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Introduction to Ukrainian language and culture
Introduction to Ukrainian language and culture

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8 History of Ukraine

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Figure 4

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (apart from the European part of Russia). Formally modern Ukraine proclaimed independence in 1991, but it has a history of independence and of fighting to regain it.

Kyivan Rus was an independent state which existed from the ninth to the thirteenth century with the capital in Kyiv. The language spoken was an early form of Ukrainian and the country developed its own legal system. Kyiv fell to the Mongolians in 1240. Since then, Ukraine has often been divided and conquered, but has maintained a strong sense of its own identity and fought determinedly for independence. For example, the Cossacks, who lived on the steppes of south-eastern Ukraine, fought against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which then controlled most of Ukraine, and established their own state, the Cossack Hetmanate or Zaporizhian Host, which existed from 1648 to 1764.

Russia did not become involved until the seventeenth century. At that time, it was called Muscovy, with its capital far away in Moscow. In 1654, Ukraine became a protectorate of the Muscovite Tzar, in an alliance against Poland-Lithuania.

However, Muscovy expanded and became the Russian Empire. Associating itself with the ancient state of Kyivan Rus would enhance its imperial reputation, especially as the Orthodox Church came to Russia from Constantinople via Kyivan Rus. Empress Catherine II centralised the non-Russian nations of the empire and Ukraine lost all autonomy.

In the nineteenth century, Ukraine was mostly within the Russian Empire, while its Western regions came under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Throughout this time, Ukrainian national movements existed, often going hand in hand with the Romantic movement in art and culture, which encouraged an interest in heritage and folklore.

From 1917 onwards, against the backdrop of revolution in Russia, the Ukrainian Revolution also took place, in the form of political, military, and diplomatic attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian National Republic was declared first in Central Ukraine and later also in Western Ukraine. It existed until 1920, when most of Ukraine was occupied by the Bolshevik troops of the Soviet Union.

Most of Central and Eastern Ukraine was then incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviet period (1919–1991) had a dramatic impact on every aspect of life in Ukraine, with its ban on religion, obsessive search for foreign agents and enemies of people, absence of freedom of speech and policy of Russification, to name just a few.

Ukraine, known for centuries as the breadbasket of Europe, was hit by devastating famines between 1921 and 1947. These were caused directly by Stalin’s policy of the forced and often brutal collectivisation of agriculture. Holodomor (the Great Famine of 1932–1933) has been recognized by many countries as a genocide of the Ukrainian nation.

Most Western Ukrainian regions were re-united with Ukraine in 1945, at the end of World War II, but as part of the Soviet Union.

In 1954, Soviet Russia passed Crimea (which Russia had annexed in 1783) to Ukraine. The reasons for this are extremely complex, but one was practical: it was too difficult for Russia to finance and rebuild this region, which was geographically connected to Ukraine.

Next week, you will look at the end of Soviet rule and the recent history of independent Ukraine.

Activity 7: Historical events

Timing: 20 minutes

A. Match these historical events with their dates.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. Kyivan Rus was an independent state

  2. Most of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union

  3. Holodomor – the Great Famine

  4. Western Ukrainian regions became part of Ukraine.

  5. Crimea became part of Ukraine.

  • a.From 1919

  • b.1954

  • c.From the ninth century until the mid-thirteenth century

  • d.1945

  • e.1932–1933

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = a
  • 3 = e
  • 4 = d
  • 5 = b


In the nineteenth century, modern Ukraine was divided between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


The first important state with Kyiv as its capital was founded in the ninth century.


There were no attempts to unify Ukraine before 1991.


The present-day internationally recognised boundaries of Ukraine were established in 1954.

The correct answer is c.


The answer is ‘There were no attempts to unify Ukraine before 1991.’ There were movements to unify and establish independent Ukrainian state throughout its history. The most prominent one was between 1917 and 1921.