What is the Ukraine and Who are the Ukrainians?

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A Brief History

On January 19, 2020, our cable news stations are abuzz with the latest news and speculation about the impeachment of President Donald Trump.  At the heart of the impeachment, is a scandal in which Trump is accused of holding back hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from the Ukrainian government unless that same government announced an investigation into former US Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter.  (All alleged, of course.)  Between the ongoing war with Russia, which stole (they “annexed” or “reclaimed”) the region known as the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and the scandal inflaming American politics in 2019-2020, the Ukraine has gotten an incredible amount of air time in the mass media, more than any other point in history.  (The previous big story out of the Ukraine was the Soviet era Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.)  Today we will take a brief look at the Ukraine and some of its notable people.  (Note: It was once normal to refer to the place as “The Ukraine,” which is the way I grew up hearing it, hence my preference for this nomenclature.  Kind of like “The Congo,” or “The Sudan.”  In recent years, the country is commonly referred to simply as “Ukraine.”)

Please forgive the brevity of this article, as it is meant to only be an introduction and not a dissertation.  Feel free to include any observations or information you would like our readers to know in the comments section.

Digging Deeper

Despite being the geographically largest country entirely within Europe, the Ukraine has not had the epic stories of conquest and exploration of some of the other European countries such as Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Russia.  Its ancient history does not have the cachet of Greece, but none of this is to say the history of the Ukraine was not important.  Still, this wonderful country ranks a pathetic 88th in the world in the Human Development Index and is unfortunately currently the poorest European country.  A LOT of this misery is due to the influence of the Russians during the Soviet era and the unfavorable circumstances of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Then, Russian meddling and interference in more recent years has also stifled Ukrainian progress.  There are currently about 42 million or so people living in the Ukraine.

Portrait of Ukrainian woman in national dress, 1860.

Back to the beginnings of human habitation of the Ukraine, we find Neanderthal Man chasing mammoths and bison around the countryside about 45,000 years ago.  These early humans or their Cro-Magnon successors are quite possibly the first humans to domesticate the horse, coup #1 for the Ukrainians!  Through the centuries BC a variety of cultures and civilizations grew or passed through the region, and by 700-600 BC there were or had been colonies from ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, with later incursions by Goths, Huns, Bulgars and Khazars.  Around the 6th Century AD, an early Slavic civilization known as the Antes also had moved into the area.  These Ante people became many of the Slavic people of Europe, including those of the Balkans and Poland as well as Ukraine and eventually Russia.

About 880 AD what is now the capital city of Kiev (sometimes spelled Kyiv) was founded by a people known as the Kievan Rus (or Varangians), people that came to the Ukraine from Scandinavia.  By the 10th and 11th Century AD these proto-Ukrainians had established a great society that actually dominated Europe and formed the basis of what became the Russian culture.  The “Golden Age” of the Kievan Rus was during the 11th Century, and by the 12th Century the power and glory of the Kievan culture began to decline as various portions of the larger entity began to break off in various stages of regional autonomy.  Vladimir the Great (r. 980–1015) brought Christianity to the Ukraine, mainly the Byzantine Rite variety.  The Kievan Rus had formed not only the beginning of Ukrainian culture but also served as the origin of Russian culture as well.

Realm of Kievan Rus’ at its height (with dependent lands).  Map by SeikoEn.

The next major influence on the Ukraine came with the Mongol invasion of the 13th Century AD, and Kiev was sacked and burned in 1240 by the invaders from the East.  After a period of some consolidation of Ukrainian society, other foreign influence infringed on Ukrainian independence, including by Poland and Lithuania in the 14th Century through the 16th Century.  The Ukraine had become a territory fought over and lorded over by other more powerful countries.  A Crimean Khanate that arose from the leftovers of the Golden Horde (successor of the Mongol invasion) became a powerful force in the Ukraine in the 16th Century and dominated the region up to the 18th Century when the Khanate actually invaded and sacked Moscow.  This Crimean Khanate was decisively defeated by the Russians in 1783, but not before the “Tatars” had sent many thousands of Ukrainians and Russians into slavery.  (Yes, at the same time that Africans were held in slavery in the New World and America, White Europeans were also being traded in a Eurasian slave trade.)  The 19th Century saw the Ukraine mostly split between the Russian and the Austrian empires (the matrilineal grandparents of this author were Ukrainians from the Austrian part of the Ukraine).  The 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries also saw considerable migration of other European nationalities into the territory of the Ukraine.  Likewise, over 200,000 Ukrainians had migrated to other areas of the Russian Empire, including Siberia and the Central Asian areas.

