History of Ukraine

The Ukrainian Background

Ukrainian people belong to the eastern branch of the Slavic nations. Their homeland, Ukraine (Ukraina) with a population of over 50 million lies north of the Black Sea, between Russia and Poland. Geography has played a critical and paradoxical role in the destiny of Ukraine and its people. Abundant, rich, agricultural land and a moderate climate gave Ukraine a reputation as the “bread basket of Europe”. But this natural resource lacked adequate geographic barriers against powerful outsiders, and throughout history Ukraine has been an easy prey to invasions from all directions. As a result, following the Mongol destruction in the 13th century of the original
Ukrainian state, the highly civilized Kyivan Rus’, the Ukrainian lands had been dominated by the neighboring countries, mainly Russia, Poland and Austro-Hungary. Because the Ukrainians had been for so long a subjugated, fragmented nation, their national development was delayed until the 19th century. Furthermore, because the Ukrainian aristocracy tended to assimilate with the ruling nationality, the Ukrainian nation remained essentially peasant in character. Even when extensive industrialization began, the Ukrainian urban classes were small and politically insignificant. Russians, Jews and Poles predominated in urban centres (Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv,
Lviv), which became non-Ukrainian islands in a Ukrainian sea.

At the beginning of Ukrainian immigration to Canada in the 1890s, the bulk of the Ukrainian territory (“Greater Ukraine”) and approximately 25 million people were within the tsarist Russian Empire. The tsarist regime pursued harsh policies of centralization and Russification of the subject nationalities (nearly 50% of the total population). All manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism were severely repressed; even the Ukrainian language was prohibited. Economically, however, conditions in Russian Ukraine were gradually improving after the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and a strong rural class, the farmers (khliboroby), emerged.

Western Ukraine, the home of another four million Ukrainians (often called Ruthenians) was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and consisted of the provinces of Galicia (Halychyna), Bukovyna and Transcarpathia. The vast majority of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada came from Galicia and Bukovyna, both areas of dense and mixed population, where the Ukrainians shared the land with the Poles and Romanians respectively. In Galicia, where the Polish gentry formed the ruling class, religious affiliation provided a simple and clear means of national identification. 

The Ukrainians were members of the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church which recognized the Pope but adhered to Byzantine and Ukrainian ecclesiastic traditions, including married parish clergy. The Poles, on the other hand, were staunch Roman Catholics. The Ukrainian priests provided much of the national leadership for the Ukrainian community in Galicia. In Bukovyna, the religious situation was less clear since both the Ukrainians and the Romanians belonged to the Orthodox Church, but the liturgical language differentiated them. The Romanian gentry dominated Bukovyna politically and economically.

The old Austro-Hungarian Empire maintained itself by constitutional means and the politics of “divide and rule”. It skilfully balanced the various nationalities by pitting one against the other. In Galicia, the Polish gentry was granted political and economic advantages over the Ukrainians. In the face of this, the Ukrainian leadership waged an unceasing struggle for equality in the educational, political, cultural and economic spheres. During this struggle, a new secular and pro-active intelligentsia emerged from the ranks of the clergy and the peasantry. Although Polish domination remained entrenched (until 1939), compared with their co-nationals in the repressive
Russian Empire, the Ukrainians in Galicia made remarkable political and cultural progress. The public school system, while weighted in favour of the Polish nationality, provided Ukrainian children with educational facilities in their own language, a right that eastern Ukrainians did not enjoy. Village reading clubs (chytalni) were created by enlightenment societies (prosvita) to address adult illiteracy. The reading clubs provided a valuable multidimensional, educational experience and they were recreated in Canada where a community hall has characterized every Ukrainian grouping to this day.

The Ukrainians in Galicia had some political experience that was absent in the Russian Empire until 1905. They had a number of political parties, representing the entire ideological spectrum, from socialism to clerical conservatism, from which to elect their deputies to the Imperial Parliament in Vienna and to the local assembly in Lviv. Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ukrainians suffered mainly from economic rather than political conditions.

The Austro-Hungarian government designated Galicia as an agricultural zone and marketplace for products from the industrially advanced western parts of the empire. This policy made the Galician peasants, both Ukrainian and Polish, economically dependent on the large landowners who controlled over 40% of the land. The acute land shortage, reflected in small peasant land holdings (2-7 hectares), and technological underdevelopment made village life very difficult. A cooperative movement developed as a means of improving the economic condition of Ukrainians. By the turn of the century, Ukrainians had a network of agricultural and dairy cooperatives, credit unions and mutual-aid associations which, for the first time, gave the people collectively significant economic power. Still, many peasants remained frustrated and ready to seek a better life elsewhere, resulting in Ukrainian emigration to Canada.

History of Ukraine – Wikipedia