Within a matter of months, events in Ukraine have transformed the global political order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A startled world has watched Ukraine’s political crisis unfold as demonstrators took over Kyiv’s Independence Square and forced Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from office (and from the country). Then events became international with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the eruption of separatist insurgencies in Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. Sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union have followed, as has concern and brinksmanship over natural gas supplies.

Justifying Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his bewilderment at the very existence of the Ukrainian state in speeches he delivered on March 18 and April 17 (that took liberties with history). He claimed that for reasons he could not understand, the Bolsheviks created the Soviet Ukrainian republic “in the 1920s” including the traditional territories of “New Russia,” a tsarist-era name for southern and southeastern Ukraine dating from the 18th century.

At the same time, the ultranationalist Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky (known for his provocative declarations) shocked the Polish foreign ministry with an offer to divide Ukraine. The westernmost provinces would be returned to Poland, which had ruled large parts of Ukraine until the 18th century, and the rest would be subsumed by Russia.

Such pronouncements might be dismissed as chauvinistic political antics were it not for all the sabre rattling, bloodletting, and border changing. And, most importantly, these declarations highlight critical issues at play in the Ukrainian crisis.

At the very heart of the story is the question of Ukrainian national identity—especially the question of Russia’s recognition of the Ukrainian people as a separate nation and the present-day borders of Ukraine—and the importance of external powers, especially Russia and the Soviet Union, in determining the fate of the Ukrainian people.

For several centuries, Ukrainians found themselves divided in two, with parts claimed by the Russian and Polish (and later Austrian) empires. They were only reunited at the end of World War II, attaining independence in 1991. Depending on where they lived, Ukrainian elites developed two diverging conceptions of national identity during the nineteenth century—and the distinctions continue to influence events today.

The Russian army and Russia-sponsored separatist fighters have proven the point often made by historians of Ukraine: Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine and coming to terms with Ukraine’s separate nationhood is a litmus test of Russian democracy.

Putin may have decided to seize the Crimean peninsula to bolster his domestic popularity, but in so doing he exploited complexities and confusions about Ukrainian identity centuries in the making.

Ukraine, Russia, and History

Ukrainian-Russian relations suffer from differing attitudes toward the Russian imperial past. Both republics became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but what was a new beginning for Ukraine was a loss of empire and great-power status for Russia.

Linguistic nationalism simmers in Ukraine. Centuries of tsarist and Soviet rule established Russian as the imperial language Ukrainians would be expected to know. Ukrainian and Russian are closely related languages, yet unequal in practice. In an interaction between the two “fraternal” peoples, to use the Soviet expression, the Russian would likely understand Ukrainian, but would expect the Ukrainian to switch to speaking Russian and not the other way around.

Assimilation is also a nagging issue. Especially during the postwar period, Soviet authorities encouraged Ukrainians to identify with the Soviet Union, particularly with Russian culture.

Not only did the Russian-dominated tsarist and Soviet empires actively assimilate Ukrainians, but they also helped create a modern Ukrainian identity in the first place. Ukrainian national distinctiveness developed in response and resistance to imperial control, but also the Russian empire brought the majority of Ukrainians together through expansion, establishing a separate Ukrainian territory within the Soviet Union.

What it means to be Ukrainian is still a fluid concept, as is what it means to be Russian. Russians continue to identify with a greater imperial space that includes Ukraine, while many eastern Ukrainians express post-Soviet nostalgia by identifying with “Russia” either politically or ethnically.

The halting pace of democracy and economic reform also fuels trouble on the Russian-Ukrainian border. By contrast, there have been just as many cultural affinities and historical disputes on the Polish-Ukrainian border, but Poland’s development into a functioning democracy and a relatively transparent economic system put Polish-Ukrainian relations on a different footing. Imperial designs are weaker where new European values prove their worth.

The Elder “Younger Brother”

The acceptance of Ukraine’s nationhood is difficult for many Russians because it deprives them of their glorious past. Both Russians and Ukrainians look back to the mighty medieval empire of Kyivan Rus′, which accepted Christianity in 988, as the cradle of their respective modern nations.

With Ukrainian independence, Russia lost many sites enshrined in its historical memory, including the first Orthodox monastery and graves of legendary medieval knights.

For Russians after 1991, this foundational moment of their state tradition was centered in what is now Ukraine and the capital of Kyivan Rus′ was the present-day Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (Kiev in Russian). Moscow, by contrast, is first mentioned in the historical Hypatian Chronicle only in 1147 as a stockade on the distant frontier.

