Where Did “Ukraine” Come From?

1 June 2012, 14:45

The Ukrainian ethnonym is actually quite recent. It emerged in the 19th century when the national issue arose on a European political level. So why were Ukrainians forced to quit their original names, Rus and rusky, as they were widely known in medieval and earlier new times?

Ukraineas a title was first used to define the frontier terrain of the Pereyaslavl Principality in the Hypathian Codex in 1187. As a territory, Ukraine was present on Guillaume de Beauplan’s map, from the mid-17th century, which made this geographical name well-known in Western Europe. Scholars claimed that the word originated from okrayina, a Ukrainian word to describe the outskirts on the frontier between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Steppe. Muscovite war commanders used the title with the same meaning for Slobozhanshchyna[1] which was colonized by people from ‘Naddniprianshchyna’, or ‘Dnieper Ukraine’. The territory of modern Ukraine, except for the Crimea and Halychyna, was otherwise called ‘Great Ukraine’, in the 17-18th centuries.

During the Khmelnytsky Uprising from 1648 to 1657, Ukraine included Kyiv, Bratslav and Chernihiv Provinces which were all ruled by the Hetman. In fact, various historical sources show that several territories were called “Ukraines” over the 13-18th centuries. In the 19th century, the title turned into a geographical name even though it was rarely mentioned in politics and the arts. Ethnically, the then population of modern Ukrainian territories identified themselves as Ruthenians. After the Russian Empire was declared in 1721 and the Left-Bank Hetmanate and Slobozhanshchyna were annexed to it in the 18th century, the need arose to differentiate between the population of the then Ukrainian provinces and ethnic Russians, especially after Muscovites monopolized the Kyiv Rus heritage along with its Rus title.


Some say Ukrainians lost the ideological battle when they quit the traditional Rus name because the whole world knew the Old Rus state and this mixed old Ukrainian history with the Russian background.  

The new word to define the nationality had always made the Ukrainian elite uncomfortable, hence the reluctance of some Ukrainian historians to use old-Ukrainian rather than old-Rus, or Ukraine-Rus rather than Kyiv Rus; which was more of a tribute to the Russian interpretation of history. Both latter terms are artificial, yet the first one sounds more familiar due to soviet history, while the second one was forgotten after the empire banned teaching Ukrainian history from the Ukrainian perspective. By contrast, the French or Germans have never been embarrassed to refer to their Gaulish or Frankish background, as old-French or old-German history is respectively known.  

Notably, the original war between Ukrainian and Russian intellectuals for a historical memory in the 19th century was the battle for independence of the so-called Kyiv Rus heritage. Its winner got the legitimate right in the eyes of the educated part of society to stake their claim over Ukrainian terrain.


In their early days, the first Ukrainian budyteli[2] faced a tough challenge: the old ethnonym rusky (Ruthenian) and the new malorusky (Little Russian) had an inevitable common root with the Russians and automatically became part of the Russian cultural environment, part of the Russian World. Therefore, Taras Shevchenko, Mykola Kostomarov and Panteleimon Kulish, the leaders of the ‘Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius’, chose Ukraine as the name for the territory of Naddniprianshchyna which was totally different from Russia. This embodied the heroic folklore image of the Cossack Epoch (16-18th cent.) Middle Naddniprianshchyna embodied the national spirit. It was supposed to cover the entire millennium of Rus-Ukrainian history, from the times of princes until the ‘New Times’.

Dropping historical ethnonyms was not uncommon in European nations. Romanians, for instance, quit their earlier secular Vlach, Moldovan and Transilvanian names to adopt a new political title. Eventually, they took the mythological title that brought them closer to the heroic background of the Roman Empire. Initially, their neighbours saw this as unreasonable, strange and impudent, but the Romanian state was established after the Russo-Turkish War had promoted the new name effectively. In the late 19th century, nobody felt as irritated by it as the Russians and Poles were by the title Ukraine in the early 20th century.

Mykhailo Maksymovych[3] split Ukrainian history into four phases including Ukraine-Rus of the princedom epoch, Ukraine of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth period, Cossack Ukraine and the New Times Ukraine, by contrast to the Russian threefold scheme of Kievan Rus, Muscovy Rus and Peter’s, or Petersburg Rus.  

The sole fact that Ukraine was used as a title for the nation signaled the intention of Ukrainian intellectuals to segregate from the cultural heritage, the state and the history of their neighbours. And the move turned out extremely revolutionary in terms of its impact. The new name drew a clear line between the interests of the two nations and set up ground for national, cultural, historical and philosophical differentiation. Moreover, the national revival and the expansion of the literary language in the 19th century could not have happened without the new ethnonym.

The term Ukraine denoted a completely different historical status of Ukrainian territory. The new name offered a different perspective on the terrain imperial intellectuals had presented as the source of Russian statehood, where ancestors of Muscovite tsars had once ruled; the Orthodox culture, allegedly common for Russians, Ukrainian and Belarusians, had been cherished (promoted as the cradle of the three brotherly nations concept in soviet times); and the Great Rus had sprouted from Little Rus. Moreover, it changed the understanding of Naddniprianshchyna’s colonial status in the Russian Empire and the existence of Ukraine’s own statehood along with its cultural, religious and language traditions.

Imperial spin doctors realized this. Therefore they only allowed the name Ukraine in Naddniprianshchyna during the revolution of 1905-1907. Until then, newspapers and magazines would face penalties for using the name on maps, while artistic groups with Ukrainian signs were closed down all together. After the Coup of June 1907, a new wave of imperialistic chauvinism and political reaction surged through the country. As a result, Ukrainians were qualified as “people of foreign race.”   


