Ukraine from Askold to Zelensky: Language, Culture, Art & Architecture, 862-2022.

We Are All Here, We Were Here, We Will be Here:

At the time of my writing this, we are approaching the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022. On the following day, thirty-eight hours after Russia began its unprovoked all-out war against his country, President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a thirty-two-second speech, recorded on his phone, with various members of his senior team outside a government building. He spoke very simply:

“Good evening, everyone. We are all here. Our soldiers are here. Civil society is here. We defend our independence. And this is how it will always be from now on.”

Quoted by Arkady Ostrovsky, in his preface to Zelensky’s (2022) book, p. ix, cover pictured below.

The book includes speeches Zelensky personally selected to tell the story of the Ukrainian people. All his proceeds from it, amounting to 60p per copy of the print edition sold in the UK goes to United 24, his initiative to collect donations in support of Ukraine. For more info, go to

By the time the video appeared on social media on the evening of 25th February, much of eastern and central Ukraine had been under relentless fire for more than a day. Russian paratroopers were storming a military airport in Kyiv, commandos were hunting for Zelensky and people were fleeing their homes. There were rumours that Zelensky had left the country, spread by Russian officials, who claimed that his government had collapsed. The half-minute video proved otherwise. In fact, it was proof that Putin’s plan for a lightning-quick victory was failing if it had not already failed. Zelensky did not run, the Ukrainian capital did not fall and people in the Russian-speaking east did not welcome Putin’s troops with flowers. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Zelensky refused to prepare for it, downplaying its likelihood. He suddenly became an unlikely war leader when he turned down an offer of an airlift within hours of the invasion. His reply to the proposal was concise: I need ammo, not a ride.

Zelensky’s simple rhetoric highlighted a stark contrast between the two sides. The short, warm word tut (‘here’) felt like the kind of reassurance a parent might use to comfort a scared child whose house was being invaded. Zelensky’s use of technology was also significant; where Putin, as a deluded dictator, broadcast to his subjects from inside the Kremlin, Zelensky stood exposed, with his people. Posting his selfie video online showed him to be an everyman, an integral part of Ukraine’s social network as well as its President. By February 2022, Zelensky had been President for just under three years. Voters had first known him as Vasyl Holoborodko, a plain-speaking history teacher who was miraculously catapulted into the job of President after taking on Ukraine’s entire political system – the role Zelensky played in a television satire called Servant of the People. After launching his presidential campaign in December 2018, Zelensky’s background as an actor and producer would prove crucial to his success. He knew how to mirror his audience, read their lips and articulate their feelings. He also knew his national history, expressing this in the introduction to his book of speeches made in 2022:

‘Ukraine did not appear on the world map in early 2022. Ukrainians were not born in the moment of the *rf’s invasion. We were, we are and we will be; we have existed, we exist and we will continue to exist. And so, while we appreciate the help, support and attention the world has given us, the bravery of our people must not be taken for granted. War must not become routine. Supporting Ukraine is not a trend, a meme or a viral challenge. It is not a force to rapidly disappear into oblivion. If you want to understand who we are going, you must first learn more about this.’

Zelensky (2022), pp. 3-4. (*rf = Russian Federation)

Zelensky’s little book chronicles the last three years and three months of Ukraine before the counter-surge in the east, from 20th May 2019 to 24th August 2022, consciously taking his people through a new period in Ukrainian history. He points out that he and his people did not want war and did everything they could to prevent it. He was uttering words to this effect from the moment he was sworn into office until the final hours before the Russian invasion. That was why the Ukrainians did not react to or give in to the series of Russian provocations. They remained committed to a diplomatic solution, to dialogue and negotiations. But on 24th February, Putin gave his clear answer. He wanted to destroy Ukraine as an independent country, a state and a people. It was an answer which had been heard many times before, uttered in many languages across the ages, by many invaders. Ultimately every invading army fled back across the frontier they had made the mistake of crossing, abandoning their weapons and equipment. So, to understand those three years and three months, we need an understanding of the previous thousand and forty years. I have written more extensively about this long-term history in a series of articles published here in the early months of the war, so here I simply give an outline of that history in the shape of the chronology below…

Pre-History to c. 862:

A painting by Pál Vágo (1853-1928) depicting Hungarians and Ukrainians trading at Kyiv. See also the close-up below.

Before the mid-ninth century, it is impossible to speak of nations or states, particularly nation-states, which were not formed until the following century. The Turkish Khazar’s state, the Kaganate, was unstable, and under threat from a new Turkic people attacking from the East, the Pechenegs. The ancestors of both the Ukrainians and the Hungarians moved further west from an area to the north of the Sea of Azov and the Don River. By the mid-ninth century they had moved into the foreground of the Carpathians, along the Dnieper, the Dniester and the Bug, becoming familiar with the shores of the Black Sea down to Byzantium. Among them were Muslims and Jews, and a small number of Christians. A few of them were farmers or rather herdsmen, and the rest were unruly nomadic military people, raiding and trading in slaves, gold and silver which had been taken as plunder. This is probably how they came into contact with the Rus Vikings. But the various tribes living in the lands between the Dnieper and Dniester were, according to Byzantine sources, before the end of the ninth century, familiar with the Balkan peninsula, the Carpathian Basin and the lands along the Danube to the west.

A Timeline of Key Historical Events, c. 860 – 2019:

c. 860-882: The reign of Kyivan Prince Askold was first mentioned in Byzantine sources.

988: The baptism of the Kyivite Rus by Prince Volodymyr (see the fresco below by V. Vasnetsov in St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral).

1015-1016: Conclusion of the first legal code, Ruska Pravda.

1017-1037: Construction of St. Sophia Cathedral, pictured below, and the Golden Gate in Kyiv. The Cathedral was built to mark the victory of the Kyivan prince Yaroslav the Wise over the nomadic Pechenegs.

1239-1241: The Mongol Invasion. Batu Khan conquered Chernihiv and Kyiv. The Papal envoy Carpini reported that “after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death.” Following the Triumph of the Sajo River over the Hungarian army in 1241, they reached the outskirts of Vienna. They withdrew after the death of their emperor, returning home to elect a new one, only to return in 1247. But an outbreak of civil wars and the re-emergence of the Mamluk Turks from the Black Sea area down to Syria prevented another full-scale Mongol invasion of Europe.

1253: Envoys of Pope Innocent IV crown Galician Prince Danylo Romanovych as ‘the king of the Rus’.

1343-1362: Division of Ukrainian lands between the Polish kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

1550s: Foundation of Zaporzhzhian Sich on Mala Khortytsia Island in the Dnipro River.

1569: Polish kingdom and the grand Lithuanian duchy unite into the federal State of Rzeczpospilita.

1574: Ivan Federov founded the first Ukrainian printing house in Lviv.

1581: Publication of the first printed Bible in the Old Church Slavonic language.

1596: Conclusion of the union between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches at the Council in Berest, leading to the foundation of the Uniate Greek-Catholic Church.

1648: Beginning of the War of Liberation under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky leading to the foundation of the Ukrainian Cossack State (Hetmanate).

An old kobza-player

1654: Decision of the Pereyaslav Rada (Council) to adopt the protection of the Russian Czar for the Cossack State.

1658-1686: Polish-Russian War ended in the division of Ukrainian territory between Russia and Rzeczpospolita.

1772-1795: Collapse of Rzeczpospolita and transfer of Ukraine’s western regions to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and central-eastern territories to the Russian Empire. In 1775, Catherine II published her Manifesto for the liquidation of the Zaporozhzhian Sich. In 1784, Lviv Jesuit Collegium became the first university on Ukrainian territory.

1805-1834: Opening of universities in Kharkiv (1805) and Kyiv (1834).

1845-1846: Foundation of Cyrill-and-Methodius Brotherhood, a cultural and educational Christian Democratic organisation.

1848: Abolition of Serfdom in Austria-Hungary, including the western Ukrainian territories.

