In February, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian people, arguing that Ukraine was a fiction. Carved from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, he claimed it was actually part of Russia, with its people rejecting the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty.
He was wrong. As the Baltic republics issued multiple declarations of independence in 1991, and the Soviet Union was in the throes of disintegration, the Ukrainian parliament — under pressure from Moscow to remain part of a post-Soviet union of states — held a vote on independence on Aug. 24, 1991. The results were staggering, with 346 MPs voting in favor, five abstaining and a mere two voting against.
Three months later, on Dec. 1, 1991, Ukraine held a countrywide referendum on independence. With an 84 percent turnout of eligible voters, the result surprised even the most optimistic of Ukrainian leaders: over 90 percent voted for independence. On the same day, the people of Ukraine chose Leonid Kravchuk to be the country’s first president in an election in which all six candidates campaigned for independence. In this astonishing display of near unanimity, the government and people of Ukraine spoke loudly and clearly in favor of a clean break from Russia.
The emergence of a sovereign Ukraine in 1991 was the culmination of a century-long struggle for independence. And it reminds us that Ukrainian national identity has been deeply felt for more than a century.
The first Ukrainian declarations of independence took place during and immediately after World War I. The Central Rada — a coordinating body of Ukrainian political and cultural organizations in Kyiv — proclaimed independence for Ukraine on Jan. 22, 1918. The emotional tone of the proclamation, penned by the Rada’s head, historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, was unmistakable. “The Ukrainian People’s Republic hereby becomes an independent, free, and sovereign state of the Ukrainian people, subject to no one.”