Ukraine's modern history

Although almost everyone knows its name, Ukraine is one of the youngest countries in the world. In July 1990, the Republic's Soviet (Russian for Council) voted for autonomy. Out of a grand total of 450, more than 350 members of the highest political institution in the former SSR were in favour of independence. Leonid Kravchuk (born 1934) became chairman of the new Soviet.

The official announcement of Ukraine's independence fell on August 24. The Communist Party was banned, while the people were also asked for their opinion on autonomy. Nobody knows what would have happened if the people had voted the idea down (or do we), but fortunately for the decision-makers their plans were approved of by more than 90% of the voters. Within two weeks, Kravchuk was elected President with 62% of the available votes.

The new country was 604,000 square kilometers large with a population of 52 million. One fifth of all Ukrainians were born Russian. The strategically and economically important Crimean peninsula (with mainly Russian inhabitants) at the borders of the Black Sea belonged to Ukraine as well, and was awarded with the title 'autonomous republic', a relic from USSR epochs.

The main problem of the new republic was the economy. Leonid Kuchma was appointed First Minister in Fall 1992, with special powers to lead the economical reforms. A special currency was created to enable the transition and Ukraine was admitted to the International Monetary Fund. With Big Brother Russia, Ukraine signed some treaties on trade and due payments. What the Russians did not appreciate was the alliance between Ukraine and the United States in July 1993. For 17.500.000.000 American dollars, the Ukraine would dismantle its nuclear weaponry. The European Union decided to help the country rebuild its dangerous nuclear plants.

Kuchma won the presidential elections of 1994. In anticipation of a constitution, the powers were officially divided. A debt of 900 and 700 million dollars respectively made Russia and Turkmenistan decide to reduce and stop the export of gas to Ukraine. The next year Russia and Ukraine came to an agreement over the controversial Black Sea fleet. Russia gained 80% of the fleet (370 ships and 80,000 men in total) and received Ukrainian permission to use the Crim marine basis in Sebastopol.

The new currency grivna replaced the old one, karbovanets, to battle renewed inflation. Kuchma's political opponent and First Minister Pavlo Lazarenko had to retreat because of corruption scandals. He fled to the United States but was arrested there. The 'new' Communists became the largest party at the 1998 elections, leaving Kuchma's Democratic People's Party far behind. Economically, the country was as good as broke. Miners' strikes and protest marches destabilized the situation even more. Thanks to IMF and other credits, inflation dropped from 80% to 16%. The economy was harmed however by the Kosovo war, which caused the important Danube transports to decrease immensely. Europe insisted on democratic reforms meanwhile. The death penalty still existed, Human Rights were violated and Ukrainian law was still rather antique.

The death penalty was abolished indeed in 2000, when a new Book of Laws was introduced in Ukraine. With Russia, the country finally agreed on strategic and military cooperation. For Europe, the most important feature however was the termination of Chernobyl, the nuclear plant where the disastrous meltdown took place in 1986. The G7 financed the largest part of this.


Ukraine is a multiparty democracy (officially, anyway - in reality the Soviet elite is still firmly entrenched and freedom elusive) in Eastern Europe, bordered by Belarus on the north, Russia on the north and east, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in the south, Romania and Moldova in the south-west, and Hungary, Slovakia and Poland on the west. The ethnic make-up of the country is roughly 70% Ukranian and 20% Russian - the Russians outnumber the Ukranians in only a few areas, most notably the Crimea (a semi-autonomous region). It has an area of 233,1002 miles and the capital is at Kiev.

Geography and economy

Ukraine is mostly made up of very fertile steppes and plateaus, and 58% of the land is used in arable farming. Formally known as the "breadbasket of Europe", agricultural products include wheat, barley, maize, rye and potatoes. Although decades of Soviet neglect have destroyed the possibility of exporting crops for now, this certainly exists in the future (agriculture is currently 13.8% of the GDP). Even after the collapse of the USSR the collective farming system has been retained, and this greatly hinders productivity. Output has actually dropped since the Soviet era, when the Ukranian SSR provided more than one-fourth of Soviet agricultural output.

Nowadays it is Ukraine's heavy industry that is most notable, and it is the World's fourth largest steel producer. Ukraine has vast mineral reserves, often convieniently close together, and it is on this that the country's industry is based. 26% of the country's labour force work in industry, which accounts for 38% of the GDP. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine's output fell by nearly 40%, but as stability and investor confidence return there is a resurgence. In 2000 the country recorded its first growth since independence, and in 2001 experienced a 9% GDP growth and a 14% growth in industrial output. Growth is still held back by the relatively small amount of reform that has taken place to the country's centralised economy since independence.

In the early 1990s there seemed to be the possibility of reform, but by 1993 95% of all property was still owned by the state. The government today promises to overhaul the tax system, deregulate the economy, and create a legal environment which encourages entrepreneurship. Widespread resistance to reform has still stopped the privatisation of most industries and prevented land reform, ie. the privatisation of land. This situation may be hard to change while the legislature remains Communist-dominated.


The reason Russia has always being so unwilling to let Ukraine out of its orbit is that the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus', was formed around Kiev in 880. The actual origin of the state is attributed to Slavs by most Russian historians, but in reality the Vikings had more to do wiith it. The Vikings of Kiev subdued the Eastern Slavs mercilessly and went on to penetrate south and attack Constantinople. Being ideally situated for the fur and slave trades, the city flourished and eventually Christianized, accepting the Eastern Orthodox faith due to their links with the Byzantine Empire. This tradition would persist in Eastern Europe to this day, with Eastern Orthodoxy being the dominant religion of Ukraine still in the 21st century, as well as of Russia. With Eastern Orthodoxy came a Cryllic liturgy and the essentials of Ancient Greek learning. Kiev's dominance couldn't last for ever, however, and as the ruling dynasty became more numerous and more desirous of autonomy in their regions. They began to war with each other and their decline became terminal with the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade - with this vital trade route gone, the principality shattered. In the internecine wars Kiev was sacked (1169). Then came the Tatars.

