The Ukraine: A History

Monument to Vladimir the Great
Monument to Vladimir the Great

Russia was founded in the Ukraine. It was founded in the Ukraine (NA UKRAEENYE), not in Ukraine (V UKRAEENYE) not once, but twice, and both times for the same reason. Russia is not a word in Russian or any other Slavic language. The Rus were a subgroup of the Varangians, known today more commonly as Vikings. The lands that the Rus first occupied in today’s northwest Russia were rich with wildlife, fish and game, and they were close to the Rus ancestral homelands in Scandinavia, but they had no clearly defined and defensible borders and when, in the 9th century the Rus came under sustained attack form their better equipped and better organized neighbors in today’s Lithuania and northeast Poland, a few notable victories notwithstanding, they had to flee south to the wild shores of the Dnieper river. The Dnieper, on the banks of which I had the misfortune of being born, is a major navigable river with an asterisk. It flows from north to south and spills into the Black Sea, but not before it cascades over a series of cataracts which make upriver navigation from the sea impossible even for the shallowest draft boats. This quirk of geography makes the middle reaches of the Dnieper both navigable and sheltered from attack by seaborne invaders like the Vikings. It also makes Black Sea deep water ports that more important for Ukraine.

The ancient settlement named Kiev after its legendary founder Kiy, took advantage of this to find shelter on the banks of the great river and it is to that place that the now thoroughly slavified Rus moved their capital, abandoning their northern homelands not to return for seven long centuries. Their choice proved to be both inspired and tragic. For over three hundred years the second kingdom of the Russians, as they were now called, prospered in the relative safety provided to it by its near total obscurity. These lands, a thousand miles south from their original home, were much more suitable for farming and the forests and rivers were no less bountiful. Kievan Rus prospered and, as often happens on a full stomach when the swords are rusting in their scabbards, began to look to spiritual matters. The Byzantine Empire, its capital of Constantinople lying not too far south from Kiev got wind of the newly rich kingdom in the hinterlands and sent the dynamic monk duo of Cyril and Methodius to see if they could get some converts to the Greek Orthodox church. That they did, creating in the process the Greek and Hebrew derived eponymously named (after Cyril) Cyrillic alphabet that is still (with some minor adjustments) used today and giving rise to the Russian cultural identity that though in deep crisis still survives today.

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