The conflagration of World War I was the end of the Russian and the Austrian empires and Ukrainians fought for their independence against the Bolshevik Russians and Poland.  Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians for control of the country undermined Ukrainian efforts to establish an independent nation, and Ukrainian forces were defeated by the Poles before the Soviets in turn defeated the Poles and took control of the Ukraine.  In 1922, Ukraine became part of the new USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

Boundaries of the Ukrainian SSR (1922).  Map by Николай Сидоров.

Life in the Ukraine under the Soviets was less than ideal, to say the least.  By the 1930’s hints of Ukrainian desires for independence got the attention of Stalin in Moscow, a paranoid man quick to deal harshly with any potential source of threat to his own power.  Stalin retaliated against the Ukrainians by instituting a drastic policy called Holodomor by Ukrainians, one of the worst genocides in history, in which as many as 3.3 to 12 million Ukrainians were intentionally starved by the Soviets (estimates vary).  Along with the planned starvation, the Soviets also ruthlessly rounded up and executed thousands of suspected Ukrainian agitators.

The Ukraine became a battleground during World War II, with German and Soviet forces fighting fiercely in the region, once again devastating the country.  The German and Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939 had freed up Ukrainian territory that had been under Polish dominion for reunification with the rest of the Ukraine.  Then, when the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941, the Ukraine, while nominally a part of the Soviet Union, saw many Ukrainians treat the Germans as liberators and welcomed the invading German army as such.  German indifference and contempt for Slavic people quickly wore out their welcome, although the Germans did enlist many extremely anti-Soviet Ukrainians to fight in German uniforms against the Allies.  Also, the Germans enlisted Ukrainians to serve as roving bands to round up Jewish people for execution or incarceration in concentration camps.  Ukrainian cooperation with the Germans was often based on mere survival in difficult conditions, though anti-Semitic feeling among many Ukrainians contributed to the enthusiasm for anti-Jewish behavior.  After World War II, Soviet reprisals against Ukrainians that had sided with the Germans were severe.

Burned out buildings in Kiev during the Second World War.

The rest of the Soviet period found the Ukraine, as with most non-Russian Soviet Republics, treated as second class citizens.  The 1945 to 1991 years were once again not characterized by particular prosperity.  Many other Soviet ethnic people had moved into the Ukraine as had many ethnic Ukrainians moved to other parts of the USSR.  The break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Ukrainian independence for the first time in centuries, and the years since then have not proven particularly profitable.  The legacy of a corrupt Soviet system haunts the Ukraine, as does corrupt Russian influence over the country, driving the Ukraine into a condition of poverty relative to the rest of Europe.  Russia not only reneged on the terms of the dissolution of the USSR vis a vis the Ukraine by seizing the Crimea in 2014, Russian attempts to annex further Eastern portions of the Ukraine have resulted in fighting between Ukrainians and Russian proxy forces.  This simmering “war” today is what provides the backdrop for the political quagmire in the United States concerning the Trump administration’s withholding of military aid for (allegedly) Ukrainian help in undermining the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for President who will possibly face President Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Should Ukraine be admitted as a full member of the NATO alliance?  Such action would guaranty the safety of the territory of the Ukraine against Russian hegemony, but would also provoke Moscow into perhaps drastic measures, such as a potential preemptive strike against the Ukraine to secure Russia’s desired territorial ambitions.  The situation remains tense.

Map of NATO countries’ chronological membership.  Map by Arz.

