The True History of Ukraine

Since Putin likes to write history the way he likes to read it, it is time to tell the whole truth about the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians. However, to do so, we have to dig deep into the history books.

From the 7th to the 6th century BC, numerous Greek colonies were founded on the northern coast of the Black Sea, on the Crimean peninsula and on the Sea of Azov, which later fell under the hegemony of the Roman Empire.

The invasion of the Goths from the Baltic into Ukraine around 200 AD marked the beginning of a period of great migrations. They displaced the Sarmatians, but their own power was broken around 375 by the Huns, who invaded from the east and were followed by the Bulgarians and Avars in the 5th and 6th centuries. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Ukrainian steppe was part of the Turkish trading empire of the Khazars, whose center was located on the lower Volga. The Khazars‘ control of the steppe was broken by the Magyars (Hungarians) in the late 9th century. The Pechenegs who followed them ruled over large parts of southern Ukraine in the 10th and 11th centuries, which in turn were replaced by the Cumans. During this period of nomadic invasions, only a few Greek settlements on the Crimean peninsula, especially Chersonesus, were able to maintain a precarious existence and were dependent on the support of the Byzantine Empire.

The formation of the Kievan state, which began in the mid-9th century, the role of the Varangians (Vikings) in this process and the name Rus, under which this state became known, are disputed among historians. However, it is certain that this foundation was linked to the development of international trade and the new importance of the Dnieper route from the Baltic to Byzantium, on which Kiev was strategically located. Trade on this route was controlled by Varangian mercenaries, from whose ranks the progenitors of the Kiev princes emerged, but who were soon Slavicized. In the early chronicles, the Varangians are also referred to as Rus, and this social name became a territorial designation for the Kiev area, the basic territory of Rus; later it was applied in a broader sense to the entire area ruled by members of the Kiev dynasty.

Meanwhile, in the 5th and 6th centuries, the migration of the Slavic tribes from their original homeland north of the Carpathians began under the influence of the Germanic migration. While some Slavs migrated westwards and others southwards to the Balkans, the Eastern Slavs occupied the forest and forest-steppe areas of what is now western and north-central Ukraine and southern Belarus; they expanded further north and northeast into the territories of the future Russian state, with Moscow as its center.

By the end of the 10th century, the Kievan Rus had expanded to cover a vast territory, stretching from the edge of the open steppe in Ukraine to Lake Ladoga and the upper Volga basin. Like other medieval states, it did not develop centralized political institutions, but remained a loose collection of principalities ruled by a dynastic clan. Kiev reached its zenith under the rule of Volodymyr the Great (Vladimir I) and his son Yaroslav I (the Wise). In 988, Volodymyr adopted Christianity as the religion of his empire and had the inhabitants of Kiev baptized. Rus entered the orbit of Byzantine (later Orthodox) Christianity and culture.

After Yaroslav’s death, Kiev entered a long period of decline that was only briefly halted in the 12th century under Volodymyr II Monomach (Vladimir II Monomakh). The shift in trade routes weakened Kiev’s economic importance, and the wars with the Polovtsians in the steppes sapped its wealth and energy. Succession struggles and rivalries between princes undermined Kiev’s political hegemony.

The area that largely corresponds to present-day Belarus, with Polotsk as its most important center, was one such emerging region. The Novgorod region in the north was another. In the northeast, Vladimir-Suzdal (and later Moscow) formed the core from which the future Russian state developed. In the southwestern part of Rus, in what is now Ukraine, Galicia-Volhynia developed into the leading principality.

In the mid-14th century, the Ukrainian territories were under the rule of three external powers: the Golden Horde, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Look Mommy – no ethnic Russians!

In the 15th century, a new warrior society began to emerge on the southern steppe border of Ukraine: the Cossacks (from the Turkish kazak, meaning „adventurer“ or „free man“). The term initially referred to enterprising men who hunted, fished and collected honey in the steppe on a seasonal basis. Their numbers were constantly increasing as peasants fled serfdom and adventurers from other social classes, including the nobility, joined them. The Cossacks, who had joined forces for mutual protection, had developed a military organization of a peculiarly democratic nature by the mid-16th century, with a general assembly (rada) as the supreme authority and elected officers, including the commander-in-chief (hetman). The Cossacks defended the Ukrainian border population against Tartar raids, waged their own campaigns in the Crimea and even attacked Turkish coastal towns in Anatolia with their flotillas of light boats.

