Big Frontier: How Ukraine Emerged from European Borderlands

October 9, 2020

The first "Ukraine in 2 Minutes" video explains how Ukraine has emerged from being a European borderland into a genuinely European country.


The name of Ukraine, a big European country, has various roots. According to some, it derives from "borderland" or simply "land".

Historically, parts of the territory which is now Ukraine were once the borderlands of the great Eurasian Steppe.

Let's listen to Serhiy Plokhy, a famous Ukrainian historian, head of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, the author of The Gates of Europe and numerous other books about Ukrainian history.

This is what Plokhy told UkraineWorld in his interview published in our book Ukraine in Histories and Stories:

"The toponym "Ukraine" is used in the 12th century Kyiv Chronicle, a sequel to the Povist Vremennykh Lit (Tale of Bygone Years) [an old Kyiv chronicle of the 11th-12th centuries -- Ed.]. It meant a part of modern-day Ukraine located at the edge of the steppe.

It is interesting that this term was also used in translated religious and Biblical texts. For example, these texts mentioned a Palestinian "Ukraine". In both cases, the word "Ukraine" meant a border between settled and nomadic lands: steppes in the Ukrainian context, desert in the Palestinian context.

In both cases, the word "Ukraine" meant a border between settled and nomadic lands.

The best word [to describe the origins of Ukraine] would probably be "frontier" - it is an English word that originates from the French "frontière". A frontier is not just a border, not a line; it is rather all territory adjoining it from both sides.

A frontier forms its specific "ethos". In the Ukrainian context, the frontier creates a separate social group: kozaky, Cossacks.

Cossacks existed throughout the entire steppe border from the River Danube to the River Amur. But it was the Ukrainian part of this community that grew sufficiently strong to be able to try and create its own state.

During the medieval era the term "Ukraine" was the name of a territory, not related to any social or state structures.

Ukraine [as a state structure] arises in the second half of the 17th century, after Bohdan Khmelnytsky's rebellion [a Cossack rebellion in the Rzeczpospolita that took place in the mid-17th century -- Ed.]. This word was then used to designate the Cossack state, or Hetmanate. 

Cossacks, and particularly Cossack hetmans, took the place of the remnants of the princely class [i.e. families of kniazi: princes from the medieval Kyivan Rus -- Ed.]. This process ended in the 17th century.

"Cossack" is a Turkic word. It means all I have mentioned earlier: a warrior, a guard, a plunderer and so on.

The emergence of the Cossacks is a phenomenon of the steppe, of the steppe frontier.

The emergence of the Cossacks is a phenomenon of the steppe, of the steppe frontier. Because if you look at the first maps --- the ones from the early 17th century --- such as the Radziwill map from 1614, you will see that the Cossacks lived in no-man's land. They lived on islands. They lived in the steppe, yet they weren't nomads".

The history of Ukraine developed in this tension between nomadic and sedentary cultures. This tension carried on from antiquity through the Middle Ages, and even into modern times.

Let's listen to the analysis of Yaroslav Hrytsak, another famous Ukrainian historian, in his essay published in Ukraine in Histories and Stories*:

"During the literate period, the first mention about this land was left by Herodotus. In his History he devoted an entire volume to describing Scythia, the Black Sea steppe. The population of that steppe, a belligerent nomadic tribe of the Scythians, managed to do the same as ancient Greeks: to repel an attack by a large Persian army led by Darius. When writing about the Scythians, Herodotus also described farming tribes living to the north of them -- the ploughing Scythians. We do not know for sure who these tribes were. However, the Scythian steppe cut their lands from the grain markets of Antiquity. It is assumed that only after the Scythians disappeared did farming become the main type of production, and pushed animal husbandry and nomadism into the background.

The situation described by Herodotus illustrates one of the main features of local history up to the late 18th century -- a fight between agrarian people and nomadic tribes for control over the black soil's wealth. The black soil belt coincided in the main with the large steppe that started in Manchuria and Mongolia and stretched right across the entire Eurasian Continent to the south of the forest zone up to the Pannonian Plain (contemporary Hungary). That steppe served as an arterial highway for nomadic tribes travelling from East to West. Some of them appeared and disappeared without trace. Others were able to find shelter in their newly-found homeland, giving their own name to it -- like Bulgaria or Hungary. But in every case they were going through the territory of contemporary Ukraine and leaving their trace on it".

The tension between nomadic and sedentary cultures continued in the early modern era, when Ukrainian Cossacks have started colonizing the steppe. Yaroslav Hrytsak says:

"Ukrainian Cossacks settled on the lands that were hardest to reach. We know about this from Byzantian manuscripts: the lands beyond the Dnipro rapids, on the former road "from the Varangians to the Greeks", on the boundary with the "wild steppe". They were people with backgrounds from the whole of Europe -- from Scotland in the West to the Urals in the East, from Scandinavia in the North to the Peloponnese Peninsula in the South. But the majority (nearly 80%) of Cossacks came from the lands of Rzeczpospolita. And a large part of them were escaping from serfdom.

