourite republic”.

Ukraine became a leader in industrial production, with particular specialisation in arms production and technology, and held one third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

Leonid Brezhnev, who was of Ukrainian origin, ousted Khrushchev and became Soviet leader from 1964 – 1982, reinforcing the strong ties between the two countries.

Chernobyl disaster

On 26 April 1986, a reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, resulting in the worst nuclear reactor accident in history, with 7 million people living in the contaminated territories, 70% of whom lived in Belarus.

A total of 4,000 cancer fatalities have been estimated to have resulted from the disaster. Additionally, this terrible accident is considered to have heightened anti-Soviet feeling amongst the Ukrainian people.

End of the Soviet Union

In 1991, the Soviet Union came to an end as the Soviet economy crumbled. On 8 December, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine. An agreement was signed that officially freed the two countries from the USSR to create independent states.

Ukrainian independence was set in motion.

End of Part Two (Read Part Three)

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