The Ukrainians are a Slavic people, but of varied origin and tempered by the addition of many other ethnic influences over the centuries.  Even today, ethnic Ukrainians only make up about 77% of the population, with another 17% claiming Russian heritage.  Other nationalities number less than 1% each.  Although the national language is Ukrainian, the Russian language (quite similar to Ukrainian) is also spoken, with close to 30% of Ukrainians reporting Russian as their primary language.  While the historic religion of the Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine (Greek Rite) Catholic Christian, today the majority (62.5%) of Ukrainians claim no religious affinity, possibly an artifact from the Soviet era when atheism was the official state policy.  Aside from the capital, Kiev, other major Ukrainian cities include Kharkiv (often known by its Russian equivalent, Kharkov) and Odessa.

Some notable people of Ukrainian ethnic descent include (and please feel free to add your own nominations to the list in the comments below as we are listing only a few great Ukrainians):

The Klitschko Brothers, Heavyweight Boxing Champions.

Wladimir (left) and Vitali (right) with every title in the heavyweight division, which they held from 2 July 2011 to 15 December 2013.  Photograph by Vergo.

Wladimir and Vitaly Klitschko are the greatest set of boxing brothers in history.  These brothers have ruled the heavyweight division of professional boxing for years, winning their first title in 1999, incredible when you consider between them they held all the titles from sanctioning agencies.  Wladimir, Olympic Gold Medalist in 1996, is recently retired and is quite near to having become perhaps the greatest heavyweight champ of all time. (He has reigned as champ continuously since 2006, the second longest reign in history with the second longest champion win streak.)  Vitali is retired, and is currently the mayor of Kiev, the capital city of the Ukraine.  Unlike the stereotypical dumb boxer, punch drunk and toothless, these guys are both PhD’s, earning Vitali the moniker “Dr. Ironfist” and Wladimir the sobriquet “Dr. Steelhammer.”  Another great Ukrainian Olympic boxer is Vasyl Lomachenko, who won Gold Medals at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Fedor Vladimirovich Emelianenko, MMA Champion.

Emelianenko at the Nippon Budokan, 2014.  Photograph by Dmitry Rozhkov.

Competing in the Heavyweight division of mixed martial arts, the fighter often just called “Fedor” dominated his weight class for several years, holding the Pride title from 2003 to 2007.  Now well past his prime, he continues to compete.  He is considered one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time.

Sergey Bubka, Pole Vaulter.

Sergey Bubka in 2013. Photograph by Vinod Divakaran / Doha Stadium Plus Qatar.

Talk about dominance of a sport, this track and field legend held the pole vaulting record from 1993 to 2014!  His dominance earned him several nods as the world’s greatest athlete.

Lilia Podkopayeva, Olympic Gymnast.

Liliia Podkopaieva, twice Olympic champion.  Photograph by sama_ja.

Possibly the best of the Ukrainian gymnasts, Lillia won 2 Gold and 1 Silver Medals at the 1996 Olympic games, the most successful of Ukrainian gymnasts since the end of the Soviet Era.

Oksana Baiul, Olympic Ice Skater.

Oksana Baiul, Olympic champion in figure skating.

Baiul won the Gold Medal at the 1994 Olympics in figure skating, placing her among the long line of wonderful ice skaters hailing from the Ukraine and/or of Ukrainian descent.

Yana Klochkova, Olympic Swimmer.

Yana Klochkova, four times Olympic champion.  Photograph by Russianname.

Yana claims an impressive total of 4 Olympic Gold Medals in her award case, won during the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.  She also has an Olympic Silver Medal and 10 World titles to her credit.

Tamara & Irina Press (sisters), Olympic Track and Field.

Tamara Press at the 1964 Olympics.  Photograph by Unknown (Asahi Shinbun).

Between the 2 of these fantastic sister athletes, they held 26 World Records between 1959 and 1966, claiming a total of 5 Olympic Gold Medals between them.

Valeriy Pylypovych Borzov, Olympic Sprinter.

Valeriy Borzov at the 2018 Youth Olympics.  Photograph by Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Winning the Olympic Gold Medal in both the 100 and the 200 meter dashes in the 1972 Olympics, Borzov could claim to be the World’s Fastest Human at the time.  More than just a great runner, Borzov also served in various positions of athletic administration in the Ukraine.  He was born in Lviv in 1949.

