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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Ukraine: A brief history of the divided nation

        Ukraine, a country divided between East and West, had numerous difficult historical episodes. It is located in Eastern Europe, bordered to the north and east by Russia and Belarus, to the west by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, and to the south by the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. The modern Ukraine is divided in two parts by the Dnieper (Dnipro) River, which flows from north to south and into the Black Sea. This division is very important because Dnipro River constituted a border between Russian and Polish-Lithuanian controlled areas of Ukraine, and it still encounters references to Left Bank (eastern) and Right Bank (western) Ukraine.

Ukrainian cossacks
            Ukraine’s rich history dates far into the pre-historical period, but in terms of the first kind of state which arose on the Ukrainian territory it is important to mention Kievan Rus, from the 9th century AD. Later on, from 1240 to 1660s, most of Ukrainian lands were ruled by either Poland or Lithuania, which merged into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The name Ukraine and the whole concept behind that name, were first introduced to a broader Western public in 1660. That happened in the publication named Description d’Vkranie, issued by the French military engineer and architect Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, who spent several years working in Ukraine. He used the term Ukraine to denote all the provinces of the Kingdom of Poland that constituted the steppe frontier of the Commonwealth. During the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, some parts of Ukraine became the dominion of the Cossacks, who revolted several times against its rule. Their great rebellion ended when their leadership appealed to the Russian tsar for help, which would change Ukrainian history for the following 350 years. The Cossack leader Khmelnytsky accepted the Russian tsar’s overlordship of Ukraine and Russian tsar became the autocrat of all Great and Little Russia (Ukraine). 

        As a consequence, Ukraine was divided between Poland and Russia in 1667, after almost a decade of struggle between Russian and Poland. Russia received the Left Bank and Poland managed to retain the control over the Right Bank. Despite the fact that Cossack treaty with Russia was extremely unsuccessful, the importance of Cossacks for the formation of the Ukrainian identity is still very important. As a historian Serhii Plokhy states: “…the name Ukraine … had developed into a central element of Cossack identity and an object of ultimate political loyalty.” In the aftermath of the unsuccessful Cossack revolts of the mid-seventeenth century, the most of the Ukrainian lands fell under Russian control, which resulted in gradual strengthening of the tsar’s power. The term “Little Russians”, which referred to Ukrainians, was coined by Russians in order to discourage the rise of a distinct Ukrainian identity. Even though the Russian tsar ruled over Left Bank Ukraine, the Cossacks had some form of self-government, holding several territories. The most important of these territories was named the Cossack Hetmanate, while Russians called it Malorossiia (Little Russia).
           At the end of the 1700s, almost 90% of Ukrainian territory fell under the Russian control. Russian rule over the Ukrainian lands was very repressive, with the Russian tsar as the supreme authority.  The another major power which ruled over certain parts of modern Ukraine was Austria, which acquired eastern Galicia in 1772, after the partition of Poland. In 1774, Austria acquired Bukovyna, ethnically mixed region south of Galicia. Another land inhabited by Ukrainians was Transcarpathia, which had been under Hungarian rule since medieval period, and later it remained part of the Habsburg Empire (after 1867 it was known as Austria-Hungary). Later on, in 1795, Austria acquired the rest of Galicia, and merged its both parts into one single province. Ukrainians who inhabited territories annexed by the Habsburg Empire were called Ruthenians, and their historical path will be different from that of Ukrainians under the Russian (Soviet) rule. The middle of the 19th century was marked by the emerging strength of the Ukrainian national ideology, which was initiated by the group of small Ukrainian patriots in spite the possibility of tsarist repression. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and during the Civil War, the most peripheral parts of the Russian Empire declared themselves as independent. One of those states was named the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, and it was formed in 1917. This independence was short-lived, and eventually most of the Ukrainian lands were incorporated into the Soviet Union, while the remainder, located in western Ukraine, was divided among Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

         After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Ukrainian drive towards independence became stronger than ever, which eventually resulted in the declaration of independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Nowadays, Ukraine is state which made a complete drift toward European Union, while having significant issues with Russia.
Despite the fact that Ukraine still struggles with different issues related to its rich and difficult history, it is unquestionably true that Ukrainians managed to build their own national identity. As a historian Serhii Plokhy states:
“The modern Ukrainian identity developed out of the Ukrainian/Little Russian project of the Hetmanate, excluding Russians and Belarusians and taking over not only the formerly Polish-ruled Right-Bank Ukraine but also Austrian Galicia, Bukovyna, and eventually Transcarpathia, providing legitimacy for the creation of one nation out of historically, culturally, and religiously diverse regions.”
Euromaidan protests in 2014

            Consequently, it can be concluded that in spite of the historical difficulties related to the territorial division of Ukrainian lands, Ukrainians succeeded to create their nation and state. However, the complexity of the Ukrainian historical relations still remains an important issue in the era of the modern Ukrainian state, which became a sort of “battlefield” between East and West, with very unpredictable future for some parts of Ukraine. 

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