Few countries have suffered more from war and totalitarianism than Ukraine. For a long time, the process of coming to terms with the 70-year Soviet dictatorship made little progress. After Russian troops invaded the country in February 2022, Ukraine has had to deal with a whole new spate of mass crimes - including missile attacks on civilian targets, such as here in Chernihiv.
Covering at least 600,000 square kilometres, Ukraine is the largest state on the European continent. Before the Russian invasion, more than 40 million people lived here. Another three million Ukrainians lived in Russia. In 2001, just under 30 percent of the population named Russian as their mother tongue; nearly everyone else claimed Ukrainian as their first language. Three-quarters of the population identified themselves as Christian Orthodox. The country's name originally translated into “borderland” because the steppe began east of here. The colors of the flag refer to the many cornfields in the country and the blue sky.
The cradle of Russia actually lies in Ukraine. In the 9th century, Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic empire, was established there. But it later disintegrated and Kiev was conquered by the Mongols in 1240. From the 14th century onwards, Lithuania and Poland ruled large parts of the country, while in the south the descendants of the Mongols established the Crimean Khanate.
Ukrainian Cossacks – equestrian associations of runaway serfs – repeatedly rose up against Polish rule. In 1648 they founded their own state (Hetmanate) for the first time. Seeking support, however, they subordinated themselves to the Tsar in 1654, whereupon the territories east of the Dnieper River became part of Russia. As part of the partition of Poland, the Russian Empire acquired further territories in the late 18th century, while western Ukraine was integrated into the Habsburg Monarchy. The division of Ukraine into a Russia-oriented eastern part and a Europe-oriented western part continues to have an effect today.
A Ukrainian state was reestablished in 1917 following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in the First World War. It did not exist for long, however, because the Red Army annexed the territory after several different occupations. It was named the “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” and became part of the Soviet Union in 1922.
While the Bolsheviks initially supported the Ukrainian national movement, Josef Stalin ordered the murder of much of its elite in the late 1920s. The rural peasant population was also forced into collectives, deported or shot. This and the nearly 50 percent increase in grain levies led to a severe famine in Ukraine in 1932/33. At least 3.5 million people died from what is referred to as the “Holodomor.” As part of the Great Terror, mass arrests and shootings occurred again between 1936 and 1938. At least 265,000 people fell victim, including many party functionaries. Only three of the 200 Ukrainian Central Committee members survived.
When the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it was initially welcomed in Ukraine as a liberator, in part because the Soviet secret police had shot thousands of Ukrainian prisoners before it withdrew. But the Nazis were also not interested in an independent Ukrainian nation-state and arrested the leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Stepan Bandera, a few weeks later.
More than eight million Ukrainians died in World War II, most of them civilians. The Nazis murdered nearly 1.6 million Jews and deported more than 2.4 million Ukrainians to Germany to do forced labor as “Eastern workers.” The militias of the OUN and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought for independence, were also involved in the massacre of Jews and Poles.
After the war, Stalin pushed the Soviet Union's border westwards. The re-established Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was granted parts of Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. In 1954, the Soviet leadership also awarded Ukraine Crimea, which Russia had annexed in the 18th century.
Like many other republics of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 in a decision that was confirmed by 90 percent of the eligible voters in a referendum. A constitution adopted in 1996 established Ukrainian as the state language, but also provided for the protection of national minorities. Russia agreed to recognize Ukraine's borders and its state sovereignty, while Ukraine renounced more than 2,500 Soviet nuclear missiles stored on its territory.
After independence, the pro-Russian cadres of the Communist Party initially dominated in Ukraine. Then mass protests erupted in Kiev in 2004 over election manipulation. The so-called Orange Revolution – named after the color orange used by the opposition – led to the election of its candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. For the first time, he also began pushing to address past Communist crimes. However, the divisiveness of the pro-European forces led to the victory of the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych in the next presidential election. He declared an end to negotiations on an association agreement with the EU at the end of 2013, causing mass demonstrations to erupt again, known as the Euromaidan. At the height of the protests, Yanukovych went into hiding and was removed from office by the Ukrainian parliament in February 2014.
Soon after this, Russia annexed Crimea. Separatists proclaiming the “People's Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of the country also received massive military support from Russia. Although a ceasefire had been agreed upon several times in Minsk, repeated battles broke out with the Ukrainian army, claiming the lives of more than 13,000 people by 2021. Numerous abductions, torture and executions also occurred in the separatist areas. In February 2022, Russian troops officially invaded Ukraine. At least 4,000 civilians were killed in the first three months of the war, a clear violation of international law (as of July 2022).
|Area:||603,700 km² (with Crimea)|
|Inhabitants:||41.8 million (without Crimea and Sevastopol, 2020)|
|Population growth:||- 0.6 % yearly (2020, estimate)|
|Population density:||77 inhabitants per km²|
|Seat of govt.:||Kiev|
|Political system:||Semi-presidential republic|
|Head of state:||President Wolodymyr Selenskyj (since 2019)|
|Head of govt.:|
Prime Minister Denys Schmyhal (since 2020)
|BIP per capita:|