Revolution Around the World
Ukraine and the American Revolution
The Revolution Around the World series explores the impact of the American Revolution on the globe and the influence of people from other countries on the Revolutionary era.
What was happening around the world in 1776? When and why did different countries get involved in the Revolutionary War? What was the impact of the broader American Revolution on those countries?
After years of conflict, Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Take a closer look as we examine Ukraine’s history and the influence of the American Revolution on Ukraine.
What was happening in Ukraine in 1776?
In 1776, the land that now makes up today’s nation of Ukraine included a number of political entities and ethnicities. The Russian empire, on Ukraine’s eastern border, was actively expanding its power over the region. To the west was the rest of Europe, most immediately the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which was divided, in this same period, by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in a series of events known as the Partition of Poland). Russia produced much of the iron, hemp (used for ropes and fabrics), and timber used by nations in western Europe, and these goods sometimes flowed through Ukraine. Within Ukraine, various peoples held sway or dominated the population, including Cossacks, Tatars, Serbians, and Slavs. The most notable political power was the Cossack Hetmanate, in the north-central region. Initially nomadic, the Cossacks had solidified their power in the 17th century and established a governmental system led by a Hetman, the highest-ranking military officer. Beginning in the 1760s, however, the Russian empire under Catherine the Great began to dismantle the Hetmanate. Russia restructured the region, absorbing the Hetmanate’s administrative duties and introducing serfdom on lands owned by the ruling military officers. Ukrainians fought for and against the Russian empire in the dizzying number of battles and wars that swept the region in the late 1700s.
How did the American Revolution influence Ukraine?
The long legacies of the American Revolution influenced Ukraine and its relations with is neighbors. In 1794, for example, Polish soldier Tadeusz Kościuszko, who had served in the American Revolutionary War, helped lead a failed uprising against new Russian authority in the recently partitioned Poland. In the 19th century, a series of political and social revolutions, which were influenced by the Enlightment ideas, political strategies, and constitutional innovations of the American Revolution reshaped how European governments interacted with their peoples. The Revolutions of 1848, in particular, took many forms in different regions and were generally aimed at toppling traditional monarchies. In Ukraine, rebels targeted the feudal land system and the system of unfree serf labor. On April 22, 1848, serfdom was abolished in part of what is now Ukraine. The Revolution of 1848 also saw the rise of constitutional parliaments. Beginning in June 1848, the newly created Austrian Reichstag included 30 Ukrainian delegates. These events were complicated by conflicts between advocates of Hungarian, Ukranian, and Polish interests, as well as between republican-democratic and emergent socialist idealogues among the revolutionaries. In 1849, the Russian Tsar, representing himself as the defender of traditional monarchical authority throughout Europe, invaded Ukraine and Hungary and ended many of the revolution’s innovations. These events and subsequent revolutions in Russia had a direct impact on the formation of a Ukrainian national identity and formal nation.
Did Ukraine have its own revolution? Did it declare independence?
In addition to the Revolution of 1848, a number of more recent events in Ukrainian history have qualified as revolutions. In the 20th century, Ukraine engaged in the Russian Revolution of 1905, which forced Tsar Nicholas II to grant broader rights within the empire. Ukraine declared independence with the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, announcing in its own declaration that “From this day forth, the Ukrainian People’s Republic becomes independent, subject to no one, a Free, Sovereign State of the Ukrainian People.” Nonetheless, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics absorbed Ukraine in 1920. In 1991, when the USSR dissolved, Ukraine again became an independent country. Since then, two largescale civil movements in Ukraine have resulted in substantial government changes and have sometimes been labelled revolutions, the Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and the Revolution of Dignity (2014).
Dive Even Deeper
- Recommended Reading: An excellent book on the history of Ukraine is Serhii Plohky’s The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.
- A Helpful Overview: For a more thorough overview of the Revolution of 1848, we recommend this entry from the Encyclopedia of Ukraine.
- More on Poland: Take a closer look at what was happening in neighboring Poland with our Poland and the American Revolution post and a virtual walking tour of Thaddeus Kościusko's time in Philadelphia.
- More Across the Atlantic: For more on what was happening in Eastern Europe during the Age of Revolutions, watch a lecture by historian Linda Colley and read excerpts from Jonathan Israel's The Expanding Blaze and David Armitage's The Declaration of Independence: A Global History.