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Serfs sought refuge with the Cossacks, free men who lived by raiding, hunting, and fishing at the southeastern edge of the steppe, in the no-man’s-land between Polish and Ottoman power. They built their fortress, or Sich, on an island in the middle of the Dnipro River, not far from the present-day city that bears the river’s name. In wartime, thousands of Cossacks fought as contract soldiers in the Polish army. When Cossacks fought as infantry and the Polish nobility as cavalry, the Polish army rarely lost. In the early seventeenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe, and even briefly took Moscow. It was a republic of nobles, in which every nobleman was represented in parliament. In practice, of course, some noblemen were more powerful than others, and the wealthy magnates of Ukraine were among the most important citizens of the commonwealth. Cossacks wanted to be ennobled, or at least to have fixed legal rights within the commonwealth. This was not granted them.

In 1648, these tensions brought rebellion. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was about to undertake a campaign against the Ottoman Empire. The Cossacks who were preparing to take the field against the Ottomans instead found a leader, Bohdan Khmelnyts’kyi, who persuaded them to rebel against local polonized landlords. Knowing that he needed allies, Khmelnyts’kyi recruited the Tatars, to whom he offered local Ukrainian Christians as slaves. When the Tatars deserted him, he needed a new ally, and Moscow was the only one he could find. There was nothing fated about this alliance. The Cossacks and the Muscovites both saw themselves as inheritors of Rus, but they had no common language and needed translators to communicate. Though a rebel, Khmelnyts’kyi was a child of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation, whose languages were Ukrainian, Polish, and Latin (but not Russian). The Cossacks were accustomed to legal contracts binding on both parties. They saw as a temporary arrangement what the Muscovite side regarded as permanent subjugation to the tsar. In 1654, Muscovy invaded the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1667, the lands that are now Ukraine were split along the Dnipro River, with the Cossack strongholds falling to Muscovy. The status of Kyiv was at first uncertain, but it too was ceded to Muscovy.

Muscovy now turned westward after its long Asian career. The city of Kyiv had existed for about eight hundred years without a political connection to Moscow. Kyiv had passed through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, as a European metropolis. Once joined to Muscovy, its academy became the major institution of higher learning in the realm, which after 1721 was known as the Russian Empire. Kyiv’s educated men filled the professional classes of Moscow and then St. Petersburg. The Cossacks were assimilated into the Russian imperial armed forces. Empress Catherine took a Cossack lover and deployed the Cossacks to conquer the Crimean Peninsula. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Russian Empire partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth out of existence, with the help of Prussia and the Habsburg monarchy. In this way, almost all of the ancient lands of Rus became part of the new Russian Empire.

In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial integration called forth a Ukrainian patriotic reaction. The Russian imperial university in Kharkiv was the first center of a Romantic tendency to idealize the local peasant and his culture. In mid-century Kyiv, a few members of ancient noble families began to identify with the Ukrainian-speaking peasantry rather than with Russian or Polish power. At first, Russian rulers saw in these tendencies a laudable interest in “south Russian” or “little Russian” culture. After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–1856 and a Polish uprising of 1863–1864, Russian imperial authorities defined Ukrainian culture as a political danger, and banned publications in the Ukrainian language. The Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with their echoes of the ancient law of Rus, lost their force. The traditional place of Kyiv as the center of eastern Orthodoxy was assumed by Moscow. The Uniate Church, formed in 1596 with an eastern liturgy but a western hierarchy, was abolished.

The one land of Rus that remained outside the Russian Empire was Galicia. When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been partitioned out of existence at the end of the eighteenth century, Habsburg rulers ended up with these territories. As a Habsburg crownland, Galicia preserved certain features of Rus civilization, such as the Uniate Church. The Habsburg monarchy renamed it “Greek Catholic” and educated its priests in Vienna. Children and grandchildren of these men became Ukrainian national activists, editors of newspapers, and candidates to parliament. When the Russian Empire restricted Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian writers and activists moved to Galicia. After 1867, the Habsburg monarchy had a liberal constitution and a free press, so these political immigrants had the freedom to continue Ukrainian work. Austria held democratic elections, so party politics became national politics throughout the monarchy. Refugees from the Russian Empire defined Ukrainian politics and history as a matter of a continuous culture and language rather than imperial power. As for the peasants themselves, the vast bulk of the population that spoke the Ukrainian language was mainly concerned with owning land.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, a Ukrainian government declared independence. Yet unlike other east European peoples, Ukrainians were unable to form a state. No Ukrainian claim was recognized by the powers that won the First World War. Kyiv changed hands a dozen times among the Red Army, its White Russian opponents, a Ukrainian army, and the Polish army. Beleaguered Ukrainian authorities made an alliance with newly independent Poland, and together the Polish and Ukrainian armies took Kyiv in May 1920. When the Red Army counterattacked, Ukrainian soldiers fought alongside Poles all the way back to Warsaw. But when Poland and Bolshevik Russia signed their peace treaty at Riga in 1921, the lands that Ukrainian activists saw as theirs were divided: almost all of what had been in the Russian Empire fell to the emerging Soviet Union, whereas Galicia and another western district, Volhynia, fell to Poland. This was not exceptional but hypertypical. A Ukrainian nation-state lasted months, whereas its western neighbors lasted years, but the lesson was the same, and best learned from the Ukrainian example: the nation-state was difficult and in most cases untenable.

Ukrainian history brings into focus a central question of modern European history: After empire, what? According to the fable of the wise nation, European nation-states learned a lesson from war and began to integrate. For this myth to make sense, nation-states must be imagined into periods when in fact they did not exist. The fundamental event of the middle of the European twentieth century has to be removed: the attempts by Europeans to establish empires within Europe itself. The crucial case is the failed German attempt to colonize Ukraine in 1941. The rich black earth of Ukraine was at the center of the two major European neoimperial projects of the twentieth centry, the Soviet and then the Nazi. In this respect as well, Ukrainian history is hypertypical and therefore indispensible. No other land attracted as much colonial attention within Europe. This reveals the rule: European history turns on colonization and decolonization.

Joseph Stalin understood the Soviet project as self-colonization. Since the Soviet Union had no overseas possessions, it had to exploit its hinterlands. Ukraine was therefore to yield its agricultural bounty to Soviet central planners in the First Five-Year Plan of 1928–1933. State control of agriculture killed between three and four million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine by starvation. Adolf Hitler saw Ukraine as the fertile territory that would transform Germany into a world power. Control of its black earth was his war aim. As a result of the German occupation that began in 1941, more than three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were killed, including about 1.6 million Jews murdered by the Germans and local policemen and militias. In addition to those losses, some three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat as Red Army soldiers. Taken together, some ten million people were killed in a decade as a result of two rival colonizations of the same Ukrainian territory.