A typical image of the orientation of the Western Ukrainians to the West (EU and the USA): two Ukrainian protesters before Yanukovich’s expulsion, wearing helmet, armor and shields of Western Crusader types (rather of the Teutonic Knights). They obviously prefer this kind of arms and armor than the traditional Russian ones of Alexander Nevsky and Dmitry Donskoy (copyright: Associated Press).



By  Periklis  Deligiannis


The country now called Ukraine consists of two main geophysical areas, inhabited almost always by different ethnic groups until around 1790, when the entire country became ethnically homogeneous, overwhelmingly inhabited by Slavs. Although the Crimea, since 1954 belongs to the Ukrainian SSR and then to the independent Ukraine, this large peninsula is a geographically and ethnologically   independent area. But because Crimea is a part of the modern ‘problem’ of the Ukrainian division, I will additionally deal with her in this article.

The two major geophysical regions of Ukraine is the southern steppe and the wooded or semi-wooded area of the North. Of course nowadays, both areas have been delivered largely on crops, thereby this distinction is now very relevant (almost non-existent), but this geophysical situation existed until the recent centuries. Since the Middle Ages, the wooded area of the North have been delivered largely on crops, while the South remained a steppe until the 18th cent.

On the ethnological status of the Ukrainian lands in Antiquity, I have already written in my article ΤΗΕ BOSPORAN KINGDOM (CIMMERIAN BOSPORUS) – PART I and PART IIwhere although the main theme is the kdm of Cimmerian Bosporus, I refer also to this topic.

In the 5th century AD, the steppe of the South was inhabited by Hunnish tribes while the northern woodland was inhabited by Slavs. The steppe was occupied by a succession of Altaic peoples (Avars, Proto-Bulgars, Khazars, Pechenegs, Cumans-Kipchaq-Polovtsy, Mongolo-Tatars, Tatars and others) until the 18th century. The same tribes controlled the neighboring Crimea except its southern coast which was controlled successively by the Byzantine Empire, Genoa and the Ottomans until 1783.

Northern Ukraine together with the neighboring SE Poland, is the metropolis of all the Slavs, who extended their lands in all directions except the steppe, due to the presence of the dreaded nomads there (except some sporadic attempts  like  the  ones  of the Ulichi, the Tiverchi  and the  Kievan  Rus). The Slavs were formed in this area during the first millennium BC, when they were detached ethnically from the Baltic Indoeuropean group, in which they originally belonged.

Kievan_Rus'_Ukraine_1220_1240                 The state (but not ethnic) roots of Western Ukraine: the hegemony of Galicia-Volyn in the western part of Kievan Rus (1220-1240).


The Slavs of northern Ukraine had already established tribal confederations when in the 9th century AD, the Swedish and Gothic Vikings appeared in their territories and joined them in the state of Kievan Rus. In the late 10th century AD, the Rus (Vikings and Slavs) were Christianized by Byzantine missionaries, resulting in the forever implantation of the Byzantine civilization in the Russian and Ukrainian lands. Some linguists have hypothesized that the modern Ukrainian language comes from the vernacular Slavic tongue of Kiev of the 10th-12th centuries, but this is rather a theory that serves modern political expediency.

In the 12th century AD, the Russian state of Kiev began to decline and in the 13th century all the Russian principalities were under the power of the Mongol invaders. When the Mongol Empire was divided, the Russian principalities passed under the rule of the Golden Horde, the Mongol successor state in the area with its center of power in the region of the Volga River.

The state roots of the modern Western Ukrainians are to be found in one of the Russian principalities which resulted from the decomposition of Kievan Rus, the hegemony of Galicia-Volyn in today NW Ukraine, which flourished mainly in the 13th century. But its people were still undifferentiated Russians. In the early 14th century the hegemony declined and in the second half of the same century came under the influence of Poland, while the rest of Northern Ukraine was annexed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These annexations were the cornerstone of the modern division of Ukraine into two potential ethnicities. The northwestern Ukraine finally passed under the strong influence of the pro-Western and Catholic Poles and Lithuanians, thus since then begun the formation of the special Western Ukrainian ethnic character. Soon Poland and Lithuania joined through dynastic union in a common empire, known today as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (or Empire).


                An ethno-linguistic map of modern Ukraine .