1848-1906: Publication of the first Ukrainian newspapers in Lviv and Kyiv. Ukrainian national cultural organisations at work in Petersburg and Kyiv, 1860-1900. In 1861, Serfdom was abolished within the Russian Empire. In 1866, the first railways began operation in the Ukrainian territories of Russia and Austria-Hungary.

Bird’s-eye view of St Michael’s Square in Kyiv, with St Volodymyr’s Cathedral at its centre.

1917: The overthrow of Tsarist autocracy; declaration of two independent Ukrainian states – the Ukrainian People’s Republic with its capital city in Kyiv, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic with its capital in Kharkiv.

1918-1921: Change of governments, Civil War, Russian-Ukrainian and Polish-Ukrainian wars in the territory of Ukraine; defeat of the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

1922: Formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) with the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as part of it.

1929-1933: Liquidation of private land property and formation of collective farms, mass deportation of the rural population to the north of Russia; the Stalinist organisation of artificial famine (Holodomor) in the countryside of 1932-33.

1939: Outbreak of World War II; the reunification of Eastern and Western Ukraine by the Soviet troops; occupation of Carpathian Ukraine by the Hungarian army.

1941: Outbreak of the Great Patriotic War on Soviet territory; occupation of Ukraine by Nazi Germany.

1945: USSR gained victory over Nazi Germany; inclusion of western Ukrainian lands, Bukovyna and Carpathian Ukraine in the Union.

1954: Crimea was removed from the Russian Federation and transferred to Ukraine.

1956-1964: Relaxation of totalitarian régime under Khrushchev (the “thaw” in the Cold War).

1965-1977: End of the ‘thaw’; Political repression, growth of the dissident movement among intellectuals; organisation of the 1976 Ukrainian Helsinki Group.

1990: 16th July – The Verkhovna Rada (State Council) of the Ukrainian SSR approved the Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Ukraine.

Ukrainians protested against continued Soviet domination. Ukraine was one of several Soviet republics to assert this claim to independence in 1990.

1991: US President George Bush visited Kyiv in early August, after Moscow. The Ukrainians wanted his support for Ukrainian independence, but he denounced “suicidal nationalism” (Croatia & Slovenia were already at war after leaving the FYR). Bush’s speech was dubbed the ‘Chicken Kyiv’ speech. On the 18th, Russian military leaders imprisoned Gorbachev at his villa on the Black Sea in Crimea. The attempted coup failed by the 20th, and on the 21st Estonia & Latvia declared independence, Lithuania reaffirmed its 1990 declaration, followed by Ukraine and several other republics soon after. The Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. Gorbachev resigned & by the end of August, the Soviet Communist Party dissolved itself. On 8th December, in Minsk, Yeltsin for Russia, Kravchuk for Ukraine and Shushkevich for Belarus signed a pact ending the USSR and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States. It came into effect on 25th December.

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Above: The map shows the territory of independent Ukraine from 1991.

1994: In the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to relinquish its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal, larger than that of the UK, France and China in return for assurances that Russia, the US and the UK would respect its sovereignty.

1996: The ‘Rada’ adopted the Constitution of independent Ukraine, introducing a national currency, the hryvnia.

2004: Pomarancheva (Orange) Revolution and election of Viktor Yushchenko as President of Ukraine. Singer ‘Ruslana’ gave Ukraine its first win in the Eurovision song contest for Ukraine.

2008: NATO summit in Bucharest discussed Ukraine’s membership. The proposal was rejected, to appease Russia.

2010: The leader of the opposition, Viktor Yanukovich won the presidential elections.

2012: Football matches in the European Championships were held in stadiums in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lviv.

2013 (Nov.) – 2014: Large-scale civilian protests against the policy of the Kyiv government; the confrontation, the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan), lasted several months.

Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv, was the location for the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan).

2014 (25th May): Petr Poroshenko won the presidential elections.

2014-15: Russian military aggression against Ukraine; annexation of Crimea; war in Donbas.

2016-17: Ukrainian singer Jamala won the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, leading to the 2017 contest being held in Kyiv.

Paton Bridge in Kyiv at night, 2017.
Language & Culture:

Spoken by forty-five million people in the world as a first language, Ukrainian belongs to the Slavic group of Indo-European languages. The Ukrainian language, alongside Russian and Byeolorussian, developed on the basis of the dialects of the Old Rus language. The most important phonetic, grammatical and lexical peculiarities of Ukrainian were conceived in the time of the Kyivan Rus. Old Slavic lexemes that have remained unchangeable number about two thousand and the number of words built upon this basis and loan words is nearly 150,000. At the same time, the Ukrainian vocabulary contains many words unknown to other Slavic, including Russian. The ancestors of the Ukrainians became proficient in writing by the end of the eighth century. They had two alphabets: Glagolithic and Cyrillic. After they converted to Christianity, the Cyrillic alphabet became firmly established as the preferred form.

Pages from an old chronicle.

The oldest examples of the language have come down to modern users in the form of numerous songs, ballads and Cossack chronicles. The first grammar of the Ukrainian language was composed in 1643, Slavonic Grammar by Ivan Uzhevych. The foundations of the new Ukrainian literary language were laid by the poet and dramatist Ivan Kotliarevsky, and the initial role in its formation was played by Taras Shevchenko. The great Ukrainian poet did not confine himself to a certain dialect but collected the most typical words and grammatical constructions from the folk language as a whole. In addition, he made use of the best features of the old Ukrainian language, enriching its vocabulary with necessary neologisms and borrowing foreign words. It is to the credit of Panteleimon Kulish, a writer and political figure, that he worked out the Ukrainian alphabet. Used for the first time in 1856 and later reformed by Borys Hrinchenko in his (1908) Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language, this alphabet has underlined present-day Ukrainian phonetic orthography. It consists of thirty-three letters and also has two special punctuation signs: apostrophe and accent. The language is relatively difficult for foreigners to learn. Ukrainian words have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Also, verbs change by numbers and persons, and nouns by numbers and cases. Understanding the language is complicated by shifting stress, usually changing the meaning of the word.

A miniature from the Ostromyrov Gospel

On the other hand, word order is free, facilitating the process of learning at the sentence level and so on. Idiomatically, the language is rich in proverbs, sayings and riddles that represent the collective memory of the people and their reflections on their life experiences; they demonstrate the people’s views on ethics, morals, history and politics. Ukrainian is full of imagery and melody, but in spite of its richness and beauty it continually had to prove itself as worthy of existence. According to the Tsars, it was simply a little Russian dialect and was only allowed to be used on the stage and in journals for authentic dialectical purposes, but not in serious scientific texts. It was therefore prohibited from the language of professional culture and academic discourse. The aim of the imperial prohibition was to turn Ukraine into part of the provinces, a kind of internal colony of the Russian Empire. Ukrainian was only recognised as an official language after the 1905 Revolution. In independent Ukraine, the language has again been proclaimed as the official language. By 2022 it had become the language of public and political institutions, the mass media, education, theatre, science and engineering, and each citizen of Ukraine now has the right to use it in every aspect of everyday life.

The country’s sporting life is a unique phenomenon. Ukrainian athletes have been well-known throughout the world ever since independence, and in some cases even before 1991, when many of them became famous for performing as part of the USSR’s Olympic team. The women’s handball club Spartak won twenty Soviet Championships in a row and thirteen European cups. The Ukrainian women’s handball team won a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Women’s teams have gone on to win gold medals in 2008 in sabre fencing and in 2012 in rowing. The first individual Olympic gold medal was won by Oksana Baiul (1994) and the fencer Yana Shemyakina also won gold in London 2012.

Football is the most popular sport in Ukraine. Dynamo Kyiv FC, which dates back to 1924 has won the Cup Winners’ Cup twice (1975, 1986). These accomplishments are associated with the legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovsky, who groomed three Ballon d’Or winners, including Andriy Shevchenko (pictured right).

