(CN) — Ukrainians are at the heart of Russian history: They are the famed Cossacks and the noblest of Eastern Slavic families. Nikolai Gogol, author of “Dead Souls,” and Sergei Prokofiev, the pioneering modern classical composer, were Ukrainians.
Ukrainians were top rulers of the Soviet state: Leonid Brezhnev was Ukrainian and also the Soviet leader at the height of the Cold War between 1964 and 1982. He hailed from Kamianske, a city in central Ukraine on the Dnieper River. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was half-Ukrainian and the great anarchist of the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno, was Ukrainian. He ended his life in exile in Berlin – another outcast from the Bolshevik lands.
And yet, for as much as they've been at the center of Russian history, Ukrainians resent that history.
To Ukrainians, Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of their country is the most awful proof for why they hate their place in Russia's imperial history: A history that even saw Muscovy take the name of their old land, always known as "Rus," and steal it for themselves. Rus became Russia. The term Ukraine took root and began to spread in the 19th and 20th centuries.
To understand the war in Ukraine, a good and necessary starting point is a look at the centuries-old relationship between Ukraine and Russia.
From out of the steppes of Ukraine, the Cossacks helped turn Moscow into a great European power. The grit and fighting spirit now seen among so many Ukrainians on the front-lines of the war against Putin's army can be traced back to the country's Cossack past.
The Cossacks were a tough people who mastered the art of horseback fighting. Theirs was a multi-ethnic, semi-nomadic, anarchic and democratic society that emerged in the late Medieval period; in a loose semi-democratic military federation, they ran affairs on the Ukrainian plains for centuries.
They were early followers of the East Slavic Christian Orthodox faith and withstood assaults from both the Russian and Turkish empires, each vying for control of the Black Sea.
Over the course of Moscow's imperial expansion, the Cossacks entered into alliances with the tsars of Moscow and provided crucial military strength: They fought on the side of the Kremlin in the Great Northern War, the Seven Years' War, the Crimean War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Caucasus War and in the many Russo-Persian Wars and Russo-Turkish Wars.
They became the backbone – the police and frontier force – of the Russian Empire.
Then in the late 1700s they fought for Russian Empress Catherine II and it was thanks to their military prowess that Moscow was able to push back the Ottomans from Crimea and Ukraine for good.
Catherine the Great, following the mold of tsars before her, was forever indebted to the Cossacks and garnished them with favors, wealth and noble titles. In the Kremlin, they acknowledged the role of the Cossacks in turning a sprawling but land-locked Russia into a legitimate European power.
But in Ukraine, Catherine's legacy is mixed and a source of deep division. Catherine sent the Russian General Peter Tekeli to disband the Zaporozhian Sich, a semi-autonomous and republican-style government in southern Ukraine run by Cossack chiefs. Russian forces surrounded the Sich in May 1775, forced its surrender and razed what buildings they had to the ground. With the sacking of the Sich, Catherine renamed southern and eastern Ukraine "Novorossiya," or New Russia. Famously, Catherine's former lover, military leader and nobleman Grigory Potemkin, brought the queen by river boat to see her new possessions, an episode best remembered as Catherine's "Potemkin village" trip.