The land within the borders of modern Ukraine, a Texas-sized nation often called the “breadbasket of Europe,” has long been coveted by the region’s powers. During Antiquity, the Greeks, Romans and Huns, along with a slew of lesser-known empires, from the Scythians to the Sarmatians, each established a presence there at one point or another.
More recently, from the Middle Ages to the present, the Vikings, Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Ottomans, Swedes, French, Austrians, Germans, Romanians and Czechoslovakians have all marched in, with some staying far longer than others.
Never fully independent until the collapse of the Soviet Union, though there were periods of semi-autonomy, Ukraine has been divided up and stuck back together several times. (Fittingly, the name “Ukraine” means “on the edge” or “borderland,” and its national anthem declares, “Ukraine has not yet perished.”) Through it all, Ukrainian history and identity has been a highly contentious topic, particularly in the context of the 2022 Russian invasion.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin, for example, has stated that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that Ukraine isn’t a real state, an echo of when earlier generations of Russians referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia.” Yet many Ukrainians vehemently disagree with these characterizations, pointing to their country’s distinct language, culture, traditions and shared civic principles.
“A lot of really important history that Putin and Russian nationalists see as their ancestry happened in Ukraine,” says Stephen Brain, an associate professor at Mississippi State University, who specializes in Russian history. He adds that “for very long periods” Russia and Ukraine were “part of the same state.”
“On the other hand,” Brain says, “Kiev was the capital of its own state before Moscow existed.” Ukraine spent long stretches outside Russian control, and, according to Brain, “Ukrainians increasingly do perceive themselves as a separate nationality.”
Below is a timeline, dating back a millennium, showing how Ukraine arrived at this point.
Vikings, Mongols, Lithuania, Poland
1037: Kievan Rus - Construction of Saint-Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, which, in refurbished form, still stands today, marks a high point of the Kievan Rus principality. Purportedly founded by Vikings in the 9th century, Kievan Rus grew to encompass present-day Ukraine, Belarus and part of Russia. As historian Anna Reid writes, it constituted “the eastern Slavs’ first great civilization,” and at the time was the “largest kingdom in Europe.”
Modern Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians all trace their heritage to Kievan Rus, leading to fierce, unanswerable debates about whether “Ukraine was once part of Russia, or Russia once part of Ukraine,” says Yoshiko Herrera, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on Russian and post-Soviet politics.
1240: Mongol Invasion - A Mongol army commanded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, thunders into Europe and captures Kiev (along with many other nearby lands). Much of present-day Ukraine and Russia subsequently comes under the control of the so-called Golden Horde, a segment of the vast Mongol Empire.
1363: Lithuania - Lithuanian forces defeat the Mongols at the Battle of Blue Waters and incorporate much of present-day Ukraine into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For the next several hundred years, Lithuania and its ally Poland, with whom it would gradually unify, hold dominant sway in the area.
1476: Ivan III - Ivan III of Muscovy, as Russia was then called, declares his independence from the Golden Horde by refusing to pay tribute. (Previously, as Brain points out, the Muscovites had “cooperated with” and “emulated the Mongols.”) Ivan likewise claims a portion of present-day Ukraine—the first Russian leader to do so—leading him into direct conflict with Lithuania.
1569: Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth - Lithuania and Poland officially complete their merger, in part to combat Russia, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
1648: Cossack Rebellion - A Cossack rebellion against Polish-Lithuanian rule scores a surprise number of initial victories, which results in the formation of a semi-autonomous state known as the Hetmanate, an inspiration to future Ukrainian nationalists. However, the Cossacks also participate in pogroms that kill an estimated 14,000 to 20,000 Jews over the course of just a few months. As historian Serhii Plokhy writes, “entire communities [were] all but wiped from the map.”
