A Ukrainian History – (Part 1)

Confucius said "Study the past if you would define the future", so in our latest installment from Lydia we have part 1 of our Ukrainian history lessons - hopefully learning the history of the place we will be visiting in May will help us all make the most of our trip.

Given that the history of a country is not easily covered in 500 words or less, I thought I would do this in two parts. Part 1 covers up to the 19th century and Part 2 will cover modern political history. Please keep in mind that this history is being written by a Ukrainian, not a Russian. (Not only is history written by the victors, it is also written by nationalists!)

Pre-Christian History

Modern human settlement in Ukraine dates back to 32,000 BC. Trypillians introduced grain farming (and we all know how important that is in Ukraine, right?!) as early as 4,500 BC. Horses were domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes of Ukraine around the same time. Ukrainian soil hosted kingdoms, invasions and settlements of Scythians, Goths, Huns and Bulgars. The northern shores of the Black Sea were settled by colonies from Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire. By the 7th century AD, the Khazars (a Turkic people) took over the southern regions of Ukraine and developed major commercial routes: Khazaria became one of the foremost trading emporia of the medieval world, commanding the Silk Road and the crossroad between China, the Middle East and Kievan Rus for almost 3 centuries.

Kievan Rus

In the meantime, Kievan Rus, a loose federation of East Slavic tribes, had established itself by the late 9th century and became the major political and cultural centre of Eastern Europe. Then, between 965 and 969, the Kievan Rus’ ruler Svyatoslav I conquered Khazaria. In 988 Vladimir the Great adopted Byzantine Christianity for the kingdom (that’s basically the Orthodox religion from Greece). At its height in the mid-11th century, Kievan Rus’ territory extended from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north. The state weakened in the 12th century after the death of Yaroslav the Wise and the collapse of Constantinople.

The Mongols (and the Tartars)

Kievan Rus collapsed totally when the Mongols invaded in the 1230s, finally storming Kiev in 1240. Principalities were forced to submit to the Golden Horde (as the western section of the Mongol empire was known), some up until 1480. It was this invasion – and the subsequent breakup of Kievan Rus – which divided the East Slavic people into 3 separate nations: modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

It was also this invasion which contributed to the long-term establishment of the Tatars in Ukraine. However, this term requires some unpacking. Tartars themselves were a nomadic confederation in the north-eastern Gobi desert in the 5th century. They were subjugated by the Mongols and then moved westward as the Mongol Empire expanded. The Tartar clan (in its purist form) still exists among the Mongols and Hazaras (Persian speaking people in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

The Crimean Tartars coalesced as an ethnic group in the 15th century, possibly as a merger of descendants of any or all of the pre-15th century inhabitants of Crimea and the Crimean steppes - Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Scythians, Goths, Khazars – with the incoming people of the Golden Horde.

But Russians and Europeans began using the term “Tartar” when referring to Turkic peoples under Mongol rule. Later the term came to be associated with the Turkic Muslims of Ukraine and Russia. There are many Turkic peoples residing in both Russia and Ukraine, some of whom still use “Tartar” to self-identify, such as the Crimean Tartars.

Foreign domination

After the devastation of the Mongol invasion, several principalities of south-west Rus managed to unite under the capital Kiev and the freshly-crowned King Danylo I of Galicia; and for awhile it was a powerful state in east central Europe.

In the mid-14th century, Poland’s King Casimir III decided it would be a good idea to take King Danylo’s territory while the heartland of Rus, including Kiev, became the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Meanwhile, in 1441, a Genghisid prince Haci I Giray founded the Crimean Khanate, a Turkic vassal state of the Ottoman Empire that succeeded the Golden Horde, in southern Ukraine which lasted until the 18th century. (At one point it even captured and devastated Moscow).

In 1569 a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth transferred much Ukrainian territory from Lithuania to Poland. It was during this period that many of the landed gentry in this region converted to Catholicism and became indistinguishable from the Polish nobility. This was formalised in the Union of Brest-Litovsk of 1596 which broke the western part of Ukraine away from the Eastern Orthodox Church and divided Ukrainians into Orthodox and Catholics. The peasants, deprived of their native protectors, turned to the emerging Cossacks who proceeded to take up arms against Poland over the next hundred or so years.

A Cossack military quasi-state formed in conjunction with the peasants who had fled Polish serfdom. In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytsky led the largest of the Cossack uprisings against Poland. He then entered Kiev where he was hailed as a liberator and founded the Cossack Hetmanate. However, he suffered a crushing defeat in 1651 and turned to the Russian tsar for help. The Treaty of Pereyasav of 1654 formed a military and political alliance with Russia that acknowledged loyalty to the Russian tsar but which Russia interpreted to mean they could just move on in.

From 1657-1686, a devastating 30-year war amongst Russia, Poland, the Crimean Khanate and Cossacks for control of Ukraine ensued. Eventually, Russia and Poland divided Ukrainian lands between them. The Cossack hetmanate continued in some form until 1764 when Russia decided Cossacks had too much autonomy and abolished it.

As part of partitioning Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795, Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper River were divided between Russia and Austria and parts of western Ukraine entered the Austro-Hungarian Empire (until 1918). Then in 1783 Russia annexed Crimea and resettlement of Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula followed. At a later period, tsarists established a policy of Russification, suppressing the use of the Ukrainian language in print and in public.

n interesting footnote to the Cossack Hetmanate history is the 1710 Constitution of Rights and Freedoms which established a standard for the separation of powers: it limited the executive authority of the hetman and established a democratically elected Cossack parliament. The Constitution was one of the first state constitutions in Europe.