Historical Background

Chapter 1: History and Geography

Dexter Greer and Zach Stoddard

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, took millions of people by surprise. Discussions about Ukraine had been limited before the invasion, since many people outside of the country had not been aware of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Those who are just now learning about Ukraine might find themselves wondering why Ukraine is being attacked at all. This chapter will cover the history of Ukraine, emphasizing how Russia has appropriated Ukrainian identity and history as its own for centuries, and underscoring how the oppression of Ukraine throughout history has led to this war. This chapter will cover some of the significant events in the history of the region, namely the rise and fall of Kyivan Rus, the partitions of Poland, the Ukrainian independence movement in the early 20th century, and the Holodomor (state-organized famine) of 1932-33. Together these events illuminate Ukraine’s relations with the rest of Eastern Europe over the past millennium and establish a historical framework through which to understand the ongoing war.

One of the key reasons for the contestation of Ukraine’s independence throughout history is its unique geographical position. Ukraine is situated on the coast of the Black Sea, which connects it to the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe. Ukraine is also connected with Asia to the east, making it a primary point of contact for trade moving between Europe and Asia. The soil in Ukraine is especially fertile, resulting in Ukraine becoming one of the foremost grain exporters in the world. Being part of an important trade route, having potent farmland, and enjoying access to warm water ports that connect to the Mediterranean all make Ukraine a greatly contested region to control. These features have made it the center of Eastern Europe for much of its history, beginning with the establishment of Kyivan Rus in the early 800s in the city of Kyiv until the region was taken over by the expanding Russian empire between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Kyivan Rus was a major state in Eastern Europe that occupied parts of modern Ukraine, including its capital, Kyiv. Its territory spanned from Ladoga in the north to Belgorod in the south, Novgorod in the east, and Perenesh in the west, covering a massive territory comprising the beginnings of contemporary Ukraine and western Russia. Prior to the mid-ninth century, the Slavic and Finnish tribes living in these territories were the subjects of the Varangians (Vikings). In the mid-ninth century, these tribes drove away the Vikings and attempted  to rule themselves. However, they were not able to rule themselves, as major internal conflict and civil war spread throughout the region. To resolve this matter, the Primary Chronicle states that they invited the Rus to rule them, and the Rus sent a ruler, Hroerki/Riurvykes, to lead the tribes (Magosci, 59–60).

The nascent state of Kyivan Rus was formed when Oleg, a Viking, attacked Smolensk and Kyiv, proclaiming himself leader of the region. Oleg then forced Slavic and Finnish tribes to unite. He made Kyivan Rus economically successful by attacking Constantinople and establishing a trade agreement in 911. It exempted Rus’ traders from tariffs and gave them a place to temporarily stay in Constantinople. Kyivan Rus traded furs, beeswax and honey with Constantinople as part of its agreement, which significantly helped Kyivan Rus economically. Kyivan Rus gained access to these goods by using a tribute system to extract resources from local tribes not incorporated in the state. The Rus’ use of the tribute system and its access to major trade networks in Europe contributed to its trading success.

Kyivan Rus faced more challenges under Igor, Oleg’s successor, than it did under Oleg. The East Slavic tribes that were under the tribute system began to dislike the Kyivan Rus because the goods traded under the tribute system were now taxed. Kyivan Rus’ territory was maintained, but it was more difficult to do so. The Pechenegs, a semi-nomadic Turkish tribe, caused challenges for Kyivan Rus by attacking the region twice, which, in turn, disrupted Kyivan and Byzantine relations. In response, the Rus attacked Constantinople in 941, but were defeated. This event led to a new treaty, which featured less favorable conditions for Kyivan Rus. The relationship between Kyivan Rus and the Byzantines would not be repaired until Igor’s widow, Olga, gained control of Kyivan Rus in 945.

Kyivan Rus experienced its golden age during the reign of Vladimir the Great. People paid tribute to the grand prince, but were otherwise completely autonomous from the authority of the state. Vladimir had converted to Orthodoxy, and many of his subjects followed his example. This movement exposed them to new forms of literature, introducing them to Greek philosophy, historiography, and new scientific principles. The Eastern Slavs formed their own forms of literature, which was distinct from the literature developing in other Slavic lands. This culture formed the basis for an evolving Ukrainian Identity (Magosci, 71-79).