The continuing strength of Ukrainian football clubs, also including Shakhtar Donetsk FC, who won the UEFA Cup in 2009, accounts for the country’s ranking in the top ten for men’s football. In 2006 the National Team made it to the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup and qualified for the European Championship Finals in 2016 and 2020. The Klitschko brothers, Volodymyr and Vitaliy, pictured above, hold a record of wins in professional boxing being WBA, WBO, IBE, and IBO heavyweight champions. Since retiring from the ring, Vitaliy has become Mayor of Kyiv, now famous for his resistance to the Russian incursions and the heroic defence of his city. World records of pole vault athlete Sergey Bubka and triple/ long jumper Innessa Kravets have remained unbroken for over twenty-five years now. Yana Klochkova (below) is the only swimmer in Olympic history to win consecutive gold medals in the two hundred and four hundred medleys. Ukraine has also enjoyed success in Olympic gymnastics. Despite its limited budget, and since 2014 Russia’s invasion, the country has taken care to create conditions for raising athletes. Ukraine has hundreds of sports education institutions while building new training facilities with new members of the coaching staff.

Ukrainian theatre was born in the period of the folk art revival of the mid-nineteenth century. Therefore, it absorbed the romanticism of that period, traversing a complicated path of evolution from the theatre of the baroque epoch to the formation of the professional theatre of the late nineteenth century, when there was a rapid development of dramatic art. Present-day theatrical life in Ukraine is rather diversified, embracing various directions and genres; from classic comedy to tragedy, from the avant-garde tendencies of the early twenty-first century, and from the absurdity theatre to the post-modernist drama of today. The repertoire of the drama theatres of Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk and other cities includes works by foreign playwrights and novelists as well as by Ukrainian authors. Ukrainian theatrical companies also take an active part in Ukrainian and international festivals of dramatic art.

A scene from a ballet of Dnipropetrovsk Theatre of Opera and Ballet.

The first attempts to create a distinct Ukrainian cinematography were made back in the early twentieth century. But it only became famous in the interwar period due to the creative work of the film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko (pictured in the monument on the right). His Earth movie got shortlisted by UNESCO among the world’s five greatest masterpieces. Ukrainian Poetic Cinema dominated during the 1960s and 1970s. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a film by Sergei Parajanov, won thirty-nine international awards. The film also became a landmark for the Dissident Movement as its premiére in Kyiv turned into a massive protest against arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals. There were six State film studios in Ukraine in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s film production was intensified as private enterprise came into the industry and new studios were founded. Ukraine began to acquire its own cinematography which had been impossible in Soviet times.

Shooting the film The Gadfly (Director M. Maschenko)

Oleksandr Rodniansky, director and general producer of the company Studio 1 +1 made a valuable contribution to the development of national documentary cinema. His films, Mission of Raoul Wallenberg, Farewell to the USSR and others received numerous awards at international film festivals. Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s film The Tribe was acclaimed by thirty of these and won forty awards, as well as three Cannes Film Academy awards. Hollywood listed it among the best films of 2015.

The National Academic Theatre of Opera & Ballet is named after T. Shevchenko.

Professional music in Ukraine has developed on the basis of folk music culture. The creative work of Samion Hulak Artemovsky, Mykola Lysenko, Kostiatyn Dankeyvych, Reingold Gliere, Anatoliy Kos-Anatolsky and other composers played an important role in the development of Ukrainian classical music. The repertoire of the National Philharmonic Society in Kyiv and many concert halls all over Ukraine includes classical works from both national and international repertoires. The Taras Shevchenko National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is the best opera and ballet company in Ukraine. The National Opera House, Odesa Opera and Ballet Theatre and Lviv Opera House are among the hundred best theatres in the world.

Ukrainian bagpipes

Choral singing is perhaps the most powerful form of Ukrainian professional music culture. The country has several choirs of international reputation. There are many other genre groups that embrace different styles and meet different tastes, from hard-rock to punk-rock and from hip-hop to whimsical musical conglomerations and elements of folk music.

Visual Art & Architecture:

Icon painting began to develop among the Kyivan-Rus in the tenth century after Prince Volodymyr baptised them. Byzantine traditions were a model for local masters. Quite independent and original schools of icon painting came into being later. The Kyiv School was the most refined among them. Unfortunately, most of the works of the early Middle Ages have been lost. Chronicles alone have preserved the marvellous works by outstanding icon painters, in particular those by Alipiy, a monk of the Kyiv-Pechersk Monastery. Mosaics and frescos of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv are the most distinguished among the monumental paintings. Built during the reign of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, this Cathedral became one of the first monuments of old-Rus architecture. After the Mongol-Tatar invasion and the decline of the Old-Rus State, the Halychyna-Volyn principality inherited the art traditions of the Kyivan Rus. The icon of the Virgin of Volyn (above) is a thirteenth-century masterpiece of that exact place.

The icon St George the Dragon Fighter, early sixteenth century.

The ancestors of the Ukrainians had no problem with building materials, and there was more than enough timber for construction purposes. A thousand and a half years ago, using axes, hammers, chisels and saws, and without nails, they raised towns, fortifications, palaces, modest huts and pagan temples. During the old princely period, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, building in stone was widespread under the influence of Christian culture. Stone was used primarily for churches, however; their foundations were laid with rubble, and their walls were built with small, thin bricks. Lime served for mortar and the floors were paved with marble slabs. The oldest churches were adopted from Byzantium, Orthodox churches differing from western, Romanesque structures in their ‘drums’, spherical roofs looking like helmets. The number of drums varied, but they were always cruciform in alignment. Interiors were divided into naves separated by columns or arcades. Ukrainian churches look higher than they are in reality, an illusion achieved by a gradual diminution in stories and rhythmic repetition of lines and decorations. Inside the churches were furnished with representations that depicted the Bible stories for the illiterate. They also served as treasure houses, libraries and fortresses during frequent wars and invasions.

Interior of St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral.

Among the structures of princely Ukraine, the St Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv occupies a special place. It was built to celebrate the victory of the Kyivan Prince Yaroslav the Wise over the nomadic Pechenegs. Its golden dome is seen from all the hills surrounding Kyiv. The Cathedral consists of five naves, the main volume of the structure surrounded by two rows of galleries; their open arches connect the building with its environment. The whole complex is crowned with thirteen drums with a high central dome. The interior of the church is decorated with frescoes and mosaics, making it one of the best art ensembles of the early Middle Ages. Among the most valued monuments of the 11th-12th centuries is the Cathedral of Our Saviour in Cherniv, the Dormition Cathedral of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra (pictured below) and the remnants of the Golden Gate.

Dormitian Cathedral in Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.

The next phase of native Ukrainian art followed in the sixteenth century when the humanistic ideas of the Renaissance had a great impact on culture. At the same time, Ukrainian professional art was influenced more and more by folk traditions. Simple images, decorative character and sincerity created an authentic Ukrainian iconography. Renaissance architecture came to Ukraine predominantly from Italy. Italian architects created the famous ‘ensemble’ Rynok in Lviv. Another outstanding monument of the Renaissance in the city is the ensemble of the Lviv Brotherhood – the Ukrainian Orthodox community there. The main structure is the Dormition Church, pictured below.

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Cossack territory gained its own statehood after the bloody War of Liberation, Ukrainian architecture achieved its most flourishing period. Under the influence of western styles, Ukrainian baroque came into being. In these centuries baroque became a widespread trend in Ukrainian and European art as a whole. In Ukraine, it was closely linked with traditional folk art. Such unification enriched the art of icon painting with the festive and colourful mood of the country on the one hand and toned down the exaltation of images characteristic of Catholic baroque on the other. Icon painting acquired secular colouring from the countryside and artists began to use chiaroscuro, the principles of spatial and aerial perspective. Also, oil painting became increasingly popular with local schools such as the Lviv painting guild, studios at Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv Lvras, monasteries and nobleman’s estates, all of which played a significant role.

