Ukraine

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Ukraine is a country located in Eastern Europe, making it the second-largest European nation after Russia, which borders it to the east and northeast. It also shares borders with Belarus to the north, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the west, and Romania and Moldova to the southwest. Ukraine has coastlines along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to the south and southeast. The capital and largest city is Kyiv, followed by Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Odesa. The official language is Ukrainian, though Russian is widely spoken, particularly in the eastern and southern regions.

In the Middle Ages, Ukraine was a center of early Slavic expansion and became a significant part of East Slavic culture through the establishment of Kyivan Rus’ in the 9th century. This state fragmented into competing powers and fell to the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Over the next 600 years, the region was divided and ruled by several external powers, including the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austrian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Tsardom of Russia. The 17th century saw the rise of the Cossack Hetmanate in central Ukraine, noted as “Ukraine, land of the Cossacks,” but it was eventually partitioned between Russia and Poland and absorbed by the Russian Empire. Ukrainian nationalism grew, and after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic was established. The Bolsheviks then took control, forming the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of the Soviet Union from 1922. In the early 1930s, the Holodomor, a man-made famine, resulted in millions of Ukrainian deaths. During World War II, the German occupation led to the deaths of 7 million Ukrainian civilians, including most of the Jewish population.

Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed and adopted a new constitution in 1996. The Euromaidan protests in 2014 led to a change in government. Following this, Russia annexed Crimea, and conflict erupted in the Donbas region between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces. In 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Throughout the conflict, Ukraine has sought closer relations with the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

Ukraine is a unitary state with a semi-presidential republic system of government. It is classified as a developing country and is the poorest in Europe by nominal GDP per capita, with significant issues of corruption. Despite these challenges, Ukraine’s fertile land made it one of the world’s largest grain exporters before the war. It is considered a major middle power, possessing the sixth-largest and one of the best-funded armed forces globally. The Ukrainian military also operates a large and diverse drone fleet. Ukraine is a founding member of the United Nations and a member of the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization, and the OSCE. It is currently seeking membership in the European Union and has applied to join NATO.

Etymology and Orthography

The name “Ukraine” is often derived from the old Slavic term for “borderland,” similar to the word “Krajina.” Another interpretation suggests that “Ukraine” simply means “region” or “country.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, English speakers commonly referred to Ukraine as “the Ukraine,” whether it was independent or not. This usage stemmed from the word “Ukraina” meaning “borderland,” making the definite article “the” seem natural in English. This is akin to how “Nederlanden,” meaning “low lands,” is rendered as “the Netherlands” in English. However, since Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, this usage has become politically sensitive and less common. Modern style guides now advise against using “the Ukraine.” U.S. Ambassador William Taylor has noted that saying “the Ukraine” implies a disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty. The official stance of Ukraine is that “the Ukraine” is both grammatically and politically incorrect.

History

Evidence of human activity in Ukraine dates back 1.4 million years, with stone tools from Korolevo in western Ukraine being the earliest securely dated evidence of hominins in Europe. Modern human settlement in Ukraine and its vicinity began around 32,000 BC, with the Gravettian culture leaving traces in the Crimean Mountains. By 4,500 BC, the Neolithic Cucuteni–Trypillia culture flourished in wide areas of modern Ukraine, including Trypillia and the entire Dnieper-Dniester region. Ukraine is considered a likely location for the first domestication of the horse. The Kurgan hypothesis places the Volga-Dnieper region of Ukraine and southern Russia as the linguistic homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Early Indo-European migrations from the Pontic steppes in the 3rd millennium BC spread Yamnaya Steppe pastoralist ancestry and Indo-European languages across large parts of Europe. During the Iron Age, the land was inhabited by Iranian-speaking Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians, and between 700 BC and 200 BC, it was part of the Scythian kingdom.

