Developing a Ukrainian Perspective

From Language and Travel Guide to Ukraine, Hodges and Chumak, copyright 1994, 1996, 2000 by Linda Hodges.

The adage that history is written by the winners is well-understood by those with roots in Ukraine. Without a Ukrainian state, Ukrainian history was handed down as a footnote, considered no more than a provincial expression of dominant powers. By an extension of a stunted, simplistic logic, without a Ukrainian state, there was no Ukrainian identity. There ceased to be, for most of the world, not only a country with its own history, but a separate and distinct people who shared a unique language and a rich cultural heritage. With the possible exception of the batik Easter eggs, nearly every aspect of Ukrainian history and culture had been attributed to other groups. The mislabeling of things Ukrainian was carried to its logical absurdity in library card catalogs, encyclopedias, and history books. For example, college-level history of civilization textbooks discussed the Kyivan-Rus legacy without once using the word "Ukrainian."

Ukraina means borderland. As a frontierland bridging the East and West, Ukraine was vulnerable to invaders from all sides. Among the early peoples who roamed across the steppes and navigated the Dnipro and Black Sea were Scythians, Greeks, Goths, Huns, and Khazars. After the establishment of the modern state, Ukraine was threatened by the ambitions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Tatar Khanate, and Muscovy. For centuries various parts were under the Russian Empire, Poland, or Austria. The many foreign powers that occupied and ruled Ukraine sometimes enriched the country, but also brought exploitation and devastation.

As a nation that for most of its history was not in charge of its own destiny, Ukraine has over and over again been trapped between two bad choices, forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Ironically, fate has thrust upon Ukraine the opportunity to emerge from the shadows and stand as a free and independent member of the family of nations.


With 233,100 square miles (603,700 sq. km.), Ukraine is the largest country completely in Europe. In size it's slightly bigger than France but smaller than the state of Texas. To the north is Belarus; Russia is to the northeast and east; Moldova and Romania and Hungary are to the south and southwest; Slovakia and Poland border on the west and northwest. The southern border is on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Ukraine is a relatively modern country with a highly educated population that is two-thirds urbanized. Even so, traditional family values still prevail, including a strong work ethic.

Its population of 50 million is Europe's fifth largest, after Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France. Ethnically, 73 percent of the population identifies themselves as Ukrainian and 22 percent as Russian, with Ukrainians predominating in the western and central oblasts, and the Russian population in the south and east. Sizable minorities are Jews, Belarusians, Moldovans, Poles, Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Tatars. Not surprisingly, the non-Ukrainian population tends to be concentrated around the borders.

The country consists primarily of fertile steppeland with a forest-steppe area across the north and low-lying mountains along the western border. The Dnipro River flows down through the center separating the country into east and west regions and has played an active role in the country's development from prehistoric through modern times. Ukraine's rich soil and moderate climate make it ideally suited to agriculture. Its huge coal reserves and deposits of iron and manganese ore have led to heavy industrial development, especially in the eastern part.


Kyiv Rus, the historical ancestor of Ukraine, was established by Vikings and peopled by various Slavic tribes. Kyiv was the center of this powerful princely state that dominated eastern Europe from the 10th through the 13th century. It was a center of trade, Slavic culture, and Byzantine Christianity. Internal dissention weakened the state and it ended with Mongol invasions in the mid-13th century.

Kozak Period. Kozak, often spelled Cossack in English, comes from a Turkish word meaning free man. The term was originally applied to refugees from serfdom and slavery who fled to the borderland that was Ukraine during the 15th to the 18th century. The term later was applied to Ukrainians who went into the steppes to practice various trades and engage in hunting, fishing, beekeeping, and collection of salt. The Kozaks set up democratic military communities and elected their leaders, who were called hetmans. From their island stronghold on the Dnipro, the Kozaks launched attacks against the Turks and Tatars and struggled against the Polish and Russians. Their establishment of an autonomous Ukrainian state is a high point of Ukrainian history.

During the mid-17th century, Poland controlled most of Right Bank Ukraine (lands west of the Dnipro) while Muscovy controlled most of the Left Bank. Ukrainian culture enjoyed a great revival during this period of ambiguous political status. Religious and educational activity flourished and there was a high rate of literacy. By the late 18th century, however, 85 percent of Ukrainian land had fallen under Russian control, and Ukraine's window to the west was closed. It was a time of colonialism and Russification during which Ukrainian culture and language was suppressed.

The 20th century was a time of great turmoil and suffering in Ukraine. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ukraine was engulfed in a chaotic civil war in which many different factions and foreign powers fought for control. On January 22, 1918 the Ukrainian Central Rada formally proclaimed Ukraine's independence and the next year joined with the Western Ukrainian People's Republic for a united, independent country. Soon, however, the western Ukrainians were defeated by Polish expansionists and Soviet Russian troops seized Kyiv, incorporating much of Ukraine in the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian intelligentsia was forced to either move or perish. In 1932-1933 some four to ten million peasants (according to differing estimates) were starved to death in a deliberately engineered famine designed to force them onto collective farms. During the Second World War, Ukraine bore the brunt of the Nazi drive to Stalingrad and the Red Army counteroffensive. Another 7.5 million people were lost, including almost 4 million civilians killed and 2.2 million taken to Germany as laborers. Cities, towns, and thousands of villages were devastated.