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A Cossack Mamay.

Ukrainian baroque also manifested itself in majestic temples symbolising numerous Cossack victories. Buildings constructed under Hetman Ivan Mazepa are particularly distinguished for their decorative magnificence. In Hetman’s Ukraine, churches became a subject of public concern and self-respect. Every urban and rural community considered it their honourable duty to build a church and as a result, architectural masterpieces sprang up in the provinces exciting the envy of capital cities: the Syronchist Church in Poltava province, founded by Hetman Danylo Apostol, the Trinity Cathedral of the Hustyn monastery, and the Transfiguration Cathedral at the Mharsk monastery, near Lubny in Poltava province, and the Intercession Cathedral in Kharkiv, are all fine examples.

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The period of the Hetmanite State coincided with the flourishing of wooden cult construction. Wooden churches with bell towers continue to fascinate visitors with their lyricism, picturesque forms and technical perfection. The common construction element of the walls and ceilings of all wooden churches is their framework of a rectangular or octahedral form. In spite of their small dimensions, the churches produce an impression of monumentality that is intensified by spacious and high interiors. The wooden Cathedral of Trinity in Novoselytsi (Novomoskovst) is the only church in Ukraine with nine drums built in 1773-1781 by the self-taught master Yakym Pohrebniak. A simpler, more typical wooden construction is St Michael’s Church in Pyrohovo (above).

Lviv Opera-House.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Ukraine formed a metaphorical frontier that divided religious and secular art. The period is marked by the creative work of such outstanding portrait painters as Dmytro Levytsky and Volodymyr Borovyskovy who made Ukrainian art world-famous. At the turn of the nineteenth century, too, classicism became the dominating trend in European art. The establishment of the style took place at a time when Ukraine lost the remains of the Cossacks’ autonomy, and through the mediation of Russian culture, classicism became established in Ukraine. Spreading among the Ukrainian nobility, the classical style manifested itself in the magnificent palace-and-park ensembles. They were followed by the landlords who built thousands of Graeco-Roman courtyards all over the country, with porticoes, colonnades and triangle pediments on the facades. The French variant of the classical style in combination with Polish baroque and rococo spread widely in western Ukrainian lands. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, architectural structures in modernist styles were built.

Portrait of the Burgomaster of Poltava by V. Borovykovsky (top left); Water-mill by V. Shternberg (top right) & Landscape by H. Narbut (below).

There were artistic benefits of Ukraine being part of the Russian Empire at this time. The Petersburg Academy of Arts opened its doors to Ukrainian artists and, as a result, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Ukrainian art became closely associated with the name Taras Shevchenko. A former serf, he became a member of the engraving class at the Petersburg Academy and consolidated the principles of realism in his creative work. He had the original idea of creating an album, Picturesque Ukraine, which he devoted to the history, monuments, life and nature of his native land. His poetic images of the country aroused his compatriots’ patriotic spirit and inspired the works of his fellow artists, leading to the establishment of a national school of landscape painting. Ukraine became known as the Italy of the East as artists from the Russian Empire and other European countries sojourned in the country to enrich themselves with new themes and images. One such artist was Vasyl Schternberg, a friend of Shevchenko and a master of lyrical landscape.

Odesa Archaeology Gallery

Odesa art school and Kyiv drawing school occupied an important place at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ukrainian art and architecture at the turn of the century could not avoid the influence of the leading European art trends – impressionism and post-impressionism, art nouveau and various avant-garde tendencies. The Kharkiv School, where artists were under the influence of constructivism, was notable for its originality. Oleksandr Ekster, a well-known reformer of theatrical art, propagated the ideas of cubiform futurism, working from Kyiv. An original phenomenon of the early twentieth century was the Mykhailo Boychuk Art School which strived to create national monumental art on the principles of religion, uniting it with the traditions of folk art, local primitive painting and cheap popular printing. Unfortunately, most of these artists were subjected to Stalinist repression in the 1930s.

The Bridge by O. Ekster

The first attempt at a certain synthesis of architecture within the Ukrainian national spirit was made by the brothers Vasyl and Fedir Krychevsky who designed a range of civic buildings in various towns which remained the highest attainments of national-democratic aesthetics. Between World War I and II constructivism came to Ukraine for a short time, leaving its trace in the form of Dzerzhinsky Square in Kharkhiv (1925-39). The Socialist epoch also found its expression in architecture and an example of its heavy ‘heroic’ style is the government building of the Ukrainian SSR, the Verkhovna Rada, built between 1936 and ’39 to a design by V. Zabolotny (pictured below). The so-called Stalinist neoclassicism remains in the official structures of that period. The post-war decades were not the time for architectural innovations: every effort was made to restore ruined cities and villages. Kyiv was rebuilt according to an overall plan and even in the 1960s, the top priority in construction was housing.

The Rebirth of a Nation, 2014-2019:

The birthplace of modern Ukraine was Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – in Kyiv, the site of revolutionary uprisings in which Ukrainians had come together to decide their own future. In 2014 they went there to say that they belonged to Europe and to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow-backed thug who had tried to deny them this right. The peaceful revolution ended in violence. Yanukovych fled, and Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, starting a war in the east of Ukraine. The still relatively-free Moscow press warned the world of Putin’s intentions, as the cartoons below demonstrate, but little attention was paid to these warnings. Volodymyr Zelensky was among those who called for Yanukovych to step down, though he was not himself on the Maidan and did not participate in the ‘Revolution of Dignity’. As a successful television producer, he had a strong sense of his audience and during the revolution, many of them stayed at home watching his sitcoms.

He cringed when politicians used lofty language while scheming for their own financial gain, and was appalled when the old élites regrouped, wrapped themselves in new banners and went back to their old ways. But while the establishment carried on as before, the country was changing; its civil society was growing and it was no longer prepared to put up with business as usual. In 2019, Ukrainians rebuked the corrupt post-Soviet élite by voting for Holoborodko, Zelensky, as President. It was a case of real-life imitating art, but they knew exactly what they were doing in electing him. Yet the idea of an outsider bursting into an oligarchical system where money decided everything seemed almost as improbable a story as Holoborodko’s. But, as we have seen, Ukrainians have a taste for the improbable and the avant-garde. A pro-Ukrainian Russian speaker from a Jewish family in Eastern Ukraine, Zelensky received the votes of three-quarters of the electorate across the entire country. Never before had the electoral map of Ukraine looked so cohesive.

Some liberals both inside Ukraine and those watching the country from outside were sceptical about Zelensky. They were concerned about his lack of either a comprehensive programme or a team of professional politicians. But what he lacked in experience, he made up for in his sense of humour and communication skills, a set of assets crucial to survival in Kryvyi Rih, the rough industrial city in central Ukraine where he grew up. Zelensky reflected Ukraine not as some romantic idyll, but as it really was, with all its flaws and eccentricities.

The Post-historical President, 2019-22:

In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine. Over the first four months of the year, the former TV producer and comedian had fought a campaign that emphasised his outsider status and his determination to take on Ukraine’s political élite. He now had the chance to remake his country. As he said in his inaugural address, Ukraine was on the verge of a ‘new era’, defined by a new set of values. In the three and a half years that followed his inauguration in May 2019 and October 2022, President Zelensky delivered more than a thousand different speeches and addresses around the world. To begin with, these described his vision for his reborn country as a democratic, fully independent nation, free of corruption and confident in its place at the heart of Europe. But as the threat of war loomed, he also outlined the greatest threat to this new era: Russia. Putin, he warned, could not accept the choice the Ukrainian people had made, for Europe over Russia, and democracy over autocracy. Russian journalists had also warned of this, as the article and cartoon below show.

