Zelenskyy, you know. How about Yushchenko? Yanukovych? Tymoshenko? Kuchma?   

Do you recognize any of these? Which one was the “Gas Princess” turned fiery spokeswoman for Ukraine’s European aspirations? Who were Putin’s puppets in Ukraine? Which one the circumspect, chiseled-jaw accountant poisoned on the eve of Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election?   

For those of us who yearn to support our Ukrainian friends, learning more about the country’s history and culture helps us stand with them in solidarity, not to mention celebrate a struggle for liberty that has been going on for centuries, only most recently since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  

Ukraine has perpetually been the target of neighboring empires and autocrats. Before 1900, Lithuanian and Polish powers vied from the west to control Europe’s Cossack-crossing breadbasket. From the east, Russia, then the Soviet Union, struggled to retain control of this focal point of the Black Sea. While there are few histories of Ukraine in the English language, Sergii Ploghy recounts the geopolitical tug-of-war in great detail in his “To The Gates of Europe: A History of the Ukraine (Basic Books, 2017).  

Culturally, it was Kyiv — rather than Moscow — to which Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians turned for spiritual guidance. Their bishop-like “metropolitans” sent their directives to the candle-lit cathedrals of Eurasia, where the sacred tones and measured cadence of sacred chants elevated believers from the 10th century. Kyiv’s Saint Sophia (circa 1000 C.E.) predates Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral (circa 1550 C.E.) as the focal point of Russian-Ukrainian faith by six centuries.   

Moving into the country’s 20th century, historian Tim Snyder vividly captures Ukraine’s more recent travails, not to mention compensating resilience, in “Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler” (Basic Books, 2012). Ukrainians staked a claim for independence in the wake of the Russian Revolution, based largely on their distinctive language and egalitarian traditions — only to be dragged against their will into the Soviet Union. Parenthetically, the Russian female humorist Teffi (1872-1952) paints a poignant portrait of Ukrainian nationalist awakenings during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) in her “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea (New York Review of Books, 2016), even as refugees rushed the port of Odessa to flee the conflict.  

Snyder’s “Bloodlands” then details the most tragic era in Ukraine’s Soviet history, a Stalin-induced famine that led to the starvation of between 3 million and 4 million victims in the 1930s, an event known to historians as “Holodomor,” or “The Great Famine.”  World War II only brought more suffering, as Germany and then Russia terrorized the steppes in pursuit of European predominance.   

For Americans — accustomed to their own national narrative of triumph — it is difficult to wrap our minds around a national history defined by disappointment. However, Ukraine’s post-Soviet history offers more than President Zelenskyy as inspiration for the pursuit of democracy.   

During the Cold War, the Soviets developed Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region as an industrial corridor adjacent to rich natural resources. After 1991, the region fell into the hands of oligarchs. Elite Ukrainians followed the playbook of a reeling Russian state in economic freefall, by handing out certificates of ownership of public companies to the citizenry, most of whom redeemed these marginal stakes for a pittance from businessmen (and women). As a result, these Ukrainian entrepreneurs amassed large fortunes and then turned to the fluid political realm to amass power.   

Moscow-facing Ukrainian politicians did little to inspire a nation based on the rule of law, yet idealistic citizens looked to traditions from their distant past, when Cossacks once laid their fur hats at the feet of the leader of their choosing, an incipient democratic practice.    

Corruption came to a head in 2004, when, Vladimir Putin supported Viktor Yanukovych to stand for president. Putin hoped his pawn would continue to take cues from Moscow to the detriment of Ukrainians who yearned for a rules-based political and economic order.   

Yanukovych faced off against Viktor Yushchenko, an unlikely accountant turned head of the National Bank (1993-1999), then prime minister (1999-2001), who helped rehabilitate the national currency — the hryvnia.  

Yushchenko selected Yulia Tymoshenko, “the Gas Princess,” as his candidate for prime minister. She had profited along with the oligarchs from the sale of Ukrainian and Russian resources at the beginning of the 1990s but revealed a new Europhile identity in the face of the corruption and thuggery of then-president Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005), who had silenced — fatally in one case — critics of his self-serving policies.   

Weeks before the election, the towering Yushchenko was the target of foul play, poisoned with the dioxin found in Agent Orange. This now familiar method for silent assassination ignited whispers of foul play, even as Yushchenko nobly tried to conceal his all-too-visible condition from the public.   

While a recovering Yushchenko retained a significant lead over Yanukovych on election day, results inexplicably pointed to the latter’s triumph. This triggered the blond braided-bun Tymoshenko to call Ukrainians to gather in Kiev’s Maidan Square to protest Yanukovych’s tainted election.  

Thousands of patriots responded. The band Greenjolly’s defiant anthem, “Together we are many,” reverberated in full-throated chants on the square, calling for justice. Two decades on, the song, which placed 19th the following year in the Eurovision music competition, feels eerily prophetic:  

“We won’t stand this (No), revolution is on  

’Cause lies be the weapon of mass destruction  

All together we’re one, all together we’re strong  

God be my witness, we’ve waited too long  

Falsification (No), machination (No)  

Little shenanigans (No), no lies  

We believe (Yes), we can (Yes)  

I know we’re gonna win (Yes, yes)  

Together we are many, they won’t overcome us  

Together we are many, they won’t overcome us  

Together we are many, they won’t overcome us  

Together we are many, they won’t overcome us  

What you wanna say to your daughters and sons  

You know the battle is not over till the battle is won  

Truth be the weapon, we ain’t scared of the guns  

We stay undefeated, ‘cause together we’re one  

We - all together, we - forever  

We - the Ukrainian daughters and sons  

It’s now or never, enough waiting.”  

(“Razon Nas Bogato” translated to English by lyricstranslate.com.)

Having tipped off a national crisis, Ukraine’s Supreme Court called for a third round of elections. This time, Yushchenko prevailed. Though his presidency (2005-2010) would be criticized for missed opportunities to integrate the country into the European Union and NATO, the Orange Revolution of 2004 set the stage for later conflicts concerning Ukraine’s contested identity.   

These few episodes of Ukrainian history, prior to the 2014 seizure of Crimea and Russian infiltration of the Donbass, deserve our study and admiration as we continue to watch events unfold. Ukraine has not only been caught between Polish and Russian domination, historically; between an Orthodox or Roman Catholic identity, religiously; but now more existentially between Putin’s authoritarian squeeze and the winds of freedom from the West. We can stand with them in solidarity the more we know of their long-standing aspirations for democracy.   

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.