Ukraine was not able to hold on to independence during these national liberation struggles of the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half of the century Ukraine's dissident movement thrived, but as a buried nation, the world paid little attention. With the Soviet Union collapsing, the Ukrainian Parliament proclaimed independence on August 24, 1991. On December 1, some 90 percent of the Ukrainian electorate endorsed independence and chose Leonid Kravchuk as Ukraine's first democratically elected president. A further show of democracy was the defeat of Kravchuk by Leonid Kuchma in a close election with a high voter turn-out in 1995. Kuchma won reelection in 1999.


In forging a new national identity, Ukraine is looking to its past and turning to its most durable symbols as a rallying point for patriotism. There's something appealing about a nation whose greatest hero is a poet and painter. Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, was born on March 9, 1814 into a serf family in Moryntsi, a village that today is in the Cherkasy region. Orphaned as a teen, Shevchenko accompanied his master on his travels, serving as a houseboy. In St. Petersburg his talents as a painter attracted attention, and in 1838 a Russian painter helped him buy his freedom.

Shevchenko trained at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art where he had many contacts with Ukrainian and Russian artists and writers. His first collection of Ukrainian poems, Kobzar ("The Bard"), was published in 1840 and hailed as work of genius by Ukrainian and Russian critics alike. Drawing upon Ukrainian history and folklore, Shevchenko wrote in the Romantic style prevalent during his day. Soon his poems evolved from nostalgia for Kozak life to an indictment of rulers who abuse their power and then to sympathy for oppressed people everywhere.

As a painter, Shevchenko was skilled in portraiture, landscape, and architectural monuments, but his most noteworthy paintings are the scenes of country life and historical events that are sympathetic to Ukraine and critical of its oppressors. For example, Shevchenko's tragic story of Kateryna, the Ukrainian girl who was seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by a Russian soldier, expressed both in ballad and later in a painting, are allegorical references to the fate of Ukraine under the Russian tsars who introduced serfdom.

Shevchenko's reputation as a leading Ukrainian poet and artist was already established when he came to Kyiv in 1846. There he joined the first modern Ukrainian organization with a political ideology, the Brotherhood of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. In 1847 brotherhood members were arrested. Shevchenko was the most severely punished when the authorities discovered his unpublished collection of poetry satirizing the oppression of Ukraine by Russia. He was sentenced to ten years military service in a labor battalion in Siberia. Although Tsar Nicholas I himself stipulated, "under the strictest supervision, forbidden to write and sketch," Shevchenko managed during part of his term to write and paint clandestinely. After his release, Shevchenko was a broken man. He was not allowed to live in Ukraine, but permitted to visit. That led to his re-arrest and banishment to St. Petersburg where he remained under police surveillance until his death in 1861. His gravesite, the monument, and the museum in Kaniv (in Cherkasy oblast) are a popular tourist destination.

Even without his poetry, Shevchenko would be renowned for his art alone. His existing artwork numbers 835 paintings and engravings, with several hundred lost. His writings have a greater significance, however, not only for their literary merit but for the role they played in the development of the Ukrainian language. Shevchenko blended several Ukrainian dialects with elements of Church Slavonic, thus expanding the range, flexibility and resources of the Ukrainian language.

Elevating the Ukrainian language to a literary prose was equivalent to a literary declaration of Ukrainian independence, according to Orest Subtelny in his book, Ukraine: a History. Shevchenko showed that Ukrainians didn't need to depend on the Russian language as a means of higher discourse because their own language was equally rich and expressive.

As a critic of tsarist autocracy and a champion of the universal struggle for justice, Shevchenko was exalted in the Soviet Union. His works were circulated and his memory honored in every republic. Even in Moscow there's a monument to him. But to Ukrainians, Shevchenko has a special meaning. To them, Shevchenko represents the right to be Ukrainian. Ukrainians understood that when Shevchenko referred to Muscovy, he wasn't referring to a particular government, but to the Russian nation subjugating the Ukrainian nation. Ukrainians even knew which words in the official publications of Shevchenko's works the authorities had changed in order to conceal the nationalistic intention.

Following independence, many more monuments were erected in Shevchenko's honor in Ukraine, often replacing statutes of Lenin that were torn down. The depiction of Shevchenko as an old man is stereotypical, as he died when he was only 47, and made his impact when he was much younger.

Two Kozak hetmans are important in Ukrainian history. Both were great leaders and statesmen and fought to free Ukraine from foreign domination. Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657) headed the national uprising in 1648 that liberated a large part of Ukrainian territory from Poland. Khmelnytsky was recognized at home and abroad as the leader of a sovereign state. Under continual threat from Poland, a few years later he entered a pact with Muscovy. Ukrainians consider this a fatal turning point in their history. Moscow began its subjugation of Ukraine, turning an agreement of military and political union into an act of incorporation of Ukraine into Russia.

Today Ukraine looks to Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709) as a more appropriate hero. Mazepa wanted to unite all Ukrainian territories into a unitary state modeled after existing European states with features of the traditional Kozak structure. At first Mazepa was allied with Tsar Peter I against foreign powers, but when he realized Russia intended to abolish the Kozak order and end Ukrainian autonomy, he sided with Charles XII of Sweden against Peter. After a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, Kyiv lost much autonomy and Kozak rule came to an end.