Wayne Gretzky, Ice Hockey legend.

Gretzky in 2006.  Photograph by Kris Krüg.

Known as The Great One, Gretzky is by far the greatest ice hockey player in all of history at any level.  A Ukrainian Canadian, Gretzky was born in Ontario in 1961 and is the all time career leader in goals and assists in the NHL.

Mila Jovovich, Model, Actress.

Jovovich at the ASPCA Awards in October 2014.  Photograph by Mingle Media TV.

Born in Kiev in 1975 to Russian and Serbian parents, she is too beautiful and too accomplished to ignore when being coopted as a member of a list of notable “Ukrainians!”  Once the top model in the world, she is probably best known for her roles in the Resident Evil series of movies as “Alice.”

Mila Kunis, Actress.

Kunis in 2018.  Photograph by ColliderVideo.

The other great Ukrainian Mila, Kunis is not only beautiful and a great actress on television and the big screen, she has also voiced the character of “Meg Griffin” on the animated series Family Guy since 1999.  She was born in the Ukrainian SSR in 1983, with her family leaving the USSR due to anti-Semitism.

Paul Mazursky, Actor, Filmmaker.

Mazursky in 2008. Photograph by Petr Novák, Wikipedia.

Born in Brooklyn to a Ukrainian/Jewish family, he made a decent career of acting in movies and television before turning to directing, producing and screenwriting.  He was nominated 5 times for Academy Awards and some of his notable films include Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Harry and Tonto, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Moon over Parador.  He died in 2014.  (Note: Too many Ukrainian American and Ukrainian Canadian actors and actresses to list here!  Suffice to say, some of them include Nick Adams, Dustin Hoffman, Taissa and Vera Farmiga, Walter Matthau, George Montgomery, Jack Palance, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, among others.)

Joseph Conrad, Writer.

Conrad in 1904. Photograph by George Charles Beresford.

Though of Polish ancestry and living his adult life in Britain, Conrad was born in Berdychivin the Ukraine before emigrating to Britain and changing his name from Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.  His greatest work is the story Heart of Darkness and another of his great works is Lord Jim.  He is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English language despite speaking only broken English until his late 20’s!

Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal.

Levchin at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 in San Francisco, California.  Photograph by TechCrunch.

Born Maksymilian Rafailovych Levchyn in Kiev in 1944, Levchin is of Jewish heritage.  His family moved to the United States in 1991, and Levchin went on to become a software engineer.  Not only was he instrumental in founding the company that became PayPal, he also was a corporate director of Yahoo and is the CEO of Affirm, while serving as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Yelp.  He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He established the Levchin Prize in 2015 and was a producer of the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking.

Taras Bulba-Borovets, Resistance Fighter.

Taras Borovets – leader of Polisian Sich.

Born in 1908 as Taras Dmytrovych Borovets, he got his nom de guerre as a resistance fighter during World War II, taking the name of the literary Ukrainian hero Taras Bulba.  Prior to World War II he was an underground operative for Ukrainian independence against the Soviet Union.  He worked with German assistance against the Soviets during World War II, but then also turned against the German invaders when it became apparent the Germans had no real interest in the welfare of the Ukraine.  Placed in German custody in a concentration camp, he was later released and once again fought with the Germans against the Soviets.  He may have emigrated to Canada or the US after World War II, or perhaps remained in West Germany where he worked with American Intelligence against the USSR.  He continued to advocate for Ukrainian Independence and died in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1981, though he is buried in New Jersey.  (Note: The character, Taras Bulba, is a fictional conflation of several Ukrainian patriots rolled into a single literary hero in a book by Nikolai Gogol, a writer often considered Russian but of Ukrainian ethnic/national origin.)

Semyon Timoshenko, Army Marshall and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Photograph by Mil.ru.

