It was against sometimes staggering odds that Ukrainian culture survived centuries of foreign political control. Today Ukraine's political autonomy and the devotion of Ukrainians world wide, ensures that the culture will thrive into the next millennium.
From the earliest times Ukrainian history has been shaped by its geography. Its position between Europe and Asia on the edge of the Mediterranean with its fertile plains have created a rich environment for cultural development while at the same time leaving the people vulnerable to aggressive neighbors.
The first literary reference to the people of this area occurs in Homer's Odyssey, which refers to the it as the "land of the Cimmerians." The Cimmerians were nomadic horsemen who lived between the Don and the Dniester between about 1500 and 700 B.C., when the Scythians appear. The Scythians established the first major political organization of this territory, possessing an army, collecting tribute and carrying on trade with the Greek colonies which were founded in the 7th century B.C. The Scythians came into conflict with the Macedonians as a result of their territorial expansion and a crushing defeat by Phillip (Alexander the Great's father) in 339 B.C. marked the beginning of the end for the Scythians.
From the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. Sarmatians dominated the steppes until their control was destroyed by the Huns. In the 6th century A.D. the Slavs, northern agriculturalists, dominate the territory after expanding from their home in the Carpathian Mountains and the Vistula valley. During this century their common language began to evolve subgroups, West, South and East Slavic, to which Ukrainian belongs.
The rise of Kievan Rus' began with the foundations laid by the Polianian tribal confederation in the 6th and 7th centuries. At this time Varangians, Viking warrior-merchants, come to the area and rapidly assume East Slavic language and culture. These Varangians had a strong impact on the political organization of this area, but their cultural influence was minimal. In 882 Oleh (Helgi in Scandinavian) established himself as the first Kievan Prince and his dynasty known as the Riurikids. As the leader of the Polianians he soon extended his authority over the other tribes.
One of the best known of the Kievan Princes is Volodymyr the Great (980-1015). In addition to the expansion and modernization of his realm he also brought Christianity to his people in 988. It was under Volodymyr and his son Iaroslav (1036-1054) that Kievan Rus' reached the height of power, stability and prosperity. Following this period was a time of princely feuds, economic stagnation and nomadic invasions. In 1240 the capture of Kiev by Mongol forces marked the end of the Kievan period.
In the following period the principalities which once made up Kievan Rus' remained separate with Galicia and Volhynia inheriting Kiev's political and cultural traditions. The Prince of Galicia-Volhynia, Danylo Mstyslavych was crowned King in 1253, and a dynasty was established which would rule the territory for the nest 100 years. In the 1340's much of Ukraine was annexed to the Duchy of Lithuania, yet the Ukrainians maintained much of their political and cultural autonomy. Soon Poland and Lithuania were competing for Volhynia and Galicia and Galicia was annexed to the Poles. In 1385 Poland and Lithuania were united, later termed the Commonwealth, with the marriage of the Queen of Poland and the Grand Prince of Lithuania, and the Ukrainians lost self government. At the same time the princes of Moscow gained prominence among the northeastern principalities and soon came to pose a threat to Polish-Lithuanian power. A second threat was developed in the form of the Crimean Khanate left by the retreating Mongols, which accepted the overlordship of the Ottoman sultan in 1478. The existence of these two opponents to the power of the Commonwealth were to have a strong impact on the Ukrainians.
In the 15th century the Cossack culture emerged when bands of frontier settlers formed groups to fend off the Tatars (Mongols from the Crimean). Eventually fortified camps became permanent and Cossackdom became a way of life. In 1553-54 groups of Cossacks were gathered below the Dnieper rapids and the foundations for the Zaporozhian Sich were established. Cossack society was to some degree democratic and egalitarian, however, class distinction soon developed. The Zaporozhians and other Cossacks gained popular appeal through daring raids on the Tatars and rebellions against the Poles.
The middle of the 17th century was a period which came to be called "Ruin". After a period of internal strife within Cossack society and external pressure from the Ottomans, Poland and Muscovy, Ukraine was divided between these powers. The Left Bank (of the Dnieper R.) was in Russian territory, but Cossack government survived and the area became known as the Hetmanate. The Zaporozhians became isolated from the rest of society and their lands came under Russian overlordship in 1686. The Right Bank was held by Poland and northern Bukovyna was held by the Ottomans.
After the Ruin, the Hetmanate became the political, economic and cultural center of Ukrainian society. Ukrainians here experienced the greatest degree of self government since the time of the Galician-Volhynian principalities. For a time such dynamic leaders as Ivan Mazepa, Danylo Apostol helped to delay Ukrainian absorption into the Russian Empire.
Late in the 18th century Poland-Lithuania was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria after all three powers moved in to take advantage of the Commonwealth's weak government. Galicia and Bukovyna came under Austrian rule, while the rest of Ukraine (still called the Right Bank) was under Russian rule. After this the Russians began aggressive attempts to assimilate Ukraine and the Hetmanate ceased to exist in physical terms but remained an important part of Ukrainian national consciousness.
In Austrian territory cultural assimilation was not part of the Empire's agenda, but the masses faced economic exploitation by the nobility. The peasants here were among the poorest in the Empire as a result.
In the 19th century the concept of nationhood developed within the intelligentsia of eastern as well as western European societies. The Ukrainian gentry in the Austrian and Russian Empires accepted and developed their own extension of the ideologies of the time. Ukrainian history was studied, the language was expanded into literary fields, and Ukrainian culture became the focus for a class which had neglected its roots for a time. Out of this era the best known Ukrainian intellectual is Taras Shevchenko. His poetry inspired succeeding generations with their messages of revolutionary solutions to social injustice and the oppression of the Ukrainian nation. Only after more than 150 years of struggle and repression has the dream of an independent Ukraine finally become a reality.
During the last 100 years millions of Ukrainians have left their homeland to escape political and economic oppression. East Ukrainians mainly moved within the Russian Empire or Soviet Union, but West Ukrainians migrated to Western Europe and to the New World. As early as the 17th century individual Ukrainians made their way to the New World, including the physician Lavrenty "Bohun", who accompanied Captain John Smith to the first settlement in Virginia. Destinations of settlers include Austria, France, Britain, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Venezuela. In Canada Ivan Pylypiw and Vasyl Eleniak are considered to be the first Ukrainian immigrants to this vast country, arriving in 1891. The first permanent settlement was established in the following year.
In Ukraine coats of arms were not used as extensively as in Western European countries, nor do we find as many carefully preserved records of them. However, it was customary for Cossack hetmans and noble houses to have coats of arms. The nobility had arms which had developed from earlier family symbols exiting in the 11th century. In the 18th century Catherine II and Maria Theresa of Austria recognized Ukrainian coats of arms. The oldest arms we know of is the familiar trident, now the Ukrainian national symbol, which was used on the state arms by Volodymyr the Great.