History of Ukraine: What You Want to Know, part 2



Ukraine 2


We have looked at the recent history of Ukraine in our first article; now we turn to these questions:

  • What is the history of Ukraine over the last two centuries that got us here?
  • What has been Ukraine’s relationship with other great powers of Europe, especially Russia?


How Has Ukraine Developed

Let’s step back a couple of hundred years to a time when people are familiar with the nation-building history in Europe and the West. This will give us a more familiar context for how Ukraine became what it is now.

Just as my grandfather was born in Austria-Hungary, which later became Romania, then Yugoslavia, and now Serbia — Ukraine has been split up, repartitioned, and put back together many times in recent centuries.


18th Century Ukraine


Ukraine 1720

Ukraine, 1720


In the late 1700s, the United States was established following the Revolutionary War with the American Constitution. France was moving to a republic from a monarchy with its French Revolution in 1789.

Meanwhile, the major powers of Eastern Europe — including the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the old Russian Empire — divided among themselves the old sovereign Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth. They remained so for 123 years. The territory was called “The Partitions of Poland.”

  • 1772: First Partition after the Bar Confederation lost its war with Russia.
  • 1792: Second Partition following the Polish-Russian War
  • 1795: Third Partition following the unsuccessful Polish Kosciuszko Uprising


19th Century Ukraine

These partitions of the old Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth became known in the early 1800s as the:

  • Austrian Partition
  • Prussian Partition
  • Russian Partition



Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1610


These were adjusted again in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna:

  • Austria Partition gained ethnically Ukrainian Galicia
  • Russians gained Warsaw from Prussia and established the Congress of Poland in the Russian Partition.


Congress of Vienna

Congress of Vienna, 1815


A Forth Partition referred to foreign invaders’ subsequent annexation of Polish lands.


20th Century Ukraine

The outbreak of World War I saw stark hostilities between Tsarist Russia and Austria-Hungary (ruled by the House of Habsburg), dividing the allegiance of the Ukrainians. Ukrainians suffered under both of these warring sides.

The Russian Revolution of February 1917 brought relief for a time with the revival of the Ukrainian press, cultural and professional associations, and the formation in Kyiv of the Central Council (Rada) as a representative body. But the Bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) in November of that year changed things.

The Bolsheviks declared Ukraine a Soviet republic and set up a rival government. They marched on Kyiv, where the Central Council had been appealing to the Central powers for military assistance. The Ukrainian government evacuated across the river, and Soviet troops occupied the city.

For a brief period, the Soviet-controlled Central Council government of Ukraine was overthrown by a German-supported coup by General Pavlo Skoropadsky. He was supported by Ukrainian landowners, the urban middle class, and hostile peasants. But Skoropadsky abdicated following the capitulation of Germany and Austria. Into this vacuum arose the Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic, which ruled for about two years, from 1918 to 1920.

But, internal struggles among warring chieftains made the central government little more than nominal. Bolsheviks again attacked Kyiv; guerilla warfare broke out among the Russian Red Army in the north, White Russians in the south, and Poles in the west. The Treaty of Warsaw in April 1920 and the subsequent Treaty of Riga in March 1921 saw parts of western Ukraine under Polish control, while the east and south Ukraine were annexed to Soviet rule.


The Interwar Period of Ukraine

Between World War I and World War II, parts of Ukraine were parceled out to other countries.

  • Bukovina: annexed to Romania
  • Transcarpathia: joined to Czechoslovakia
  • Galicia and western Volhynia: incorporated into Poland
  • East of Poland: was considered Soviet Ukraine.


Ukraine between the wars

Ukraine, between the Wars


Ukraine Before World War II



Holodomor in Ukraine


When Joseph Stalin took power, the Great Famine of 1932-22, called the Holodomor, saw 5 million people die in the Soviet Union, with 4 million of them Ukrainian. It was the most enormous man-made demographic catastrophe in peacetime history.



Holodomor “Great Famine” 1933. Kharkiv, Ukraine


Though the Ukrainian wheat harvest had a below-average yield, Soviet collectivization confiscated it for use elsewhere in the Soviet Union and for export to the West. Peasant farmers were executed for holding back food from the state storehouses; the rural population was devastated by starvation. Villages were left empty as people moved to the cities.


Ukrainian Religious Persecution

Clergymen of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church were arrested and exiled to eliminate “nationalist deviations” in the Ukrainian culture.