On 25th September 2019, he gave an address to the UN General Assembly in which he reminded the assembled ambassadors that the war in the Donbas had already lasted five years, together with the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Yet despite the requirements of international law and the hundreds of organisations designed to defend it, Ukraine had been left to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity alone, fighting with and losing its citizens. More than thirteen thousand had been killed, and one and a half million people had been forced to leave their homes. Every year these statistics had been recited at the UN, and every year the numbers kept getting bigger. In his speech, Zelensky reminded his audience of Erich Maria Remarque, who had died on that day in 1970, and that his novel, All Quiet on the Western Front had been published ninety years ago. He recalled the words from its preface, promising that it would try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war. That makes it especially fitting that the film version of the book, in its original German language medium, has recently been released and has been nominated for the 2023 Academy Awards. His conclusion was that:

” The world must remember that every generation destroyed by war paves the path to the next one: a new war, which in turn will be impossible to win through victory alone. “

Zelensky, p. 24.

Almost two years later, on 1st September 2021, the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, Zelensky made an address to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Naturally, he spoke about Nazism as its major cause. One and a half million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in the war, about one in four of the total number of European Jews. He told his audience the story of four brothers, three of whom were shot by the German invaders who had attacked Ukraine in 1941 as part of their Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. The wives, children and all other relatives of the three brothers were also murdered. The fourth brother survived because he was away fighting at the front. He fought until the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Nazism. He returned home and had a son and after thirty-one years, his grandson was born, Volodymyr Zelensky.

He is one of the thousands whose family lives were touched in some way, even crippled, by the Nazis, in addition to those who lost their lives fighting them or just trying to survive their reign of terror. But while the ideas of the Nazis, of violent nationalism, racism and xenophobia, still existed in many different countries and forms, in modern Ukraine, Zelensky said, racism and intolerance had no influence and stood even less chance of resurgence, despite Putin’s later perverse claims that he was invading the country to purge it of Nazism (the Kremlin has continually stated that one of the objectives of its ‘special military operations’ was to denazify Ukraine). Even in historical terms, the claims are negated by the 2,659 Ukrainians who were given the title Righteous Among the Nations, a title used by the State of Israel to non-Jews who saved the lives of Holocaust victims; people who saved Jewish lives, often at the cost of their own. Ukraine was fourth-highest on this list.

Moreover, as President, Zelensky had established lifelong pensions for surviving Ukrainian citizens who had saved Jews. Zelensky was categorical in his rejection of accusations of anti-Semitism, saying that the evils of Nazism had no place in the hearts of the people who survived Babyn Yar. Already, on Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, the Ukrainian government had unveiled a memorial in the middle of Kyiv to the victims of Babyn Yar where, in two days in September 1941, thirty-four thousand Jews were murdered, to be followed by a further two hundred thousand over the next two years throughout Ukraine. Throughout Soviet times, there was no memorial, and a sports complex and a shooting range were built on the site of the massacre. From 1991 onwards, Babyn Ya was bulldozed rather than memorialised. At the end of 2020, Zelensky signed the decree creating the Babyn Yar Memorial Reserve, going some way to correcting the previous post-war presidents’ failure to honour the Nazis’ victims. On 29th September 2021, marking the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of the mass shootings and in the week leading up to 6th October, inter-faith prayers were said in Kyiv for all those who died during the Holocaust. Zelensky ended his speech by warning his audience not to think that the war in the Donbas was a matter concerning only Russia and Ukraine…

“… For Nazism begins with the violation of international law, with the violation of human rights, with murders and imprisonments. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said ‘The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.’ “

Zelensky, p. 31

In his Address on the Day of Dignity and Freedom made in Kyiv on 21 November 2021, Zelensky spoke of the terror of the Soviet era. Vasyl Stus (1938-85) was a Ukrainian poet and dissident who responded to the wave of arrests of creative young people across Ukraine by staging a protest at the premiére of Sergei Parajanov’s film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, referred to above. He rose to his feet and called on everyone who opposed the arrests to do the same. A few people did so, then a few more, and then even more. Snus knew that by this act he might lose his freedom, but he also knew that if he didn’t, he would certainly lose his dignity. Leonid Bykov, the Soviet Ukrainian actor and film director (1928-79) wanted to film his masterpiece, Only ‘Old Men’ Are Going into Battle in colour, but the authorities would only give him black-and-white film to make it with. He did not lose his dignity but made a film that is adored by millions, a film about people who are dignified and free. They are, Zelensky said, like those who stood on Maidan Square in the uprisings of 1990, 2004 and 2014 and like those holding the trenches in eastern Ukraine, defending our state. They are ‘lads’ from western Ukraine and from the southeast; Russian speakers from Kharkiv and Kryvi Rih, Ukrainian speakers from Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk; Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Zelensky’s Political Strategy, 2021-22 – ‘No Exit’:

Zelensky’s approach to politics was similarly distinct from that of his predecessors since he chose not to exploit regional and linguistic differences in the way many previous politicians had done. Instead, he chose to exploit what people had in common; a desire for dignity, normality and a rejection of state centralisation of power under the old élites. This may have been populism of a sort, but Zelensky was far more than simply another Eastern European populist. One of his favourite quotes in 2021 was:

“I have been impetuous in my drive for change, but I am not the kind of person who starts off with an exit strategy.

Ostrovsky, pp. xv-xvii

Ostrovsky, ‘Russia and Eastern Europe Editor’ of The Economist wrote that when he first met Zelensky in Kyiv at the end of 2021, the President seemed to him as out of place in the Stalinist era halls as he was as out of his depth, taking on a system that would almost certainly demolish him. The journalist could not, at that stage, have imagined him as a war leader.

At 12.30 a.m. on 24th February, Zelensky delivered an Address to the Ukrainian and Russian people from Kyiv. He declared a state of emergency for thirty days across the whole of Ukraine, a decision already supported by 335 deputies of the Parliament. A ‘great defensive coalition’ had begun its work. Parliament also adopted a package of measures to finance the defence sector. The next day, the deputies would depart the capital for the regions to support their constituents. International partners were mobilising to support Ukraine while Zelensky met with the representatives of major Ukrainian businesses, who all pledged to remain in the country with their teams and to work to protect the country. He then switched to Russian and addressed the citizens of Russia on the other side of the two-thousand-kilometre border, along which the two-hundred-thousand-strong invasion force was massed with thousands of military vehicles:

“Your leaders have given approval for them to step into the territory of another country. This step could mark the beginning of a huge war on the European continent.

“Today, the whole world is talking about what will happen next. Any provocation – any spark – could burn everything to the ground. You are told that this flame will bring freedom to the people of Ukraine. But the Ukrainian people are already free. We remember our past, and we are building our future ourselves: building it, not destroying it, despite what you are told every day on the television. …

“The Ukraine in your news and the Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries. And the main difference is that ours exists.

“You are told that we are Nazis. How can a country that gave more than eight million lives in the struggle against Nazism support Nazism? How could I be a Nazi? Tell that to my grandfather. He went through the war fighting as an infantryman for the Soviet Army, and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine.

You are told that we hate Russian culture. How is it possible to hate a culture? Neighbours always enrich each other culturally. But that does not make us a single entity; it does not dissolve us into you. We are different. But that is no reason to be enemies. We merely want to create our history ourselves: peacefully, calmly, honestly.”

Zelensky, pp. 49-50.

The claim that Ukraine could present a threat to Russia was dismissed by Zelensky, pointing out that this was not considered the case in the past, that it was not the case at present and would not be so in the future. The truth was that while Russia demanded security guarantees from NATO, it was not prepared to honour its own guarantees of Ukrainian security given in the Budapest Memorandum along with the US, the UK and France. Ukraine was not a member of NATO, though its security was connected to that of its neighbours who are, most notably Poland. That was why, he said, was why it was necessary to talk about the security of the whole of Europe. Of course, Zelensky knew that his last-minute appeal for peace would not be shown on Russian television, but he hoped that the citizens of Russia might see it because this situation needs to end before it is too late.

