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Short History of Ukraine


       Ukraine (population – 48 million) is an Eastern European country on the Black Sea. Located between the Capartian mountains and the southern steppes of Eurasia, Ukraine is naturally irrigated and has what is soft considered the most fertile soil in Europe. The blue and yellow striped flag, representing blue skies and endless wheat fields, as well as the country’s name, meaning ‘border’ or ‘edge’, show a lot about this former Socialist Republic of the USSR. Ukraine has the biggest land area of all European states1. The history of this thousnd-year-old nation is not very well known among western Europeans, even though it is critical in the context European history


From the first Slavs to the Kingdom of Rus'

       Slavic tribes settled the lands in the north of Ukraine, near today’s Polish and Belarusian borders, in the 7th and 8th centuries. Located at the crossroads of the Scandinavian and Byzantine Empires and also between the Caspian Sea and Central Europe, the Slavs were subjected to the influence of the Vikings and Varangian. Kyiv was created and developed by and round these people (Oleh, 878). Constantinople also had an influence on this kingdom, most notably through the Christianization of Rus’ in 9882. As a result, the kingdom became a high place of orthodox Christianity.

        This flourishing kingdom reached its peak in the Middle Ages, at which point it fell into feudalism, as was typical all across Europe. The kingdom was the theater of succession claims disputes leading to several civil war3. The Kyivan state, unable to secure its land, was invaded by Tatars in 1240, but the Galicia and Volhyn districts remained autonomous, allowing for a certain degree political and cultural continuity. One century later, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, progressively conquered the territory of Ukraine at a time of great expansion, pushing out the Mongols.

        It is important to note that when the Mongols invaded, there was a split in the Slavic tribes: some went north and became the Muscovy as well as the ancestors of nowadays Belorussians. That is to say, Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians share the common legacy of this period.



A history under foreign domination 


       In the following period, the Ukrainian nation was mostly dependent on the great powers that surrounded it. Its history was (and is) determined by its geographical position. Located between the powerful Russia and Poland, Ukraine could not escape allegiance to one or the other in order to preserve its existence. By the 17th century, it would be seen as a small part of the Russian Empire. The Cossack Uprising against the Polish Crown led to the creation of the Hetmanat in 1648 by Bohdan Khemlnytskyj. He signed the Pereiaslav Treaty with Russia in 1654 in resistance to Polish and Tatar pressure. However, this treaty, which ensured the autonomy of Ukraine, became obsolete under Peter the Great and Catherine II.

        During the subsequent centuries, Ukrainians would be subjected to the vicious fights between the great powers of the region. The Andrusovo Peace Agreement in 1667 led to the first co-occupation of Ukrainian territory by Poland and Russia. However, after Poland was divided in the 18th century, Western Ukraine fell under Austro-Hungarian domination, while the Eastern part remained under Russian rule.


The 20th century 


         Ukraine’s situation changed in the aftermath of the First World War with the breaking down of both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires: an independent Ukraine finally arose after several centuries of imperialism. However, from the ruins of the two empires were born not one, but two different republics: the National Republic of Ukraine (Kyiv) and the National Republic of Western Ukraine. It was only in 1919 that a unification plan was put forth, too late to allow Ukraine to maintain its independence. As well, its troubled history and lack of national defense made difficult the emergence of a strong state able to cope with the instability of the period difficult.


Between the two world wars

      Ukraine’s short-lived independence deteriorated in March 1921 with the signing of the Riga Treaty which ended the fight between the Russian and Polish armies, and split Ukrainian territory between them4. The majority of Ukraine became a socialist Republic of the Soviet Union, enjoying a certaindegree of autonomy, at least on paper.

        After a relative tolerance from Moscow towards the Ukrainian culture – tolerance aiming to “convince” the population mostly peasantry of the well founded proletarian revolution, occurred the Stalinist repression with its fate of purges and famines. In his fight against bourgeoisie and peasantry, he tried hard to repress all kind of identity or religious affirmation – deporting or executing 4/5 of the Ukrainian elite. To bring into line the peasantry which resisted to the collectivization, exceptional and unworkable quotas of production were established on harvests. This policy turned dramatically and led to the biggest drama in Ukrainian history : the Holodomor. Those famines caused the death of more than 7 millions of Ukrainian between 1932 and 1933 and are still not recognized by Russian government.



The Second World War

               The events preceding the Second World War prompted Ukrainian nationalists’ push for independence. Carpathian Ukraine was the first to declare independence in 1939, before being invaded by Hungary. Later, in June 1941, A Ukrainian State was proclaimed by the OUN, but its leaders were executed or exiled by the Germans shortly thereafter. After the reversal of the Nazi-Soviet alliance by Nazi Germany, Ukraine became a mere theater for German-Russian conflict. The Nazis invaded the Soviet army on the lands of Ukraine in the summer of 1941 (Lviv in June; Kyiv in September; the Crimea in July of 1942).
        The Ukrainian people were also victim to the extermination policy of the Nazi regime. Around 1.5 million Jews were executed in a two year span in Ukraine and more than 2 million forced laborers were from Ukraine. In addition, the greater part of many towns’ harvests were confiscated, which led to another famine. The Red Army started to regain control of Ukraine in late 1943 and Stalin hurried to repress nationalists considered Nazi collaborators. The Soviet regime also deported 250 000 Tatars of Crimea in a two day span for the same reason. The Second World War was particularly hard for Ukrainians; causalities are estimated at around 6 million victims and the country was left totally devastated. That being said, the borders set at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 – the same borders that remain to this day – gathered for the first time all Ukrainian people under one nation.

The Soviet period

         After Stalin died, de-Stalinization was initiated by Khrushchev to allow for the development of heavy industry (a sector in which Ukraine surpassed previous records), coal mining, agriculture, and even as Ukrainian culture and identity. However, this cultural renewal was limited by a counterproductive repression policy. Indeed, the Ukrainian KGB, known to be the toughest in Soviet Union, suppressed all nationalist claims, unacceptable due to the prosperity of Ukraine, the fruits of which were being reaped by the Soviet Union.

        The Brezhnev era was marked by a period of political stagnation and economic decline. Grain importation became necessary to feed the Ukrainian people. Repression of dissidents increased greatly. Some historians believe that deportation of Ukrainian nationalists to gulags only strengthened their convictions and endowed them with concrete political claims.

       Perestroika (reorganization) and glasnost (transparency) undertaken by the Gorbachev administration in the 1980s quelled the fears of many Ukrainians rather than cementing the communist regime. Finally, political protest would be possible within the Union.

The independence

          Though Ukraine followed in the footsteps of other states from the soviet bloc such as Poland and Lithuania, there are four characteristics specific to Ukraine.

        Following the Chernobyl disaster on the 26th of April 1986, the Ukrainian population was indignant; the government’s incompetence and disregard to the well-being of its people became obvious. At this point, communist ideology was beginning to fall into disrepute with the establishment of progressive political debate and the recognition of the fabrication of the Great Famine by many countries.

      Secondly, there were two nationalist movements in 1989 that played a fundamental role: the Shevchenko Scientific society and the Rukh movement. The latter enjoyed electoral success in its support of the independent 'Democratic Bloc' during Supreme Soviet elections of March 1990. However, the independents remained a minority and it was only due to an alliance with a part of the communist elite that they persevered.

      It was actually under the pressure of student movements and other forms of street protest in Kyiv in the autumn of 1990 that this one part of communists, displeased with perestroika, joined the the independents and made a vote for independence possible. The declaration of Sovereignty, which was passed on July 16th, 1990, was one of the last of the ex-USSR. The role played by certain communists in the assertion of Ukrainian independence allowed for a peaceful transition, but it also ensured that they maintained control of government institutions even after independence.

      Finally, the declaration of Independence, voted on unanimously by Parliament on the 24th of August 1991, superseded the rule of the Communist Party and marked Ukrainian as the official language in official statute of the newly independent country. This independence was confirmed on a larger scale by the referendum of 1st December 1991, which granted Ukraine international recognition. L. Kravchuk, former member of the 'pro-sovereignty' faction of the Communist Party, was elected President of Ukraine on the same day.

Blandine Screve

1Considering Europe in a restrictive way, without Russia and Turkey.

2Conversion of the Prince Volodymyr after his wedding with a byzantine Princess.

3From 1054 to 1224, no fewer than 64 principalities had more or less ephemeral existence, 293 princes put forward succession claims, and their disputes led to 83 civil wars.

4Except Bukovina attached to Romania and the Ruthenia conceded to the Czechoslovakia

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  • : Mémoires Vives
  • Mémoires Vives
  • : Ce blog vise à faire découvrir l'Ukraine, ses paysages, sa culture et sa mémoire - notamment celle de la communauté juive de Lviv. This blog aim at the discovery of Ukraine, its landscapes, its culture and its memory - especially the one of the Jewish Community of Lviv.
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