Yaroslav (1019-1054), the next prince of Kyivan Rus, improved the cultural and administrative aspects of Kyivan Rus. He facilitated the rise of Christianity in Kyivan Rus by obtaining many Christian religious texts which were distributed throughout Kyivan Rus. Yaroslav also had Christian churches and monasteries built, designing the city of Kyiv in the style of major Byzantine cities, including Constantinople. This construction included the Cathedral of St. Sophia, which was based on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, as well as St. Andrews Church. He kept good relations with European powers while maintaining Kyivan Rus in good territorial standing.

Kyivan Rus started to decline after Yaroslav’s death, especially after adopting a new method of selecting a ruler. Under this new policy, the eldest member of the family would gain control of the state, a change that created a great power struggle within Kyivan Rus. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 also destabilized Kyivan Rus. The Crusades, a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims over sacred holy sites, caused European trade routes to shift, which negatively affected the state of Kyivan Rus (Magosci, 81-84).

During the twelfth century, clans broke away from Kyivan Rus, which would further fracture it as a polity. The Republic of Novgorod controlled the Volga River trade route, which allowed it to develop into a stable city-state, although these developments negatively affected Kyivan Rus. In 1136, Novgorod revolted against Kyivan Rus and became independent. Slavs from the Kyivan region settled in the northeast region of the territory and merged with the Finnish tribes there to form the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal. In 1169, Prince Andrey Bogolyubskiy of Vladimir-Suzdal attacked Kyiv and asserted himself as grand prince. To the southwest region of the Kyivan Rus, the city of Halych developed trading relationships with the Polish, Hungarian and Lithuanian peoples nearby. They were successful enough to become the local successor to Kyivan Rus. Soon after, the Mongol invasion of 1237 – 1240 would mark the end of Kyivan Rus, since the Mongols took land from any clans occupying Kyivan Rus’ territory.

In the centuries following Mongol rule of the region, a group of militant nomads known as the Cossacks appeared on Ukrainian land. Eventually, they grew in both numbers and importance, and ultimately created an independent state: the Cossack Hetmanate. An autonomous polity that ruled much of modern-day Ukraine and was vital in the development of the modern Ukrainian identity, we felt it necessary to devote more than a couple of paragraphs to the legacy of the Cossacks. Chapter 2 will cover the history, relevance, and importance of the Cossacks today.

Several centuries after the Mongols were the Partitions of Poland, a series of historical events that shaped Ukraine. They ultimately led Russia to control much of the territory of modern-day Ukraine for hundreds of years. The three Partitions of Poland in the last third of the 18th century divided Polish territory among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires, and removed the Polish state from the map of Europe for over a century.

The first partition was the result of a weak system of government in Poland, with an elected king who was ineffective and officials who would not take responsibility for their actions. The liberum veto also contributed to Poland’s vulnerability by allowing a ruling magnate to veto a proposed action, thus granting one person power to prevent the government from taking any action at all. This form of radical democracy paralyzed the Polish government, which in turn left it open to attack from neighboring countries in possession of strong militaries and formidable leaders. On August 5, 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria proclaimed the First Partition of Poland, which distributed much of Poland’s territory among the three powers, effectively decreasing the Polish population by one-half as they were now under the jurisdiction of a different country. Additionally, the first partition decreased Poland’s territory by one-third, granting Polish territory east of the Dnieper River to Russia, parts of Great Poland to Prussia, and large segments of Galicia and Little Poland to Austria.

The Second Partition of Poland was carried out by Russia and Prussia, which signed an agreement on January 23, 1793. In this round of annexations, Russia gained a major part of Lithuanian Belorussia and other regions of Ukraine, including Podolia and parts of Volhynia. Prussia gained control of territories including Gdansk, Torún and Great Poland. From March to November 1794, Tadeysz Kósciuszko, a Polish military officer, led a national uprising to protest the partition, which he saw as a theft being conducted by major powers. In response, Russia and Prussia sent forces into Poland and successfully stopped the insurrection.

