7 Things to Know about Ukraine's Statehood-Formation Journey

April 13, 2024
Does Ukrainian statehood only span 30 years? In fact, its origins trace back to the Middle Ages and evolved through significant historical stages.

Ukraine's historical narrative spans centuries and is defined by an ongoing struggle for national liberation and statehood. Ukrainian statehood emerged not only in the 1990s, but has roots in the era of Kyivan Rus, and its continuity can be traced to the present day.

Throughout the formation of Ukrainian statehood, notable milestones punctuated by transitional phases of interrupted statehood have contributed to a cohesive depiction of its development.

  • The initial milestone in the Ukrainian statehood formation is attributed to the era of Kyivan Rus, a powerful mediaeval European state centred in Kyiv.

Kyivan Rus serves as a precursor to the eventual development of Ukrainian statehood. Spanning from the 9th to early 13th century, the period of Rus' existence is regarded as a proto-Ukrainian phase of formation.
Mykhailo Hrushevsky, emphasised in his written works that Kyivan Rus, with its territorial ties to modern-day Ukraine, was a direct predecessor of the Ukrainian state.

The name "Ukraine" first appears in writing in 1187 in Kyivan Chronicle.

  • In the early 13th century, internal conflicts and the Mongol invasion led to the decline of Kyivan Rus as a unified political entity, giving rise to separate rival principalities.

The Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia grew into a powerful centre where the tradition of Ukrainian statehood thrived, despite losing its independence in the 14th century.

These territories fell under the control of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland before becoming part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569.

This period marked the beginning of the initial interim phase in Ukrainian state formation, which could be defined by foreign dominance or a stateless interval.

Despite external rule, Ukrainian nobility from families like Ostrozky and Vyshnevetsky played an important role in governing these lands, establishing a distinct Ukrainian social elite.

This historical reality calls into question the Russian propaganda narrative that Ukrainian statehood ended with the decline of the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, shifting the political focus to Moscow.

  • The Ukrainian Cossack State, which flourished from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, was the next step toward Ukrainian statehood.

Oppressive policies conducted by Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth authorities led to popular uprisings in Ukrainian-populated territories.

The pinnacle was the national liberation war led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, which started in 1648 and resulted in the establishment of an autonomous Cossack State.

The Cossack State bore features of democracy, including an elected head, known as the hetman, and a general assembly, or Cossack council, which served as the key decision-making body.

The Cossack State possessed its own laws, territory, and military forces.

  • The uprising spearheaded by Bohdan Khmelnytsky can be likened to the revolutionary movements that surged through Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, as even though guided by the Cossacks, it was fueled by the Ukrainian populace themselves.

While the Cossacks formed the core, the liberation struggle gave rise to the ideology of Ukrainian statehood, which garnered widespread support among the masses.

  • In 1654, the Cossack state was incorporated into Muscovy, yet it managed to uphold its autonomy within its borders for quite some time.

However, Russia’s intolerance towards Ukrainian autonomy led to a gradual erosion of rights and freedoms. In 1764, the institution of hetmanship was abolished.

By 1783, the administrative structure of the Cossack State was ultimately dismantled, and serfdom was introduced.

Subsequently, a new phase of statelessness commenced. Nevertheless, Ukrainian culture, ideas, and political ideologies continued to evolve despite enduring oppression and persecution by imperial powers.

The persistence of these developments, awaiting the opportune moment, ultimately facilitated the realisation of Ukrainian statehood.

  • The Ukrainian National Revolution of 1917-1921 marked the next milestone in the formation of Ukrainian statehood.

The dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the revolution in the Russian Empire played pivotal roles in accelerating the realisation of the Ukrainian national idea.

Amidst this period, Ukrainians established various forms of statehood, navigating instability and evolving circumstances in their pursuit of self-governance.

On November 20, 1917, the Ukrainian People's Republic was declared. In November 1918, the Western Ukrainian People's Republic was founded.

Following that, both republics proclaimed their independence, and on January 22, 1919, these entities merged to form a single Ukrainian state.

Despite their efforts, both republics faced formidable adversaries, with the Ukrainian People's Republic falling to the Bolsheviks, and the territories of the Western Ukrainian People's Republic being divided between Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.

The government of the Ukrainian People's Republic remained in exile.

This era signalled the beginning of the final interim phase. After World War II, Ukraine as we know it was under Soviet control, yet it functioned as a homogeneous republic.

Despite the Holodomor and repression, Ukrainians persisted in their pursuit of statehood. The national movement was active from the 1960s until the collapse of the USSR.

  • August 24, 1991, stands as the conclusive milestone in the evolution of Ukrainian statehood, as Ukraine reclaimed its independence through the proclamation of the Act of Independence.

This event was preceded by the July 16, 1990 declaration of state sovereignty. Following the declaration of independence, a referendum was held on December 1, 1991, with an overwhelming 90.32% of Ukrainian citizens supporting independence.

It is crucial to recognize that present-day Ukraine is not only the successor of the Soviet Republic but also directly inherits the legacy of the Ukrainian People's Republic.

On August 22, 1993, Mykola Pavlyuk, the President of the Ukrainian People's Republic in exile, transferred the charter of the State Center of the Ukrainian People's Republic to Leonid Kravchuk, the President of independent Ukraine.

Since 2014, an independent and sovereign Ukraine has entered a phase of defending its statehood against Russia’s centuries-long aggressive intent to undermine it. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of 2022, this defensive process has taken on existential dimensions.

Each significant milestone in the history of Ukrainian statehood did not occur in isolation. The deep-rooted traditions of Ukrainian statehood, as well as the foundational ideas that surfaced during its inception, have continued to resonate in subsequent historical eras through varied political frameworks.

These stages collectively underscore the enduring continuity of the state-building journey in Ukraine, highlighting the evolution and enrichment of political ideologies inspired by previous periods.

Anastasiia Herasymchuk
Deputy Editor-in-Chief at UkraineWorld