Why Ukraine Matters So Much To Russia: A Brief-ish History of Russian-Ukrainian Relations

One of the essential pieces of understanding current events in Ukraine is the regional history. I’ve heard the number “300 years” bandied about in the last few days, but the reality is that Russian and Ukrainian fortunes have been intertwined far longer than that, and for much of that time, they weren’t necessarily pleasant. I think it’s difficult for many Americans to understand the concept of any sort of deeply seated ancestral sentiment, mostly because a lot of our ancestors haven’t been here long enough for any such thing to take root. But in areas like Eastern Europe, where relevant history stretches back over a thousand years, people consider things that happened long before they were born when reacting to current events. I’m going to attempt to very briefly explain some of the history between Ukraine and Russia and how it contributes to the complexity in the region today.

Once upon a time, the East European Plain (better known to most people as the present-day area containing Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Western Russia that Russian and German armies like to charge across to attack each other) was inhabited by a multitude of tribes. The most dominant of these tribes became the East Slavs. There were also a bunch of Scandinavians called the Varangians. Details are a bit sketchy, but one of these Varangians, a chieftain named Rurik, managed to gain control of Ladoga, an important port settlement not far from modern St. Petersburg, and then moved further inland and made Novgorod his capital somewhere around 860.

Rurik’s successor, Oleg, led a military force south along the Dnieper River to Kiev, which he conquered and made his new capital. And so began the state of Kievan Rus’. Oleg consolidated his power along the rivers and main trade routes running through Eastern Europe, and the new state prospered due to steady supplies of tradable goods, like furs, honey and slaves. At its peak, Kievan Rus’ spanned a huge swath of land from the Baltic Sea in the north, down to the Black Sea and from parts of modern day Poland in the west to large areas of Russia in the east.

The expansion of Kievan Rus’ that Oleg had begun was continued by his two successors, Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise. In 988, Vladimir adopted Orthodox Christianity and managed to negotiate a marriage for himself to the sister of the Byzantine emperor. Thanks to the efforts of Cyril and Methodius, two monks who had been sent out to convert the Slavs years earlier, the Church already had a body of liturgy in Cyrillic, as well as some texts that had been translated from Greek. These texts allowed the East Slavs to acquire at least some rudimentary knowledge of Greek philosophy and science. Yaroslav embraced the new religion, founding cathedrals dedicated to St. Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod.

By the 12th century, Kievan Rus’ was in decline. Its system of principalities had given rise to regional centres of power which were now in full competition with each other. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century was the final blow for the decaying state, which was replaced by new cities such as Moscow, where a branch of the Rurikid dynasty ruled until the end of the 16th century.

While Kievan Rus’ is the cultural forefather of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (especially linguistically and religiously), that does not mean that subsequent relations have always been positive. Modern-day Ukraine, like most of the East European Plain, spent much of second millennium under foreign domination, from various empires and invaders. During the 19th century, Ukraine, like much of Eastern Europe, experienced a rise in nationalism. In the wake of World War I and the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which had dominated Ukraine, a strong movement for self-determination emerged. A number of competing Ukrainian states developed, but ultimately, it was the pro-Bolshevik Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic controlled from Kiev that stuck.

The Soviet Union was not kind to Ukraine, particularly after Stalin’s rise to power. The USSR looked at Ukraine, with its fertile soil and high output of crops like wheat, sugar beet, and sunflower seeds, as its breadbasket and promptly subjected it to a programme of collectivisation as well as production quotas. Under the collectivisation policy, Ukrainian peasants were not allowed to receive food supplies until the production quotas had been met. Eventually, the NKVD (a group largely responsible for political repression under Stalin) would forcibly seize food stocks from peasants. The end result of this was that a mass famine known as the “Holodomor” occurred from 1932-1933 and resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians (there is a huge amount of debate about numbers, and I won’t attempt to cite any here). Today, this famine is considered a genocide by a number of governments.

At the same time as the Holodomor was destroying Ukraine’s rural population, the intelligentsia were being targeted by political repression and persecution. In the early stages of the Ukrainian SSR, the Soviet government had encouraged Ukrainisation policies designed to spur a cultural renaissance, particularly of language, literature, and the arts. Under Stalin, all of this was reversed, as Stalin strove to eliminate any nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine. By the end of the 1930s, nearly 40% of the Communist Party in Ukraine, including all of its leadership, had been purged (either executed or sent to labour camps in Siberia), as had over three-quarters of the intelligentsia.

The relationship between Ukraine and Russia stretches back over 1000 years, and to this day, the two countries are inextricably linked, linguistically, culturally, and economically (prior to the 20th century, Ukraine was commonly known as “Little Russia”. The name “Ukraine” supposedly from an older name for the area that meant “borderland”.) Despite the current tensions over Crimea and the legitimacy of the new government in Kiev (more on that later), this special relationship – which I’ve heard likened to the UK-US relationship – is unlikely to vanish. Yes, Russia is looking to preserve is global influence by preventing countries like Ukraine from changing their loyalties. But the situation is also more nuanced than that. Putin, who made rekindling the relationship between the Kremlin and Orthodox Church one of his priorities, is unlikely to want the seat of Slavic Orthodoxy aligned against Russia. To him, modern Russia owes much of its cultural heritage to Kiev, and the cultural and economic connections between the countries mean that they belong together. But the scar of Communism is still very raw in Ukraine, with people alive who remember the destruction of the Holodmor, World War II, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (of which Ukraine bore the environmental brunt). Ukraine has clung to its independence since 1991, and the more aggressive Russia becomes in its push to force Ukraine back under its wing, the more likely Ukraine is to try to fly the nest in response.

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