Short History of Ukraine
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.
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
Between the two world wars
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 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.
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.
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.
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