From the 6th century BC, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine colonies were established on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea, in places like Tyras, Olbia, and Chersonesus, which thrived until the 6th century AD. The Goths settled in the area but fell under the control of the Huns from the 370s. In the 7th century, eastern Ukraine was the center of Old Great Bulgaria. By the end of the century, most Bulgar tribes had migrated in various directions, and the Khazars took over much of the land.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Antes, an early Slavic people, lived in Ukraine. Migrations from the present-day Ukrainian territories into the Balkans established many South Slavic nations, while northern migrations, reaching almost to Lake Ilmen, led to the emergence of the Ilmen Slavs and Krivichs. Following an Avar raid in 602 and the collapse of the Antes Union, these peoples survived as separate tribes until the beginning of the second millennium.

Golden Age of Kyiv

Early Indo-European migrations from the Pontic steppes of present-day Ukraine and Russia

The establishment of the state of Kyivan Rus’ remains obscure. The state included much of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, and the western part of European Russia. According to the Primary Chronicle, the Rus’ people initially consisted of Varangians from Scandinavia. In 882, the pagan Prince Oleg (Oleh) conquered Kyiv from Askold and Dir and proclaimed it the new capital of the Rus’. Anti-Normanist historians argue that the East Slavic tribes along the southern parts of the Dnieper River were already in the process of forming a state independently. The Varangian elite, including the ruling Rurik dynasty, later assimilated into the Slavic population. Kyivan Rus’ consisted of several principalities ruled by interrelated Rurikid princes, who often fought each other for control of Kyiv.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Kyivan Rus’ became the largest and most powerful state in Europe, experiencing a Golden Age that began with the reign of Vladimir the Great (980–1015), who introduced Christianity. During the reign of his son, Yaroslav the Wise (1019–1054), Kyivan Rus’ reached its peak in cultural development and military power. The state eventually fragmented as regional powers gained importance. After a final resurgence under Vladimir II Monomakh (1113–1125) and his son Mstislav (1125–1132), Kyivan Rus’ disintegrated into separate principalities, though control of Kyiv remained prestigious for decades. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the nomadic confederacy of the Turkic-speaking Cumans and Kipchaks dominated the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea.

The furthest extent of Kievan Rus’, 1054–1132

The Mongol invasions in the mid-13th century devastated Kyivan Rus’; Kyiv was destroyed by the Mongols during the siege of 1240. In the western territories, the principalities of Halych and Volhynia merged to form the Principality of Galicia–Volhynia. Daniel of Galicia, son of Roman the Great, reunited much of southwestern Rus’, including Volhynia, Galicia, and Kyiv. He was subsequently crowned by a papal envoy as the first king of Galicia–Volhynia (also known as the Kingdom of Ruthenia) in 1253.

Foreign Domination

In 1349, following the Galicia–Volhynia Wars, the region was divided between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. From the mid-13th century to the late 1400s, the Republic of Genoa established numerous colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea, transforming them into major commercial centers led by a consul, a representative of the Republic. In 1430, the region of Podolia was incorporated into Poland, leading to increased Polish settlement in the lands of modern-day Ukraine. In 1441, Genghisid prince Haci I Giray founded the Crimean Khanate on the Crimean Peninsula and surrounding steppes; the Khanate conducted Tatar slave raids, resulting in an estimated two million people being enslaved in the region over the next three centuries.

In 1569, the Union of Lublin created the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, transferring most Ukrainian lands from Lithuania to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, making them de jure Polish territory. Under Polonisation pressures, many Ruthenian nobles converted to Catholicism and joined the Polish nobility, while others joined the newly established Ruthenian Uniate Church.

Cossack Hetmanate

Lacking native protectors among the Ruthenian nobility, peasants, and townspeople began seeking protection from the emerging Zaporozhian Cossacks. In the mid-17th century, Dnieper Cossacks and Ruthenian peasants formed the Zaporozhian Host, a Cossack military quasi-state. Poland had limited control over this population but found the Cossacks useful against the Turks and Tatars, occasionally allying with them in military campaigns. However, the harsh enserfment of Ruthenian peasants by Polish szlachta (many of whom were Polonized Ruthenian nobles) and the suppression of the Orthodox Church alienated the Cossacks. They did not hesitate to take up arms against perceived enemies and occupiers, including the Catholic Church and its local representatives.

