Primer: Who are the Ukrainians?


The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one more chapter in the long and painful history of a region marked by conflict and shifting borders.  The name itself means “borderland.” Americans are likely to find its history confusing and horrific, as indeed it is.  Some history is necessary. 

Ukraine is on the rolling Eurasian steppes reaching from Austria to Manchuria, home to several species of migratory humans.  These roaming tribes domesticated the horse on the Kazakh steppe 5,000 years ago.  Ancient Greeks traded with nomadic Cimmerians, Sarmatians, and Scythians at northern Black Sea ports, some of which survive as the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Sebastopol, and Kerch.

Religion also defines and stains Ukraine’s history.  The ruling elite of the semi-nomadic Khazars converted to Judaism in the 8th century AD.  In the 9th century, migrating Turkic-speaking Bulgars settling along the Volga and on the Crimean Peninsula adopted Islam, as did later Tatars.  The Russ or Ruotsi, “rowers” – a mix of Balts, Scandinavians, and eastern Slavs, who made their capital at Khyv (in Russian, Kiev), now Ukraine’s capital – introduced Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantine Empire.

The name “Oukraina,” appearing in the 12th century, described nebulous frontier land beyond fortified borders.  That region became the source for a profitable trade in Slav captives (some 2 million traded into the Middle East from 1500 to 1700), the source of our word slave.

Ukraine’s mosaic of people lived between turbulent powers.  South was Asia Minor and Persia.  To the East, migratory tribes threatened, the most powerful being the Mongols whose Golden Horde dominated the steppe in the 13th century.  They were followed by the Osmanli Turks whose Ottoman Empire lasted from the 13th to the 20th centuries.  In the west, Byzantium introduced the Cyrillic alphabet and fostered trade among Slavic peoples, playing them against one another to ward off threats from nomads, the Kievan Russ and, further north, a newly expansive Duchy of Moscow.  

As Byzantium waned the Duchy of Lithuania coalesced to defeat the Golden Horde.  With a rising neighboring power, Poland, a Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth expanded further, taking Moscow briefly in the early 17th century.

Violence and plague accompanied this evolution.  In the 6th and 14th  centuries, bubonic plague carried by Venetian traders from the Crimea to Europe devastated the Black Sea littoral.  Large areas were depopulated, and Tatar survivors, joined by Eastern Slavs, settled in, taking the Tatar name Qazaq, a cognate of Khasar and Kazakh, “free men,” producing the term Cossacks.  They and serfs fleeing the Lithuanian/Polish Commonwealth formed independent, democratic, garrison communities. Being Muslim and Orthodox Christian, they resisted Catholic authority (or any other).

A crisis occurred in 1595 when Orthodox dioceses in the Commonwealth separated from the Orthodox Church, led by the Patriarch of Constantinople, to join the Roman church under the Pope.  In 1648, an Orthodox Cossack leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led a successful uprising and defeated the Commonwealth decisively.  With other Cossack leaders he developed an autocratic military government with him as its Hetman (Captain, Father) of the Zaporozhian Hetemate, named after the region below the rapids of the Dnieper River.  

By now Ukraine described a region. The Commonwealth retained much of modern Ukraine west of the river; the Hetemate straddled the central river.  Fighting continued, and five years later at the Council of Pereiaslav near Kyiv, the Cossack army council, needing a strong ally, asked Russian Tsar Alexei Michailovich of Moscow to serve as their protector.  This agreement is at the root of today’s conflict.

Moscow drove a hard bargain.  The Cossacks had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Tsar, who gave no corresponding oath.  Russia continued to fight the Commonwealth and Sweden, which had entered the fray eager for territory.  When the Tsar made a separate treaty with the Poles, neither Khmelnytsky nor his Cossacks was included.

Statues commemorate Khmelnytsky in Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine celebrates him as a national hero, featuring him on a banknote.  Russia honors him as the one who “re-unified” Ukraine with the motherland, presenting Russia as the legitimate heir of the Kievan Rus.  Poles blame him for ending the Commonwealth’s golden age.  Of the Jews, victimized by Cossack pogroms, the late Ukrainian-Canadian historian, Orest Subtelny, wrote, “The Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history.”  The Cossack leader looms in Chaim Potok’s modern novel, The Chosen, as the false Messiah.  

After the Council of Pereiaslav, Russia annexed territory surrounding Kyiv.  Depopulated land in the central and eastern Ukraine, called the Wild Fields, became the goal of Russian peasants fleeing serfdom.  In War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the peasants as traveling there by wagon train like American pioneers, seeking better lives.  They called it Novorossiya, “New Russia,” stretching 500 miles from the Donbas basin west to Romania. It was part of Russia’s “manifest destiny.” The name rolls off Putin’s tongue.