1654: The Ruin - Abandoned by their Crimean Tatar allies, the Cossacks turn for protection to Russia, which they perceive as more amenable to their interests than Poland-Lithuania. “They took the best deal that was available,” Brain says. “They didn’t think they’d subsumed their will to anyone else…but, over time, Moscow didn’t see it that way.” Years of fighting subsequently ensue, with Russian, Polish, Ottoman and Cossack armies battling it out for control of present-day Ukraine in what’s sometimes referred to as “The Ruin.”
1667: Divided - Without consulting the Cossacks, who nonetheless retain a degree of autonomy, Russia and Poland-Lithuania sign a truce dividing Ukraine between them with the Dnieper River as the boundary.
Birth of Russian Empire
1708: Russia Wins Control of Eastern Ukraine - During the Great Northern War, King Charles XII of Sweden detours into Ukraine as part of his ill-fated invasion of Russia and secures the support of the main Cossack leader at the time (though other Cossacks fight for Russia). The following year, Charles XII’s force is crushed at the Battle of Poltava, thereby cementing Russian control over the eastern half of Ukraine and, as Brain explains, marking the birth of the Russian empire.
1783: Catherine the Great Annexes Crimea - After a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire, Russian Czarina Catherine the Great annexes the Crimean peninsula and secures access to the strategically important Black Sea. At roughly the same time, Catherine finishes dissolving the Cossack Hetmanate (state) as part of what would become a long-running campaign to “Russify” Ukraine.
1795: Russia Gains Majority of Ukrainian Land - Poland and Lithuania cease to exist after a third and final partition divides up their lands between the Prussian, Austrian and Russian empires. Austria grabs a chunk of present-day Ukraine in the southwest, but Russia gains the vast majority of Ukrainian lands for the first time.
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Ukrainian Nationalist Movement
1800s: Ukrainian Nationalist Movement - Nationalist movements spring up throughout Europe, and Ukraine is no exception. Pro-independence forerunners begin codifying and promoting the Ukrainian language, stressing Ukraine’s distinct culture and history, referring to themselves as Ukrainians for the first time, and, eventually, calling for self-rule. Russia responds with a series of repressive measures, including a decree that bans the publication of Ukrainian-language books and newspapers. “A Little Russian language never existed, does not exist, and never shall exist. Its dialects as spoken by the masses are the same as the Russian language,” a Russian directive declares in the 1860s.
1917: Ukraine Council Proclaims Right to ‘Order Their Own Lives’ - When the Russian Revolution breaks out, Ukraine’s newly formed Central Rada, a council of elected delegates, proclaims Ukraine to be a state within Russia, whose people should “have the right to order their own lives in their own land.”
1918: Short-Lived Independence - As Bolshevik forces close in, the Central Rada declares full independence for Ukraine. “The genie of independence was now out of the imperial bottle,” Plokhy writes. Ukraine then signs a peace treaty with the Central Powers in which it agrees to German and Austrian military intervention. As the Ukrainian government hoped, the Germans and Austrians succeed in driving back the Bolsheviks—at least until the signing of the World War I armistice compels their exit.
But they also meddle in Ukrainian affairs, overthrowing the Central Rada ("Council")and installing a pro-German puppet leader. That same year, a second, short-lived independence attempt fails in western Ukraine, this one quashed by newly re-formed Poland.
1919: Ukraine Divided Into Four Parts - In the aftermath of World War I, present-day Ukraine gets split into four parts. Russia retains by far the biggest share, while smaller bits are handed out to Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
1921: End of Civil War - The Bolsheviks emerge victorious from a brutal civil war in which the Red Army, the White Army, Polish troops, Ukrainian nationalist troops and unaffiliated peasant militias run roughshod over present-day Ukraine, with Kiev changing hands multiple times and massacres committed on all sides.
Era of Soviet Union, Great Famine, Chernobyl
1922: Incorporated Into Soviet Union - Ukraine is incorporated into the newly established Soviet Union.