In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytsky led the largest Cossack uprising against the Commonwealth and the Polish king, gaining broad support from the local population. Khmelnytsky established the Cossack Hetmanate, which existed until 1764 (some sources claim until 1782). After suffering a defeat at the Battle of Berestechko in 1651, Khmelnytsky sought assistance from the Russian tsar. In 1654, the Pereiaslav Agreement formed a military and political alliance with Russia, acknowledging loyalty to the Russian monarch.

Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky established an independent Cossack state after the 1648 uprising against Poland.

Following Khmelnytsky’s death, the Hetmanate endured a devastating 30-year conflict among Russia, Poland, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire, and Cossacks, known as “The Ruin” (1657–1686), for control of the Cossack Hetmanate. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace between Russia and Poland in 1686 divided the Cossack Hetmanate lands, with Poland retaining control west of the Dnieper River. In 1686, the Metropolitanate of Kyiv was annexed by the Moscow Patriarchate, placing it under Moscow’s authority. Cossack Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709) attempted to reverse the decline by allying with the Swedes in the Great Northern War (1700–1721) to escape Russian dependence, but they were defeated at the Battle of Poltava (1709).

The Hetmanate’s autonomy was significantly restricted after Poltava. Between 1764 and 1781, Catherine the Great incorporated much of central Ukraine into the Russian Empire, abolishing the Cossack Hetmanate and the Zaporozhian Sich, and suppressing the last major Cossack uprising, the Koliivshchyna. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 1783, the newly acquired lands, named Novorossiya, were opened to Russian settlement. The tsarist autocracy pursued a policy of Russification, suppressing the Ukrainian language and curtailing Ukrainian national identity. The western part of present-day Ukraine was subsequently divided between Russia and Habsburg-ruled Austria after the fall of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795.

19th and Early 20th Century

Polish troops entered Kyiv in May 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. Following the Peace of Riga signed on 18 March 1921, Poland took control of modern-day western Ukraine while the Soviets took control of eastern and central Ukraine.

The 19th century marked the rise of Ukrainian nationalism. Urbanization, modernization, and a cultural shift toward romantic nationalism gave birth to a Ukrainian intelligentsia dedicated to national rebirth and social justice. Key figures such as the serf-turned-national-poet Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) and political theorist Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841–1895) led this burgeoning nationalist movement. While Austrian Galicia under the Habsburgs offered relatively lenient conditions for the movement’s development, the Russian-controlled region, historically known as “Little Russia” or “South Russia,” imposed severe restrictions, including a ban on publishing books in Ukrainian in 1876.

Ukraine joined the Industrial Revolution later than most of Western Europe due to the maintenance of serfdom until 1861. Apart from areas near the newly discovered coal fields of the Donbas and some larger cities such as Odesa and Kyiv, Ukraine remained primarily an agricultural and resource extraction economy. The Austrian part of Ukraine was particularly destitute, prompting hundreds of thousands of peasants to emigrate, forming an extensive Ukrainian diaspora in countries like Canada, the United States, and Brazil. Some Ukrainians also settled in the Far East; according to the 1897 census, there were 223,000 ethnic Ukrainians in Siberia and 102,000 in Central Asia. An additional 1.6 million emigrated eastward in the decade following the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1906, with Far Eastern areas with ethnic Ukrainian populations becoming known as Green Ukraine.

Ukraine plunged into turmoil at the onset of World War I, with fighting on Ukrainian soil continuing until late 1921. Initially, Ukrainians were divided between Austria-Hungary, fighting for the Central Powers, and the vast majority serving in the Imperial Russian Army, which was part of the Triple Entente. As the Russian Empire collapsed, the conflict evolved into the Ukrainian War of Independence, with Ukrainians fighting alongside or against the Red, White, Black, and Green armies, with the Poles, Hungarians (in Transcarpathia), and Germans also intervening at various times.

Youth in national Ukrainian dress during a ceremony commemorating the 22nd January 1919 “Act of Reunification of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic”, which is honored yearly across 22 cities of Ukraine.

An attempt to create an independent state, the left-leaning Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), was first declared by Mykhailo Hrushevsky, but the period was plagued by an extremely unstable political and military environment. The UNR was first deposed in a coup d’état led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi, which resulted in the Ukrainian State under the German protectorate. The attempt to restore the UNR under the Directorate ultimately failed as the Ukrainian army was regularly overrun by other forces. The short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic and Hutsul Republic also failed to unite with the rest of Ukraine.

The conflict resulted in a partial victory for the Second Polish Republic, which annexed the Western Ukrainian provinces, and a larger-scale victory for pro-Soviet forces, which succeeded in dislodging the remaining factions and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Soviet Ukraine). Meanwhile, modern-day Bukovina was occupied by Romania, and Carpathian Ruthenia was admitted to Czechoslovakia as an autonomous region. The conflict over Ukraine, part of the broader Russian Civil War, devastated the former Russian Empire, including eastern and central Ukraine, leaving over 1.5 million people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. The eastern provinces were also impacted by a famine in 1921.

Inter-War Period

Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933. Collectivization of crops and their confiscation by Soviet authorities led to a major famine in Soviet Ukraine known as the Holodomor.

During the inter-war period, Marshal Józef Piłsudski of Poland sought Ukrainian support by offering local autonomy to minimize Soviet influence in Poland’s eastern Kresy region. However, this approach was abandoned after Piłsudski’s death in 1935 due to continued unrest among the Ukrainian population, including assassinations of Polish officials by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). The Polish government responded by restricting the rights of people who declared Ukrainian nationality, leading to wider support for the underground Ukrainian nationalist and militant movement, which arose in the 1920s.

Meanwhile, Soviet Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union. During the 1920s, under the Ukrainisation policy pursued by the national Communist leadership of Mykola Skrypnyk, Soviet leadership initially encouraged a national renaissance in Ukrainian culture and language. Ukrainisation was part of the Soviet-wide policy of Korenisation (indigenization), intended to promote the advancement of native peoples, their languages, and cultures in the governance of their respective republics.

Around the same time, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP), introducing a form of market socialism that allowed some private ownership of small and medium-sized enterprises. This policy aimed to reconstruct the post-war Soviet Union, which had been devastated by both World War I and the subsequent civil war. The NEP successfully restored the nation’s production and agricultural output to pre-WWI levels by the mid-1920s, much of which was based in Ukraine. These policies attracted many prominent former UNR figures, including former UNR leader Hrushevsky, to return to Soviet Ukraine, where they were accepted and contributed to advancing Ukrainian science and culture.

This period ended abruptly when Joseph Stalin became the leader of the USSR following Lenin’s death. Stalin abolished the NEP in what became known as the Great Break. From the late 1920s, Soviet Ukraine participated in an industrialization scheme that quadrupled its industrial output during the 1930s under a centrally planned economy.

However, Stalin’s new policies severely impacted the Ukrainian peasantry through the program of collectivization of crops. Collectivization, part of the first five-year plan, was enforced by regular troops and the secret police known as the Cheka. Those who resisted were arrested and deported to gulags and work camps. As members of collective farms were sometimes not allowed to receive any grain until unrealistic quotas were met, millions starved to death in a famine known as the Holodomor, or the “Great Famine,” recognized by some countries as an act of genocide perpetrated by Stalin and other Soviet officials.

Following the Russian Civil War and collectivization, the Great Purge targeted Stalin’s perceived political enemies, resulting in a significant loss of a new generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia, known today as the Executed Renaissance.

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