The region now known as Ukraine has been inhabited for thousands of years. The earliest history records nomadic agricultural tribes, the Eastern Slavs, inhabiting the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. In ancient times, a large part of present-day Ukraine was inhabited successively by the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Goths and the Khazars.
During the Middle Ages, Ukraine came under the domination of three separate powerful empires: The Varangian Kievan Rus, which had its zenith during the 11th century; the Mongols, who conquered in the 13th century; and the Polish-Lithuanians who ruled Ukraine from the 14th to the middle of the 17th centuries. The term Ukraine, which may be translated “at the border” or “borderland,” came into general usage in the 16th century.
Many Ukrainians fled the harsh Polish rule, which included serfdom and religious persecution. Migrating east, these rebels later became known as Cossacks. In 1648 the Cossacks successfully waged a revolution against Polish domination. However, they were too weak to stand alone and in 1654 they yielded to the Suzerainty of Muscovy (Tsardom of Russia). In 1774, Empress Catherine II of Russia terminated all political autonomy and divided Ukraine into three provinces shared between Russia, Poland and Austria. The Ukrainian Orthodox church was also repressed, and many were forced to convert to Russian Orthodoxy.
By the 19th century, Protestantism had become popular, partly because the concept of salvation through faith was attractive and partly because Protestant schools were the only schools that offered affordable and effective education.
After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Czarist regime, a Ukrainian council was formed that declared Ukraine an independent state. The new Communist government, based in Moscow, rushed to extend their rule over all of the former Czarist territory, sending Soviet troops to occupy Kiev. In 1922, Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Despite Lenin’s attempt to assuage Ukrainian nationalism, his successor Josef Stalin suppressed all autonomy, imposing agricultural collectivization on Ukraine and requisitioning all grain for export. As a result, millions of Ukrainians died during the subsequent famine of 1932 – 1933.
During World War II, the peoples of the USSR suffered severe wartime devastation, becoming a battleground during the Nazi advance of 1941–42 and during the Russian advance in 1943–44. Most of Ukraine’s 1.5 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the war.
The war on religion was a core part of the ideology of the Communist regime. Church buildings were ruined, burnt down, and profaned. Christian ministers and faithful adherents, both Protestant and Catholic, were shot, arrested and deported to Siberian gulags. Church communities were persecuted, becoming confined to underground activities if not utterly destroyed. Spiritual literature was confiscated and home searches were frequent. Many evangelical Christians were banished to Siberia and deprived of all rights. With so many congregations going underground, the state began to spy on and persecute private Christian gatherings.
An Independent Nation
In August 1991, the USSR disintegrated. Ukraine and Belarus declared their independence, becoming independent states and co-founding the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). As an independent nation, however, the Ukrainian economy continued to be dominated by huge, inefficient state-run companies and did not improve significantly. The legacy of communist economic collectivization still impacts this region today.
The waning of Soviet power in the late 1980s led to a lessening of Christian persecution. With the formation of a newly independent and free Ukraine, many new evangelical churches formed. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church also emerged from the underground and communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were created in 1989. The declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1991 created a new context for the activities of all the churches in the region.