1932-33: Ukrainian Famine - Seeking to assert his control over Ukraine, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin engineers a famine, known as the Holodomor, which results in an estimated 3.9 million Ukrainian deaths. Most scholars consider this to be a premeditated act of genocide. “The historical record is very clear,” Herrera says. “There’s a lot of documentation that Moscow knew exactly what was happening.”
1936-38: Great Purge - Stalin initiates a large-scale purge of perceived enemies from throughout the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, either executing them outright or shipping them off to Gulag labor camps.
1941: Nazi Germany Invades - In violation of a nonaggression pact, Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union and, by year’s end, has seized almost all of Ukraine. Some Ukrainians initially welcome the Germans as liberators, even going so far as to serve in the Nazis’ notorious Waffen-SS units. But most soon sour on the Nazis, in part because they mass deport Ukrainian civilians back to Germany to serve as slave laborers. One of the worst massacres of the Holocaust takes place this September, when Nazi death squads, assisted by Ukrainian police, murder some 34,000 Jews in a ravine outside Kiev.
1944: Stalin Deports Crimean Tartars - Stalin deports the entire population of Crimean Tatars, some 200,000 people altogether, nearly half of whom purportedly die of starvation or disease while in exile. Meanwhile, Soviet troops recapture Ukraine, from which they forcibly deport hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles as they march west towards Germany.
1945: 1 Million Ukrainian Jews Lost in WWII - World War II finally comes to a close. All told, Ukraine suffers an estimated 5 million to 7 million deaths, or roughly 16 percent of its pre-war population, including around 1 million Ukrainian Jews.
1954: Khrushchev Transfers Crimea to Ukraine - The Soviet government under Nikita Krushchev transfers Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in a gesture of “eternal friendship,” a move that receives little attention at the time since it remains within the borders of the Soviet Union.
1986: Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster - A safety test goes awry at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, leading to a deadly reactor meltdown that the Soviet authorities initially try to cover up. The disaster, considered history’s worst nuclear accident, is often blamed for hastening the Soviet Union’s demise.
1991: Ukraine Declares Independence - With the Soviet Union in its death throes, Ukraine’s parliament declares independence, a decision that’s overwhelmingly approved by Ukrainian voters in a national referendum. Ukraine is now fully independent for the first time.
1994: Ukraine Gives Up Nuclear Weapons - Negotiations between the United States, Russia and Ukraine result in a deal under which Ukraine gives up its inherited nuclear weapons in exchange for, among other things, a Russian vow to respect “existing borders.” Thereafter, Ukraine becomes a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
2004: The Orange Revolution - Disgusted with an election widely viewed as fraudulent, Ukrainian protesters rally in Kiev’s Independence Square in what’s known as the Orange Revolution. A re-run vote subsequently reverses the results, with pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who survived a near-fatal poisoning attempt during the campaign, defeating pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. In 2010, after Yushchenko struggled with infighting, Yanukovych mounts a comeback and wins the presidency.
2014: Protestors Oust Russia-Backed President - Government-backed forces open fire on protestors who have once again flocked to Kiev’s Independence Square, this time in support of closer ties to the European Union. Though over 100 people die in the melee, they succeed in forcing out the notoriously corrupt Yanukovych, who flees to Russia.
2014: Russian Annexes Crimea - Putin responds by immediately occupying and annexing Crimea. He also promotes a separatist revolt in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, a conflict that would claim some 14,000 lives over the next several years. “One of the key issues is that Ukraine has chosen Europe instead of Russia,” Herrera says. “And for Putin that’s unacceptable.”
2019: Zelensky Elected President - Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who once played Ukraine’s president on television, wins a landslide election to become Ukraine’s actual president. Just a couple of months into the job, he takes a phone call from U.S. President Donald Trump that serves as the basis for Trump’s first impeachment (Trump was later acquitted by the Senate).
2022: Russia Invades Ukraine - Russia launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine but meets heavier resistance than expected. The invasion, says Herrera, “comes back to Russia wanting to assert control over Ukraine and thinking they could get away with it."