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History Minute: A brief history of Ukraine

by Bradly Gill | February 23, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

As of this writing, Ukraine and Russia appear on the brink of war. The deployment of thousands of Russian troops along the border of Ukraine has become the most serious crisis facing Europe since the end of the Cold War. If a war were to occur, it could have consequences that affect the United States. This is not the first potential clash in the region. Russia and Ukraine have a joint history dating back centuries.

Ukraine began as a small nation centered around its capital at Kiev (or Kyiv), founded around 482. It expanded toward the Black Sea, which brought it into contact with the Byzantine Empire, a remnant of the Roman Empire centered in Greece, which allowed Christianity to spread to Ukraine. What became known as the Kievan Rus by the Middle Ages spread northward to what is now Belarus, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. This new, expanded country came to be called Ruthenia, but it withered away over the centuries. The dukes and warlords who seized control of Moscow in the 1300s formed the core of what became Russia and began expanding southward, claiming they were the rightful rulers of Ukraine.

Continuing invasions by the Mongols from the East disrupted both Russia and Ukraine; and Kiev even fell under Mongol control for a brief time. By the 1400s, western Ukraine fell under control of Poland, then the most powerful country in East Europe. By 1569, Poland had completed its conquest of Ukraine. Russia, however, was growing in strength and set its sights again on Ukraine. After years of warfare, by 1654, Russia had established a protectorate over Ukraine and began directly annexing eastern Ukraine by 1689. Under Russia's Catherine the Great, she took control of western Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula in the late 1700s, giving a small portion of western Ukraine to the Austrian Empire as a goodwill gesture. Ukraine would remain under Russian control until World War I though the two by now had separate languages and cultures.

World War I shattered Central and Eastern Europe. Ukraine itself was deeply divided, with Ukrainians fighting in both the Russian army and the Austro-Hungarian army. Thousands of people died, and innumerable villages were destroyed. Eventually, Germany invaded, taking large parts of Ukrainian territory. In the chaos, Ukrainians began scrambling for their independence from Russia, Germany, and Austria. With these larger empires disintegrating under the pressures of the war, Ukraine saw its chance and began its war of independence in 1917. Its independence was recognized by Germany in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. But the rise of the communists in neighboring Russia put Ukraine in new peril.

In 1919, Ukraine suddenly found itself overwhelmed. Competing factions fought for control of Ukraine, leading to the collapse of the government. The Russian communists pushed deep into Ukraine, and Kiev itself changed hands five times in the span of a year. The Russians installed Ukrainian communist insurgents as a new competing government in Ukraine, draining the new country's strength even further. In 1920, Ukraine allied with Poland, itself newly freed from Russian control, and the two struck back against the communists. The effort soon faltered into a stalemate, leaving Ukraine in a state of near-anarchy. By 1921, the fighting was over, and the Russian communists swept in, took control, and annexed Ukraine into the new Soviet Union.

But Russia wasn't finished with Ukraine. When Joseph Stalin took control of the Soviet Union in 1924, he was determined to dismantle the free farms in Ukraine and Russia and turn them all into communist-controlled collectives. The farmers were forcibly moved and production plummeted.

In 1932 and 1933 as a result of this agricultural disaster, a massive famine hit Ukraine; and Russia moved to make it even worse. Communist authorities forced Ukraine to continue to export its grains in spite of massive food shortages, effectively stealing what little food Ukrainians had. The amount of grains exported in 1932 would have fed 5 million people by one estimate. Food rations were cut. Any resistance by farmers was met by immediate execution. Reports of cannibalism emerged. Ukraine has since accused Russia of committing genocide. This man-made famine resulted in 5-7 million dead and is remembered as the Holodomor in Ukraine today.

The memories of the famine were still fresh when Nazi Germany attacked in 1941. Ukraine was caught between the brutality of Stalin and the brutality of the Nazis. Hating Stalin more, many Ukrainians fought on the German side in World War II. Ukraine was reabsorbed into the Soviet Union as Russian forces overran the Germans.

Ukraine most recently gained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it has been an uneasy independence, with Russia attempting to subvert Ukrainian independence and stability, taking control of Crimea in 2014, and inciting civil war in the Russian-dominated east. For Ukraine, it is part of an old playbook. But even in the most desperate of times, peace is always an alternative.

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