Church of St Andrew, Kyiv

Church of St. Andrew, Kyiv


World War II and Ukraine

With Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II began in Europe.


Ukraine WWII

Ukraine in WWII


During the initial (secret) German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, where Germany and the Soviet Union were essentially allies, former parts of Ukraine were occupied by Soviet troops and incorporated into Ukrainian S.S.R., including Bukovina, western Volhynia, and most of Galicia. In the western part of Ukraine, the Polish-controlled parts fell under Nazi control. Political and community activists were arrested; within two years, more than a million Poles and Jews were deported to the East.

But when the secret alliance fell apart, Nazi Germany decided to invade the U.S.S.R. They began their plans on October 2, 1941, known as Operation Typhoon. As they advanced east, they took Kyiv on September 19, 1941. That same month, the Nazis made their first experimental use of gas chambers at Auschwitz. (See my article on the History of Auschwitz.)

As Soviet troops retreated from Ukraine on June 22, 1941, they exercised a “scorched-earth” retreat, destroying crops, buildings, and factories. By November, Ukraine was under Nazi control.

By August, the Nazi administration soon reversed the previous Soviet partitions; Galicia was attached to Poland, and Bukovina was returned to Romania, along with parts of the south, including Odesa.

Odesa is the Ukrainian name, Odessa is the Russian name.

Within the first two days of the Nazi invasion of Kyiv, 34,000 were killed. Ultimately, 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews would die, 800,000 were displaced to the east, and 2.2 million were taken to Germany as slave laborers.


Battle of Stalingrad

As Napoleon had been unsuccessful in invading Russia in the 19th century, so too the Nazis failed to take Stalingrad in early 1943. As the Nazis retreated from Ukraine, they left destruction in their wake. The Soviets again entered Kyiv in November of that year; there was guerilla activity that saw significant civilian deaths between Ukrainians and Poles. By October 1944, the Soviets controlled all of Ukraine again.


Post World War II Ukraine

With the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945, Ukraine gained back Volhynia and Galicia from Poland. Bukovina was recognized as part of Ukraine in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. Even Transcarpathia, which had been handed from Hungary to Czechoslovakia, was ceded back to Ukraine in 1945. But the impact of the war had been devastating: 5 to 7 million citizens had been lost, 700 cities and 28,000 villages had been destroyed. Ten million were homeless. 40% of the Ukrainian national wealth had been wiped out.

Stalin’s final year in power saw the restoration of industry, and Ukraine’s industrial output exceeded prewar levels by 1950. Ukraine’s agricultural recovery would take another decade to match prewar levels.


Ukraine after WWI

Ukraine, from 1918-1954


Premier Nikita Khrushchev, during the ’50s and ’60s, reimposed the secret police along with the continuation of the totalitarian Communist Party. His successor, Leonid Melnikov, sent hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians suspected of disloyalty to concentration camps in the far north of Russia and Siberia.

In the mid-1970s, under Leonid Brezhnev in Russia, Kyiv saw a growing cultural revival and greater assertiveness by its political elite. Jumping forward to the late ’80s, Gorbachev introduced “restructuring” (perestroika) and “openness” (glasnost), which allowed greater popular involvement in the government process.

New Ukrainian leaders emerged at the same time as a religious revival in 1988, encouraged by celebrations of a millennium of Christianity in Kyiv. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was re-legalized, and some defected from the Russian Orthodox church.


Post-Soviet Union Ukraine

Significantly, the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed Ukraine to thrive as an independent country with a democratically elected government at the end of the century. March 1990 saw the first competitive elections to the Ukrainian parliament, breaking the Communist Party’s monopoly on Ukrainian political power.


Ukraine Identity

Assembling Ukraine


In August 1991, when a coup d’état by Gorbachev’s government failed in Moscow, the Ukrainian parliament declared complete independence of Ukraine on August 24.

As I mentioned in my previous article, in March 2014, Russia forcibly annexed Crimea.

Today, Russia has amassed almost 200,000 troops on the country’s north, south, and eastern borders. About half of those are now inside Ukraine. Their military is on nuclear alert.


Nuclear arsenal

Comparative nuclear arsenal


To put this in perspective, in Europe, the invasion of one sovereign nation by another has not happened in 80 years since the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union between June 22, 1941, and November 1941.

And we know how that turned out.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.