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Understanding What is Happening in Ukraine from a Historical Perspective (Part 1)

What’s happening in Ukraine has a large number of global implications, which is why the world is watching this conflict so closely, more so than some others that are equally devastating around the world.

For many people this is seen as the first “western” or “first-world” war of their lifetime so for that reason it is elevated in news reports. For me, I have family there. My Mum is first generation Australian with my grandfather migrating from Ukraine to Australia when he was 11 years old in 1950.

I grew up knowing just how strong his sense of patriotism is and it saddens me to see how broken he has become from these recent events, especially as contact with our remaining family over there has been scarce or non-existent.

For me, yes, understanding this conflict is personal but I realise so many people around me are struggling to keep up with what is happening which is why I’ve taken the time to re-visit what I know and read back through the recent conflict to understand how we got where we are.

As a student of history, I know that nothing happens sporadically, it is caused by a series of events and in this case the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union is a complicated when it comes to the Ukraine.

There are a lot of blogs and newspaper articles out there on this topic so I’m not going to delve into the history too much (despite my urge to deep dive), but in this instance I’m concerned with the now and the history I can see being created each and every day.

This is what I want to review but to get there we need to start at the beginning. To go right back to the beginning may cause confusion, after all the number we keep hearing is 30.

Source: Ukraine Twitter (28 February 2022)

Thirty years doesn’t seem like long but that is how long the nation of Ukraine has existed for. This itself raises so many questions, such as why is it a short period time and if it has just been 30 years does it matter if Ukraine comes back under Russian rule?

Ukraine is a country that few people would have ever really thought about, in fact I was astonished to learn how few Ukrainian migrants were in Australia and how few identified as Ukrainian. Keeping in mind that most didn’t arrive until after World War Two, during this time Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and was yet to really exist as a nation so many migrants wouldn’t have noted themselves as Ukrainian instead listing Polish or Russian for example. For this reason, there is likely more Ukrainians in Australia, but these numbers are now lost.

Before I loose you, let me give a quick run down on how we get to just thirty years of Independence for Ukraine.

10th Century - Around the mid-tenth century the city of Kyiv (also spelt Kiev) was established.

11th Century - In the eleventh century Kyiv was included in Kievan Rus, a large federation in North-East Europe whom Russia, Belarus and Ukraine citizens all claim ancestry from. At its greatest extent the rule of the Rurik Dynasty (centred from Novgorod, Russia and the oversee of the federation), stretched from the White Sea to the Black Sea. Around this time the term Rus Propria, came to represent the area around Kyiv, Chernihiv and Pereiaslav with the people known as Ruthenians (see the map below which illustrates the area of Ukraine included).

Kievan Rus and surrounding powers in the 11th century (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

12th/13th Centuries - All good things come to an end and in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries the Kievan Rus was replaced by the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia which was under Mongol rule.

14th Century - In the fourteenth century Lithuania and Poland revolted against the Mongols which resulted in most of Ukraine passing to those two powers.

15th Century - In the late fifteenth century there were a series of revolts by Ukrainians under Polish rule due to extensive oppression by the more “elite” Poles who restricted the Ukrainians to serfdom. Also, in the fifteenth century the Crimean Khanate was created. This remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1774 when it came under Russian rule. Thus, Crimea has a history partially different from Ukraine as a whole.

16th Century - In the sixteenth century, 1569 to be specific, Ukraine became a part of the Kingdom of Poland. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as new towns were established with greater access to education and modern resources put in place for Ukrainians.

17th Century - The seventeenth century saw the introduction of the Cossacks. I thought this was a Russian term but apparently it is actually in relation to the Ukrainian peasants who would flee to avoid serfdom, Cossack meaning “free people”. This group became well known for their fighting skills and saw the creation of the Cossack State in central Ukraine. The state existed from 1648-1764 and is considered the birth of an independent Ukraine. A protectorate or vassal relationship was established with the Kingdom of Russia, however over the subsequent years the control of Russia extended beyond protection and like the regions around it the Cossack came under Russian control (except for the west which fell under Austrian control).

This 19th century painting depicts the triumphant entry of Ukraine's (at the time Ruthian) leader into Kyiv, 1648

18th/19th Centuries - Thanks to the extension of Russian “protection” in the previous century, during the eighteenth-century Russia put bans on the use of the Ukrainian language and culture. This was because there was a fear that a Ukrainian separatist movement may begin to form if the culture and difference to Russia were allowed to flourish.

20th Century - Following the Russian revolution in 1917 parts of the Ukraine including Crimea, the southern region near the black sea and Donbas attempted to claim independence as “Ukraine” but instead what occurred was a war that would last for four years. What came out of the war were multiple republics that would be assumed by the Soviet Union almost immediately.

Almost seventy years later Ukraine once again declared independence, this time on 24 August 1991 and with greater success thanks to the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union. The subsequent years were filled with unrest and tensions between Russia and the rest of Europe.

This map is great for understanding how the nation state was formed. You can see why during the post WWII years it was hard for many Ukrainian's to identify as distinctly Ukraine with regions changing hands. (Source: Spiridon Ion Cepleanu)

21st Century - Tensions and instability in the young Ukrainian nation, reached a head in March 2014 (while the world’s eye was on the Olympics – that’s what Russia does apparently, see note below)* when Russia annexed Crimea which led to pro-Russian unrest in eastern and southern Ukraine. The next month the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic were declared which led to the War in the Donbas and now in 2022 Russian President Putin’s recognition of these two “Republic’s” as independent has played a major role in the current conflict.

*NOTE: Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 took place during the summer Olympics in Beijing. The invasion of Ukraine in 2014 took place during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This is why many predicted an invasion during the 2022 games.

**It should also be pointed out though, that Russia took an opportunity in 2014 as at this time there was a Ukrainian revolt which ousted the sitting Ukrainian President.

Has this helped you understand how history has brought us to where we are today? If your answer is no, don't worry because I also still have many questions I'd like to explore and answer. For this reason I am planning a few more blogs that will cover:

  • Part Two: Understanding the Current Conflict, the history of the regions in the spotlight (Crimea, and the Donbas)

  • Part Three: The Current crisis, where we are one month in (a personal reflection)

  • Part Four: The Ongoing Crisis (wouldn't it be great if this blog wasn't needed)!

  • Part Five: A Closer look at Ukraine's History (incl. the Cossack State).


Further Reading (A selection):




  • 15th Edition SBS World Guide (2007)

  • Geographica World Atlas and Encyclopaedia (2008: Random House Australia)

  • The World 1st Edition (Lonely Planet, 2014)

Disclaimer: The observations and comments made in this blog are made after reflecting on the news stories and histories I read. History plays a big part in how I understand the present so my comments largely take into account history and the role it has in the present. After all, those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

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