Born in Bessarabia in what is now the Ukraine in 1895, Semyon was drafted into the Russian Imperial Army and fought with the Russians during World War I.  By 1918 he gave his allegiance to the Bolsheviks and took part in the Bolshevik Revolution, during which he became friends with Josef Stalin.  He moved up the Red Army ranks and also became an important player in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  He took over failing Soviet efforts in the war against Finland and moved up to status as Marshall of the Soviet Union during World War II.  Superseded by the more successful Marshall Zhukov, Timoshenko was moved to administrative positions in the high command of the Soviet military.  He died in 1970.

Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel.

Golda Mabovitch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1914.

Born in Kiev in 1898 as Golda Mabovitch, Meir is one of the many Ukrainian born people of Jewish heritage to achieve great success in life.  Her father emigrated to the US to find a better living, later moving his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where Golda was raised.  Valedictorian of her high school class, she went on to get a college degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  After marrying she intended for herself and her new husband to make Aliyah (emigration to Israel) by moving to what was then Palestine, but was delayed by World War I.  Oddly enough, despite her Zionist attitude toward Israel, she was not a practicing Jew and in fact was an atheist!  She was on the side of the creation of the state of Israel, and when Israel became a nation she entered the political world, becoming the 4th Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.  She had also held other cabinet level positions in the Israeli government.  Despite Israeli victory in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, accusations of a lack of preparedness hurt her politically and she resigned as PM in 1974.  She died of cancer in 1978 at the age of 80.

Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet Premier.

Brezhnev in East Berlin in 1967.  Photohgraph by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-F0417-0001-011 / Kohls, Ulrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Born in 1906 in what is now the Ukraine, Brezhnev is sometimes listed as a “Russian,” although his real ethnic background is Ukrainian.  He became active in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and rose in the ranks through the years to finally becoming virtual Soviet dictator in 1964, staying on top of the Soviet heap until his death in 1982.

Simon Wiesenthal, Nazi Hunter.

Wiesenthal in 1982. Photograph by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo.

Probably the most famous of the people that hunted down escaped Nazi henchmen after World War II, Simon was born in Galicia, which was part of the Austrian Empire in 1908, in what is now the Ukraine.  He died in 2005 at the age of 96, after having survived incarceration in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.  Though he died in Vienna, Austria, he is buried in Israel.  After the war, he dedicated his life to capture escaped Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, California, is named for him.

Steve Wozniak, Co-Founder of Apple.

Wozniak in 2018.  Photograph by Michael Förtsch.

One of the premier people responsible for the incredible explosion of computers into the lives of virtually everyone, Wozniak claims both Polish and Ukrainian heritage.  He was born in California in 1960.

Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, Aviation Pioneer.

Studio portrait, c. 1950.  Photograph by SDASM Archives.

Born in Kiev in 1889 of Russian and Ukrainian heritage, Igor started his career as an airplane designer in Russia, but moved to France and then to the United States in 1919 to continue that career.  As early as 1909 he began experiments with helicopter design, and before World War II had designed successful large flying boats to serve as “Clippers” with Pan Am airlines.  In 1940 he had begun design of his R-4 helicopter, which by 1942 became the first mass produced successful helicopter in the world.  He died in Connecticut in 1972.

Michael Keller Ditka, NFL Player and Coach.

Ditka in August 2006. Photograph by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry.

Born Michael Dyczko in Pennsylvania in 1939, Ditka went on to a great career in the NFL, earning 5 Pro Bowl nods and later winning a Super Bowl as head coach of the Chicago Bears as well as twice winning NFL Coach of the Year.  He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  (Another NFL standout was Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski who played fullback for the Bears and was inducted in the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.)

Alex Trebek, Host of Jeopardy.

Trebek at the 71st Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon in 2012.  Photograph by Peabody Awards.

Born in Canada of French Ukrainian descent, Trebek is a familiar television figure, having hosted the ever popular game show, Jeopardy since 1984, an incredible run now threatened by Trebek’s pancreatic cancer.  Born in 1940, he is a graduate of the University of Ottawa.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite Ukrainian from history?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

D’Anieri, Paul. Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Plokhi, Serhii. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Silar of the International Folklore Festival Etnovyr in Lviv, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.