The Long Hard Road to Ukraine's Independence: A 20th-Century Retrospective
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Culture and History

August 22, 2023

The Long Hard Road to Ukraine's Independence: A 20th-Century Retrospective

When the school bell rings once again next month, Russian pupils will be issued with history textbooks rewritten to propagate Kremlin-approved versions of Ukrainian history. As we approach Ukraine's Independence Day on August 24, it is more important than ever to challenge Russian propaganda and remember the journey that brought Ukraine to independence in 1991. Below, you can read a guide to the pivotal events that have shaped Ukraine’s road to independence. 

1. Early 20th Century: 1917-1921

At the start of the 20th century, Ukraine was partitioned primarily between the Russian Empire to the east and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west. Amidst the turmoil of World War I and its aftermath, Ukraine briefly achieved statehood: two independent Ukrainian states emerged and were subsequently unified before falling under Soviet rule. 

Following the October Revolution, the Ukrainian National Republic was established by the Tsentralna Rada (Ukraine National Council) in November 1917. The West Ukrainian People’s Republic was established in Lviv in January 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Ukraine’s Independence from Russia was formally declared and recognised by 30 countries. The unification of these two states was precipitated by Russian and Polish conflict on Ukrainian soil. A Polish-Ukrainian alliance in late 1919 briefly succeeded in reclaiming Ukraine from Russian forces but Polish support was soon driven back by the Red Army. In March 1921, Poland, Russia and Ukraine signed the Treaty of Riga, and the majority of Ukraine fell under Soviet rule. Ukraine attempted to retain some level of autonomy until December, 1922, when the USSR was formalised.

2. The Early Soviet Era: 1922-1939

Hungry children in 1933, Ukraine

Throughout the Soviet era, Ukrainian culture, history and language were systematically oppressed. Under Stalin, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was banned. Russian was presented as the lingua franca of the intelligentsia and Ukrainian was declared “harmful to the empire”. Russian speakers were more likely to progress careerwise, so many relinquished Ukrainian and ensured that their children spoke only Russian. To this day, many Ukrainians consider Russian their native language. 

The early Soviet era is remembered for the horrors of the Holodomor (1932-1933), a man-made famine in which 7-10 million Ukrainians starved to death. Internationally recognised as a genocide, the Holodomor was engineered at the highest level of Stalin’s regime to suppress the Ukrainian independence movement. Food was seized from Ukrainian farmers unable to meet the strict grain quota demanded by the Kremlin, and access to food resources was stripped. Villages in Ukraine that could not meet their allotted quota were blacklisted; residents were prevented from leaving or receiving vital supplies. Starving people who ate grain from a collective field were shot for theft of "socialist property." Struggling to survive and protect those they loved, people were forced into inescapable and tragic moral dilemmas; those who gave their food to others, refused to steal or resort to eating corpses would inevitably die. This devastating period solidified a sense of national identity and deep distrust of Soviet policies. The Holodomor is commemorated at the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv, whose mission is to preserve the memory of the Holodomor, educate and ensure that genocide is never repeated. Russia’s current blockade of the Black Sea painfully echoes the weaponisation of food during the Holodomor.

3. World War II: 1939-1945

Khreshchatyk, Kyiv in ruins, 1941

World War II was a tumultuous time for Ukraine, during which both Soviet and German occupiers committed severe atrocities against the Ukrainian population and 5-7 million Ukrainian people died. During this time, Poland also endured occupation and mass executions perpetrated by Soviet forces.The German occupation of Ukraine commenced in June 1941 under Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR. As the Soviets fled Ukraine, they pursued a scorched-earth policy, shooting political prisoners and destroying food supplies and vital infrastructure. Between 1941-1944, most of Ukraine was occupied by Nazi Germany as Reichskommissariat Ukraine. During the occupation,over 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were killed by German forces and over 800,000 were displaced. Following defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, German forces retreated from Ukraine, leaving destruction in their wake. Soviet forces re-entered Kyiv, and by the end of October 1943, Ukraine was once again under Soviet control.

4. Post-War Soviet Rule: 1945-1985

Abandoned city of Pripyat, after Chornobyl.

In the post-war period, the oppression of Ukrainian language and culture continued. During the Cold War, Ukraine was turned into a Soviet military outpost and crowded with Soviet military bases. Packed with the most up-to-date weapons systems, Ukraine held the third largest nuclear arsenal globally. The infamous Chornobyl disaster in 1986 became symbolic of Soviet mismanagement and secrecy. While some 350,000 people were immediately displaced, the toll on mental and physical health continues to this day. The UN estimates that 4,000 lives will be lost to radiation exposure. Despite these challenges, the Ukrainian spirit of resistance and dissent survived.

5. Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost: 1985-1990

The Revolution On Granite: Ukraine's 'First Maidan'

The introduction of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness) by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s unintentionally catalysed Ukrainian nationalism. As the grip of central Soviet control loosened, voices for independence gained momentum. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church emerged from the underground. Rukh, the People’s Movement of Ukraine, became a political force demanding autonomy.

6. The Path to Independence: 1990-1991

Revolution of Dignity in 2014.

Against the disintegrating Soviet Union, the drive for Ukrainian sovereignty became unstoppable. On July 16, 1990, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, asserting the importance of Ukrainian laws over Soviet laws. Following the failed August 1991 coup in Moscow, momentum surged and Ukraine declared independence on August 24, 1991. Since achieving independence, Ukraine has continued to strive for self-determination and democracy. During the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, the rigged election of Soviet-backed Viktor Yanukovych was protested nationwide. A second free election delivered victory for Viktor Yushchenko, marking the Ukrainian people’s determination to stand with Europe and democracy. The Revolution of Dignity in 2014 achieved the ousting of President Yanukovych following his refusal to sign an agreement forging closer ties to the European Union.

Ukraine, a country in Eastern Europe known for its golden fields of wheat, fertile soil, and rich cultural tapestry, has a traumatic history of oppression, resistance, and an unyielding quest for self-determination. The stories of sacrifice and hope that led to August 24, 1991 remain etched in the nation's collective memory and in the personal memories of those who survived. As we commemorate Ukraine's Independence Day, we celebrate the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people and their pursuit of freedom. 

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