History of Ukraine: What You Want to Know, part 1





With the world holding its breath, what is the recent historical context from which you can understand Ukraine’s self-identity?

  • What is the nature of Ukraine’s national independence?
  • Why is Ukraine fighting for its life against Russia now?

An independent, self-governing Ukraine emerged as a nation only in 1991. Before that, Ukraine had been dominated since the 1700s by Poland, old Lithuania, Russia before the Revolution, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), and, most recently, modern Russia.


Independent Ukraine

Ukraine was briefly independent in the brief window between 1918 and 1920 but fell under the domination of the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.)

Recent Independence

With the “Fall” of the Iron Curtain – the unraveling of the Soviet Union – Ukraine declared first its sovereignty in 1990 and then independence on August 24, 1991. With the complete dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in December 1991, Ukraine became completely independent. They changed their name to Ukraine—more on that in tomorrow’s article.

Culture vs. Nationality

Anyone who has traveled across Europe knows it does not take long to recognize that people are less defined by their country’s current name than by their culture, language, and food.

I learned this the hard way when I was at university. I visited a professor who was an expert on the Habsburg Dynasty to find out what my original last name meant. Fifty years ago, I discovered that where my family was from was then known as Yugoslavia. When I informed my aunt that we were Yugoslavians and not Romanians, she explained to me briefly and pointedly:

“We speak Romanian, we eat Romanian food. We’re Romanians.”

She graciously left off the part, “… mister smarty-pants college boy.”

But I never forgot it. It is the ethnicity (ethnoi=Greek for “nations”), the language, food, culture, etc., that determines who you are, not the current government or even the country’s current borders.

Today, ethnic Ukrainians make up more than three-quarters of the country, and Russians less than a fifth. In the late 19th century, over a quarter of the world’s Jewish population (about 10 million) lived in Ukraine. The Holocaust vastly reduced this Yiddish-speaking population. Today, Polish and Jewish populations live west of the Dnieper River.


You’ve heard on the news about both Kiev and Kyiv. How do they differ?

Kiev is the old Russian name for the capital city of Ukraine. Kyiv is taken from the Ukrainian language.

Ukrainians prefer the latter and have campaigned for its use with KyivNotKiev.


Language of Ukraine

Ukrainian is the primary language, a Slavic language. Along with Russian and Belarusian, these make up the East Slavic language branch. The Ukrainian language is related to Russian, but also has similarities to Polish.


Ukraine Native Languages


Though the Russian language shared the spotlight with the Ukrainian language during the rule of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, Russian was the governmental administrative language. Since 1989, Ukrainian has become the country’s official language once again.


Religion of Ukraine

Since the 10th century, the predominant religion representing almost half the population has been Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Members belonged either to the Moscow Patriarchate or the Kyiv Patriarchate. Three years ago, the Kyiv Patriarchate merged with the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church with the name Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formally declaring independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.



Ukraine religious affiliation


Minority religions include Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and non-religious groups.


Economy of Ukraine

Under previous Soviet rule, Ukraine’s economy produced 17% of the industrial sector and 21% of the agricultural sector of the Soviet economy. It was a net-positive growing region, amounting to one-fifth of the Soviet national income. Despite hardships as it became independent in the 1990s, the economy has boomed, notwithstanding the political crisis caused by the forced annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukraine is primarily flat geographically, and its high-quality soil makes it a significant agricultural player. It is the world’s largest exporter of seed oils like sunflower and rapeseed and the world’s fifth-largest wheat exporter.

Ukraine is rich in natural resources, minerals, and ores. It has the world’s largest reserves of commercial-grade iron ore. It has the second-largest known natural gas reserves in Europe.


Old Pipelines

Old Russian Pipelines


To take advantage of its petroleum and natural gas, Russia laid pipelines across Ukraine to bring gas to eastern and Western Europe and points farther east in Russia as far as Siberia. However, the Nord Stream Pipelines circumvent Ukraine and bring Russian oil to Germany across the Baltics, reducing revenue to Ukraine from transport fees.


New Pipelines

New Russian Pipelines


The Northern Lights and Yamal Pipelines move north of Ukraine through Belarus, and the Turkstream and Blue Stream Pipelines move south of Ukraine. Central and Eastern Europe are heavily dependent upon Russian gas.


Russian gas lines

Russian gas lines, Reuters


Importance of Crimea

Along the southern part of Ukraine is a large peninsula that projects south into the Black Sea. It also encloses with Russia to the east a smaller body of water called the Sea of Azov. It is strategically vital for shipping access to the Mediterranean and naval military maneuvers.




Its history is significant to the Greeks, Persians, and Romans who previously colonized and ruled it. In medieval times, it was ruled by the Republic of Genoa and the Ottoman Empire. In 1783, it was annexed by the old Russian Empire. It was annexed to Ukraine during the Soviet era in 1954. Though Ukraine treated it as the (semi) Autonomous Republic of Crimea with Sevastopol as its principal city, by treaty, Ukraine allowed the Russian navy to base its fleet there in exchange for discounted natural gas.


First Russian Invasion

When the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in 2014, Russia forcefully annexed Crimea on March 18 as federal subjects of Russia.

Crash of Flight MH17

In July 2014, in the Russian-backed separatist area of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk), a missile brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 people aboard. Investigators traced the weapon used to bring down the plane to Russia; a finding Moscow has rejected.

Kerch Strait Crisis

Farther south in eastern Ukraine, a naval clash in November 2018 between Russian border guards and Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait near Crimea led pro-Western Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to declare martial law.

Since then, ceasefire agreements between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the east have been frequently established and almost as quickly broken down. Violent exchanges in that eastern region have not stopped. As of a year ago, there were nearly 300 incidents.


Ukraine’s Increasing Westward Focus

Russia argues that they share a “single historic and spiritual space” with Ukraine, though Kyiv rejects this argument. Nevertheless, Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

In recent years, Ukraine has been pivoting its trade westward. Russia accounts for just 8% of Ukraine’s international trade. Meanwhile, the European Union’s share has climbed to 42%.


Westward Trade

Ukraine’s trade with the European Union compared to Russia


But before the recent history, what do the previous two centuries tell us about how the often divided Ukraine got to where it is now?

See my concluding article tomorrow: History of Ukraine, part 2.


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.