April 21, 2022
By Paul Scarlata
Above photo: Man and wife members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
The region of Eastern Europe known as Ukraine, first came upon the world scene in the late 9th century. Vikings from Sweden, known as the Varangians, traveled down the Dnipro river to the Black Sea in order to trade with the Byzantine Empire. They established settlements along the river which eventually grew into trading centers, assimilated with the local Slavic tribes and became known as the "Rus." They eventually became the ruling class of what was known as the Kyivan Rus, after their capital Kyiv ("Kiev" in Russian), and extended their control over the lucrative trade routes of the region resulting in Kyivan Rus becoming one of the largest and most powerful states in Eastern Europe. Under the Varangian Grand Duke Rurik, they extended their operations east and south as far as the Caspian Sea and in 998 Grand Duke Volodymyr the Great made Christianity the official state religion.
The Mongol invasions of the 13th century destroyed the Kyivan Rus state which broke up into small, competing principalities. [EDITOR’S NOTE: It is important to note that there was no Russia at this time, and it was not until 1277 that Moscow was created for the purpose of being a vassal region to Khan Mengu-Timur of the Golden Horde. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that area was inhabited by a collective people known as the Muscovites. After Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great, conquered the Mongols who also had control over Kyiv, he declared himself to be the Grand Prince of all Rus. The county’s name Muscovy eventually evolved into The Tsardom of Russia in 1547, and then into the Russian Empire in 1721 by Perter the Great. The Kyivan Rus people eventually changed their people’s name to Ukrainian in order to differentiate themselves from the newly-named Russian people. One of the “competing principalities” mentioned previously was the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia (pronounced Halytsko-Volynske in Ukrainian) which was never conquered by Muscovy, and although it retained Kyivan Rus/Ukrainian customs, ethnicity and identity, it was conquered and absorbed into Poland in 1349 when it was known as the Kingdom of the Rus/ Kingdom of Ruthenia. Ukrainians, decedents of the Kyivan Rus people, are not the “Little Brother” of Russians and have a distinctly different ethnicity, culture, language, and history than that of modern-day Russians.]
The 14th century saw Ukraine divided up between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Deprived of native protectors from the Rus nobility, the commoners began turning for protection to the Zaporozhian Kozaks (Cossacks) who were devoutly Orthodox and saw the Catholic Lithuanians and Poles and Muslim Crimean Tatars as enemies. They created a Cossack state, the Hetmanate, and established a vassal relationship with Moscow in 1654 in which they received money and arms in return for guarding the borders against Crimean Tatar and Ottoman raids.
For the next two centuries Ukrainians, Cossacks, Poles, Lithuanians, Turks, Tatars, Swedes and Muscovites fought over control of Ukraine. After the Partitions of Poland (1772–1795) and the Russian conquest of the Crimean Khanate, Russia and Austria-Hungary were in control of all the territories that constitute present day Ukraine for a hundred years.
Moscow accepted the Ukrainian elite into the Russian nobility and Church and there were periodic attempts to "Russify" the region by outlawing the use of the Ukrainian language in schools, newspapers and government while Ukrainian peasants were drafted into the Tsar's army.
In the 19th century, Ukraine was a rural area whose rich black soil and farmlands made it the "breadbasket of Europe." With growing urbanization and modernization, a Ukrainian intelligentsia committed to national rebirth and social justice led to a growing nationalist movement.
The outbreak of WWI in 1914 had immediate repercussions for the Ukrainian subjects of both Russia and Austria-Hungary. In Russia, Ukrainian organizations were suppressed and prominent figures arrested or exiled. As Russian forces advanced into Austrian Galicia (a.k.a. Western Ukraine) the retreating Austrians executed thousands of Ukrainians for suspected pro-Russian sympathies.
After occupying Galicia, tsarist authorities took steps to incorporate it into the Russian Empire. They prohibited the Ukrainian language, as well as some Ukrainian customs, and closed down institutions, but the Russification campaign, which was comprised of replacing Ukrainian culture and history with Russian culture and history, was cut short by the Austrian re-conquest in spring 1915. Western Ukraine, however, continued to be a theatre of military operations and suffered greatly.
The Russian Revolution of February 1917 brought into power the Provisional Government, which introduced freedom of speech and assembly and lifted the tsarist restrictions on minorities. National life in Ukraine quickened with the revival of a Ukrainian press and the formation of cultural and professional associations, as well as political parties.
In March, the Central Rada (“Council”) was formed in Kyiv as a Ukrainian representative body and the following month the Central Rada was declared the highest national authority with the stated goal of territorial autonomy for Ukraine within a federal Russian republic.
Disputes over territorial jurisdiction and political prerogatives soon arose. In the Russified cities of eastern Ukraine, the Rada had to compete with the increasingly radical workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.
Ukrainian-Russian relations deteriorated rapidly following the Bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg on November 7, 1917. The Central Rada refused to accept the new regime’s authority over Ukraine and on November 20th proclaimed the creation of the Ukrainian National Republic. The Bolsheviks declared Ukraine to be a Soviet republic and formed a rival government.
The Central Rada began peace negotiations with Germany from whom it hoped for military assistance and proclaimed the total independence of Ukraine on January 22, 1918 resulting in Soviet troops occupying Kyiv. On February 9th, Ukraine and the Central Powers signed the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. A German-Austrian offensive drove the Bolsheviks from Kyiv in early March, and the Rada government returned to the capital.
The socialist policies of the Rada conflicted with the interest of the Germans who wanted to maximize the production of foodstuffs for its own war effort. On April 29, 1918, the Rada was overthrown in a German-supported coup led by Gen. Pavlo Skoropadsky who declared himself "Hetman of Ukraine." With the defeat and withdrawal of the Central Powers the Hetman quickly decided to "abdicate."