The tensions that arose from social dissatisfaction, religious disputes and the Cossacks‘ resentment of Polish authority finally came to a head and reached their climax in 1648. Starting with a seemingly typical Cossack uprising under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine was quickly drawn into an unprecedented war and revolution. In January 1649, Khmelnytsky entered Kiev to triumphant acclaim as a liberator.

Although Khmelnytsky initially only sought to right the wrongs against the Polish crown, after his arrival in Kiev he began to conceive of Ukraine as an independent Cossack state.

After years of fruitless battles with the Poles and because the Tartar support proved unreliable at crucial moments, Khmelnytsky sought other allies. In 1654, he concluded an agreement with Moscow in Pereyaslav, the exact content of which is highly controversial: Russian historians emphasize the recognition of the Tsar’s sovereignty by Ukraine, which subsequently legitimized Russian rule , while Ukrainian historiography emphasizes Moscow’s recognition of Ukrainian autonomy (including an elected hetmanate, self-government and the right to conduct foreign relations), which was practically equivalent to independence.

Despite occasional joint victories, disagreements arose and Khmelnytsky became increasingly disillusioned with the Moscow alliance. Disputes arose over control of the conquered territories in Belarus and conflicts over Russian interference in internal Ukrainian affairs. The hetman was particularly annoyed by the rapprochement between Russia and Poland, which followed the invasion of Poland by Sweden in 1655, Moscow’s enemy but a potential ally of Ukraine.

The hetman was particularly annoyed by the rapprochement between Russia and Poland, which followed the invasion of Poland by Sweden in 1655, Moscow’s enemy but a potential ally of Ukraine (see First Northern War). Khmelnytsky again sought new alliances and coalitions involving Sweden, Transylvania, Brandenburg, Moldavia and Wallachia, and there were signs that the hetman was planning to sever the Moscow connection, but he died before he could do so.

Khmelnytsky’s successor, hetman Ivan Vyhovsky, broke with Moscow and in 1658 concluded the new Treaty of Hadyach with Poland. According to this, central Ukraine (attempts to include Volhynia and Galicia failed) was to form the self-governing Grand Duchy of Rus under the hetman and a ruling elite of nobles and officers, which was linked to Poland and Lithuania as an equal member of a tripartite community.

According to Vyhovsky, Ukraine began a rapid descent into a long-lasting state of chaos, which contemporaries called „the ruin“.

From 1663, rival hetmans emerged and fell in the competing Polish and Russian spheres of influence. In 1667, the Ukraine was divided along the Dnieper by the Andrusovo Armistice: The west, the so-called right bank, fell back to Poland, while Russia was awarded the possession of the east, the so-called left bank, together with Kiev (which was actually located west of the river); this arrangement was confirmed in 1686 by the Treaty of Eternal Peace between Poland and Russia.

The partition of Ukraine provoked a patriotic reaction. The hetman of the right bank, Petro Doroshenko, briefly occupied the left bank and attempted to create a unified Ukrainian state under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. The main consequence of a massive Ottoman military intervention in 1672 was that Podolia was completely annexed as an Ottoman province for a quarter of a century.

After Russia was drawn into the war, the mass exodus of the population to the left bank and even beyond depopulated large parts of Ukraine on the right bank.

The Ottoman power in Europe was soon at an end, and the province of Podolia fell back to Poland. In 1686, the Orthodox Kiev Metropolitanate itself was transferred from the patriarchal authority of Constantinople to the Moscow authority. The Hetman state reached its peak in the Hetmanate of Ivan Mazepa. Initially supported by Tsar Peter I (the Great), Mazepa exercised almost monarchical power in the hetmanate.