As an expanding Russia absorbed more ethnic groups, “Russification” – the process of cultural assimilation beginning in the 16th century with the Muslim Tatars – was employed to mitigate rebellion.  The Russian language was favored over local tongues in a polyglot empire, and Orthodoxy was privileged over Islam and western Christianity.  Europe-tilting Tsars like Peter and Catherine the Great, who sought to westernize Russia, provoked a reaction from Slavophiles, celebrating orthodoxy, autocracy, and a nationalism evoking the trappings of rural peasant life.

The Khmelnytsky uprising marked the first stirrings of Ukrainian nationalism. Russification in eastern Ukraine drove many Ukrainian intellectuals westward, but it also benefited the socially mobile such as nobility, merchants, and the intelligentsia.  Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian of Cossack descent who wrote in his native language, moved to St. Petersburg and found a larger Russian audience.  Leonid Pasternak, an impressionist painter from Odessa who took up study in Moscow, married another Odessan, Rosa Kaufman, and their son, the famous novelist Boris, was born in the capital in 1904.

Russia’s southern expansion was fueled by a need for a warm-water port and fear of European invasion.  The fear of the West was born out in the 19th century by Napoleon’s invasion and Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War when France and Great Britain allied with its old nemesis, the Ottoman Empire.  Despite outnumbering the Western allies whose supply lines stretched thousands of miles, Russia was defeated by incapacity and incompetence.  Inhabitants of the Crimea and the Black Sea littoral watched their forests being cut, crops destroyed, villages burned, and streams polluted as the whole area was made even more impoverished.   Responding to this defeat, Russia began to modernize, freeing millions of serfs.  

But if Ukraine suffered in the 19th century, nothing prepared it for the 20th.

In the new century, Russia’s wars with the Ottoman Empire continued. Russia’s support of Orthodoxy and Slavic nationalism led to the break-up of the empire’s territories. First to win independence were the Greeks in the 1820s, followed by the Slavic nations of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and others controlled by European dynasties.  The success of these breakaway Slavic nations inspired Ukrainian nationalists to contemplate independence, but murderous ethnic tensions in the Balkans ultimately blindsided that hope.

The result was that Ukrainian boundaries remained fluid.  White Russians (Belarus), Black Russians (Ruthenian peasants), Little Russians (Ukrainians) and Great Russians (Russians) occupied regions, and controled others in the west. Galicia, Podolia, Volhynia, and Ruthenia (“Ruthe” is medieval Latin for Russ, a term also applied to Ukrainians) passed among contending powers, as borders kept shifting.  By 1919 Ukraine briefly extended eastward across the Don and Volga rivers and south into the Caucasus.

In World War I Germany and Austria captured Ukraine, coveting its wheat.  Ukrainians fought on both sides in that war, and heavy fighting destroyed much of the infrastructure that  had developed.  In 1917 the Russian Tsar abdicated, the Bolsheviks seized power, and Imperial Russia collapsed.  A year later, the Central Powers forced the Bolsheviks to grant Ukraine independence, the source of Lenin’s “mistake” in Putin’s history. 

 Several groups attempted to organize a government – one in Kyiv, one in Lviv in western Ukraine, and another in Kharkiv in the east – but none survived.  

Germany surrendered in 1918, but by then civil war had engulfed Russia.  Bolshevik Leon Trotsky organized the Red Army to fight the opposing White Army, while in Ukraine local militias called Green Armies fought both Red and White Armies to survive.  Historian Subtelny wrote: “In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine.  Indeed, in the modern history of Europe, no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and the total collapse of authority.”  In a Ukraine population of about 30 million, 1.5 million died and millions more were injured.  Still worse was to come.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was organized in 1922, and Russia’s civil war ended a year later.  As part of the USSR, the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic changed repeatedly. Part of the west was absorbed into a newly reconstituted Poland, the new nations of Czechoslovakia and Romania, and the Socialist Republic of Moldova.  Russia kept the Crimean Peninsula.

As the Tsarist program of Russification ended, nationalities were encouraged to reclaim their language and culture.  State education raised literacy dramatically and Ukrainian publications proliferated.  With reconstruction, cities revived, medical care developed, and women more fully entered society.  Despite official atheism, a uniquely Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was allowed to grow at the expense of Russian Orthodoxy.  Similar liberalization took place in Jewish and Muslim populations. 

