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

In Part Two, we learned about the difficult and tragic events that the people of Ukraine faced in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ukrainian language and culture was violently suppressed by the ruling Russian Empire; a man-made famine under Joseph Stalin’s Soviet leadership killed millions of people; and two world wars set Ukrainians on opposing sides. The armed conflicts and genocide of World War Two – some of it carried out directly by Ukrainians in the shadow of Nazi occupation – led to the deaths of even more people than the famine of the 1930s.

After nearly five decades of post-war Soviet rule from Russia, the collapse of the USSR suddenly left Ukraine as an independent country. Would this remade nation finally catch a break from centuries of violence and struggle?

East meets West

In December 1991, 31 million Ukrainians voted in a referendum on their country’s future. Overall, 92% said ‘yes’ to the Declaration of Independence.

But the numbers were different in the east of the country: in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions ‘yes’ received 83% of the vote, and in Crimea only 55%, far lower than in Ukraine’s central and western regions.

These figures show us an important tension in Ukraine’s sense of identity.

A significant number of people in the east of the country see Ukraine as sharing its history with Russia. Some even believe that Ukraine would be stronger if it joined with Russia, and see past examples of this in the Russian Empire and USSR.

However, in the central and western parts of Ukraine, this view is widely seen as wrong or even offensive. Supporters of Ukrainian nationalism say that their language and culture had to survive centuries of Russian oppression, and these things still need protection from ‘Russification’ today.

Ukrainian nationalism is often (though not always) linked to a pro-European political outlook. This sees Ukraine as one indepedent country among many, co-operating with its western neighbours in the European continent, and with the USA, for trade and self-defence.

Since achieving independence, Ukraine’s leaders have swung between these eastern and western ambitions, with difficult consequences.

Ukrainian Independence referendum results 1991. The darker the green, the more support for independence

The ‘Trolley President’

The first president of independent, post-USSR Ukraine was Leonid Kravchuk. He wanted Ukraine to work more closely with Europe and the USA.

There were still many Soviet nuclear warheads stationed in Ukraine in the early 1990s. Kravchuk signed agreements with the USA and Russia to get rid of these nuclear weapons, in exchange for large loans to the Ukrainian government, and help with security and defence. Some of these weapons were put out of action (decommissioned), while others were kept operational, and transferred to Russian territory.

Kravchuk kept peace in Ukraine when many other post-Soviet countries were descending into civil wars. However, there was widespread corruption among the elite under his leadership, and this had a disastrous effect on the economy.

Like in many post-Soviet countries, the large state-owned industries were sold to politicians and their friends for very cheap prices. These new private owners often kept and hid most of the business’s profits for themselves, sold off machinery and land to make quick income, and underpaid or sacked their workers.

This process led to massive downturns in productivity, and created a new class of post-Soviet oligarchs, who are among the world’s wealthiest people today. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, and a culture of bribery and graft kept them from the reach of the law. The Ukrainian economy shrank up to 40% by the mid 1990s.

Poverty was very common. The near-empty hand trolleys that were wheeled around by impoverished Ukrainians became a symbol of this decline, and were nicknamed ‘Kravchuchkas’ (little Kravchuks).

The Trolley President was defeated at the next election by another Leonid – his former ally, Prime Minister Kuchma.

Sculpture by Anna Kiseleva, ‘Babka with Kravchuchka’, Kyiv

Cassette Scandal

President Leonid Kuchma wanted Ukraine to work more closely with Russia. He didn’t like being criticised. Well-known opposition leaders and journalists died in suspicious circumstances during his two terms in office. Privatisation of industry and agriculture continued, and the economy shrank further.

Then came the Cassette Scandal in 2000.

In secret recordings taken by a bodyguard, Kuchma could be heard ordering the kidnapping of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. Gongadze had disappeared days later and was murdered by Ukrainian police.

These revelations shocked Ukrainian society and led to mass protests.

The recordings also suggested that Kuchma was transferring weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which worsened his relations with the USA and other western countries. As a result, Kuchma pushed Ukraine’s trade and security alliances further towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Orange Revolution

Ukrainian people’s mistrust in the government prompted even bigger protests in 2004. That year’s presidential election was widely seen as rigged, handing victory to Kuchma’s pro-Russia ally Viktor Yanukovych. Thousands of people demonstrated in favour of his opponent, the pro-European Viktor Yushchenko, whose campaign colour was orange.

After ten days of massive demonstrations and strikes, Ukraine’s Supreme Court ruled that there would be a re-run of the vote. Yushchenko won decisively.

The Orange Revolution was one of the first mass political movements in the world to use mobile phones and the internet as tools for organising and sharing information. Ukrainian society was modernising and growing more assertive from the grassroots.

Euromaidan Protestor, February 2014, photographed by Iana Zholud


Yushchenko spoke in favour of Ukraine becoming a member of the EU and NATO. However, his presidency made little progress, held up by in-fighting among leaders who had previously been allies during the Orange Revolution.

In the 2010 election he was roundly defeated by his old rival Yanukovych, who commanded strong support in the more pro-Russian eastern and southern regions.

In 2013, under Russian pressure, the Yanukovych government refused to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. This decision, and the imprisonment of his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko, led to Ukraine’s biggest ever protest movement.

For nearly four months, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians occupied public spaces and called for closer ties with the EU, in the face of police brutality that killed dozens of people.

The focal point was Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. ‘Euromaidan’ was a twitter hashtag used to organise protests across the country, which became a byword for the movement and its pro-European, Ukrainian nationalist values.

In February 2014, Yanukovych fled to exile in Russia.

The deep east-west tensions of post-Soviet Ukraine came to a head. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. The eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared breakaway republics, backed by the Russian military.

In May, the rest of Ukraine elected a new president – the Chocolate King.

The ‘Chocolate King’

Billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko had supported Euromaidan with donations to political groups and sympathetic coverage on the popular TV channel he owned, 5 Kanal. His confectionary company Roshen earned him his nickname – but his time in office was anything but sweet.

From 2014 Poroshenko’s government led the war against Russia-backed separatists in Crimea and eastern regions, with little territorial gain on either side. 29 different ceasefire agreements failed to put an end to the violence.

Corruption in government and business continued, despite modest efforts at reform.

As in 2004 and 2014, many Ukrainians took to the internet to find a new way forward. There they saw Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Acting up

Zelenskiy’s leadership of Ukraine is ongoing at the time of writing. He first became famous as an actor – notably in TV series ‘Servant of the People’, playing a history teacher who becomes president of Ukraine after his anti-corruption rant goes viral. Zelenskiy himself being elected president by a landslide in 2019, with a campaign that made canny use of social media, is an obvious example of life imitating art.

Before 2022 he made some progress in fighting corruption by removing legal immunity for lawmakers and creating a public register of oligarch’s business interests. These partial achievements might well be overshadowed in history by his actions during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the resulting war on Ukrainian territory.

President Zelenskiy in the Donetsk region, 2021

Do the Russians want war?

In a direct address to the Russian people on the eve of the invasion, Zelenskiy quoted the 1961 song ‘Do The Russians Want War?’.

Written by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and composer Eduard Kolmanovsky, this popular song references the massive Russian death toll of WW2, the peaceful meeting of Russian and American troops at the Elbe River in April 1945, and the wisdom of Russian workers who have suffered the realities of war.

For now, Putin seems to have convinced many Russians that they do indeed want his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Zelenskiy has become the international symbol of Ukrainian resistance, using his skills as a speaker to gain financial and military support from Europe and the USA.

The war’s outcome is currently uncertain, and the fact of a major military conflict in Europe has shocked some onlookers. But to Ukrainians, the Russian trail of destruction, war crimes, mass displacements and cultural suppression might look all too familiar. The 21st century is not exempt from longstanding tensions of the past.

End of Part Three (Go back and read Part One here)

Learn more about the Cold War


Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World – Tom Burgis, Harper Collins, September 2020

‘How the war has robbed Ukraine’s oligarchs of political influence’ – Isobel Koshiw, The Guardian 23/7/2022 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/23/ukraine-oligarchs-russia-war-influence

Cover Image: On 21 Jan 1990, an estimated 450,000 Ukrainians formed a human chain to demonstrate unity on the path to independence. (Credit: Radio Svoboda)

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