Serhy Yekelchyk is a professor of History and Germanic and Slavic studies at the University of Victoria. He is an expert in Ukrainian History and Russian-Ukrainian relations. Also, he is the author of Ukraine: What Everybody Needs To Know (2020).
I will be following and briefly summarizing an article he wrote last January, highliting and explaining key moments to understand today’s conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
As the subject of interest is extremely extensive and complex, I will be publishing it in installments that can be read independently. But, if read as a whole, they ultimately show the bigger picture of the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine very briefly.
First of all, we should visualize where we are standing in Europe. Ukraine is in eastern Europe between Russia and the EU/Nato member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Ukraine also borders Belarus in the north and Moldova in the south. Crucially, Ukraine shares a border with Russia.
In the second place, it is essential to understand that Russia and Ukraine are two different and independent countries, which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Still, as a former Soviet republic, Ukraine has profound social, cultural, and economic ties with Russia. So it is, in fact, a historically complicated issue.
So, to put today’s Russia-Ukraine crisis into context, historian S. Yekelchyk charted nine milestone moments in the history of the relationship between countries…
9th Century: Kyivan Rus (large medieval state)
«In the late 9th Century, a group of Norsemen who called themselves Rus (pronounced «Roos») established control over the East Slavic communities in what is now Northwest Russia and then moved down the Dnieper River to make the city of Kyiv.»
With time, the Norsemen elite soon assimilated into the local Slavic population, referring to itself as the people of Rus, or Rusyns. At that moment, «the heart of the Rus state was present-day central Ukraine.» It would take a long time to see Moscow established in the 12th Century in a far-flung northeastern frontier.
Most Rusyns spoke a host of East Slavic dialects from which the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian languages would eventually develop. Later on, in the mid 13th Century, the loose federation of Rus principalities was conquered by the Mongol empire as they advanced towards the West.
1654: The Treaty of Pereisaslav
Taking advantage of the late 14th Century decline of the Mongol power, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (later eventually united with Poland) and the Grand Principality of Moscow divided the former Rus lands.
Besides, a new social group of Ukrainian Cossacks developed in the southern frontier of Poland to defend the land against Crimean Tatar and Turkish raids. These Ukrainian Cossacks were a group of free people, many of them runaway peasants serfs, who guarded the southern steppe border of Poland.
Early in the 17th Century, the Orthodox Christian population of the Ukrainian lands had become victimized by Catholic Poland’s religious policies and the expansion of serfdom. In 1648 a Cossack rebellion led by a military leader, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657), sparked out and became a mass social and religious war against Polish rule. The conflict led to the creation of the Hetmanate, a Cossack state nominally autonomous under the Polish Kingdom but independent. In his search for allies against Poland, Khmelnytsky was betrayed several times by the Crimean Tatars and knew for a fact that he could not rely on Ottoman protection. Given the circumstances, the Cossack leader ultimately sought assistance and protection from the Orthodox Russian tsar, which materialized in the 1654 Treaty of Pereislav.
At that time, ‘Ukraine’ as a concept already existed, but locals continued to call «themselves ‘Rusyns’ while referring to the future Russians as ‘Muscovites.'»
Serhy Yekelchyk emphasizes that the exact meaning of «protection» continues to be debated today as the following Russian policies eventually led to the Russian empire’s absorption of the Cossacks lands. Especially after Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s (1639-1709) failed attempt in 1709 to break with Moscow. When the zar of Russia dismissed helping Ukraine against Poland, the Cossacks allied with Sweden in 1708 against Russia. At the end of the war, Russia emerged victoriously and crushed the Cossack hope of an independent state. After that, there was a period of purges and, later on, a russification of Ukrainian lands since 1720.
1876: The Ems Act
Since 1720, a russification process had begun with tsar Peter I (1672-1725). In 1764, tsarina Catherine II (1729-1796) abolished the Hetmanate to finally erase the last remnants of Ukrainian autonomy, ordering the Russian army to destroy the Cossack stronghold on the Dnieper. Besides, during the partitions of Poland in the late 18th Century, Catherine acquired a large part of Ukrainian lands that Poland had kept after 1654. Yekelchyk explains that Cossack officers could claim noble status as long as they could provide the relevant paperwork, but Ukrainian peasants became enserfed with time.
Under the influence of pan-European Romanticism in the 19th Century, new interest in Ukrainian history and folklore developed among intellectuals, as the institutional legacy of the Hetmanate was being dismantled. «During the 1840s, Ukraine’s national bard, Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), published poems in the Ukrainian language and co-founded a secret political society that discussed a free Slavic federation and the abolition of serfdom». Nevertheless, worrying Russian authorities counterfeited by banning the publication of educational literature written in the Ukrainian language in 1863. Furthermore, in 1876 tsar Alexander II (1818-1881) signed the Ems Act, which banned all publishing in the Ukrainian language.
As the empire continued to promote assimilation to Russian culture by rewarding the «loyal» and simultaneously discriminating against politicized Ukrainians, Ukrainian patriots began using ‘Ukrainian’ as an ethnic designation to signify their distinctness from Russians. Those not considered loyal lost their jobs, got arrested, or exiled.