Ukraine - Political background

Ukraine, the current name for this country, was not widely used until the nineteenth century. Meaning "at the border" or "at border region," its use was often seen as a pejorative or derogatory term. Important political units, however, have existed on what is now Ukrainian territory for more than a millennium. From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, Kievan Rus dominated most of what is now Ukraine, controlling much of the north-south trade between Scandinavia and Byzantium. Following the capture of Kiev by the Mongols, Ukrainian lands fell under a variety of outside rulers, more importantly Lithuania in the fourteenth century and then Muscovy. In 1569, Ukrainian territories were transferred from Lithuanian to Polish control, and Ukrainians were divided between Catholic and Orthodox subordination.

In 1654, the nominally independent Ukrainians under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnitskiy sought Russian help against the Poles. The Russian state used this alliance to absorb and incorporate Ukrainian lands into the growing Russian state and gradually displaced many Polish nobles with Russian ones. By the end of the eighteenth century, all elements of local autonomy were suppressed. Russianization expanded rapidly, particularly after the annexation of Crimea in 1783, which opened the Black Sea coast for export of grain to Europe and beyond.

In response to Russian heavy-handedness, particularly Russian moves to restrict the use of the Ukrainian language in 1863 and 1876, a Ukrainian national movement emerged in the nineteenth century. Much of it was headquartered in those portions of Ukraine that remained under more liberal Austro-Hungarian control. By World War I, these groups had a broad network of activists throughout the Ukrainian lands. After the February 1917 overthrow of the czar, a Ukrainian Central Rada emerged under German protection. That government was replaced several times during a complicated civil war in which White Russians, Bolsheviks, Germans, anarchists, and Ukrainian nationalists alternated in power or, to be more accurate, in claims to power.

By the end of 1920, Soviet power was successfully imposed and a Ukrainian Soviet Social Republic proclaimed. It became a founding member of the USSR in 1922. Initially, Soviet policy was quite supportive of Ukrainian rights; Moscow pushed a policy of Ukrainianization of Russian and Jewish cadres who dominated the cities and the Communist Party organization. By the end of the 1920s, however, Soviet policy shifted, with the imposition of brutal collectivization policies in which at least six million Ukrainians died and the equally brutal industrialization strategies which uprooted citizens and transformed Ukrainian life. By the end of the 1930s, virtually all the gains of the 1920s had been wiped out, but the existence of a Ukrainian state with its panoply of institutions encouraged Ukrainians to think that they might someday have greater autonomy or even independence.

Moscow added Galicia and Western Volhynia to Ukraine as a result of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. The German invasion of 1941, however, in which Ukraine was occupied, appeared to nullify these actions. After the Soviet victory, Ukraine was reconstituted in its current borders which include these west Ukrainian lands. In 1954, Moscow transferred Crimea from the Russian republic to Ukraine to mark the 300th anniversary of the incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian state, and, more importantly, to preclude the return of the Crimean Tatars whom Stalin had forcibly deported to Central Asia in 1944. Moscow helped to rebuild Ukraine but faced armed resistance from the population until the time of Stalin's death.

Ukrainian nationalism ebbed and flowed with the course of Soviet reforms after 1953. Finally, under Gorbachev, as a result of both his more open policies and the shock of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Ukrainian nationalism exploded. A national movement, the Rukh , was founded, and the republic's leaders were forced by several rounds of elections to attend to its demands for autonomy and ultimate independence. Like other Soviet republics, Ukraine declared itself sovereign in July 1990. Following the August 1991 coup and the subsequent resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1991, Ukraine sought to achieve independence but agreed to work within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a transitional measure. It achieved international recognition, made easier by the fact that Ukraine has been in the United Nations (UN) since 1945. In 1996, the country adopted a new Constitution that significantly broadened the powers of the president.

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