Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation

Image of A Brief History of Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
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“Yaroslav Hrytsak . . . explores how the 2022 invasion by Russia was initially stopped not by the army but by civilians.”

In the movie Transporter 3, the daughter of a Ukrainian official is asked if Russians and Ukrainians are the same. She touches her head and heart as she replies that they are different. The recent failure of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought out how little is popularly known about that nation, including even the pronunciations of the names of its cities.

Dominique Hoff has translated Yaroslav Hrytsak’s Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation, a history of a people making themselves a nation. The author explores how the 2022 invasion by Russia was initially stopped not by the army but by civilians, facts seldom mentioned in the media. Many books have been written since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, but the author hopes here to ask the “questions whose answers may be critical for Ukraine and the history of the world.”

Ukraine’s name comes from words that mean a separate nation but also borderlands. Ukrania has a deeper meaning, more to any location within its greater area than as one united people or nation. The beginning as a country began with the Cossack rebellion in 1648–1657, which resulted in the region’s voluntary absorption by the Muscovy nation in 1654 and the Russian empire in 1721.

Rather than dividing the cultures or absorbing the people into some generic, predominantly Slavic society, this absorption brought local peoples together in a common regional identity of individual peoples resistant to becoming whole. Essentially, what became Russia promoted the creation of what became Ukraine, leading to discussions on whether the name should be preceded by “in,” “on,” or “the.”

The development of Russian identity is no less controversial and debated. These nations and Ukraine have their histories entangled. For these geographic and political entities, the isolated pre-modern villages are only a few generations in the past. The soil was among the most fertile in Europe but lacked the infrastructure for transportation and, to the present day, had development held back by war.

Ukraine was a borderland and part of Rus, a territory that, if it had been a nation, would have extended from the Black Sea to the Arctic as Europe’s largest country and with Ukraine’s Kyiv as its capital. “’Rus’ is primarily the name of a traditional, historical community, and ‘Ukraine’ is primarily the name of a modern society.”

Ukrainians were the second largest group in old Rus/Russia, only the ethnic Russians making a larger group. The Rus commonwealth and the Russian Empire never wholly disappeared; even the Soviet Union considered itself their inheritor, including what became Ukraine. In the modern world, geography created a Russia-oriented north-south and a Ukraine that looked east-west.

At the beginning of the 20th century, today’s Ukraine was divided between the Austrian and Russian empires. Ninety percent of the population were uneducated, impoverished peasants whose ancestors had been serfs. Overall, the population was 90 percent ethnic Ukrainian. The territory became a unified entity only when the Soviet Union unified the various provinces into one republic called Ukraine after the Second World War.

Only in the 1960s did Ukraine's people change from mainly rural to urban. The city dwellers were largely Russian speaking, and the rural peasants used Ukrainian as their language and with a nostalgia for the world their families had known for generations.

“The figures in the transformation of peoples into nations are ‘gardeners’ of a special variety—poets, writers, literary critics, historians, geographers, philologists, and other ‘highbrow’ representatives of the elites.” In the Soviet Union “an estimated 85 percent of the [Ukraine’s] poets, writers, and literary critics fell victim to Stalinist repression in the 1930s.” This repression continued in various forms as late as 1980.

Within this framework, Hrytsak discusses the influences of the overlapping Byzantine, Greek, Slavs, Viking, and other cultures. The book discusses much in a well-organized fashion, including, among other topics, the Cossacks, Jews, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Mongols invaded in 1237–1240 and were blamed for the limits on intellectual life by massacres, reducing cities to provincial towns. Kyiv changed hands 47 times and had 35 reigns that lasted only one year each between 1146 and 1246. In Western Christian Europe, 20 million books had been printed, while in the Eastern Christian world, the number was only 40 to 60 thousand in the 15th and 16th centuries.

So many invasions brought so much violence, but unlike now, the people were helpless before it, except when Ukrainians turned on each other, such as the many infamous pogroms against the Jews. Industrialization and urbanization in the mid-1800s divided Ukrainians over accepting or resisting the coming new world. Specific events made changes, however.

The better-known violence came from the wars of 1648–1686 and 1914–1945. Of the latter, an estimated 50 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women in Ukraine died, some 15 million people. That period includes the Bolshevik Peasant War of 1918–1920, Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937–1938, and the mass deportations of 1939–1941.

Most histories are narrations of stories about what happened, with the prologue and consequences of the events. Hrytsak explains common historical principles and how they explain Ukraine’s history. Consequently, the author is careful not to distract from his narrative or to write above his readers’ comprehension. Ukraine: The Forging of a Nation is concise but not confusing, as the author strives most for clear understanding, not arguing for some agenda. The work has a selected bibliography arranged by chapter.

In 2022, Ukraine stood its ground as another modern Eastern European populist uprising. Even the assassination of President Volodymyr Zelensky, experts contend, “would not have radically changed the course of the war.” That violence has an ancient history in Ukraine but also of “survival, solidarity, and resilience.”