The Thirteen Days: Leaders in War and Peace, February-March 2022:

But it was already well past midnight in Moscow, both metaphorically and literally, and too late already, as just four hours later, at 4.30 a.m. in Kyiv on 24th February, the Russian Army crossed into Ukraine from the North and advanced in the East. Over the previous year, Putin had amassed well over a hundred thousand troops along the country’s borders with both Russia and Belorussia, demanding that Ukraine renounce its sovereignty and give up its aspiration to join the EU. Later that morning, at 6 a.m., by which time all Ukrainians were already wide awake, having been woken up by the Russian barrage of cruise missiles, the President gave another address, this time exclusively to his own people. Explosions had been heard in many Ukrainian cities, and martial law had been introduced across the country. Zelensky also reported on his phone call with President Biden, who had already started to gather international support for the Ukrainians. Much of the USA was still awake, of course. After admonishing his people not to panic and assuring them that the whole military, defence and security forces were working to protect them, Zelensky went to prepare an address for the rest of Europe, which he delivered the next day.

In this, he was critical of the slowness of Europe’s response to Russia’s full-scale invasion. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand had introduced sectoral sanctions against Russia – namely against the largest Russian banks and businesses, and against Russia’s access to Western technologies. But Russian tanks were still shooting at residential blocks and armoured vehicles were still attacking civilians. Europe, said Zelensky, had sufficient force to stop this aggression: What more would it do? Would it cancel visas for Russians? Would it cut Russia off from SWIFT, the international payments system used by most banks, recall ambassadors, agree to an oil embargo, and impose a no-fly zone? All of these should be on the table, he said, because Russia is a threat to all of us; to all of Europe.

Most observers assumed that the Ukrainian military, massively outnumbered, would buckle and that the régime in Kyiv would collapse. But the war did not play out as Putin expected it would, and in the days and weeks following, Ukraine fought back and halted the advance. Far from fleeing the country, Zelensky stayed in Kyiv and assumed a new role: delivering daily addresses that powerfully captured the resilience and strength of his people. And with his speech to the UK Parliament on 8th March, Zelensky opened a new front in Ukraine’s war with Russia: a communication front. Over the next six months, he delivered over a hundred speeches to audiences around the world. Everywhere from the US Congress to the Israeli Knesset, Zelensky emphasised the need for the world to offer military aid to Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia. Along the way, he gave the Ukrainian people an unprecedented voice on the world stage. In his speech to Westminster, delivered to a packed House of Commons by video link, Zelensky recalled the first thirteen days of the war in Ukraine:

On the second day, we fought off attacks in the air, on land and at sea. Our heroic border guards on Zminyi Island in the Black Sea showed everyone how the war will end. When a Russian ship demanded that our guys lay down their weapons, they answered him with – well, an answer so firm, that one cannot repeat it in Parliament. In that moment, we felt strong. It was the strength of a people who will resist the invader to the end.”

Zelensky, p. 66.

On the sixth day, Russian missiles hit Babyn Yar, where the Nazis had murdered over a hundred thousand people, Putin dishonouring their memories by hitting them for a second time. On the seventh day, the Russian forces began hitting churches, and on the eighth day, they began firing at a nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. That was when the world began to understand that this was an act of great terror against the whole of the continent. On the ninth day, a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly ended without the agreement and display of courage Ukraine was looking for. It demonstrated that the Atlantic Alliance was not working, since it could not impose a no-fly zone. It has not yet done so, nearly a year later. Zelensky believed that this demonstrated that the security guarantees in Europe would need to be re-established from their foundations. On the eleventh day, children, cities and hospitals were hit by rockets and children even had to be evacuated from a cancer ward. On the thirteenth day, a child died of dehydration in the besieged city of Mariupol, because the Russian forces had cut off the supplies of food and water. In these first thirteen days, fifty children had been killed. Zelensky concluded his summary of events with the following memorable statement:

We were not looking for this war. Ukraine did not seek greatness. But over these last thirteen days, Ukraine has become great. Ukraine: a country that is saving lives despite the terror of the occupiers. A country that is defending freedom despite the blows of one of the biggest armies in the world. And a country that is defendng itself, despite its sky still being open to Russian missiles, planes and helicopters.”

Zelensky, pp. 68-69.

Finally, he added some words to those of Winston Churchill of 1940:

“We shall fight on the spoil tips, on the banks of the Kalmius and the Dnieper. We shall never surrender.”

Zelensky, p. 69.

Just over a week after this Churchillian speech to the UK Parliament, Zelensky went on to address the US Congress, also via video link. He made reference to the 7th of December 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the 11th of September 2001…

“… when evil tried to turn your cities into a battlefield… when innocent people were attacked from the air, in a way nobody expected and nobody could stop.”

Ibid., p. 70.

The Ukrainian President said that every night for the past three weeks Russia had transformed the sky over Ukraine into a place of death, claiming the lives of thousands and that Russian troops had already fired more than a thousand missiles at his country, and countless bombs. He again raised the issue of a no-fly zone and also asked for defensive weapons and aircraft. He then spoke in English, directly addressing President Biden both as a fellow president and as the leader of the free world:

“Today, I am almost forty-five years old. And in the weeks leading up to today, the hearts of more than one hundred children have stopped beating. I see no sense in my life if it cannot prevent death. … You are the leader of a great nation. I wish you to be leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means being the leader in peace.”

Ibid., p. 73
The Ides of March: Ukraine stabbed in the back?

Next, on 17th March, Zelensky made an address to the German Bundestag in Berlin via video link. He told it that it was behaving as if Germany was behind a wall again, not the Berlin Wall, but another metaphorical wall in central Europe, one between freedom and slavery. This wall, he said, was growing stronger with each bomb falling on Ukraine, and with every decision that was not made by governments in the name of peace. He claimed that Ukraine had warned Germany, under Angela Merkel, that Nord Stream, the gas pipelines connecting Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, was a weapon being built in preparation for a great war, but they had been told by Berlin that it was about nothing more than ‘the economy’. But, he said, it was cement for a new wall. He also reminded his listeners that Germany had opposed Ukraine being considered for NATO membership and delayed the beginning of Ukraine’s EU accession process. Germany also, at first, had resisted preventative sanctions against Russia in the name of supporting its own economy and trade routes. So he was addressing the Bundestag on behalf of the residents of Mariupol, a city that Russian troops had blockaded and raised to the ground. As the graph below shows, Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled gas giant was supplying more than a third of all of Europe’s gas via pipeline, making huge profits which went primarily to financing Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Financial Times, 8th April 2020

He asked the Bundestag members to recall what the Berlin Airlift meant to the city’s citizens, preventing it from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. It was made possible because the skies were first made ‘safe’. The sky over Ukraine offered up only Russian missiles and bombs for as long as the western allies refused to put a ‘no-fly zone’ in place. After the destruction of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Donbas for the second time in eighty years, Ukraine needed all the support Germany could offer. Otherwise, he added, Germany’s historic responsibility for World War II would go unredeemed. He concluded with a reference to Ronald Reagan’s historic visit to Berlin at the beginning of the end of the Cold War and his call to ‘Mr. Gorbachev’ to ‘tear down this wall’. He would tell Chancellor Scholz the same, and to ‘give Germans the leadership they deserve.’

On 20th March 2022, the Ukrainian President turned his attention to the Israeli Knesset. In his speech to it, again by video link, he pointed to the similarity between the two states in facing neighbours who threatened the total destruction of a people and culture. They even wanted to deprive both nations of their names: Ukraine, and Israel. The Russian full-scale invasion of 24th February was begun by a criminal order beginning a treacherous war, aimed at destroying a whole people. Its goal was clearly to eliminate Ukrainian families, including their children, the state of Ukraine, its cities, communities, and culture. Russian troops were doing this deliberately in order to send Putin’s message to the world. The words ‘final solution’ had returned to the European lexicon, and the term ‘Ukrainian issue’ had replaced the term ‘Jewish issue’. These were the words and phrases coming out of Moscow. They were used openly, at an official meeting in Moscow, the minutes of which were published online and quoted in Russian state media. They said that without their ‘special military operation,’ they would not be able to ensure a ‘final solution’ to the supposed problem of Russia’s security. He called on the Knesset to help Ukraine defend itself with its missile defence systems. Yet Israel had not supplied these, neither had it imposed strong sanctions on Russia nor even put pressure on Russian businesses.

