Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, captured the world’s attention to a degree not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. The shock of the invasion brought Ukraine to the forefront of global attention, propelling the 31-year-old state into the collective consciousness of millions of people around the world for the first time. That so many people outside of Ukraine knew little about the country before the invasion highlights one of the central issues in this war: Russia’s centuries-long attempts to assimilate Ukraine and prevent its development as an independent actor and political subject on the world stage. The staggering violence being inflicted on Ukraine on a daily basis is unfortunately not new: Ukraine’s geographic location between the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and its fate as an object of conquest by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th, have made for a bloody, tumultuous history. This long and violent past has been countered by fierce resistance on the part of Ukrainians to colonizing powers, and their unflagging resolve to remain a free and independent people.
The text before you, Being Ukraine: An Introduction to Europe’s Eastern Vanguard, is the product of a first-year seminar on Ukrainian history and culture at Connecticut College in the fall of 2022. Of the 16 members of our seminar, most of us had little knowledge of Ukraine before taking this course. Participants included a student of Ukrainian heritage, a student of Russian heritage, and thirteen others from various different backgrounds. Among the many lessons learned in our course, one was that collaboration is possible regardless of one’s background or ethnic heritage, despite the extreme political divisions surrounding the ongoing war. All of us joined the seminar to learn more about the historical context behind the war, and to better understand the culture, experiences, and astounding achievements of the people fighting it.
Our aim in creating this online resource is to fill a gap in the available resources in English about Ukraine. It is intended neither to be a comprehensive history of Ukraine (see Further Reading and Viewing at the end of this book for a list of excellent histories of Ukraine), nor is it a dispassionate summary of facts about Ukraine, which abound online. Rather, we explore select aspects of Ukrainian history, both distant and recent, to illuminate the longstanding power dynamics behind the current war (see Chapters 1-4), and examine the ongoing refugee crisis and Ukrainian diaspora (Chapters 5-6). Our goal is to try to understand the present moment as it is experienced by Ukrainians, and to comprehend to the best of our ability what it is like to “be Ukraine” at this point in its history.
As our seminar comes to a close in December 2022, nearly ten months after the start of the invasion, 14.5 million Ukrainians are displaced from their homes: 6.5 million within Ukraine, with another 8 million people living as refugees around the world. Russia’s continued missile strikes on civilian infrastructure have left millions more without heat, electricity, or hot water in winter — a strategy designed to inflict maximum suffering and misery. For residents of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, this war has lasted not months, but nearly nine years following Russia’s invasion of Crimea and attempted takeover of Donetsk and Luhansk in spring of 2014. For Ukrainians the world over, these events are but the most recent chapter in a history of ruthless actions meant to colonize, intimidate, imprison, deport, mutilate, and otherwise destroy the Ukrainian nation. Notorious moments in this history include the defeat of the Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century; the death by starvation of 4 million Ukrainians under Stalin in 1932-33 known as the Holodomor; and the mass murder of millions of ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews during WWII.
As we have learned over the course of our seminar, there is seemingly no end to these harrowing events dating back over a thousand years. Like Russian nesting dolls, one historical layer obscures another, and another inside that one. To understand Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, one must first understand Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014; and to understand that, one must know about the Ukrainian revolutions of 2004 and 2014, to which Russia responded by invading the country. And to comprehend why hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested false elections and fought for closer ties with Europe, one must recognize the persistence of Soviet-style corruption after 1991 and Russia’s attempt to control the former Soviet republics after the collapse of the USSR. And so on. Although each layer of history is distinct, together they tell the ongoing story of violent oppression and resistance — of a colonizing power trying to control its neighbor, and the subjugated rising up and fighting back.
This age-old story is not limited to Ukraine: it is the story of European colonization in laser focus. As we know from world history, colonizing powers do not only oppress a country’s people; they also suppress and erase their culture. This process of epistemological violence is affected through the writing of history itself, which is most often told from the perspective of imperial victors. Fortunately, there is a seismic shift underway to retell global history and amplify the voices of those who have been tyrannized in “civilizing” projects — in fact, imperial expansion — in the name of progress (see, for instance, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World by Kehinde Andrews ). This online resource on Ukraine is our own modest attempt to contribute to this broader project through open-source undergraduate research.
As first-year students who are just beginning our college careers, we see Ukraine as an ideal subject of study that literally embodies many of the societal forces, geo-political power relations, and evolving institutions that have shaped our globalized world. In addition to studying Russia’s imperial incursions into Ukraine, we have learned about state-sponsored violence, information warfare, and genocide. Ukraine has likewise taught us a great deal about civil society, spontaneous self-organization, the crowdsourcing of self-defense in an era of advanced capitalism, and the role of social media in amplifying national self-determination. Another aspect of Ukraine’s history that makes it such a compelling subject of study is its complex role in these contexts: not just a victim of colonial conquest, Ukraine has been an active subject and key builder of such entities as the Soviet Union, global food systems, nuclear weapons, the iron and steel industries, and the European modernist avant-garde. As Ukraine continues to pull away from the legacies of its Soviet past and toward European systems of governance, we should remember that Ukraine has been an important actor in Europe since its inception.
The story of this war and its significance in world history will be written by future historians. For now, we can only speculate on its meaning and possible outcomes. Will it determine where Europe begins and ends? Will it be seen as a continuation of the Cold War? As another chapter in Ukraine’s centuries-long fight for freedom? As an imperial war, a proxy war, a war between East and West, or one between backward-looking forces and a forward-looking future? Is it the beginning of World War III? Although the consequences of this war are unknowable, we can say with some certainty that it will shape our collective future, either by expanding possibilities for open, democratic societies to thrive, or by making it harder or even impossible for them to exist.
We are grateful to the many people who made our seminar and the resulting digital project possible: the experts and educators at the Ukrainian Museum, the Shevchenko Scientific Society, the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City, and the Kyiv office of the Institute of International Education currently working out of Warsaw. We extend our special thanks to Kalyna Cholhan Boychuk, Vasyl Makhno, Jasper Sta Ana, Jason Birchard, and Vitalii Desiatnychenko for meeting with us in New York; to Olha Vasyliv, Jessica Zychowicz, and Susanna Nazarova for guest lecturing in our course; to Nadya Tkachenko for speaking with the co-authors of Chapter 5 about her work in refugee resettlement; to scholars Cindy Buckley and Linda Cook for sharing their unpublished research with us; and to Andrew Lopez and Ariella McCaffrey for their indispensable research and technology support. We are grateful for support from the Faculty-Student Engagement fund, the Connections program, and the International Curriculum Development fund at Connecticut College, which made this work possible. Thanks to their generous support and invaluable gifts of time and expertise, we are able to humbly offer this online resource to others who, like us, wish to know more about the extraordinary people, culture, and country of Ukraine.