Do You Know Ukraine’s History?

An image of a typewriter on a desk with Russian novels and documents stacked upon it
Photo by Sofiia Smirnova on Unsplash

The news informs our opinion while art leads us to truth.

You should know that President Vladimir Putin is following in the footsteps of former Russian rulers. In what is a legacy move—to reprise Russia’s role as Europe’s powerhouse—he’s attempting another bloody seizure of sovereign territory.

This time Ukraine is at stake. Due to its complicated relationship with the EU and NATO, as well as turbulence on its eastern boarder, the Russian administration has pounced on the under-fortified and neglected state.

And it’s happened before—not just in Ukraine in 2013 but in other sovereign sates. Russia has buffaloed every one of its bordering nations, and the dozens of ethnic and non-Christian groups, for the last five hundred years.

Whether imperial, soviet or “democratic”, Russia has always wanted more. Be it land, resources or influence.

You should know:

Here is a short list of significant events involving Russia in recent history:

  • Cossack Rebellion (1770s)
  • The Crimean War (1850s)
  • The Caucasian War (1860s)
  • Soviet Expansion (1920s)
  • The Chechen Wars (1990s)

Each conflict has yielded degrees of concessions—on both sides. Even peasants and guerrillas once made substantial strides against the Imperial and Soviet Army. Nevertheless, they weren’t powerful enough to stop The Bear.

However, one thing is undeniable

Whether it was Catherine the Great, Tsar Alexander II or President Putin, Russian leaders are notorious map manipulators—always redrawing boarders.

This map indicates the growing and shrinking size of Russia during the 20th century.
Source: https://mapsontheweb.zoom-maps.com/image/80674194797

You get the picture

So here are two texts that can help you understand the context of these past disputes—and perhaps present ones.

Nikolai Gogol—Taras Bulba (1835)

The renowned 19th century Ukrainian novelist, Gogol wrote about the titular character, a warring Cossack. He and his army fight against Poles that seek to control his homeland west of the Dnieper river.

Taras Bulba is a story of one man’s struggle to protect his home from empires and invaders.

The story also demonstrates a multicultural and multiethnic landscape (Jews, Poles, Russians and Ottomans), groups which indeed comprised 19th century Ukraine.

Although most Romantic novels aim for unambiguous conflicts—good vs. evil—the reality was much more complex.

Yes, some ethnic groups fought alongside one another. But it wasn’t always the case. Remember, this is the era of pogroms.

Nonfiction is much more brutal than novels.

[Below is a map depicting the Dnieper river which bisects modern day Ukraine]

A map of Ukraine which shows that the Dnieper river bisects the state. It flows up through the capital city Kiev and north into Belarus.
A map of modern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Tschubby

Alexander Pushkin—The Captain’s Daughter (1836)

Pushkin was a 19th century Russian novelist that represented the Cossack Rebellion—also known as Pugachev’s Rebellion—in his novel “The Captain’s Daughter”.

Here Tolstoy delivers an important historical context into how people in southern Russia and eastern Ukraine formed alliances against the exploitative power of the Russian Tsar in the 1770s.

Just like the current conflict in Ukraine, the events in the novel take place in a region known as Zaporizhzhia, east of the Dnieper. Additionally, it’s been the home of several indigenous tribes — all of whom Russia has either resettled, combated and conquered.

Long story short, these Cossacks were freemen that lived autonomously and separate from:

  • The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Catholics) to the west
  • The Ottomans to the south
  • Russian Empire to the east

In Tolstoy’s novel—set during the reign of Catherine the Great—the empire intended to impose regulations on this Zaporizhzhian territory. Mainly:

  • economic austerity (taxes)
  • monarchical hegemony (tsars)
  • social uniformity (submission to the Eastern Orthodox Church)

Unwilling to yield to these demands, fighting began

Again, these freedom fighters were multiethnic. Diversity was their strength. Cossacks, Bashkiris, Serfs, Muslims and nomadic peoples joined in against the empire.

Although the novel doesn’t deep-dive into the events, the novel is a significant nod towards the complicated history of Russia’s imperialistic crusades.

An illustration depicting the motley crew of fighters during Pugachev’s Rebellion—image credit: Молодых Ксения Станиславовна

Current Conflict

Today, Russia’s neighbors are in a perpetual dilemma. Their choices are either to accept Russian hegemony or else.

Over the past 300 years, Eastern Europe has experienced numerous Russian conquests. However, in the 21st century, journalism and the arts have helped us gain insight into the human cost more than in any other time.

The lesson in these two novels is clear

Fighting for justice and freedom is noble, no matter the outcome.

Whether the battle rages from east or west, the right to self-determination is paramount to existence.

This week

The UNHCR claims over three million Ukrainians have fled their country and at least double have been internally displaced. Ukrainians are living through another existential challenge, the outcome of which rests on the shoulders of their fighters.

Though the battle may be lost or won, their efforts and bravery will not be forgotten.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store