The Volunteer-in-chief:

Ostrovsky met Zelensky again in late March 2022 when his editor from The Economist travelled with him to Kyiv by train. Towns were under curfew and train lights dimmed to avoid detection. There was an eerie silence at Lviv railway station, despite it being filled with people running from the war: women with sunken eyes, too exhausted to talk; children too exhausted to cry. When Ostrovsky reached Kyiv, Zelensky spoke to him not like a commander-in-chief but like an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. He had also aged about ten years and grown a beard. He engaged in a conversation conducted in three languages:

“We are not heroes. We do our job, and we are where we are.”

Ostrovsky, p. xvii

It was clear, Ostrovsky observed, that Zelensky was not commanding the army. The generals were doing that, and he was wise enough to leave them to it. Nor was he micromanaging mayors and local communities. Everyone in Ukraine was doing what they did best, and Zelensky was no exception: he concentrated on communicating with the Ukrainian people, lobbying governments and businesses to supply arms. Ukraine had become a volunteer nation, and Zelensky was its volunteer-in-chief. He did not just appeal to politicians, but to the people who elected them.

When Putin launched his all-out war, the Russian armed forces reportedly packed their parade uniforms in their kit bags as they advanced towards Kyiv; soldiers were told that they would be welcomed with open arms and would be parading through the capital within days. Yet, at the end of March, Ukraine’s resistance had taken both Vladimir Putin and the rest of the world’s leaders by surprise. The government did not collapse and disperse, and Zelensky had not fled into exile. In many parts of the country, the Ukrainian military pushed the Russian forces back. But while life in Kyiv had returned to something resembling ‘normality’ by early April, with every new city liberated evidence of Russian war crimes mounted. This was not just a struggle of armies; it was a confrontation of values.

The Financial Times, 8th April edition.

There were large pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Berlin, Paris and London, galvanised by his addresses so that governments were compelled to go further in their support for Ukraine than anyone had thought possible. Putin has miscalculated that western governments would not sacrifice their economic prosperity for the cause of Ukrainian resistance. Zelensky delivered a message of such moral clarity and force that it left few people indifferent. His words contained something that people in the West, especially younger people, had been searching for: a sense of meaning and purpose in a post-ideological society in which liberty and prosperity had long been taken for granted by their elders. The world had not heard words of such significance since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the so-called ‘end of history’.

Vladimir Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine’s identity, culture and people was a reminder that history was far from over, and that fascism was far from dead. But Zelensky challenged Putin’s narrative for the war almost as soon as it started. There is no distinction between the words ‘history’ and ‘story’ in either Ukrainian or Russian and in his powerful speeches Zelensky recounted both: the stories of individual people and his narrative of the most deadly European conflict since the end of the Second World War. As winter gave way to spring, their references and examples would change, but Zelensky’s message stayed the same. The war now being fought in Ukraine was not a regional war for territory, like that fought by Russia for Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, or even a struggle for geopolitical hegemony. It was a war between a corrupt, nuclear state and a people who merely wished to live in peace in their own land and in their own way. It was a war between empathy and hatred, dignity and enslavement, and Zelensky argued on that basis, that it was therefore everyone’s war.

In Zelensky’s speeches from April onwards, he would emphasise how these values had brought Ukrainians together as a nation. Putin had tried to destroy a people, and he had failed. From the ruins of the war Ukraine had emerged more defiant and united than ever before. It was, genuinely, a nation reborn. But on 3rd April, he had to speak about the atrocities revealed in Bucha and the other cities from which the occupiers were expelled. Hundreds of people had been killed, and many civilians tortured and then executed. Their corpses were left lying on the streets to decompose. Landmines had been left across the city, even inside the bodies of the dead. Old people had been shot while riding home from the market on their bicycles, and others in the back of their heads, with their hands tied behind their backs. Women had been raped and then killed in front of their children. The effects of looting were visible everywhere. One woman had been strangled after her earrings were ripped out. Corpses were desecrated and crushed by tanks. Russian culture and humanity had died along with the men and women killed, Zelensky said.

Zelensky announced that he had approved the creation of a special judicial mechanism in Ukraine to investigate every crime committed by the occupiers of Ukrainian territory, drawing upon the joint efforts of national and international expert investigators, prosecutors and judges. He went on:

“The world has seen war crimes before, committed on many occasions and on many countries. But we must make the war crimes of the Russian military the last time this evil plagues the earth. Everyone guilty of such crimes will be included in a special ‘Book of Torturers’. They will be found and they will be punished.”

Zelensky, pp. 91-92.

Calls to bolster Ukraine’s defences and toughen sanctions on Russia multiplied after the evidence emerged of the atrocities carried out by Russian troops before they pulled out of Kyiv’s outskirts. The war crimes committed in Bucha and other cities were to be considered by the United Nation Security Council within a few days of Zelensky’s statement, along with a new package of sanctions against Russia. Ukrainian troops, government officials and journalists had found the corpses of hundreds of civilians, some with indications they had been tortured, and heard accounts of summary killings, rape and other human rights abuses from surviving residents. The US President, French President Emmanuel Macron and other western leaders called for an investigation of Russian officials responsible for what they called ‘war crimes’.

Zelensky was speaking on the fourteenth anniversary of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest when the members had an opportunity to remove Ukraine from ‘the grey zone’ in Eastern Europe, a zone in which Moscow thought they could do anything they liked, even committing the most horrific war crimes. During these talks about Ukraine’s accession to NATO, the Alliance concealed its intention to refuse access in order to appease Russia; to persuade Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and live peacefully with its neighbour. This was a miscalculation, Zelensky said, pointing to the fourteen years since in which Ukraine experienced a revolution rejecting Russian hegemony, followed by eight years of war in the Donbas. He invited Mrs Merkel and Mr Sarkozy to visit Bucha to see what their concessions to Russia had led to fourteen years later. While Zelensky did not blame the West for Bucha, he contrasted Ukraine’s own decisiveness with the dithering and duplicity of individual western ‘leaders’:

“But we have the right to talk about indecision and to identify the path that led us to Bucha, to Hostomel, to Kharkiv, to Mariupol.

“Fourteen years ago, in Bucharest, Russia’s leader told the West that there was no such state as Ukraine. But we have proved that there is. There has long been such a country and long will there be.”

Zelensky, p. 93

While the Kremlin continued to claim that the Bucha massacre was staged by Ukrainian forces, the western heads of Russian-owned companies began to express condemnation of the conflict and to call for investigations into the reports of war crimes:

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said that Ukraine was still demanding “a full oil and gas embargo for Russia”, adding that he hoped it would not take more allegations of war crimes to force the West to take additional measures:

“Frankly speaking, I hope we will never face a situation again when we… need atrocities like Bucha to be revealed and to impress and to shock other partners to the extent that they sit down and say ‘OK, fine, we will introduce new sanctions’ “

Quoted by John Reed in The Financial Times.

Although Russian troops retreated from the suburbs of Kyiv and the north of the country in the early spring, Ukraine’s military authorities warned in the second week of April that invading Russian troops were regrouping and preparing an offensive in the eastern Donbas region, aimed at seizing territory in the two administrative regions that separatists had partially occupied since the Moscow-backed uprising in 2014. The general staff of the armed forces said that:

“The main efforts of the occupiers are focused on preparing for an aggressive operation in eastern Ukraine, which aims to establish complete control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Quoted by John Reed in The Financial Times, April 2022.