The lands beyond the Dnipro rapids, on the former road "from the Varangians to the Greeks", on the boundary with the "wild steppe".

Cossacks introduced a new section in the general history of rivalry between settled and nomadic people. Cossacks, although they appeared from agrarian lands, were actually engaged in the same activities as nomadic people -- cattle breeding and robbery. In order to defeat a stronger enemy, they learnt war skills. That is why by their appearance and habits they were difficult to differentiate from nomads. However, there was one uncrossable line between them, and this was religion. Since Biblical times, the difference between agricultural and nomadic people was expressed in an archetypal opposition between Cain and Abel. In the early Medieval era, this difference acquired a different dimension: agricultural people adopted Christianity; nomadic people adopted Islam. Therefore, robbery by Cossacks was legitimized through the religious idea: they were not simply robbing -- they were doing it for the sake of their faith. Nomads did the same, like in a mirror. Crimean Tatars and their suzerain, the Ottoman Empire, tried to expand the territories of Islam. They also regularly organized campaigns against Christian lands for robbery and kidnapping of people: slaves were one of the best-sellers on Muslim markets.

As a result of this, the Cossacks and their lands (Ukraine) turned into a powerful symbol that captured the imagination of contemporaries and subsequent generations.

As a result of this, the Cossacks and their lands (Ukraine) turned into a powerful symbol that captured the imagination of contemporaries and subsequent generations. This symbol was based on two oppositions: freedom or slavery, and friend (Orthodox Christians) or foe (Muslims, Catholics, Hebrews). The role of the latter opposition became especially prominent when a wave of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants rolled over Western Europe in the 16th-17th centuries. A lot of Protestants found rescue in escaping to the eastern outskirts of Rzeczpospolita, which at that time enjoyed the glory of a state with a tolerant attitude towards religion. Protestants were persecuted by Jesuits, the striking force of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. They were able to cope with local Protestants quite easily and bring Poland back into the fold of Catholicism. However, in all of the eastern part of Rzeczpospolita they encountered another type of "improper" Christians -- Orthodox Christians. Attempts by Jesuits to convert Rus' people into Catholicism evoked great resistance. As in the case with Cossacks and nomads, the elite of the threatened Orthodox Christians learnt how to use the weapon of the Jesuits: education and books. The Rus' community became the tribe that began to read and, even more so, to write books. This movement engrossed even Cossack chiefs and their children.

Involvement in the book culture became something that distinguished Ukrainian Cossacks from Russian ones, those from Yaik (Ural) or Don. Formally, they all resembled each other. They were military formations on the boundary between the agrarian and nomadic worlds. However, Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks became different precisely because Ukrainian Cossacks became a "book-reading tribe". They did so not because they wanted to but because they were forced to do so by the circumstances. It is difficult to imagine a Yaik or Don Cossack who graduated from a college or even a university and could read Latin. But such educated colonels were not a rarity among senior Ukrainian Cossack officers.

Ukrainian Cossacks became the center of modern Ukrainian identity.

Ukrainian Cossacks became the center of modern Ukrainian identity. To quote Ukrainian publicist Anatolii Streliany, one could say that it is easy to write the history of Russia without Cossacks, but it is impossible to write the history of Ukraine without Cossacks. On the other hand, the Cossack phenomenon distinguished Ukrainian history from Belarusian history. Belarusian lands did not have black soil, they were not neighbors with the steppe and, therefore, they were not influenced by the factors mentioned above.

In any case, the Cossack era marked the beginning of the transformation of Rus' into Ukraine. A Cossack rebellion led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648-1657) was the peak of this transformation. That rebellion fundamentally changed the geopolitical order in this part of the world. It tore off a significant part of Rus' land from the rule of the Polish Crown and made it part of the neighboring Moscow Tsardom".

Throughout history, various states formed the basis of today's Ukrainian statehood. Ukrainian lands were often turned into battlefields between foreign forces from North and South, East and West.

They turned into bloodlands, to use Timothy Snyder's concept, during the struggle between European empires in World War I and between the Nazi and the Soviet totalitarian regimes during World War II.

These clashes left tragic wounds, but they also created cultural crossroads in Ukraine - between different ethnicities, languages, religions and historical memories. Though Ukraine emerged from borderlands shared by many cultures and polities, it now feels part of Europe.

The Maidan revolutions of 2004-2005 and 2013-2014 showed that the European values of dignity and freedom extended across its territory, and that Ukraine has emerged from being a European borderland into a genuinely European country.


"Ukraine in 2 Minutes" is the joint project by Internews Ukraine, UkraineWorld, and the Ukrainian Institute. Within the project, we will present ten animated videos in English that refute stereotypes about Ukraine and explain key highlights of its history and culture.

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