Ukraine and Russia: a complex cultural history

Since the Russian military invaded Ukraine in February, political analysts around the world have been struggling to understand a war that has killed at least 14,000 people in less than eight months. Economic sanctions, gas prices, Soviet politics, NATO involvement, and the possibility of nuclear war have dominated headlines for months, but many experts cannot explain the war’s motives because they do not understand the deep political and ethnic history of Russia-Ukraine relations over the past several centuries. 

While policy experts are well-versed in current international affairs, most of them do not have advanced degrees in Slavic studies. The modern field of international relations often views events through broad definitions of nationality, race, and ethnicity, and this approach neglects the history of ethnic conflicts between Ukraine and Russia. Both states are Eastern European countries with predominantly white Slavic populations, but they have distinctly different cultures and histories. Western scholars typically trace Ukrainian-Russian animosity back to the Soviet Union, but the current war is merely the latest clash in a complex thousand-year relationship. 

Although a variety of tribes settled in Ukraine as early as the 7th century B.C.E., the first modern East Slavic state was established in 980 C.E., when Prince Volodymyr united several warring city-states in present-day Ukraine and western Russia into a homogenous Orthodox Christian empire known as Kyivan Rus, with its capital in Kyiv. After Volodymyr’s death, the empire was fragmented, and frequent wars between ethnic groups hindered Kyivan Rus’s economy, culture, and political system. 

In 1169, Prince Andrey Bogolyubski conquered Kyiv and moved the capital of Kyivan Rus east to Vladimir, a city near Moscow. While the modern ethnic terms “Ukrainians” and “Russians” had not yet been coined, this marked the first major shift of power from Ukraine to Russia. However, ethnic Russians were unable to establish strong influence over Ukrainian peoples because both Ukraine and Russia soon fell under control of the Mongol Golden Horde. 

In the 14th century, Lithuania and Poland partitioned Ukrainian lands, while Tatars from the Golden Horde dominated the southern steppes and the Crimean Peninsula. The Catholic Poles suppressed Ukrainian culture, forced peasants in serfdom, and barred Orthodox Christians from holding government positions. Meanwhile, the principality of Moscow had cast off Mongol rule and was steadily gaining power in the east under Tsar Ivan the Great. The Russian Empire emerged, and in 1480, Moscow annexed several principalities in eastern Ukraine. 

For the next 400 years, Ukraine became a battleground between Poland in the west and Russia in the east. Both sides imposed their cultures upon Ukraine to prevent nationalist rebellion. However, many Ukrainians moved south into Tatar territory, where they developed a cultural stronghold and became known as Cossacks. They resisted colonization through Orthodox Bible printing presses, schools, and brotherhoods. In the 1590s, they ran a military campaign to reclaim eastern Ukraine, but the Polish army violently quelled the uprising. 

In the first half of the 17th century, the Cossacks attempted to gain favor from the Poles by joining the Polish military in their wars against Russia and the Ottoman Empire. However, Poland continued persecuting Orthodox Christians and forced many Ukrainians to convert to Catholicism. 

In 1648, the Cossacks nearly drove out Polish forces with help from the Tatars, but Poland convinced the Tatars to switch sides and ally with the Poles. Desperate for support, the Cossacks appealed to Russia. Ukraine wanted to form an equal partnership with Russia, but Russia intended to absorb Ukraine into the growing Russian Empire. The Cossacks refused Russia’s offer and surrendered to Poland. 

Disputes between Russia and Poland over Ukraine continued until 1667, when the two empires agreed to partition Ukraine along the Dnipro River. Under the treaty, Poland would maintain full control over western Ukraine, while the eastern side would become a Russian protectorate. 

The Russian Tsars treated Cossacks as little more than expendable soldiers and manual laborers. They were frequently drafted to fight Russia’s wars, and approximately 20,000 Cossacks died from hunger, exhaustion and sickness when Tsar Peter I forced them to dig canals in St. Petersburg. Ukrainian military leader Ivan Mazepa hatched a clever plan to gain Ukrainian independence by allying with Sweden, but Peter I discovered the plot before Mazepa could succeed, and Russia tightened its control over Ukraine. 