This foreign control of Ukraine was initially mild, but when in 1569 the two members of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth joined constitutionally as well, it became more organized and forceful. The native aristocracy was gradually Polonized, the Poles and the Jews became the dominant social classes in Kiev and in other cities and the local population were turned to serfs. In 1595, a crisis in the Orthodox Church and the pressure of the Polish Catholic bishops, led the majority of the Orthodox Bishops of North Ukraine in signing an official union with the Catholic Church and the recognition of the primacy of the pope, with the condition of their maintenance of the Orthodox ritual. This was the genesis of the modern Uniate Church, externally Orthodox but actually a part of the Papal Church. Even today the N. Ukraine remains an area of controversy between the Uniate Catholic and the Orthodox Church. At the same time, the local dialect began to diversify more and more from the common Russian language, laying the foundation of the modern Ukrainian language. But even today Ukrainian remains essentially a dialect of Russian, despite the best efforts of several linguists to raise it as a separate language. The fact that a Russian and a NW Ukrainian can understand each other with no great difficulty makes the Ukrainian a dialect. At the same time, the local population politically cut off from the rest of Russia, began to adopt a large number of Western culture elements of its suzerains. Thus under the influence of these three main factors (cultural, religious and linguistic) the “Ukrainians”, i.e. the “frontier people” (“Ukraine” in Russian and Ukrainian means “the borderland”), began to differ ethnically from the other Russians. The configuration of their ethnicity had just begun.


 crimea 2

[Copyright: Reuters]


The Cossacks are a characteristic group of Ukraine. They were free warriors, mostly cavalry, coming mainly from the indigenous Russian population (with a presence of Poles, Lithuanians and others as well), set up to defend the borders against the Tatars of the Southern steppe. The Cossacks were identified with the common people of Ukraine, and in the 17th century shook the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with their revolutions. Their largest rebellion occurred in 1648 when the Cossacks and rebellious peasants were united under the Cossack hetman (military leader) Bogdan Chmelnysky who in 1654 officially came under the protection of Muscovy, i.e. the new Russian state that emerged after the end of the Mongolo-Tatar yoke. Muscovy (and later the Russian Empire) became involved in a series of wars against the Poles, resulting in the annexation until the late 18th century of almost all the Northern (former wooded) Ukraine. But the formation of the Ukrainian (modern North-Western Ukrainian, to be accurate) ethnicity had already advanced. The Ukrainians were never able to fully adjust in the old Russian environment, thus they were developed into a new Slavic nation. The Russians recognized this ethnic development and accepted it by the end of the Tsarist era, although of course there were strong reactions against it by the nationalists. Galich and Volyn were the last Ukrainian territories of Poland that gradually passed under Russian control in 1772-1795 with the Partitions of Poland. However the Eastern Galicia and northern Vukovina passed under the control of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

Polish_Lithuanian_Commonwealth_1658 The extent of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1658 and its presence in the Ukrainian lands.


The Cossacks were a very independent group, turning also against the Russians. Their major revolt against them took place in the early 18th century, when the hetman Ivan Mazepa joined forces with the skilled soldier-king Charles XII of Sweden, but they were defeated in the Battle of Poltava (1709, in modern East Ukraine). With the dissolution of the Zaporozhye Cossacks in 1775 by the Russian army, almost every Ukrainian Cossack independence movement ended.

Simultaneously, the Russian Empire extended her territory in the steppe of the South, which gradually conquered since the 17th century from the Crimean Tatars (who had succeeded the central Tatar Golden Horde in the region, after its dissolution). Although the Tatars were protected by the Ottomans, the Russians managed to conquer their entire Khanate until 1783. The new areas which correspond to modern Southern Ukraine and Crimea, were colonized mainly by Russians, Greeks and other Orthodox, and less by NW Ukrainians. (This is the reason why today the Russian-speaking and the ethnic Russians prevail in them). It was then that were founded or re-founded as Russian urban centers, major cities such as Odessa, Kherson, Nikolaev (Mikolaiv in Ukrainian), Simferopol and Sevastopol. Until the early 20th century, the southern region was called “New Russia”, while modern North-Eastern Ukraine with Kharkiv as its main urban center which was conquered earlier from the Volga-Nogay Tatars, was known as “Little Russia”, a term usually describing also the whole of Ukraine. The Ukraine proper (the area inhabited by Ukrainian-speaking population) lies mainly in the west of the Dnieper and in the center of the east of the same river, with Kiev as its main urban center).

 crimean khanate

The Tatar Khanate of Crimea around 1600, when its territory had been limited enough. However the border zone under Polish control in its North was uninhabited or sparsely populated by Cossacks of Zaporozhye, belonging to the “Wild Fields” as the borderlands were known. In the Northeast, the Great Nogay Horde (another successor state of the Golden Horde) has not yet been delivered to the Russian colonization, also inhabited by Tatars. Note that South Crimea and the fortress of Azov in the northeast (red color) are directly controlled by the Ottoman Empire which is the suzerain of the Crimean Khanate. Even today the Crimean Tatars, a Turkish moslem people, are turning to Turkey for support.


