The Emergence of Ukraine: Part One

By Kuzio, Taras | Contemporary Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Emergence of Ukraine: Part One


Kuzio, Taras, Contemporary Review


Many Western leaders, academics and journalists did not welcome the collapse of the former USSR and the emergence of independent Ukraine, perceiving it in many ways through russocentric eyes. Whereas the Balts, Caucasians and Central Asians could all be visibly recognised as culturally distinct from the Russians, the Ukrainians and Belarusians were all Eastern Slavs and many were, after all, Russian speaking.

Ukrainian historians are today rewriting and rediscovering their history which was for the most part banned in the former USSR. Today's heroes, such as Hetman Ivan Mazepa, leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks who signed an alliance with the Swedes against the Russians in the early eighteenth century, were yesterday's villains. Since the 1930s Soviet historiography reverted to its Tsarist apologists for Russian expansionism which glorified those leaders who opted for unity with Russia while condemning those who fought for independent states.

Soviet historiography distorted Ukrainian-Russian historical relations on a far reaching level. Ukrainians were portrayed as the 'younger brothers' or 'country cousins' who spoke an inferior dialect. Russian language was the language of advancement and speaking Ukrainian was often the butt of ridicule in Soviet times in many Ukrainian cities.

Yet, the city of Kyiv - still better known in the West as Kiev - was established at least four to five centuries before Moscow. Indeed, in 1982 the Soviet regime held celebrations of Kyiv's 1,500th anniversary. Kyiv Rus, the great state that held sway over most of current European Russia, Belarus and Ukraine between the eighth to thirteenth centuries, is now claimed by Ukrainian historians as 'theirs', faithfully following the prescriptions of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Ukraine's foremost historian. Hrushevsky, the dean of modern Ukrainian historiography who was vilified by the Soviet regime, believed that Ukrainian and Russian histories had separate developments from Kyiv Rus and Muscovy respectively. Whereas Muscovy went on to become the Russian empire under Peter the Great in the eighteenth century, Ukrainian territories were controlled between the mid-thirteenth and eighteenth centuries by Lithuania and Poland. Indeed, until the suppression of the last Polish uprising in 1863, Kyiv's ruling ethnic group was dominated by Poles - not Russians - who only flooded to the city in the later part of that century.

Ukraine's absorption by Muscovy effectively created the Russian empire between the mid-seventeenth and end of the eighteenth centuries, just as Ukraine's and Russia's exits from the former USSR effectively ended the Soviet empire's existence. The sixteenth to eighteenth centuries are now hailed as shining examples of Ukraine's rebirth under Cossack leaders, especially Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskyi in the mid-seventeenth century.

By the nineteenth century Ukraine was divided between three states. The largest part was within the Tsarist Russian empire where any semblance of Ukrainian identity was stifled. On two occasions in the 1860s and 1870s the Ukrainian language was banned. The region of North Bukovina, where conditions for the Ukrainian national movement were also poor, was controlled by Romania. Western Ukraine was able to develop to the greatest extent under the very liberal regime of Austria-Hungary where Ukrainian national identity was often encouraged against the then perceived greater threat of Polish nationalism. Ukrainians were often therefore described as Austria's 'loyal Little Tyroleans' until 1918.

Ukraine attempted to establish an independent state from the ruins of the Austrian and Tsarist empires which collapsed in 1917-1918. But these efforts spread over four years of conflict failed due to two factors. Firstly, low national consciousness in Central-Eastern Ukraine where urban centres agitated either for the Bolsheviks or Whites. Secondly, the newly independent state had to fight on many fronts at the same time.

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