Semantically, Ukrainian identification did not take over the dominating Russian one overnight. Mykhailo Maksymovych designed orthography based on the common Rus roots concept. It allowed Ukrainians to see vowels spelled as they were in Russian, while in fact reading them the way they sounded in their native Ukrainian words. An arrow over the word дôм (house – ed.) was supposed to be read as dim, the way it sounds in Ukrainian, rather than dom as in Russian. Maksymovych’s orthography caused national psychological dualism and therefore it grew popular among Galicia Russophiles.

In the mid-19th century, Ukraine-Rus was coined as a new term to replace the Old Rus or Kyiv (Kievan) Rus. Paulin Święcicki[4], a great supporter of Ukraine, began using the name Ukraine-Rus intentionally in ‘Selo’ (The Village), a Lviv-based newspaper, in the early 1860s. And it turned into a historiography term in the 1880s when Oleksandr Barvinsky used it to describe the princedom epoch in his history textbook. Historian Volodymyr Antonovych also preferred the name. When Kyiv and Lviv Ukrainians started talks about coordinated action in 1885, they agreed to use the name Ukraine for territories inhabited by Ukrainians both in the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires.

It took a while for the Ukrainian name to catch on. In the 1880s, activists in Eastern Halychyna still used Rus in the titles of their societies, while the ‘Dilo’ (Action – ed.) publication used Mykhailo Maksymovych’s orthography in the early 1890s. Even the reorganized Taras Shevchenko Academic Society was still described as a Ukrainian-Rus Society, as was the Rus-Ukrainian Radical Party, the first national-oriented political force of Eastern Halychyna.

Mykhailo Hrushevsky called on intellectuals to drop the Little Russian and Ruthenia concepts. He was active in Lviv starting from 1894, exactly when Rus was ultimately replaced by Ukrainian. The process was accompanied by the fading Russophile attitudes and the victory of modern national thinking in Halychyna.

UKRAINIANS COME ON THE SCENE: The first political tractate in Naddniprianshchyna by Mykola Mikhnovsky fixed the new name of the nation

Despite the massive rise of a national identity in the early 20th century, colleges in Halychyna still had almost 50% Russophiles. Professor Kyrylo Studynsky, the future President of the Taras Shevchenko Academic Society, lamented about this in a letter to Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Russian-Ukrainian ambivalence and the evolution of the ethnonym Ukrainian under the tsarist rule in Naddniprianshchyna was more visible than the Polish-Ukrainian ambivalence in Eastern Halychyna. Even Volodymyr Antonovych[5] was listed among scholars of both nationalities, let alone other historians, including Ivan Luchytsky and Volodymyr Naumenko who mostly qualified politically as Russians until 1917. Mykhailo Hrushevsky was among the first intellectuals who identified himself as a Ukrainian. In the mid 1890s, a large group of the Naddniprianshchyna elite joined him, including Oleksandr Lototsky, Serhiy Yefremov, Vasyl Domanytsky, Oleksandr Cherniakhivsky, Ivan Lypa, Mykola Mikhnovsky, Borys Hrinchenko and many more.

Ukrainians reached the point of no return before WWI. Rus was no longer associated with Ukraine and from that point on, the name only referred to Moscow. In his ‘Revival of the Nation’, Volodymyr Vynnychenko used rusky (from Rus – ed.) only for Russians.

The Ukrainian ethnonym contained a new genetic code. It preserved identity and facilitated a modern national culture, preventing Ukrainians from melting with Russians in the big imperial pot. The name, which could be heard more and more commonly, denoted a new national quality and the breakaway from the long-lasting Orthodox universalism that could have pushed the Ukrainian dilemma in the Russian direction in the 19th century with no option of return.   


Scenarios of origin

In his book ‘The Name of Ukraine’ published in Prague in 1927, Serhiy Shelukhin, historian and law expert, insisted that the name Ukraine traced back to pre-Rus times originating from ukry, a powerful unknown ancient people. He offered this hypothesis as a counterweight to the claims about the name coming from the word ‘okrayina’, translated as suburbs, that was popular in Russia. The most popular and academically reasonable scenario, though, was offered by Lonhyn Tsehelsky, a writer and civil activist, in his ‘Rus-Ukraine and Muscovy-Russia’ brochure, first published in 1901. He described how Muscovy usurped the historical name of Ukraine-Rus, revealing the imperialistic background of using Rus during the tsarist colonial policy of the 19th century, and proved that dropping the name for Ukraine, the new one, made sense, particularly to those Ukrainians who had once struggled to preserve their identity and not melt in one pot.


Until 1917, Ukrainians called their northern neighbours ‘velykorosy’, the great Russians, based on the ideological reasoning behind the triune “Russian tribe.” In USSR times, when soviet identity was constructed manually, the resulting soviet nation was referred to as ‘russki’. Modern Russia replaced it with ‘rossiyanie’, yet the Kremlin still wants to see a supranational term in the word russki used as an umbrella name for Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.


[1]Sloboda Ukraine was a historical region which developed and flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries on the southwestern frontier of the Tsardom of Russia.

[2]Literally translated into English as “awakeners”, these were activists campaigning for national, cultural and language revival of Slavonic peoples.

[3]Mykhailo Maksymovych (1804-1873) was a well-known Ukrainian naturalist, writer and historian, who contributed to Ukrainian folklore and ethnography among other things.

[4]Paulin Święcicki (1841–1876) was a Polish writer, journalist, playwright and translator. He was one of key figures in the Ukrainian national revival.

[5]Volodymyr Antonovych (1834 – 1908) was a prominent Ukrainian historian and a leader of the Ukrainian national awakening in the Russian Empire.

Hyrych Ihor

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