The Mongol Tatars swept into the region and smashed all before them. Amidst this carnage is when Russian and Ukrainian identities began to diverge. The Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240 and occupied much of Kievan Rus' - it is at this point that "oriental despotism" was introduced into the Russian tradition. One part of Kievan Rus' - Galicia - largely escaped occupation though, and was annexed by Poland in the 14th century. Volhynia and the city of Kiev were annexed by Lithuania at about this time, and would later be conquered by Poland (the fact of Poland's once-ownership of Ukraine would come back to haunt the latter in the 20th century). Ukrainian national identity began to be forged in this period, as did the martial spirit of the Cossacks - allied with Russia, Poland could not subdue them. Over the next centuries Ukraine was partitioned between two of the three great Empires of Eastern Europe - the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of the territory was under the control of the Russians, who regarded Ukraine as "Little Russia" and tried to quash their national spirit.

In the Russian part of Ukraine it was illegal to print the word "Ukraine" and the Russians opposed any nationalism. They seemed on the surface to have a strong case (especially relative to the usual logic of imperialism!) because Russian and Ukrainian culture were so close. But meanwhile, in Galicia - under Austro-Hungarian domination - the Ukrainians enjoyed a very liberal regime which allowed them to publish in their own language, teach this language to their children in schools, and forge a national identity. Ukrainian intellectuals from the Russian-dominated areas flocked to the west to take advantage of this.

Although the rise of nationalism in its subject peoples need not have spelled the end of the Russian Empire (and did not, because the Bolsheviks were just as keen as the Czars to keep the Empire together), it was certainly a factor towards the end of the nineteenth century. This did not particularly take place in the towns and was not necessarily a product of intelligentsia agitation - the simple fact was that three-quarters of the landowners in Ukraine were Russian or Poles. This is why the nationalism movement was focused on the peasants rather than the towns - Russification of the people in the towns was simple enough anyway - and why land reform was tied up with nationalism. The intelligentsia could easily take the natural opposition of a peasant to his landowner to its logical conclusion and identify economic concerns with national self-determination. And this is largely what happened.

After the February Revolution, while Russia was still involved in World War I, Ukraine fell under the provisional control of a parliament called the "Rada". Although ultimately it aimed to get full national self-determination, at first it called for greater autonomy and cultural freedom from Moscow. The Provisional Government didn't take them seriously at first, assuming the problem would go away if they ignored it - but when Finland started clamouring for independence as well, and Ukraine realised that maybe Moscow was too weak to stop it following suit, a crisis was perceived. The Provisional Government made some concessions and this was enough to asuage the Ukrainian national movement for the summer. But in 1918, the Ukrainians declare their own republic in East Galicia, following the turmoil of the October Revolution. When East Galicia was declared a protectorate of Poland by the Paris Peace Conference, a war broke out between Poland and the young Republic. When the Bolsheviks approached to try and regain Ukraine for themselves, the Republic's nationalists and Poland actually became allies. Poland occupied Kiev on 6 May, but were driven out by the Reds on the 2 June. Ukraine was now under Russian control, and it became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.

Keeping the Russian Empire together had proved very important to members of the Russian intelligentsia - it was unthinkable that the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity would be anything other than Christian. In the end Poland kept only the westernmost part of the country - they failed to turn Ukraine into a satellite state. But under the Russians, Ukraine would suffer terribly - successive Bolshevik leaders wanted nothing more than to crush nascent Ukrainian nationalism. Massive grain expropriations and collectivisations of agriculture, as part of a famine that was largely artificial, killed between three and seven million peasants in 1932-33 alone. Joseph Stalin purged the intelligentsia ruthlessly and tried to Russify the SSR. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, whereby the Red Army got the "right" to Eastern Poland from the Nazis, Galicia was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR. When the Germans came under Operation Barbarossa, the Ukrainians welcomed them. In World War I, the Central Powers had offered them all sorts of independence-related promises - Hitler, though, was not an ordinary ruler. He was cut from the same cloth as Stalin.

First, much to the dissapointment of Great Ukrainian nationalists (Galicia, the Ukrainian SSR, and Czechoslovakian Ruthenia), he split the country again. They massacred one million Ukrainian Jews. The rest of the population was treated little better - the Germans followed a policy of harsh expropriation which was no less brutal than Stalin's, and they shortly began to face guerilla resistance to their occupation. Because of the distinctly anti-utilitarian and ideology-oriented nature of his regime, Hitler soon turned these potential fellow-travellers against him. His hope of exploiting Europe's bread basket was gone.

Soviet forces returned in 1944. Anti-Communist resistance persisted into the 1950s, with the NKVD and Army conducting ferocious sweeps of the countryside. For the next decades, Ukraine was locked in the time-warp of Communism, in which nothing changed (the Great Ukrainian nationalists could be at least thankful that Ruthenia was incorporated). When Moscow faltered and liberalisation was offered, Ukrainians showed they had retained their national spirit and pursued it. But the history of the Ukraine was still essentially the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until August 24, 1991, when it received independence. It joined the Commonwealth of Independent States when it was founded, from where it has vigorously opposed any growth of Russian power over it.


Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy (Pimlico, 1996)

Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe's twentieth century (Vintage, 1998)

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Standard Edition 2003


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