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A History of Ukraine

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

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Land of No Mountains

Researchers view Ukraine as a political state and also as an ethnolinguistic region that expands beyond the country’s political boundaries. 603700 square kilometres is the size of this country which is larger than any other country in Europe except Russia. One irony of the ongoing war that Russia has started in Ukraine is this- the two largest countries in Europe have become parties to an unnecessary and illogical war, not to mention the cost of innocent human lives. 750800 is the area of Europe where Ukrainians live and this territory extends outside the country of Ukraine. Ukrainian communities can be found in Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, and Russia. Geographically, the majority of this ethnolinguistic group of people live either in the planes of rivers or sea costs. Paul Robert Magocsi in his book, ‘A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its People’, quotes a geographer from Ukraine, Stepan Rudnytskyi, saying, “Nine-tenths of Ukrainians have certainly never seen a mountain and do not even know what one looks like.” Of course, the Carpathians and the Crimean mountains line their borders but only 5% of the Ukrainian region is protected by mountains, a factor that makes the country vulnerable and leaves an open invitation to the invaders.


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The Fertile Food Bowl

Ukraine is a land of rivers and hence one of the most fertile lands in Europe. Dniester, Southern Buh, Dnieper, Donets, Danube, Tyza, and Kuban, all mighty rivers capable of watering large territories make the land of Ukraine a paradise of agriculture. The moderate temperature that prevails across the country is another blessing of nature that makes this country the food basket of Europe.


The Beautiful Ukraine Steppe

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The Story of Kyiv

Apart from the Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Moldovians and Greeks and many more ethnic communities populate Ukraine. This country has been conquered and appended by many Empires- the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Kingdom and later, the Soviet Union, in a different sense. Paul Robert Magocsi observes there are multitudinous viewpoints when it comes to defining Ukrainian nationality and they are, the “Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Soviet viewpoints.” Anyway, all these viewpoints trace back to a common tale, the history of Kyiv.


The Encyclopaedia Britannica dates the human inhabitation of the region known as Kyiv to the late Palaeolithic era, which is 40000 to 15000 years ago. In 3000 BCE, this was home to the Neolithic people. Kyiv is supposed to be founded in the 6th or 7th century by the three brothers, Kyi, Shchek, and Khoryv. The kingdom was named Kyiv after the elder brother, Kyi. By the mid-ninth century, the Vikings seized power in Kyiv. Under a Slavo-Varangian (Vikings) rule, developed and flourished the early Slav townships. The Eastern Slavic state of Kyivan Rus was soon established when Oleg, the ruler of Novgorod captured Kyiv and made it his capital. However, continuous wars and scuffles raged between the rulers of Kyiv and the warrior tribes who inhabited the Steppe (the grasslands of Eastern Europe). The 12th-century invasion of Kyiv by the Mongols was devastating and resulted in the destruction of the city and the genocide of the population.


In 1362, Kyiv still in ruins came under the rule of Lithuania. The Tatar tribe of the Steppe still came to attack this declining town frequently. In 1569, under a pact between Poland and Lithuania, Kyiv was handed over to Poland. The 17th century saw the dawn of Ukrainian nationalism against the rule of Poland. The Zaporozhian Cossacks led this resistance war but it eventually led to the transfer of Kyiv to Russia even as Poland retained some parts of it. The Ukrainian nationalists continued their struggle against the rule of the Russian Tsars. Gradually, this resistance merged with the larger resistance that was happening in Russia against the Tsar Emperors.


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The Soviet Era

The 1917 Russian revolution under Vladimir Ilyanovich Lenin integrated Ukraine into the newly formed Soviet Union as the Ukrainians were also part of the revolution. It was at that moment the Ukrainian Republic was formally established. All the above facts of history embolden the present Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to argue that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation and it never has been. It is also a fact that from the time of the 1917 revolution onwards, a group of Ukrainians had demanded an independent Ukraine. Stalin had even blamed the Ukrainian nationalists for all the problems he was facing in that region.


Glorified imagery exists regarding the role of Ukraine in the communist revolution and its culmination is the movie, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, by Sergei Eisenstein in which the sailors revolting against the authoritarian regime of Russia is visualized on the steps of Odesa, a coastal town of Ukraine. The martyrdom of common Ukrainian people on the Odesa steps turned into the iconic image of the Russian revolution. Once the revolution was won and a communist government took over Moscow, what the Soviet Union attempted was to take control of the land and turn the nomadic and agricultural communities of Ukraine into factory workers. The small farmers lost control of their land and produce. When the transformation into collective farming resulted in poor production, Stalin blamed the people of Ukraine and seized whatever food grains were produced there, leaving the Ukrainian people to starve and die. The time was the early 1930s. 3.9 million people lost their lives to the ensuing famine in Ukraine.


During the Second World War, the war zone is centred around Ukraine, and the people of this region suffered most from its inhumanities. Still, at a point when Germany seemed almost to take control of the Ukrainian region, the Moscow leadership began to doubt the loyalty of Ukrainians. Afterwards, the Russianisation of Ukraine remained a pet project for the leaders of the Soviet Union. The Chornobyl nuclear accident occurred in 1986. How the top leadership of the Soviet Union downplayed the nuclear disaster to save face did not go well with the Ukrainians who suffered indescribably from the radioactive fallout. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a referendum was held in Ukraine which unquestionably reflected the aspiration of the Ukrainians for political independence.


The Ukrainian Steppe and the Black Sea that lines its shores have carried many invasions to the Ukrainian land. With great resilience, the people survived on. Let us hope this beautiful land of natural abundance and cultural richness survives this crisis too.


References

A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its People, Paul Robert Magocsi, 2010.

History of Kyiv, Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Real and Imagined History of Ukraine, An Interview Between Noel King and Timothy Snyder published in Vox, Feb 25, 2022.


© 2022 Deepa

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