The true beginning of the Muscovite state is connected to the fall of Kyivan Rus′. After the Mongol invasion beginning in 1237 dealt the final blow to this loose federation of principalities, the princes of Muscovy rose to prominence as the Mongols’ most reliable local agents and soon-to-be challengers.

Meanwhile, beginning in the fourteenth century, the western half of the former Kyivan Rus′ state came under the domination of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later Poland. The developing differences between Russians and Ukrainians were sealed by this splitting of the former lands of Kyivan Rus′. Their separate group identity persisted, defined in pre-modern and early modern religious or social terms.

Ukrainians into Russia

The two children of Kyivan Rus’ met again in 1654, when the Ukrainian Zaporozhian Cossacks, located in the eastern part of what is today Ukraine, were accepted under the protection of the Orthodox Russian tsar after an exhaustive war against the Polish state.

During the next century and a half, the Russian imperial administration gradually absorbed Ukrainian lands, depriving them of autonomy and cultural specificity. The growing empire of the Romanovs also increased its Ukrainian territories in the west during the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century.

Soon the position of Ukrainians, or “Little Russians” as they were called on the official level, came to resemble that of the Scots in the United Kingdom. As individuals, Ukrainians could carve out careers in the Russian imperial service, yet their group political and cultural identity was increasingly marginalized or treated as an ethnographic curiosity.

The Russian Empire was late in entering Europe’s “age of nationalism.” Yet when the Polish rebellion of 1863 alerted Russian authorities to the political implications of ethnic identities, they reacted also with a crushing blow against the miniscule, politically moderate, and nearly deracinated Ukrainian intelligentsia.

A Decree of 1863 banned the publication of religious and educational works in the Ukrainian language. Then in 1876, Tsar Alexander II prohibited the publication of any Ukrainian books, now including literature, as well as the use of Ukrainian onstage.

The official ideology of the tsarist state considered the empire’s Ukrainians merely a “Little Russian tribe” of the Russian people—they did not need their own language or culture, and would soon simply merge into the Russian ethnicity.

Ironically, this perspective on Ukrainians also meant that the imperial government undertook no consistent effort to assimilate the Ukrainian peasantry, because for the tsarist leaders “Ukrainians” were in fact “Russian.” Tsarist functionaries merely tried to prevent the ideas of modern nationalism from reaching the Ukrainian people who, they expected, would identify with the tsarist empire and its dominant ethnic group.

“European” Ukraine

The Russian tsars, however, never controlled all the lands on which ethnic Ukrainians lived.

During the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century the westernmost region of Ukraine became part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire. The Habsburg emperors also acquired two smaller Ukrainian-populated areas from the Ottomans and the Hungarian Kingdom.

All Ukrainian lands in the Austrian Empire were agrarian backwaters with little industrial development and a stale cultural life. The Ukrainian peasantry had little influence in the largest of these regions, the crown land of Galicia, dominated by the Polish nobility.

Yet the very ethnic mosaic of the Habsburg Empire helped develop a modern Ukrainian identity.

Austrian Germans could not hope to assimilate small minorities in the ethnically patchwork empire they ruled, as the Russian government was doing in its own empire.

Instead, they worked to play minorities against one another. In the province of Galicia, the Austrians maintained their power by balancing the influence of the Polish political class with the pressure and votes of the Ukrainian peasantry—and, as time went by, the cultural work of the Ukrainian clergy and the intelligentsia.

The awkward and unwitting “European” choice of western Ukrainians had far-reaching implications. Not only were they acknowledged as a separate ethnic group by the government in Vienna, but the Austrian Empire also offered them an experience that was totally absent on the Russian side of the border—political participation. Ukrainians in the Habsburg Empire could both develop their culture and acquire a taste for parliamentarism, limited as it was.

Unlike their Ukrainian brethren to the east, Ukrainian intellectuals in Austria soon developed a clear concept of modern Ukrainian ethnic identity and reached out to the peasantry through a network of reading clubs and schools.

The Austrian government assisted in this nation-building process, in part to create a counterbalance to the Poles and in part because it was gearing up for war with Russia. In the 1890s, for example, the Austrian Ministry of Education helped switch Ukrainian schools to the modern orthography, a move that highlighted the differences between Ukrainian and Russian.

The Austrians were also instrumental in making the Ukrainian Catholic Church a national institution. Because it shared the Eastern rites with the Orthodox Church, the religion of Galician Ukrainians served as a marker of their difference from the Catholic Poles rather than from the Orthodox Eastern Ukrainians.