Fearing loss of control, the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin declared such programs “counterrevolutionary.” Terror compelled compliance. Centralized efforts to collectivize agriculture produced famine. With the loss of draft animals, harvests plummeted.  In response Moscow planners accelerated collectivization and inept bureaucracy sowed chaos.  Bad weather, harsh levels of grain exports, and wheat rust also set in. By 1932 famine gripped Ukraine and people died in the streets. Cannibalism, typhus, and cholera raged. Writer Arthur Koestler reported from a train station: “At every station was a crowd of peasants in rags, offering icons and linen in exchange for a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows—infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks.”

Ukraine’s death toll approached 4 million, mostly rural.  Refugees fled “Holodomor, Death by Hunger.” The horrors continued in 1939, as Moscow settled Russians in depopulated Zaporozhe, Luhansk, and Donetsk provinces, just as the Nazis invaded, bringing the Final Solution. Western and central Ukraine became a Reichkommissariat to provide land and resources for German settlers once the residing population had been eliminated. Millions more died. 

As Russian armies drove German forces out, devastated western regions were returned to a devastated Ukraine.  In 1954, Soviet Premier Khruschev returned to Ukraine the Crimean Peninsula. Ruin was rebuilt, but survivors’ memory of horror remains strong.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine became independent on August 24, 1991, confirmed by the vote of more than 90 percent of its citizens, 56 percent in majority- Russian Crimea.  Prior years of independence can be counted on fingers: 1648 to 54, 1917 to 21, so skills in self-governance were scarce.  Old corruption became new corruption, and since independence the country’s population (presently 44 million) declined due to emigration, chronic illness, and a dropping birth rate. 

The legacy of genocide also dampens optimism.  In 1941 Stalin accused Crimean Tatars of collaborating with Nazis and deported 200,000 in cattle cars to Central Asia, killing more than half of these victims.  A third of Europe’s Jews once lived in Ukraine, where their 10 million population was a third of the nation’s people. Pogroms perpetrated by Ukrainians and Russians had been endemic.  At Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv, Nazis murdered 34,000 Jews.  By 1943 another 100,000 – Roma, other ethnic groups, and psychiatric patients — met death there.  Today Jews in Ukraine number less than 400,000. 

Industrial pollution ravaged the environment.  After the war Babi Yar ravine became a reservoir for industrial waste, and the 1961 collapse of its earthen dam sent debris into a dense neighborhood, killing thousands more.  The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster still absorbs 6 percent of government spending in Ukraine and Belarus.  Estimated years before the 1,000 square-mile exclusion zone around the radioactive ruin can become habitable range from 320 to 20,000.

Today half a million Muslims from many regions live in Ukraine, and its young President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish.  The exclusion zone, one of Europe’s largest nature preserves, shows increased biodiversity supporting bear, moose, European bison, the wild Prezwalsky’s horse and lynx.  Plant biochemist Stuart Thompson writes: “The burden brought by radiation at Chernobyl is less severe than the benefits reaped from humans leaving the area.” 

How to sort this out today? Called Russia’s breadbasket, Russia’s fear of its loss is real.  Fearful, too, is the prospect of NATO’s eastern border, less than 700 miles from Moscow, which would become less than 300 should Ukraine join the alliance.  After Putin’s invasion, it is hard to imagine it not joining NATO for its own survival.  Putin may conquer it, but U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq warns he cannot hold it.  Is Ukraine a region, a borderland, or a nation?  Ukrainians and Russians have intermarried for generation, and today Ukrainian, not Russian, is the language used in schools and civic life. 

As the USSR collapsed, Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned his compatriots to keep Ukraine but give up the Caucasian and Central Asian republics.  But he also understood that the decision to stay or remain rested with the historically aggrieved.  In his 1991 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Rebuilding Russia,” he wrote that “only the local population can decide the fate of their locality, of their region, while each newly formed ethnic minority in that locality should be treated with the same non-violence.”   Such forbearance will require wisdom and good will.

But as violence and death mount, wisdom and good will wilt. In Ukraine, nothing has been or ever may be simple, so addressing its deep problems seems a fearfully difficult task.  As they have in the past, its borders may change 


  1. Exceptional! Thank you for this very excellent backgrounder on the history, tribes, and territorial landmass which circumscribe contemporary Ukraine.

  2. Thanks so much for the history lesson. David. So much that our history classes have neglected. We were too busy learning about kings and popes and what we called Western Civilization, Russia and the East not so much. Should keep your primer on hand.


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