Peter’s centralizing reforms and the taxes imposed on the hetmanate in connection with the Second Northern War seemed to threaten Ukrainian autonomy. In order to advance his plans for independence, Mazepa formed a secret alliance with Charles XII of Sweden in 1708, but in the decisive Battle of Poltava (1709) the allied troops were defeated. Mazepa fled to Moldavia, where he died shortly afterwards.

Although Peter allowed the choice of a successor to Mazepa, the autonomous privileges of the hetmanate were severely curtailed and weakened further in the remaining decades of the 18th century. From 1722 to 1727 and from 1734 to 1750, the office of hetman was dormant as the Russian tsarist regime introduced new institutions to oversee the administration of the country. In 1750, the office of hetman was reintroduced by Empress Elizabeth for Kyrylo Rozumovsky, the brother of her favorite. When Catherine II (the Great) came to the throne in 1762, the hetman and the starschyna asked for the restoration of the former status of the hetmanate; instead, Catherine forced Rozumovsky to resign in 1764. In the following 20 years, all remnants of Ukrainian autonomy were eliminated, and in 1775 the Zaporizhzhia Sich, the bastion of the Cossacks, was destroyed by Russian troops.

To the east of the Hetmanate were areas that had remained largely uninhabited until the 17th century – part of the „wild fields“ since the Mongol invasion. From the late 16th century, the Moscow government gradually built its fortifications against the Tatars in this area. In the 17th century, this area was settled by Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks fleeing from Polish rule and later from the devastation of the time of ruin. The newcomers founded free, non-serf settlements called Slobodas, which gave the area the name Sloboda Ukraine.

The western Ukrainian regions of Galicia and Volhynia were part of the theatre of war during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, but remained firmly under Polish control even after the uprising.

The society that emerged in the 18th century in the Ukrainian lands under Polish rule was very different from that in the Hetmanate. The Cossacks virtually disappeared as a significant organized force. The cities experienced a serious decline, and their population became increasingly Polish, especially on the right bank.

Polish rule in the Ukrainian lands ended with the extinction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through three partitions – in 1772, 1793 and 1795. In the second partition, Russia took over the right bank and Eastern Volhynia, and in the third partition, the rest of Volhynia.

After the abolition of the autonomy of the Hetmanate and Sloboda Ukraine and the annexation of the right bank and Volhynia, the Ukrainian territories in the Russian Empire formally lost all traces of their national identity. The territories were converted into regular Russian provinces (gubernias), which were administered by governors appointed from St. Petersburg. The right bank and some adjacent areas formed part of the settlement area to which the Jewish population of the empire was confined. After the dissolution of the Sich and the annexation of the Crimean Khanate in 1783, the sparsely populated southern areas (called Novorossiya or New Russia) were settled by immigrants from other parts of Ukraine, as well as, to a lesser extent, from Russia, the Balkans and Germany.

After the Crimean War (1853-56), reforms encouraged the development of industry in the Russian Empire by freeing up labor in the countryside. Industrial development was particularly pronounced in eastern Ukraine, especially in the Donbas region. The Ukrainian population, seeking economic improvement, generally migrated to agricultural areas. As a result, the emerging working class and growing urban centers in Ukraine became heavily Russified islands in a Ukrainian sea of land.

In the 19th century, the development of Ukrainian cultural life was closely linked to academic circles. The first modern university in Ukraine was founded in Kharkiv in 1805, and for 30 years Sloboda Ukraine was the most important center of Ukrainian scholarship and publishing. In 1834 a university was founded in Kiev and in 1865 in Odessa. Although these were Russian institutions, they contributed significantly to the promotion of the study of local history and ethnography, which in turn had a stimulating effect on the Ukrainian national movement.

In the mid-19th century, the cultural and literary movements in Ukraine attracted the attention of the tsarist rulers. According to the official view, which also prevailed in Russian historiography, the Ukrainians were a subdivision or „tribe“ of the Russians – „Little Russians“ – who had been torn from the unity of Rus by the Mongol Tatars and diverted from their true historical path by the corrupting influence of Poland. It was therefore considered essential to fully reintegrate Ukraine into Russian politics. In 1863, the Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Valyuk, banned virtually all publications in the Ukrainian language. The ban even extended to education, which was a major reason for the low literacy rate among Ukrainians (only 13 percent in 1897).