On October 24, 1795, an agreement known as the Third Partition of Poland was made between Austria, Prussia, Russia and Poland that divided the rest of Polish territory; however, it was not finalized until January 26, 1797. Once the Partition was settled, Russia acquired Courland, eastern Lithuanian territory, and Volhynian Ukraine. Prussia received part of Polish Mazovia, including the city of Warsaw, and some of the western Lithuanian territories. A section of Little Poland stretching from Kraków to the Northern Bug River was then transferred to Austria. This final participation resulted in the dissolution of the Polish state, and gave Russia control over most of modern-day Ukraine. These events allowed Russia to spread its influence throughout Ukraine, including the future territories of the USSR. This cultural and territorial expansion has been a primary component of modern Russia’s claims on Ukraine that Russian leaders have cited as a justification for the ongoing war today.

Before the first World War, control of Ukraine was split between the Russian Empire and the Austrian Habsburg domains. During the war, Ukraine attempted to gain its independence from Russia, and it received assistance from the Central Powers to do so in exchange for food. While successful in gaining independence, it was short-lived, only lasting from late 1917-1921. After the German Empire was defeated by the Entente in 1918, the newly instated Bolshevik Russian Red Army invaded former Russian lands and established temporary communist puppet governments in their place until power was consolidated in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Red Army toppled the nascent Ukrainian state as part of this effort. Around this time, Western Ukraine, which had been part of Austria-Hungary until its dissolution after the First World War, declared itself an independent state and sought to unify all of Ukraine. In the wars of consolidation occurring throughout Eastern Europe in this period between 1918-1921, Russia took over the entirety of Ukraine. This was the first time Ukraine had been united under a single government for centuries, even though it was by an occupying foreign power.

Ukraine remained part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. During Joseph Stalin’s 25-year rule, Ukraine was forcibly industrialized, having been a largely agrarian region until 1930. This process of industrialization across the Soviet Union, combined with collectivization efforts to consolidate farming and redistribute food, led to a massive, state-sponsored famine in Ukraine known as the Holodomor. The Holodomor killed some four million Ukrainians (according to historian Timothy Snyder, although other estimates range between three and ten million), and incited a new nationalist movement in Ukraine to overthrow Soviet control. The sheer disregard for human life in Ukraine on the part of the Russian-controlled, Soviet government was a driving cause for the independence movement.

During World War II, many Ukrainians were hopeful that Germany would help to liberate Ukraine, but after the German occupation of Western Ukraine, their rule was deemed as bad if not worse than the Soviets’. In the wake of World War II, the entirety of Eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union, and attempted uprisings (such as those in Hungary in 1956, the Czech Republic in 1968, and Poland in 1981) were suppressed by the Soviet government. The Ukrainian independence movement continued to gain strength, however, resulting in the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since that time, the Russian Federation has tried to reclaim many former Soviet territories, including the state of modern Ukraine, which it has done through armed conflicts in southern and eastern Ukraine (Crimea, Donbass, and Luhansk) in 2014 and its full-scale invasion of the country in 2022.

When asked why Russia has attacked Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has claimed that the Ukrainians and Russians are one people — “brotherly nations” — and since Russia is the larger and more powerful country, it should be in charge. Ukraine’s history helps to explain why Putin advances this view: given centuries of Russian imperial expansion into Ukraine and colonial practices that have made modern Ukraine a bilingual country (Ukrainian and Russian), Russia’s claims that “we are one” obscure both the astonishing violence that have accompanied its attempts at unification, as well as Ukraine’s persistent identity as a separate, independent people.

Ukraine’s geography could also be one of Putin’s unexplained motives. Ukraine is a major trading hub with access to trade routes in the Mediterranean Ocean; it is also the largest exporter of grain in the world. Putin may want these resources to boost its oil- and gas-dependent economy. However, this does not make Ukraine a part of Russia. Ukraine has developed its own national identity over the course of a millennium, despite immense and ongoing pressures to submit to Russian rule. That Ukrainians are fighting for their lives to maintain their independence, and at such an incredibly high human cost, is evidence of their autonomy.


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Being Ukraine by Dexter Greer and Zach Stoddard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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