The country's geographic position on the southwestern border of the Soviet Union clearly gave it a vital role during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, Ukrainians had the distinction of being the largest European population without an independent state. It is impossible to understand the role of Ukraine and the Ukrainians during the Cold War without at least some passing reference to pre–Cold War Ukrainian history. The most important aspects of this relevant to the Cold War period include Ukraine's position as a battleground of empires and ideas and the country's long and often troubled association with Russia. During the 1917 Russian Revolutions and ensuing civil war, Ukrainians attempted to establish an independent state, which was ultimately defeated by the Bolsheviks. Ukrainian lands were thereby divided between Poland and the newly established Soviet Union in the early 1920s.
The political, economic, and social upheavals of the revolutionary era in Ukraine were followed by the forced collectivization of agriculture under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, which resulted in a devastating man-made famine that claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians during 1932–1933. This demographic and humanitarian disaster was then quickly succeeded by extensive purges of the Ukrainian Communist Party, which led to further population losses especially among the educated elite.
In September 1939, in the wake of the German invasion of Poland and in accordance with the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin moved Soviet forces into eastern Poland, which was largely inhabited by Ukrainians and Belarusians. Ukrainians suffered tremendously during the war, and Ukraine became one of the major sites for the extermination of European Jewry during the Holocaust. The reunification of the two parts of Ukraine under Soviet rule in 1939 was made permanent at the end of World War II when the Western Allies accepted Stalin's plan to move Poland's border with Germany significantly west to compensate for the loss of western Ukraine and western Belarus.
Ukrainian resistance to both Nazi and Soviet rule during the war, led by both the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA), continued well into the 1950s, until a combination of internal friction and Soviet countermeasures resulted in the defeat of the insurgents. Polish and Soviet armed forces undertook extensive anti-insurgency operations, which were accompanied by ethnic cleansing throughout the border regions.
Ukraine figured prominently in the early stages of the Cold War, as Stalin attempted to ensure a large Soviet presence at the newly created United Nations (UN). Despite Western refusal to allow Stalin's demand that each of the Soviet republics enjoy individual representation at the UN, Ukraine and Belarus were granted seats in the UN General Assembly. Ukrainian diplomats were completely subordinated to the policies laid down by the Soviet leadership in Moscow, however.
Throughout the 1950s, the Ukrainian Diaspora, many Ukranians had become refugees during World War II, attempted to draw attention to the situation in their homeland, most notably through the founding of the Anti–Bolshevik Bloc of Nations (ABN), which had ties to other organizations representing the subject nationalities of the Soviet Union.
During the late 1940s and the 1950s, Ukraine underwent extensive social, political, and economic change. Shifting borders, enormous loss of life, and extensive wartime destruction of both the industrial and agricultural infrastructure created difficult living conditions in the Ukrainian countryside as well as in the major cities. Nevertheless, by the 1960s Ukraine had begun to recover economically, and living standards were on the rise. Politically, however, the situation in Ukraine remained tense, especially in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which quashed the Prague Spring and increased Ukrainian dissatisfaction with Soviet rule. An active dissident movement opposed to Soviet rule developed in Ukraine, and many activists were arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in the gulags.
By the 1970s, Ukrainian political, social, and economic life mirrored trends elsewhere in the Soviet Union and also suffered under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's Era of Stagnation. A Brezhnev loyalist, Volodymir Shcherbitsky, replaced the leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Petro Shelest, and restored obedience to Moscow. This state of affairs continued well into the 1980s, until the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985. A major catalyst for change in Ukraine was the April 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the north of the country near the border with Belarus. The immediate impact of Chernobyl was to irradiate large parts of the surrounding area and its population, creating a human and environmental tragedy of unprecedented proportions. Gorbachev's failure to adequately respond to Chernobyl drew increased attention to the failings of the Soviet system. Soon, there were increased calls for dramatic reform throughout Ukraine.
As Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms developed and as people in the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, were freer to discuss the issues confronting Soviet society, a nascent democratic movement, called the Rukh National Movement for Perestroika (also known as the People's Movement), was formed in Ukraine by the Writers' Union in 1989. Rukh led the drive for reform and eventually Ukrainian independence. Shcherbitsky was removed as leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party and was replaced by Leonid Kravchuk, who went on to become Ukraine's first president. In the March 1990 Supreme Soviet elections, Rukh and its allies did relatively well at the polls. By July 1990, the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, in defiance of Moscow and the central Soviet authorities, declared the economic and political sovereignty of Ukraine. This tense and anomalous situation of being a sovereign country within the Soviet Union was finally resolved in August 1991 in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt against Gorbachev. On 24 August 1991, Ukraine declared itself fully independent.
Robert Owen Krikorian
Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.; Szporluk, Roman. Russia, Ukraine and the Breakup of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000.