The Polish empire collapsed in the latter half of the 18th century, and Western Ukraine fell under the rule of the Habsburg monarchs of Austria. Faced with a rising Ukrainian nationalist movement, the Austrians eased restrictions on Ukrainian language and culture to avoid violent rebellion. Although the cultural revival in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine was still limited to clandestine societies, western Ukraine openly developed its own newspapers, literature, and educational systems. However, the nationalist movement ultimately failed to gain ground because it split into progressive and conservative factions. 

World War I plunged both Russia and Austria into chaos. When Bolshevik revolutionaries overthrew Russia’s Romanov dynasty, Ukraine took advantage of the instability to declare independence. However, the Bolsheviks soon occupied Ukraine and absorbed it into the Soviet Union. 

At first, Ukrainian culture and language was tolerated – even supported – under the Soviet regime. However, Joseph Stalin instituted a brutal crackdown throughout the 1930s. His repressive laws and failed collectivization reforms plunged the Soviet Union into the Holodomor, a mass famine that killed 8 million people – most of whom were Ukrainians. Most historians agree that the famine was actually a carefully planned genocide targeted at Ukraine to suppress nationalist movements. 

During World War II, Ukraine was trapped once again between two warring powers – Hitler’s Germany to the west and Stalin’s Soviet Union to the east. Some Ukrainian nationalists tried to fight both German and Soviet troops. A few Ukrainian groups joined the Nazis in hopes of overthrowing Soviet rule; others fought alongside the Soviets against the German invasion. About 7 million Ukrainians died in the war, including 1.5 million Jewish and Roma people. The Allied victory brought an end to the Nazi regime, but the peace treaties placed Ukraine back under Soviet control. 

Following World War II, the United States established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Soviet Union responded by creating an alliance in Eastern Europe known as the Warsaw Pact. The latter placed a buffer zone between Ukraine and the borders where two superpower states collided, but it also trapped Ukraine within the bloc of Soviet influence. The Soviet government kept Ukraine economically dependent on Moscow by limiting its infrastructure. 

Ukraine finally gained independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. However, the transition from a former colony to an independent market economy was turbulent, and many post-Soviet states suffered recessions throughout the 1990s. As both the Ukrainian and Russian economies continued floundering, citizens turned towards strong, stable leadership to get the country back on track. Ukraine elected Leonid Kuchma, and Russia elected Vladimir Putin. Kuchma and Putin’s presidencies brought much-needed economic growth that put their respective countries back on the international stage, but also widespread corruption and oppression. 

In the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, Russian-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych narrowly defeated pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko for the presidency. Yushchenko’s supporters suspected corruption and held mass protests until a runoff election declared Yushchenko the rightful winner. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine grew as Yushchenko pursued closer relations with the West, and Yushchenko’s feud with his former ally Yulia Tymoshenko split his voter base.

In 2010, Yanukovych defeated both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko for the presidency. Seeking closer relations with Russia, he refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union in 2013. Once again, protests swept through major Ukrainian cities, and in February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament unanimously voted to remove Yanukovych from power. Yanukovych’s supporters – most of whom lived in eastern Ukraine – considered the parliament’s decision an illegal coup, and violence broke out between pro-Western and pro-Russian groups. 

At the same time, Putin sent Russian military units to occupy eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. Russian forces held a referendum to place Crimea under Russian jurisdiction, but most countries deemed the results illegitimate because they were conducted under Russian military occupation. In the Donbass region, bloody clashes between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists left over 10,000 people dead and over half a million displaced. Although Western media coverage of the conflict quickly sputtered out as the forces reached a stalemate, the War in Donbass has dragged on for the past eight years. 

The presence of Russian forces accelerated Ukraine’s plan to ally with the West. In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky became president of Ukraine and started building closer connections with Western Europe. He joined the Lublin Triangle initiative alongside Lithuania and Poland to further Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO, followed by the Association Trio with Georgia and Moldova for similar purposes. As Ukraine grew closer to achieving EU and NATO membership, tensions between Russia and Ukraine continued mounting until Feb. 2022, when Russian forces entered Ukraine. 

To Western audiences, the Russian occupation of Ukraine is shocking and unimaginable – the story of a newborn underdog country facing down a global superpower. But for Ukraine, this war is merely the latest episode in a centuries-old struggle for self-determination. Russian imperialism in Ukraine did not just start with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the Soviet Union in the 20th century; it dates back to Ukraine’s formation. The nation of Ukraine has withstood a thousand years of invasions — will it withstand one more?