Ukraine is a large, powerful Eastern European nation that has long struggled to balance the influence of two different cultures, that of the Ukrainian-speaking, Byzantine/Roman Catholic West, and the more Russian-speaking, Orthodox East.  The nation is also home to a variety of mountain-dwelling ethnic groups such as the Hutsuls (who we’ll visit this week in dance and song), while at the same time boasting the rapidly modernizing and increasingly European city of Kiev.  It’s a country of contradictions — as most are — but it’s also one whose people have endured a millennium of war, famine, and almost every other hardship yet have somehow survived to fight another day.

In the 9th century the nation we now know as Ukraine was mainly home to Eastern Slavic tribes until the Rus’ people (also known as Varangians or, sometimes, Vikings) swept down from the north, populated the city of Kiev and transformed the area into the empire called Kievan Rus’.  The people of Kievan Rus’ adopted Byzantine Orthodox Christianity in 988 and spread eastward to lay the groundwork for the Russian Empire.  (Essentially, Ukrainians and Russians share the same ancestry.)  Kievan Rus’ was the most powerful state in Europe for about two centuries until a 13th century Mongol invasion destroyed it.  After that, the general area belonged to successive principalities with impressive names like Galich, Voldvmyr-Volvnskvi and Galica-Volhvnia.  Still, life there was never quite the same.

Several hundred years of foreign rule followed — by Russia, by Turks, by Poland (which converted most of the Rus to Catholocism) and by Cossacks (who were fiercely Orthodox and lashed out against the Catholic Poles).  From 1657-1686 there was even a period know as “The Ruin,” during which all of those powers fought to rule Ukraine.  By the the 18th century Austria ruled some of the land but Russia controlled the rest, “Russifying” to suppress Ukrainian language and culture.  That wouldn’t be the last time.

Still, Ukrainians pressed on.  During World War I Ukrainians fought both for the Austrian side (the Central Powers) against the Russian side (the Triple Entente) and vice versa.  Not surprisingly, no matter who won the war, many Ukrainians lost.  The western part of Ukraine become part of Poland and the Russian-dominated East joined the USSR as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the earliest years of Soviet rule many Ukrainians approved of the USSR’s campaigns to bring workers’ rights, universal healthcare, education, the right to housing and relative gender equality to the land.  The USSR even briefly supported a Ukrainian linguistic and cultural revival.  Much of this approval disappeared during Stalin’s rule, starting in the mid ’20s — forced collectivization, political and anti-intellectual purges and devastating famine were not nearly as popular.

When the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland in 1939 they split it in two, reuniting western Ukraine with the east under Soviet rule.  Ukrainians rejoiced for a split second, then faced several more years of ruin during World War II.  In the years following the War Ukrainians somehow kept going forward; Russia invested greatly in Ukraine’s economy and the workforce rapidly expanded.  However, political purges continued, and Russia also expanded its policy of forced deportation of Ukrainians and forced immigration of millions of Russians.

In 1991 the end of the USSR finally resulted in true Ukrainian independence!  Hope abounded…then Ukraine’s economy collapsed.  Still resilient, the Ukrainian people rebuilt and emerged from eight years of economic misery to chart impressive financial growth…until 2008, when the economy disintegrated again.  Politically, Ukraine appears torn between continuing a tight relationship with Russia and fundamentally integrating into Europe.  After a decade of rule by the controversial Leonid Kuchma, who breathed new life into Ukrainian-Russian relations, the hope of elections in 2004 turned to disappointment when Kuchma’s likely successor Victor Yanukovych was accused to have rigged the election in his favor (and was also accused of poisoning his main rival, West-leaning Victor Yushchenko).  Ukrainians again forged ahead and replaced Yanukovych with Yushchenko through a series of massive non-violent demonstrations called “the Orange Revolution.”  In early 2010, though, after two years of recession, Ukraine actually elected Yanukovych as president.  His government faces enormous challenges in all realms, and, based upon the precedent of Ukrainian history, the problems the nation faces today are just the beginning of its next set of woes.  And still the Ukrainian people press on.

More information:
Wikipedia on Ukraine | (some particularly grown-up issues are involved in the next few links) Was the Ukrainian famine of the ’30s (called “Holodomor”) actually genocide?  | What really happened at Chernobyl? | The poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko | Time Magazine on the The Orange Revolution of 2004 and on Yanukovych’s 2010 presidential victory | Ukraine’s Western/Eastern “split history” continues to effect its national politics | Why you should know about, and visit, Crimea

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