The State of War in Eastern & South-Eastern Ukraine, April 2022. Source: The Financial Times, 8th April.

They called on the residents living in the two ‘Oblasts’ of the Donbas, as well as in parts of the Kharkiv region, to leave “while they still had the chance”. Borys Filatov, the Mayor of Dnipro, recommended the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from the city in anticipation of a flare-up of fighting in the Donbas. Zelensky also told his people as a whole that Moscow was planning an “aggressive operation in eastern Ukraine”.

FT, 8th April 2022.

Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky continued to plead with the international community to provide more military supplies and to impose tighter sanctions on Russia, saying that failure to do so would equate to giving Moscow “permission” to intensify its offensive. Washington responded by imposing its most severe sanctions on Sberbank, Russia’s biggest financial institution, and Alpha-Bank, its biggest private bank. The EU moved to target more oligarchs and ban coal imports from Russia.

Zelensky also called again on Russian citizens to demand an end to the war as it entered its seventh week. In one of his nightly addresses, he told them:

“In demanding peace, it is better to lose something, to face down the Russian repressive machine, than to be equated with Nazis for the rest of your life.”

The Financial Times, April 2022.

But Russia responded to the news of its atrocities in Bucha by claiming to its citizens that this was “fake news”, as Jemima Kelly noted in her article in The Financial Times (8th April 2022):

The President’s Easter Address, ‘God save Ukraine’, was given in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv, the site of the victory of the Kyivan Rus over the Pechenegs. He pointed out that it had stood since then and was destroyed by neither the Mongol Horde nor the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Above the mosaic of the Virgin Mary were words from the Psalms: God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed. From the very break of day, God will protect it. The image was known as the ‘Oranta’, meaning ‘the one who prays’ and Zelensky’s address mostly consisted of a long prayer for Ukraine and its people, but he also reminded the worshippers that the previous year, they had to celebrate Easter at home due to the pandemic and that this year they were afflicted by another virus: the plague of war. But, he said, the holiday offered them…

faith that light will overcome darkness; good will overcome evil; life will overcome death

Zelensky, p. 101.

On the Ukrainian Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, 8th May, commemorating the end of World War II, Zelensky delivered an address at Borodyanka, in which he said that for Ukraine, the exclamation mark in the familiar phrase Never Again! had now been replaced with a question mark. He went further in stating that Russia’s all-out war, masquerading as a ‘special operation’ had erased the word ‘never’. It had been shot through and bombed out by hundreds of missiles at 4 a.m. on the 24th of February so that all that remained was the word ‘again?!’ The small town of Borodyanka had been shelled by 250-kilogram bombs which rendered it mute within a minute, unable to say anything, let alone Never Again! In the Second World War, fifty men from the town were sent to Germany as forced labour. Other people were burned alive when the Nazis set a hundred houses on fire, and two hundred and fifty soldiers from Borodyanka died fighting fascism on the fronts. These numbers were out of a total population at the time of only a thousand. Many of the people of Ukraine were now experiencing a second occupation; for the citizens of Mariupol, it was a third. During two years of occupation, the Nazis killed ten thousand of them; in the two months following the incursion there, Russia had killed twenty thousand. Zelensky characterised this as the return of Nazism:

“A bloody reconstruction of Nazism has taken place in Ukraine. A reconstruction of the old ideas, actions, words and symbols. A reconstruction of its atrocities and its attempts to imbue evil with some legitimate purpose. … It aims to set a new record for xenophobia, hatred and racism, and for the number of victims it can harm. ”

Zelensky, p. 105.

The truth, he stated, was understood by all those countries who endured the Second World War, and who support Ukraine today:

“The Poles have not forgotten how evil first accuses you, calls you an aggressor, and then attacks at 4 a.m. while calling it self-defence. … When they recall the Nazi-destroyed Warsaw, and they see what was done to Mariupol, they remember.

“The British have not forgotten how the Nazis wiped out Coventry, … bombed forty-one times. They have not forgotten the Luftwaffe’s so-called ‘Moonlight Sonata’, in which the city was under contant air-raids for eleven hours. They have not forgotten how Coventry’s historic centre, how its factories, how St Michael’s Cathedral were destroyed. When they see the missiles hit Kharkiv and damage its historic centre, its factories and the Assumption Cathedral, they remember. … when they recall how Birmingham was bombed, and they see its sister city Zaporizhzhia under attack, they remember.”

Ibid., pp. 106-7

He concluded:

The Reckoning, Retrenchment & Revival of Summer:

By mid-summer, the EU had moved to cut the consumption of Russian gas among member states, including Germany and excluding Hungary, and the UK agreed to send more weapons to Ukraine. Other NATO countries soon followed suit, but these did not include planes and missiles, and NATO still refused to implement a no-fly zone.

Pages from the ‘i’ paper, c. 21st July 2022

Exactly six months after Russia’s all-out attack, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, there were Russian tanks in the centre of Kyiv: burned out and mangled ones. This ‘reverse’ display of destroyed Russian armour was a parade of Ukraine’s defiance, not to mention its sense of humour. Students and scientists, musicians and actors, teachers and doctors, engineers and farmers come together with the military. They had halted what was supposed to be the world’s second-strongest army, literally in the tracks of its tanks and armoured vehicles. They had also sent the flagship of the Russian fleet to the bottom of the Black Sea and had mastered the M270 MLRS and the US HIMARS system in under a week. In his speech on 24th August, Zelensky declared defiantly that he would not reach an understanding with the terrorists. Looking forward to the day when he could sit around the negotiating table, he promised that…

“… it will not be because of fear, with a gun pointed at our head. Because for us, the most terrible steel is not within missiles, aircraft and tanks – but in shackles. We would rather live in trenches than live in chains. …

“We do not bargain away our lands and our people. Ukraine means all of Ukraine. All twenty-five regions, without any ‘concessions’ or ‘compromises’. We no longer recognise such words. They were destroyed by missiles on 24 February.

“Donbas is Ukraine. And it will return to us, whatever the path may be. Crimea is Ukraine. And it will return to us …

Zelensky, p. 117.

Zelensky’s speech on that day marked a turning point in the war. Ukraine no longer wanted peace with Russia, he said. It wanted victory. In the weeks that followed that day, Ukrainian forces launched an impressive counter-offensive, liberating more territory in a few days than Russia had managed to take in the previous five months. Putin, desperate and humiliated, lashed out at Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and threatened a nuclear strike. The rhetorical power of Zelensky’s address came from the quality that has defined so many of his speeches: truth.

In October 2022, President Zelensky wrote in To Change the Past, his introduction to his book of speeches, of the thousands of lives already taken by the war unleashed by Russia:

“If only we could change the past. There is so much I would give up in an instant. The acclaim and admiration from around the world. I would prefer that when people heard the name Zelensky, they replied ‘Who?’ I would rather I had never heard the applause of the US Congress, the British House of Commons or the European Parliament – and that Ukrainians had never heard the sound of explosion or gunshots in our homeland.

” … I would rather it wasn’t my face on the cover of TIME magazine … I would give up every mention of my name in the global press, every re-post on social media …

all I feel is my heart breaking for the thousands killed in Bucha and Izyum …”

Zelensky, p. 2.

In this article, I have tried to provide a simple narrative of the history and culture of Ukraine before the Russian invasion to enable an understanding of how the war has changed Ukraine and why. In order to understand the events of the past year, it is essential to place them, not just in the context of the past three years of Zelensky’s presidency, nor even the nine years since the first incursions in Crimea and Donbas, but in that of the previous 1,500 years of Ukraine’s history.


Volodymyr Zelensky (2022), A Message from Ukraine: Speeches, 2019-22. London: Hutchinson Heinemann (Penguin Random House).

Oleksandr Bilousko (2017), Ukraine: Nature, Traditions, Culture. Kyiv: Baltia Druk Publishers.

István Lázár (1990), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers.

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