The lands that make up Ukraine’s modern territory are home to thousands of mysteries and the stories of hundreds of peoples, states and cultures. In the history of Ukraine, heroic and dramatic plots have taken place here over the centuries – the formation and destruction of civilizations, the intermingling and confrontations of nations, wars, revolutions, cultural decline and revival.
Historians have long been drawn to choosing metaphors to describe this region. It has been called ‘the gates of Europe’ as many people, cultures, tastes and religions have entered Europe through Ukrainian lands. It has also been regarded as ‘the cradle of many peoples and cultures’ because Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Tatars, Belarusians, Roma, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Germans and Romanians lived and worked alongside one another for centuries.
We learn from Herodotus that the Scythians, the ancient nomadic people, lived here a few centuries before Christ. They traded with Greeks and fought with Persians. Compatriots of the Greek father of history loved Ukraine’s Black Sea coast as well. When the brilliance of the ancient civilization dimmed, the Slavs entered the historic arena. Archaeological research shows that their ancestral homeland was the Ukrainian land.
Under the influence of Christianity, the Slavic ancestors of the Ukrainians began to search for their place in Medieval Europe. A powerful medieval state called Rus’ land or just Rus’ was born and it developed into Ukrainian lands, meeting its golden age at the turn of the 11th century. According to scientists, about 100,000 people lived in its main city called Kyiv (the modern capital of Ukraine), which exceeded the total then population of London and Paris. Later, in the 13th century, the princes of Rus’ were the first in Europe to meet the Mongol invasion, which undermined the state-building potential of the local nobility.
Ukrainian lands fell under the rule of neighbouring states – Lithuania and Poland. It merged into one of the largest and most powerful monarchies in Europe, the Commonwealth. This state existed from the 16th to the end of the 18th century, gathering the territories of modern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and western Russia.
At the same time, the Ukrainian phenomenon of free chivalry reached its apogee, and Cossacks (‘free men’, from Turkic languages) appeared in the European arena. For a while, they even managed to create their own state called Hetmanate (Zaporizhzhia Host). Cossack detachments took part in almost all the great wars in the region, either as an independent military force or as mercenaries. They had their own unique customs, self-government and an original military tradition.
Meanwhile, Crimean Tatars developed on their native soil in their own state — the Crimean Khanate. History both united Crimean Tatars with Cossacks in one coalition and brought them into collision in bloody fights. The Crimean state ceased to exist at about the same time as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided, and the Hetmanate finally lost its autonomy. Imperial Russia contributed to all of these tragic events.
From the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century, Ukrainian lands were part of two empires — Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) and Russian. At that time, Ukrainians took part in the Napoleonic Wars, fought for political and civil rights, built powerful corporations and railways, opened gymnasiums and hospitals, contributed to science and technology as well as developed language and culture along the same lines as other European nations that did not have their own states and were parts of empires.
The 20th century began in a stormy way for Ukraine — millions of people were thrown into the chaos of World War I.
Witnessing the downfall of the age-old empires, Ukraine made an attempt to build its own nation-state in 1917-1921. Together with the Poles, Ukrainians managed to protect Europe from communism and defeat the Russian Bolshevik troops near Warsaw.
Poland resisted, while Ukraine was reconquered by its neighbours. Until 1991, Ukrainians lived under the power of the totalitarian regime as a constituent part of the communist USSR. It was a difficult time with terrible tragedies and challenges — forced collectivization, genocide-Holodomor, The Great Terror, Holocaust, deportations, GULAG, punitive psychiatry, Soviet military interventions, the Chornobyl disaster, among other events, that took the lives of millions of Ukrainians who represented many different nationalities.
Despite difficult conditions, Ukrainians founded and rebuilt cities and villages, created space missiles and nuclear power plants, developed medical technologies and invented new methods of welding. Some of the computers developed in Ukraine were among the very first ones the world has ever seen, not to mention the significant contribution to world culture and art (avant-garde, constructivism, futurism, experimental cinema and music).
Ukraine was at the heart of World War II not once but twice — first in the time of Hitler’s offensive and occupation, and then during the bloody expulsion of the Nazis. A total of 8 million Ukrainians died between 1939 and 1945, most of them were civilians. 1.5 million Jews from Ukraine became the victims of the Holocaust. The historical truth about all victims of World War II was censored for a long time in the Soviet Union and started to get restored in the late 1980s, shortly before the collapse of the USSR. 3 million soldiers lost their lives in the battles against the Nazis and in captivity, many went missing, died in hospitals during the war and in the first postwar years. Ukrainians fought against Hitler and his allies in the armies of Poland and the USSR, Canada and France, the United States and Czechoslovakia, in theaters of war in Europe, Africa and Asia, in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
After the war and up until its independence, many Ukrainian independence fighters, human rights defenders and dissidents contributed efforts to overthrow the totalitarian communist regime, which eventually succeeded.
In 1991, Ukraine declared independence in order to build a free, democratic and sovereign state within internationally recognized borders.
Since then, any attempts to restore authoritarianism have faced strong people’s resistance. The Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and the Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014) have proven that freedom is the ultimate choice and expression of the Ukrainian people.
In 2019, European and Euro-Atlantic integration was incorporated into Ukraine’s Constitution as a vision of national development.
Since 1991, more than 40 million people of different nationalities and religions had enjoyed peace in Ukraine until 2014 when Russia illegally occupied Crimea and sent its troops over the border in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Today, Russia carries out aggression and hybrid warfare against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, which has already resulted in over 14,000 people killed and more than 33,500 wounded, continuously building up its military capacities and drawing armed forces to the Ukrainian border.
On February 21, 2022, Russia made a decision to recognise the ‘independence’ of the quasi-entities it had created in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine — the so-called ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’
While Russia violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Ukraine continues to protect its independence, as well as freedom and democracy in Europe.
Want to know more about the history of Ukraine? Here is a short introductory course in the history, culture, and society of Ukraine from the Middle Ages to the present.