22 Jan: Ukraine Reunion Day – as explained at Every Day’s a Holiday, this day celebrates the east and west parts of the Ukraine reuniting just after World War I. But let’s take it back to the beginning.
Ukraine, bordering the Black Sea, was populated by ancient Iranians (the Scythian gold found in burial mounds in Ukraine came from these), Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Huns, Bulgars and Khazars. You name them, they came there.
Vikings, whom the Greeks named Varangians, came over and founded Kievan Rus, which straddled what is now Russia and a western bit of the Ukraine. Thanks to its great trading situation it became the most powerful state in Europe by the 11th century with Kiev the most important city.
Vladimir the Great turned the people from pagans to Orthodox Christians, but later rulers allowed Kievan Rus to disintegrate and in 1240 Mongols completely destroyed Kiev.
Vladimir the Great
Then Poland took it, then Lithuania, then Poland again (they kind of shared it). Cossacks moved in but while Poland expected them to fight on their side, Poland’s mistreatment of Ukrainian peasants and their lack of Orthodox Christianity meant the Cossacks turned to Russia (then called Muscovy) for help – and the east part of the Ukraine became part of Russia in 1654. Phew!
Naughty Tatars from the Crimean Khanate not only took up the best land along the coast but also kept raiding northwards and took a record 60,000 Ukrainians as slaves in 1688 (the Russian Empire finally squashed them 90 years later).
In 1657-86, Ukraine was fought over by Russia, Poland, Turks and Cossacks, who, like children fighting over a toy, completely broke it in the process. In the end Poland got the west bits and Russia got the east bits.
The Cossacks ruled a hetmanate in central Ukraine under Russia’s control, but kept siding against Russia whenever other invaders (Sweden and Poland … we were so fighty in those days, weren’t we?) attacked so Peter the Great got rid of them.
Poland was later divided into partitions and the bit of Ukraine that was Polish then became Austrian.
But people who were essentially Lithuanian or Polish still ruled swathes of the Ukraine; they introduced a western Unionate Church and were pretty mean to the peasants, so the Cossacks led another uprising which saw Ukrainians killing off an awful lot of Poles and Jews, with Unionate and Orthodox religious-types fighting each other too.
In 1783 Russia absorbed the Crimean Khanate. By this point Ukraine had fallen so far from its glory days of Kievan Rus that the Ukrainian language was banned and it was just a land of rural peasants.
Catherine the Great urged immigrants from Europe, especially Germany, to come in and take advantage of the farmland (and thin out the Turk population). The Ukrainians, in turn, moved out – to Siberia.
In WWI Ukrainians fought both for Russia and for the Austro-Hungarian empires, both of which collapsed thereafter. Then there was revolutions and civil wars and Ukraine split up into lots of little states.
Again, Poland came in and took the west bit, while the east states became part of the Soviet Union. By this point, again, Ukraine was pretty much devastated, but Communist Russia got it on side with health care, women’s rights, education, etc.
Of course, when Stalin came in he put a stop to all that nonsense, and even imposed a famine because the Ukrainian farmers couldn’t meet his quotas for produce. In the 1930s, 80% of Ukrainian writers, artists and intellectuals were killed in Stalin’s Great Terror for not fitting in with his idea of culture. But apart from that I’m sure he was a lovely bloke.
Most of WWII was fought on the Eastern Front around Russia and the Ukraine.
Germany invaded in 1941 and of course the Nazis were no better than Stalin. They kept the collectivised farming, killed off all the Jews they could find and tried to starve out the population so there’d be more room for Germans.
Poor Kiev was encircled in July 1941 and held out for three months before 600,000 of their troops were killed or taken for slave labour.
Post-WWII there was still famine and ruin to endure, and until his death in 1953 Stalin carried on deporting Ukrainians for whatever reasons he could think of.
Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, invested in the Ukraine and it grew. However, tragedy struck again on 26 April 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and 2.2 million Ukrainians were contaminated with radiation.
In 1990 Ukraine gained independence, a year before the Soviet Union dissolved. Why not make a chicken or bean kiev or a kiev cake; or make pysanky. Tchaikowsky came from the Ukraine so why not watch the Nutcracker?