Ukraine—our eastern frontier

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), News, Volume 13

Ukraine is derived from a word meaning ‘frontier’ or ‘borderland’. Its natives dislike the definite article that is usually placed in front of it—‘the Ukraine’—as this seems to suggest that it is not an entity of itself but merely the edge of other peoples’ territories. States, and much less nations, rarely possess natural frontiers or are discrete entities and Ukraine is a case in point.

It has its origins in the Kievan Rus, an Eastern Slav kingdom that adopted Orthodox Christianity and flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries. At the western end of the Silk Route from China, Kiev grew to a sizeable town of 40,000 inhabitants. This civilisation, swept away by the Mongol invasions, is claimed alike by Moscow, Minsk and Kiev as the crucible out of which Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have developed.

When Mongol power waned, the area around Kiev was overrun from the north by the duchy of Lithuania and in turn came under Polish influence when Lithuania united with its western neighbour, first in a dynastic marriage alliance in 1386 and then in a fuller union in 1569 ruled from Cracow. What was now the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuania commonwealth was exploited by Polish landlords seeking to expand their grain trade economy by extending serfdom, and their cultural influence by extending Catholicism. Part of this process was the establishment of the Uniate church in obedience to Rome but keeping its Eastern liturgy and its married priesthood.

The backlash was led by the Zaporozhian Cossacks. These were one of two groups of self-governing soldier-settlers—the other being the more Moscow-orientated Don Cossacks—who defended the frontiers of Orthodoxy against the Crimean Tatars, a remnant of the Mongols, who were now an Islamised outlier of the Turkish Ottoman empire. The rising of 1648 was led by the Cossack hetman, Bohdan Khmelnystsky, who wreaked havoc on Polish nobles and took revenge on Jewish middlemen and Jesuit proselytisers. Defeated at Berestechko in 1651, Khmelnystsky saved himself in the 1654 treaty of Pereyaslav by switching his allegiance to Tsar Alexei. This was how Moscow acquired Kiev and this is what makes Khmelnystsky such a controversial figure for Ukrainians, because the man who led their first putative national revolt handed them into the power of the Russians. Furthermore, though the tsars eventually whittled away the separate hetmanate constitution recognised at Pereyaslav, the Cossacks as soldiers and settlers developed a reputation as the most loyal supporters of tsarism and Orthodoxy.

The Cossack rising was the first stage in the eventual collapse of the Polish kingdom and its absorption by its Austian, Prussian and Russian neighbours. Under Russian rule, this Kiev region became known as ‘Little Russia’ (Ruthenia in German), as distinct from Great Russia and White Russia, and in the eighteenth century its boundaries were extended in wars against the Turks and Tatars to incorporate the Black Sea coast around Odessa. However, these areas—called by Catherine the Great Novorossiya—were mostly settled by Russians and Jews rather than Little Russians, and overall, in the towns especially, Russian became the dominant language. The southern march of Russia was completed when Crimea was annexed in 1783.

In the nineteenth century the process of Russification continued with the abolition of the local legal code, the banning of the native language in 1876 and continuous attempts to suppress the Uniate Church. In 1818 the Ukrainian language got its first grammar, which the compiler described as that of ‘a disappearing dialect’, and in 1823 its first dictionary. More importantly, a separate identity began to emerge, led, as in other nationalist movements, by an intelligentsia interested in the folklore of the peasantry—the foremost in this case being the pastoral poet Taras Shevchencko (1814–59). To indicate separateness, these intellectuals began to employ the term Ukraina, a term drawn from surviving Kievan Rus documents, and hence Ukrainian was coined as a neologism because before that most inhabitants described themselves as either muzhik (peasant) or Orthodox or collectively as tuteshni (people from here). In Habsburg Galicia around Lvov the Ukrainian movement enjoyed greater success, establishing its own university and political parties, because the Austrians were less repressive and anxious to play the Ukrainians off against the Poles. When the Russian and Austrian empires collapsed at the end of the First World War, Ukrainians established short-lived governments of their own in Lvov and Kiev but were ignored by the great powers’ map-making at Versailles.

The devastation and depopulation in Ukraine in the First War World was the beginning of the worst period in the region’s history. After the war, whereas the Ukrainian nationalists were brutally suppressed by the Poles, in the USSR they at least had the benefit of recognition as a separate republic, and even encouragement of their culture. However, Stalin’s repression of intellectuals began in the late 1920s, and then the countryside was devastated by forced collectivisation that led to famine in 1932–3. At least five million died. The Second World War saw double that number of deaths, formal and guerrilla warfare, forced labour and the extermination of Ukraine’s Jews by the SS and their local sympathisers. Ironically, Ukraine emerged bigger from the war—Galicia, annexed from Poland, the tail of Czechoslovakia and bits of Romania were added to it. In 1954 Khrushchev transferred Crimea to it after the Tartars were deported for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Ukraine even acquired a separate seat at the UN, which the Soviet Union had been granted, along with seats for Russia and Belarus.

In a perverse way the Soviet Union had encouraged Ukrainian nationhood, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would break away when the collapse came in 1991. At this stage Ukraine was heavily Russified and had a heavy concentration of Communist Party members. However, the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 had undermined Moscow’s authority, and a nationalist movement, Rukh, had begun in the Catholic Western Ukraine. When the reactionary coup against Gorbachev failed in 1991, the communists in Ukraine—still a majority in the republic’s parliament—saved themselves by opting for independence. Thereafter change was slow and life hard in what had previously been the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and the centre of much of its heavy industry. After hyperinflation, Ukraine adopted a new currency. And following piecemeal privatisation, the nomenklatura emerged as a new oligarchy, as in Russia itself.

In a sense real independence only arrived when Yushchenko won the re-run election on St Stephen’s Day 2004. Yet that election left Ukraine substantially divided. Half of Ukraine speaks Russian as its first language, a substantial part of its Orthodox believers look to the patriarch of Moscow as their spiritual head, and a majority of the population in the Donbass and Crimea are ethnic Russians. This leaves plenty of scope for mischief-making by a Russia revivified by oil revenues and anxious to slough off the humiliations of the past twenty years. Furthermore, it is a tall order for European Union policy-makers, who must now decide whether to answer Ukraine’s request for accession or to continue with their own previously proposed ‘neighbourhood’ scheme. In other words, we have to decide either on a hard frontier with Russia or a soft frontier with Ukraine as a buffer-zone between us and them.

Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork.

Further reading:

M. Dyczok, Ukraine: movement without change, change without movement (Amsterdam, 2000).

P. Magocsi, A history of Ukraine (Toronto, 1996).

A. Reid, Borderland: a journey through the history of Ukraine (London, 1997).


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