In this article Stevan Bozanich provides us with some of the historical context to the current problems in Ukraine by looking at three ages in Ukrainian history: the Middle Ages, the Great War, and the very recent past.


Quite often it is helpful to view current events within their historical context in order to understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ things have come about. The events occurring in Ukraine at the moment are no different. Many media reports speak of an East-West divide, with Russian and Western interests vying for control within Ukraine. While this is partially true, this only tells a part of the story. There are a number of other factors involved, but to understand them all a little better, the wider context needs to be seen.

Maidan protests in Kiev. January 2014. Picture: Mikola Vacelychko

Maidan protests in Kiev. January 2014. Picture: Mikola Vacelychko

Ukraine: Middle Ages to Imperial Russia

Russian and Ukrainian historical and religious identity is traced through a Slavic identity. To Russia the unity of this identity is important and an inseparable element of this identity is Ukraine. In the Middle Ages a confederacy known as the Kievan Rus, an Christian Orthodox group of Slavs, emerged roughly within the modern-day borders of Ukraine. This group was overrun by the Mongols in the 13th century and forced to disperse. Some of them ended up in modern-day Russia, others remained within modern-day Ukraine and made up other parts of other nations such as Belarus. From the 14th to the 16th centuries the people in modern-day Ukraine were controlled by Polish and Lithuanian principalities, and then overrun by Cossacks in the 17th century. With the rise of Russia as an imperial power, a thirty year struggle ensued between Russia, Poland, Turkey, and the Cossacks for control of fertile Ukrainian land. In this struggle everything west of the Dnieper River, which runs through Kiev, went to Poland while everything east went to Russia. By the end of the 18th century Poland itself would be partitioned and the Polish territories of Ukraine would be further divided between Austria and Russia. The Austrian lands became “Ruthenia” and the Russian lands became “Little Russia”; the term “Ukraine” was outlawed within the Russian territories.


First World War

Through the period of Imperial Russia, the idea of Ukraine as a ‘nation’ was non-existent. It was not until the twentieth century, and more specifically around the Great War, that Ukrainian national identity began to be discussed among literate peoples. This urban literate class pushed for the Ukrainian language in schools, newspapers, and books. They also pushed for land reforms and civil rights tied to Ukrainian language-usage. With these social reforms, the people of Ukraine were granted access to schools, courts, and political representation. In 1917, during the First World War, these reforms faced opposition from Russians within these territories and the Russian government. The Ukrainian nationalist movement looked to Russia’s enemies in the Great War, Germany and Austria, for help. This led Germany and Austria to offer assistance to Ukrainian nationalists. Soon enough though, Russia capitulated to Germany with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, effectively removing the country from the war.

With Russia’s defeat Germany granted Ukraine independence through a puppet government that was subordinate to Germany and obligated to supply Germany food from its rich land. Then, as Germany itself faced defeat at the hands of Great Britain and the United States, it was forced to withdraw from Ukrainian lands. As a power vacuum ensued, Polish troops moved in along with Western-backed White Army troops and Russian-backed Red Army troops. This tripartite annexation was important for the ongoing Russian Civil War. The Ukrainian nationalist cause had the smallest slice of the pie, so to speak. By 1921 the Bolsheviks had won the civil war and at the Soviet-Polish Treaty in Riga, Ukrainian territory was once again partitioned. Within Russian-held lands, the Ukrainian nationalists who had sided with Germany and Austria were punished. Josef Stalin, for example, starved the people of Ukraine for their push for independence in what many nations recognize to be a genocide.


In a Modern Context

Ukrainians lived under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for the majority of the 20th century. Upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine was granted independence and its borders drawn using its republic status within the USSR. Because of this, the country is divided amongst Ukrainians, Russians, Tartars, and other ethnic groups. For example, in a recent census, 77% of the population claims Ukrainian ethnicity and 17% Russian ethnicity. In areas closer to the Russian border, the number of Russian speakers becomes the majority. Certainly this is part of the division within Ukraine and many media outlets have picked up on this East-West divide.

However, the problems in Ukraine are deeper than merely East-West. In Donetsk, the former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich stronghold in the far east of Ukraine, approximately 5,000 people participated in the protests in Kiev against the new, pro-Western government. Certainly this is proof of matters being deeper than an arbitrary geopolitical divide. Another region within Ukraine, and one that has been in the news a lot lately as well, is Crimea. In the north of Crimea many people claim to be ethnic Ukrainians, are bilingual and have some Ukrainian loyalty. In the center and south of the peninsula, Tartars make up 15-20% of the population, speak Russian, oppose Russian annexation, and support the Ukrainian revolution. These statistics speak against suggestions of partition along east-west boundaries. No partition would be acceptable to any portion of the population.

With Ukraine caught in the middle of an east-west push and pull, through several annexations and partitions, and a muddled ethno-linguistic population, the current events in Ukraine are convoluted and confusing. While no answers can be found as yet, putting the events occurring in Ukraine within their correct historical context helps us to understand how and why these events are unfolding. History can sometimes offer us an answer to today’s problems, but not always. What history can always do, however, is offer us answers to how we got there.


What do you think about events in Ukraine? How does history help us explain the situation? Comments below.


This article is by Stevan Bozanich. You can read more about Russian history by clicking here to read about the fall and rise of the Russian Orthodox Church.



Selected References

  • Rodric Braithwaite, “Ukraine Crisis: No wonder Vladimir Putin says Crimea is Russian,”
  • Glen Kates, “The Conflict in Ukraine: More Complex Than You Might Think,”
  • Walter G. Moss, <em>A History of Russia, Volume I: To 1917</em>, (London: Anthem Press, 2005).
  • Alexander Motyl, “A House United,”
  • Brian Whitmore, “Is it Time for Ukraine to Split Up?”



AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones