Kiev, not Kyiv: How a legendary Russian city ended up in Ukraine

Once the heart of the ancient kingdom of Rus, it was made capital of Soviet Ukraine in 1934.

In our time, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has deteriorated beyond mere hostility into a realm of hellish hatred. Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, stands as the epicenter of a nation at war with Russia; its military targets are bombed, and Russian equipment destroyed in battle is displayed on its streets.

For a long period, Kiev was considered more of a Russian city than a Ukrainian one. At least that was the case until June 1934, 90 years ago, when it became the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, replacing Kharkov.

What is the story behind this? How did a place known as the “mother of Russian cities” become a contentious symbol for two neighboring peoples?

Between Forest and Steppe

Humans have lived along the banks of the Dnieper River since the Stone Age. What we now recognize as Kiev began as a settlement on the river’s western bank in the 6th century. Initially, it was just another village, but things changed dramatically in the 9th century.

Medieval Rus was late to develop a written language, and literacy spread even later. Consequently, much of the history of the country and Kiev specifically is pieced together from educated guesses. However, some facts can be described with a high degree of accuracy.

In the 9th century, a country emerged which would come to be known as Kievan Rus, the homeland of the ancestors of modern-day Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. The backbone of this state was a network of river trade routes. These routes began in Scandinavia, traversed the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Finland (near present-day St. Petersburg), and split in two. One route headed east to the Volga River and then to the Caspian Sea, skirting Iran and Azerbaijan before reaching the Arab lands. The other route went south through Novgorod and down the Dnieper to the Black Sea, leading to Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire’s capital. Iron, wax, furs, linen, weapons, and slaves were sent south; north came intricate metalwork, books, and, most crucially, silver.

Rus became the linchpin of trade with Byzantium, geographically spanning a vast area of the route. Key outposts on this route were Novgorod in the north and Kiev in the south. The unification of these cities under the Scandinavian Rurik dynasty marked the beginning of Rus as we know it.

Kiev became the residence of the Grand Prince, the supreme ruler of Rus. At that time, it represented the last bastion of civilization before the vast steppe; traveling along the Dnieper required strong protection and the avoidance of unnecessary stops.

In 988, Rus converted to Christianity. The Kiev Metropolis was established, and the first stone church in Rus was constructed in the city.

Kiev thrived on trade, and marked this era as its golden age. Archaeologists have found numerous foreign artifacts in Kiev, including many coins of Arab, Byzantine, and European origin. By the 11th century, Kiev was favorably compared to Constantinople — a highly flattering comparison for any medieval city. The epic tales of bogatyrs (the Russian equivalent of Arthurian knights) invariably revolve around Kiev, with the legendary Prince Vladimir the Great, who baptized Rus, often cast as a central figure akin to King Arthur.

But all golden ages come to an end.

The Decline of the Capital

Kiev’s prosperity began to erode with the development of other regions of Rus. More and more significant independent cities emerged, and although Kiev formally retained its prestige as the premier seat of Rus, new centers were rising across the land. For these burgeoning powers, acknowledging Kiev’s supremacy became more a matter of tradition than necessity. Internal strife wasn’t unique to Rus; many medieval states, from the Holy Roman Empire to the warring provinces of Japan, experienced similar turmoil. However, the 13th century brought two events that starkly set Rus apart on the global stage.

First, in 1204, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was already in decline, but the devastation of its greatest city shattered the main source of Kiev’s wealth — transit trade. This blow was severe, but not yet catastrophic. The true disaster struck over thirty years later.

In 1237, Mongol invaders descended upon Kievan Rus. These unstoppable conquerors, who had subjugated nation after nation, launched a series of campaigns throughout the region, culminating in the siege of Kiev in 1240. The city was ravaged and utterly destroyed. Worse still, Kiev’s location on the steppe frontier turned into a curse. The Mongols remained perilously close, and people in the region not only faced the threat of large organized invasions but also smaller raiding parties seeking slaves. Living near Kiev became fraught with danger. A Catholic monk traveling through the Rus lands in the 1240s noted that barely 200 homes remained in the once-great city. Kiev had become a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a ghost town.

However, the impact of the Mongol invasion went beyond mere destruction and depopulation. It deepened the rift between different parts of what was once a unified Rus. Regional differences already existed by the 13th century, politically (the southwest inclined towards Poland and Hungary, the north engaged more with Germany and Scandinavia, while the northeast interacted with the Volga region and its peoples) and linguistically. However, the Mongol conquest severed many connections. Politically, the territories destined to become Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine began to diverge onto separate paths.

A Divided Rus

The following decades were harsh for everyone. The Golden Horde, the empire of Genghis Khan’s descendants, imposed a heavy yoke on the various principalities of Rus.

By the 14th century, Kiev had fallen under the influence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This state extended far beyond present-day Lithuania, and had a majority Slavic population. In 1324, a weak prince in Kiev was defeated by the Lithuanians, leading to a period where both the Golden Horde and Lithuania vied for control over the city. Ultimately, Kiev came under Lithuanian rule.

Despite these changes and the tragedies of the Mongol era, Moscow never forgot its kinship with Kiev – connections between this ancient city and the broader Rus remained intact. The church was a crucial bond in this regard. Spiritual unity persisted, with the Metropolitan of Kiev moving northeast in 1299. By the 14th century, the metropolitan was effectively based in Moscow, which had become safer and more populous. Moscow at this time was starting to rise, ambitiously aiming to reunite the fragments of the medieval Rus which had been shattered by the Mongol invasions.

Politically, many of Kiev’s boyars also looked towards Moscow, often preferring a distant ally over a nearby overlord. However, in the 15th century, the Lithuanian princes curtailed the city’s autonomy. By the mid-16th century, Lithuania had united with Poland to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with Poland as the dominant partner. Kiev became part of the Polish crown lands, directly governed from Warsaw.

At the time, Kiev was in a dire state. The city had never fully recovered from the Mongol devastation. Its once-grand cathedrals, fortifications, and other stone structures from the medieval princely era stood as dilapidated relics of a bygone civilization.

On the eastern and southern frontiers of the Commonwealth existed the Cossack host: an autonomous, anarchic “land-based Tortuga.” In the 17th century, these people, the direct ancestors of modern Ukrainians, rose in rebellion, dramatically altering the region’s history. The rebels were firmly oriented towards Moscow, seeing it as their co-religious protector against the Catholic Polish aristocracy that threatened their autonomy.

Part of the Empire

This is how Kiev came to fall under Moscow’s influence. Initially, the Russians were uncertain about reasserting control over southwestern Rus. However, the Cossack uprising reshaped the political landscape of Eastern Europe, revealing Poland’s unexpected weakness and the possibility of the Cossacks falling under the Crimean Khan’s sway. Consequently, the Russians answered the Cossacks’ call, and a Tsarist garrison entered Kiev; the city’s inhabitants pledged their allegiance to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich.

The mid-17th century was marked by constant warfare for the region: conflicts involving the Poles, Crimean Tatars, as well as numerous rebellions and uprisings. Amidst this turmoil, Kiev stood out surprisingly as a beacon of stability, ensured by the presence of a substantial Russian garrison. Even when surrounding areas were engulfed in flames and enemy armies approached, Kiev remained like a steadfast rock in a stormy sea.

At the war’s conclusion, Kiev was supposed to revert to Polish control. However, the Commonwealth, ravaged by conflict and in dire need of funds for its war against Turkey, opted for financial compensation instead.

For the foreseeable future — not just years but centuries — Kiev became a relatively peaceful place. Unexpectedly, it also became a hub of intellectual life. The citizens of Kiev diligently contemplated their new status. In 1674, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra published the “Kiev Synopsis,” detailing the history of southwestern Rus. This book became a historical bestseller of its time and significantly influenced the perception of Russians and Ukrainians as branches of the same people. It was written by Innokentiy Gizel—a philosopher, theologian, and historian whose life was extraordinarily unique. A Protestant from East Prussia, he converted to Orthodoxy, settled in Kiev, and earned immense respect both in Ukraine and Russia.

The Kiev-Mohyla Academy, founded in 1632 as the country’s first institution of higher education, flourished during this period. The city began to see significant development, leaving behind its era of decline. This was not surprising; as part of Russia, Kiev enjoyed the opportunity to live and build peacefully. In the 18th century, Baroque architecture arrived in Kiev, with the Mariinsky Palace designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Russia’s most renowned architect at the time (the son of an Italian who had adopted Russian citizenship, which explains his unusual name).

Kiev was quite cosmopolitan. The city had significant Polish and Russian populations, and by the late 19th century, a large Jewish community had established itself there. While somewhat provincial, Kiev had its own unique character and grew rapidly. In 1834, Russian Emperor Nicholas I founded St. Vladimir University (now Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev). The emperor held Kiev in high regard, calling it the “Jerusalem of the Russian land” due to its historical significance to Rus. During his reign, the city’s first permanent bridge over the Dnieper River was constructed, a highly beneficial project given the river’s vast width and depth.

in the 1870s, Kiev experienced a construction boom, with machinery plants springing up, steamships plying the Dnieper, and people flocking to the city from rural areas.

In the early 20th century, Kiev emerged as one of Russia’s largest urban centers. Future helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky worked here, and the city launched the Russian Empire’s first electric tram line, making life more vibrant and dynamic.

Simultaneously, Kiev became home to both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. The city hosted activists from various Russian nationalist organizations alongside those from Ukrainian nationalist groups. The Kiev Club of Russian Nationalists was one of the most popular political organizations in the city. Generally, Kiev’s middle class was identified as Russian. Ukrainian nationalism was still in its infancy, and early Ukrainian nationalists were considered marginal figures. 

However, following the events of 1917, many radical ideas suddenly found their moment.

The City of Many Masters

In 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed and the Tsar abdicated. For Kiev, as for the entire nation, this was a pivotal moment. Initially, Kiev became part of the Russian Republic. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the republican government, Ukrainian activists declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Shortly thereafter, the city was seized by the Bolsheviks. Then came the German occupiers (World War I was still raging in Europe), who installed a puppet regime under Hetman Skoropadskyi.

By the end of 1918, with Germany’s defeat in the war, the Hetman fled, and forces loyal to the Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura took control. They were soon ousted by the Reds, who were subsequently expelled by the Whites—supporters of a unified Russia. This chaos didn’t settle until the summer of 1920, when the Civil War finally ended. Between 1917 and 1920, Kiev saw its rulers change 15 times.

The Bolsheviks relocated the capital of Soviet Ukraine to another city. In 1920, Kharkov became the seat of the republic’s authorities. Initially considered a temporary measure, fears of another occupation led the Bolsheviks to make Kharkov the permanent capital. Even Vladimir Lenin dismissed plans to return the Ukrainian capital to Kiev as “nonsense” in February 1920.

On July 13, 1923, the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic officially proclaimed Kharkov as the republic’s capital. This status was enshrined in the 1929 Constitution of the USSR.

The Reds swiftly began reshaping Ukraine in accordance with their ideals. Under their national policies, Kiev, like many other cities, became part of Soviet Ukraine and underwent “Ukrainization.” The use of the Ukrainian language in culture, administration, and other areas was actively promoted and often mandated. However, as radical atheists, the Bolsheviks repressed the clergy, demolished churches, and destroyed monuments of the “Tsarist regime.” Additionally, the face of the city changed dramatically due to industrialization and mass migration from rural areas: a predominantly Russian city became predominantly Ukrainian. Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel “The White Guard” vividly depicts the clash between incoming Ukrainian peasants and the Russian intelligentsia, who once saw Kiev as their safe haven.

The Bolsheviks executed Russian national activists in Kiev during the Civil War in 1919. However, Stalin’s regime was notoriously inconsistent. By the 1930s, Ukrainian nationalists and their intellectual sympathizers faced executions.

Some researchers interpret the move of the Ukrainian capital back to Kiev from Kharkov as a concession to the national elite. This occurred just a few years after high-profile trials of “Ukrainian nationalists” from the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU) and the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO), as well as purges within Ukraine’s party leadership under the banner of combating bourgeois nationalism.

The War and Life After

In 1941, the Nazi invasion was a living nightmare for Kiev. By September, German forces had encircled and captured the city, and retreating Soviet troops demolished key structures. Total war imposed its ruthless logic: on September 20, a radio mine explosion killed a Wehrmacht colonel and his staff officers while also destroying the Lavra observation deck. Another blast on Khreshchatyk, the city’s central street, demolished a division headquarters but also claimed the lives of civilians bringing in radios for collection. Soon after, the Nazis gathered tens of thousands of the city’s Jews in Babyn Yar and executed them. They installed a Ukrainian administration, with nationalists believing Hitler to be an ally who would help establish a nationally-oriented Ukraine.

In reality, concentration camps were erected, the populace starved, and many were forcibly taken to Germany for labor. By the fall of 1943, when the Red Army liberated Kiev, the dead outnumbered the living, with only 180,000 residents remaining.

The following decades brought relative peace as the city rebuilt. Khreshchatyk, destroyed in 1941 and further ruined by the Nazis, was reconstructed in a unified architectural style. The city’s recovery was rapid—by 1960, Kiev’s population had surged to one million. New subways and bridges were constructed, quickly mending the scars of the 1940s.

Kiev remained a hub of science and industry within the USSR. From the Kremlin’s perspective, scientific and industrial prowess were essential to preserving the Soviet ideology and the country’s autonomy. Additionally, Ukrainian bureaucrats held significant power within the Soviet hierarchy. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev hailed from Ukraine, and overall, the Ukrainian Soviet elite fared well. Consequently, Kiev received generous funding for scientific development. It became the birthplace of the USSR’s first computer, with research institutes popping up almost feverishly.

Late Soviet Ukraine possessed a unique national identity. Due to the USSR’s structure, people often moved to new cities for work, rendering administrative borders largely meaningless. National identity was fluid; major Ukrainian cities predominantly spoke Russian, and nationality was more a matter of personal feeling and self-identification.

The collapse of the Soviet Union thrust people into uncharted territory. Borders materialized where none had existed before. Kiev unexpectedly found itself the capital of a new state, with residents unsure of what this meant practically. The city sank into an economic crisis during the 1990s.

Had Ukraine been led by individuals who grasped the complexity of their inherited legacy, the nation’s trajectory might have differed significantly. Cosmopolitan and important to a diverse array of peoples, Kiev seemed ill-suited as the capital of a country which was adopting a narrow nationalist ideology. Regrettably, reality is what it is. Now, two nations that spent so long building this thousand-year-old city are fighting over it.

By Roman Shumov, a Russian historian focused on conflicts and international politics

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