In the second half of the 19th century, clandestine societies known as hromadas („communities“) were founded in various cities to promote Ukrainian culture, education and publishing under conditions of illegality. The Revolutionary Ukrainian Party developed from one such group in Kharkiv, which in a pamphlet published in 1900 first propagated the „one, single, indivisible, free, independent Ukraine“ as a political goal.

After the Habsburgs annexed Galicia from Poland in 1772, they acquired Bukovina from Moldavia two years later, a region that was partly Ukrainian (especially in the north) and partly Romanian. A third ethnically Ukrainian region – Transcarpathia – was already under Habsburg rule as part of the Hungarian crown. Within the Habsburg Empire, these three territories shared many common experiences, but they also differed in ways that arose from their specific ethnic environments and their earlier histories.

The revolution that shook the Russian Empire in 1905 also sparked worker strikes and peasant unrest in Ukraine. The introduction of an elected assembly, the Duma, in 1906 initially offered Ukrainians a new forum to voice their national concerns. Ukrainians were significantly represented in the short-lived First and Second Dumas, forming their own factions. However, changes to the electoral law that were disadvantageous to the peasantry and national minorities severely limited Ukrainian representation and effectiveness in the third and fourth Duma. Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, the agenda of nationalistic, politically active Ukrainians rarely went beyond demands for linguistic and cultural rights and some form of local autonomy.

Disappointment with the Habsburgs and concern about the new Polish supremacy led to the emergence of pro-Russian sympathies among the older, more conservative clerical intelligentsia in the 1860s. The Russophiles promoted a bookish Ukrainian-Russian mixed language (derogatorily referred to by their critics as „iazychiie„) and a cultural and political orientation towards Russia. From the 1870s, they lost ground to the narodovtsi (populists), who promoted the use of the vernacular and emphasized the ethnic identity of Ukrainians in Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire.

The outbreak of the First World War and the beginning of hostilities between Russia and Austria-Hungary on August 1, 1914 had an immediate impact on the Ukrainian subjects of the two belligerent powers. In the Russian Empire, Ukrainian publications and cultural organizations were directly suppressed and prominent figures were arrested or exiled. When Russian troops advanced into Galicia in September, the retreating Austrians executed thousands of people suspected of pro-Russian sympathies. After the occupation of Galicia, the tsarist authorities took steps to fully incorporate the country into the Russian Empire. They banned the Ukrainian language, closed institutions and prepared to liquidate the Greek Catholic Church. The russification campaign was interrupted by the Austrian reconquest in the spring of 1915. However, Western Ukraine continued to be the scene of military operations and suffered great looting.

The Russian Revolution of February 1917 brought the Provisional Government to power. In April, the All-Ukrainian National Congress declared the Central Rada to be the supreme national authority of Ukraine. The declared aim of the Central Rada was the territorial autonomy of Ukraine and the transformation of Russia into a democratic, federal republic. At the local level, particularly in the Russified cities of eastern Ukraine, the Rada had to compete with the increasingly radical soviets of workers‘ and soldiers‘ deputies, whose support among the Ukrainian population was, however, quite limited.

Ukrainian-Russian relations deteriorated rapidly after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) on November 7, 1917. The Central Rada refused to accept the authority of the new regime over Ukraine and proclaimed the Ukrainian National Republic on November 20. The Bolsheviks, for their part, declared Ukraine a Soviet republic at the first All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets, which took place in Kharkiv in December, and formed a rival government. In January 1918, the Bolsheviks launched an offensive in the Left Bank area and advanced on Kiev. The Central Rada, which was already in peace negotiations with the Central Powers, from whom it hoped to receive military support, proclaimed the complete independence of Ukraine on January 22. However, the government had to be evacuated to the right bank, as the Soviet troops occupied Kiev.

