Back by Popular Demand
The readers have spoken, and I’m here today to continue my investigation into how relations between Ukraine and Russia got as bad as they are now. Yes, “bad” is an understatement. If you missed part one, “A Brief History of Russia’s History With Ukraine or How the F Did Things Get This Bad?” just click the link, read away, and you’ll be all caught up.
What Happened After Kievan Rus Fell?
We left off our first part of the history of Ukraine, with the capital city being moved from Kyiv to Moscow after Mongol hordes laid waste to the former. Moscow was just a small trading outpost in the middle of nowhere at the time.
Over the years, the vast territory was carved up by many groups, all wanting a piece of the large plains filled with rich, productive soil. Years later, this rich earth would earn Ukraine the nickname “the breadbasket of Europe.” Catholic Poland and Lithuania ruled the area for hundreds of years (did I mention this was going to be an abbreviated history?), and by the end of the 18th century, Imperial Russia had already taken most of Ukraine, except for Galicia in the southeast. They remained under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
During the reign of the Czars, they referred to Ukraine as “little Russia.” Despite this, Ukraine had always maintained a strong national identity, which they threw in the face of Russia from time to time. When it got too much for their liking, as happened during a surge in Ukrainian Nationalism in the 1840s, mother Russia did its best to squash it. A mid-nineteenth-century example is when they banned the use of the Ukrainian language in schools.
The Collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires
The year was 1917, and Kyiv declared the first independent Ukrainian state following the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of World War I. This didn’t last long as they were invaded by Poland in addition to being fought over by Moscow’s new Bolshevik government and forces still loyal to the Czar. It seemed that throughout history, no one wanted Ukraine to be their own independent nation. The land was just too valuable and strategically placed.
In 1922, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Their economy was a mess at the time, and the people were starving. They were not off to a good start, but things got worse. With their pesky streak of national pride, Ukrainian peasants refused to join Soviet collective farms in the 1930s. That didn’t go over well with Stalin. Big understatement there. He ordered mass executions of those who did not follow his orders. A famine of horrific proportions ensued, killing upwards of 10 million people. It’s almost unthinkable.
Later, with millions of ethnic Ukrainians dead, he ordered Russians and groups of others from the Soviet Union to repopulate the eastern portion of Ukraine, which is rich in coal and iron ore. Some say this is partially why a sense of Ukrainian nationalism isn’t as strong in the eastern part of the country as it is in the west. I’m sure proximity to mother Russia has something to do with it as well.
Here Come the Nazis
Life in Ukraine was so bad that many locals welcomed the German Nazis as liberators when they invaded the region in 1941. As a matter of fact, many citizens went so far as to fight alongside them in the hopes that maybe Hitler would reward them with their own independent state. They soon realized that would not happen after Hitler began using them as slave labor. As a result, about 2.5 million Ukrainians fought in Stalin’s Red Army.
At least 5.3 million Ukrainians died during World War II, which was about a sixth of their total population. Almost half of those killed were Jews, many of whom were targeted by the Nazis and some fellow Ukrainian collaborators. After the war, Stalin deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians who he thought to be Nazi collaborators to Siberian prison camps. Others were simply executed.
Fall of the Soviet Union
More than 90% of Ukrainians voted to declare their independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. Still, the Russians refused to leave well enough alone. During Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, the Kremlin-backed pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. That election was marred by massive voter fraud, which sparked the Orange Revolution, a series of protests, sometimes accompanied by civil disobedience, which eventually saw Yanukovych’s fraudulent election overturned.
As it turned out, the candidate the people elected wasn’t as great a leader as the people had hoped he would be, and Yanukovych was legitimately elected president in 2010. It can be exhausting to follow, I know. In 2013 he abandoned a popular European Union partnership deal and was accused of enriching himself, his family, and friends while in power. Organized protests against Yanukovych have formed again, but he used an iron fist to try to crush them this time. At least 88 people were shot dead, mostly by uniformed snipers. The people had had enough, and Yanukovych was thrown from office by what was known as the “Revolution of Dignity.” He now lives in exile in Russia and has the dubious honor of being tossed out of power twice by Ukraine.
For years, people have known that Russian President Vladimir Putin will never let Ukraine out of his sights. Daniel Drezner, an international politics professor at Tufts University, explains it well. He says, “Russia without Ukraine is a country, but Russia with Ukraine is an empire.”