Later these newly acquired Southern and Eastern regions became parts of Ukraine, although they were Russian imperial conquests from the Tatars and colonized mainly by Russians. But the Ukrainians themselves had nothing to do with these annexations: the Tsarist and Soviet regimes are to blame for them, causing the modern ethnic troubles in the area. The colonization of these regions continued even in the 20th century. Especially with the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the development of industry in modern SE Ukraine, the Russian regions gained a economic precedency, especially the industrial region of Donbass (Donetsk, Luhansk and a part of Kharkiv/Kharkov).

The Romanov dynasty influenced by the Russian nationalists, made attempts to assimilate the NWestern Ukrainians in the Russian environment, her main act being the official ban of the Ukrainian language in 1863, which was renewed in 1876. Although these prosecutions have never been applied completely and had no serious results, they forged the ethnic character of the Western Ukrainians and deepened their opposition to the Russians. The Western Ukrainians rallied around their special identity, substantially completing their ethnogenesis also through their cultural nationalism and its main representative, the great poet Taras Shevchenko who became the ‘personification’ of Ukrainian nationalism. Shevchenko dreamed of transforming the Russian Empire into a democratic federation, with Ukraine a federate member of it. His dream and the dream of all the Western Ukrainians of that era would become partially a reality in the next century.

Ukraine 1793-1914

                The territorial changes of empires in the Ukrainian territories from 1793 to 1914.


The Ukrainians of the Austrian Empire were probably in a better condition, but not particularly because they continued to be controlled by Polish aristocrats. Moreover Galicia became a field of confrontation between ethnic Ukrainians and Poles who claimed the area as a part of their national territory. The Austrians according to their consistent tactics of “divide and rule” (as also the Russians did) were fomented these confrontations in order to rule the area.

The Ukrainian national movement in Russia and Austro-Hungary continued to grow during the early 20th century. Galicia and Vukovina were theaters of operations of the World War I. During the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, occurred the first attempt of the Ukrainian nationalists for their country’s independence from Russia and Austro-Hungary, who in 1919 proclaimed the independence of Western Ukraine after the official dissolution of the latter. Meanwhile, the country became the field of wild conflicts between Red Bolsheviks, White counterrevolutionaries, Ukrainian nationalists and Poles with the Jews being the main victims, killed mainly by furious villagers. Soon the Poles and Soviets occupied the independent Ukrainian territories and divided them among themselves. In 1920 Poland received much of Galicia-Volynia, the USSR annexed the rest of Ukraine, Romania received the North Vukovina and the newly formed Czechoslovakia annexed the Transcarpathian Ruthenia. The Russian part became the Ukrainian SSR, fully controlled by Moscow and the local Russians and Jews. During the interwar period, the Western Ukrainians experienced periods of Soviet fostering and encouraging of their Ukrainian character (mostly in the 1920s), and periods of Soviet hidden persecution of it (especially during the Stalinist period). However, the leadership of the USSR generally recognized the Ukrainian ethnicity, which after all was fully formed since the previous century.


The modern regions of Ukraine and their typical  division in proWestern and proRussian according to recent voting results.


The German-Soviet  Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 enabled the USSR to occupy the Ukrainian regions of Poland and Romania, annexing them to the Ukrainian SSR.

During the Second World War, Ukraine became a field of fierce and bloody battles between the German and Red armies. By 1941, Hitler’s Germany controlled almost the whole of Ukraine and in 1941 installed a puppet government in Lvov (Lviv) of Western Ukraine, the strongest bastion of Ukrainian nationalism until today. Many Western Ukrainians strengthened voluntarily the German armies, but in general the Nazi policy to win over the local population failed in the area, because of the cruelty of the German army across the country, the savage exploitation of the resources, and the arrest of several Western Ukrainian anti-Soviet leaders by the Gestapo because they were not “good puppets”. Almost the whole of the Jewish population was exterminated or removed. In the mid-1943 the Soviets have returned with their large counterattack operations and drove the Nazis out of Ukraine until the October 1944. The Eastern and Southern Ukraine and Crimea hailed them as liberators, but the Western Ukrainians offered hard resistance to the advancing Red Army, which continued with guerrilla warfare until 1950. It was another sharp contrast between the Russian-speaking Eastern and Southern Ukraine (& Crimea) and the Ukrainian-speaking Western country. In 1954, the Ukrainian Soviet leader Nikita Hrustsov distracted the Crimea (inhabited mainly by  Russians)  from the Russian SSR and annexed it to his native Ukrainian SSR. Crimea was never before a part of Ukraine. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1990-91, Ukraine became independent, inheriting the perpetual opposition and controversy between the Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukrainians and the Russian-speaking Ukrainians (and ethnic Russians) of the Eastern and Southern regions. The antipathy of the first generally to the Russians, became once again clear during the recent regional wars of the Russian Federation, for example when the Dagestani, Chechen and other separatists were strengthened by Western Ukrainian mercenaries.


Periklis   Deligiannis