On February 9, Ukraine and the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. A German-Austrian offensive drove the Bolsheviks out of Kiev in early March, and the Rada government returned to the capital. In April, the Red Army withdrew from Ukraine.

In Kiev, the Directorate, which had taken power in December 1918, officially re-established the Ukrainian National Republic and reinstated the legislation of the Central Rada. However, its attempts to establish an efficient administration and to tackle the growing economic and social problems were hampered by the increasingly chaotic domestic situation and hostile foreign countries. The Allied powers, including France, whose expeditionary force held Odessa, supported the Russian Whites, whose army was grouped around General Anton Denikin in southern Russia.

When authority in Ukraine collapsed, arbitrary violence increased. In particular, a wave of pogroms against the Jewish population claimed tens of thousands of lives.

After the First World War and the revolutionary upheavals that followed, the Ukrainian territories were divided up among four states. Bukovina was annexed by Romania. Transcarpathia was incorporated into the new state of Czechoslovakia. Poland incorporated Galicia and Western Volhynia, as well as smaller adjoining areas in the northwest. The areas east of the Polish border formed Soviet Ukraine. The areas under Bolshevik control were formally organized as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (from 1937, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic [S.S.R.]). On December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) was proclaimed, including a federation of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (S.F.S.R.). Although the constituent republics retained the formal right of secession, their authority was limited to internal affairs, while powers in the areas of foreign relations, the military, trade and transportation were transferred to the organs of the Communist Party in Moscow. The Communist Party itself made no concessions to the principles of independence or federalism and remained a highly centralized entity.

In the 1930s, Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization led to the Great Famine (Holodomor) – a man-made demographic catastrophe that had never occurred in peacetime. Of the estimated five million people who died in the Soviet Union, almost four million were Ukrainians.

The famine did not end until after the 1933 harvest. The traditional Ukrainian village had been essentially destroyed, and settlers were brought in from Russia to repopulate the devastated land.

In parallel with industrialization and collectivization, the Soviet regime launched a campaign against „nationalist deviations“, which escalated into a full-scale attack on Ukrainian culture. Repression against the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church culminated in the liquidation of the church and the arrest and exile of its hierarchy and clergy in 1930.

Today, the Ukraine is mainly divided into a Russian-speaking industrialized East that closely resembles the former Soviet Union, and a Ukrainian-speaking and Westernized, largely agricultural West, with the Crimean as an anomaly, mainly consisting of a huge Russian naval base. After failing to capture Kiev early in the war in 2022, Putin seems to be trying to hunker down in the East in the hopes of forcing the Ukrainian government to accept a partition which would expand Russian state territory to include Luhansk, Donezk and the large city of Kharkiv, which is close to the Russian border. And Crimea is completely off the table for him.

And what’s next? In Latvia and Estonia, for example, there are large, often compact ethnic Russian minorities. Some of them get their information from Russian state media and are quite sympathetic to Putin. Instead of openly attacking, Russia could provoke protests against „Russophobia“ in the Baltic republics, as it did in eastern Ukraine in 2014. For example, in the Estonian border town of Narva, where 95 percent of the 60,000 inhabitants are native Russian speakers.

And while a major offensive against Poland would be a risk — the Poles are just as irreconcilable towards Russia as the Ukrainians, and they know that Nato is behind them — other regions such as Kazakhstan and the Southern Caucasus could offer tempting targets.

While Ukraine’s embattled prime minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy categorically refuses to discuss cession of territory, I for one can’t see any other result if lasting – or at least short-term – peace is to be achieved. Putin’s attempt at rewriting history in his favor may very well work out, especially if Donald Trump is reelected this fall. If so, there is nothing to stop him spinning similar myths about Moldavia, the autonomous region of Gagauzia already has a pro-Russian leadership, not to mention the equally russophile rebel republic of Transnistria, where 6,500 Russian soldiers have been stationed for decades.

The defense ministries of the EU member states are feverishly debating when and where Russia might attack next and what they could do to counter it. French President Emmanuel Macron recently reaffirmed his willingness to send troops. It would then only be a small step to World War III.

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