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A modern country with a thousand-year history: 10 symbols of Ukrainian statehood

Ukraine reestablished its independence in 1991. But Ukrainian history did not start 30 years ago, it is hundreds of years old.

On July 28, Ukraine celebrates the Day of Ukrainian Statehood. Like any other country, Ukraine has official symbols of the state: the flag, the coat of arms, and the anthem. 

However, there are also many unofficial symbols of Ukrainian statehood. They tell a rich and complex story about building and protecting a free, independent, and democratic country in Europe. A story about culture, religion, and diplomacy tightly intertwined with other European countries. And a story about the fight of Ukrainians to defend their freedom, their values, and their state multiple times, from the Middle Ages to the modern days.

The trident of Volodymyr the Great

minted on his silver coins / (980–1015)

Ukrainian symbols trident

Ukrainians trace their statehood back to the 9th century when Kyivan Rus’ was formed with the capital city of Kyiv. It was a large medieval state that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South and united many Slavic tribes. Ruled by the Rurikid dynasty, Kyivan Rus’ saw the greatest prosperity under the reign of Grand Prince Volodymyr the Great and his son, Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise.

Kyivan Rus’ had a well-developed trade system and was a part of the important medieval trade route “from the Varangians to the Greeks” that connected Scandinavia with Byzantium. Like many rulers of that time, Volodymyr the Great minted his own coins. Up to 400 of them have been found so far. These coins are one of the oldest depictions of the trident, the symbol of the Rurikid dynasty. The trident later became the official coat of arms of Ukraine.

Saint Sophia Cathedral

the 1,000-year-old temple / (first half of the 11th century)

June 28 has been chosen as the Day of Ukrainian Statehood for a reason – on the same day the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ is celebrated. In 988, Volodymyr the Great converted to Christianity, and it became the main religion of Kyivan Rus’. Numerous churches were built in Kyiv, including Saint Sophia Cathedral. The cathedral is the oldest stone Christian temple among all preserved in Eastern Europe. It has survived throughout the centuries and still remains one of the main symbols of Ukraine today.

The adoption of Christianity helped to further develop connections with Byzantium, the biggest European country of that time, and defined the European path of Kyivan Rus’. It also had a major effect on the cultural development of Ukrainian territories in the following centuries. Schools and libraries were founded within churches and monasteries. Many books were written, transcribed, and translated into the Old Church Slavonic language. 

And later, into Ukrainian. The Peresopnytsia Gospel of the 16th century is one of the first known translations of canonical texts into the Old Ukrainian language. Today all Ukrainian presidents take the oath of office on two books: the Constitution and the Peresopnytsia Gospel.

Royal family tree

linked to many European monarchies of the time / (the 11th century)

Ukrainian symbols Anna Yaroslavna

Volodymyr the Great not only strengthened the relations with Byzantium but also developed diplomatic relationships with other European countries. Yaroslav the Wise continued this policy and strengthened the international role of Kyivan Rus’ through dynastic unions. Yaroslav himself was married to Ingegerd, the daughter of the King of Sweden, while his many children got married to royals of Norway, Denmark, Hungary, France, Germany, England, and Byzantium.

His daughter Anna Yaroslavna, for example, became the wife of Henry I of France and the mother of Philip I. Anna was very well-educated and participated in state affairs. Later she even co-signed government decrees with her son, the king. One of the charters with her signature, dated from the 1060s, was preserved and survived to modern times. Anna Yaroslavna is also known for her correspondence with the Pope and the founding of Saint Vincent’s Monastery.

The Crown of Rus’

lost relic of the first king / (1253)

Ukrainian symbols Danylo Romanovych

The Principality of Galicia-Volhynia was the main state to emerge on the territory of modern Ukraine after the collapse of Kyivan Rus’. It was ruled by the Romanovych dynasty, a branch of the Rurikid dynasty. 

The reign of Prince Danylo Romanovych was the time of greatest economic and cultural rise, as well as political strengthening of the state. He temporarily unified the western territories of Ukraine and built several new cities, including Lviv, named after his son Lev (“Lion”). Danylo Romanovych became one of the most powerful rulers in Europe.

However, at that time, the Mongol invasion was a constant threat both to the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia and to the other European countries. Danylo Romanovych was forced to accept the Mongol rule, yet later he focused his foreign policy on building an alliance with other states to repel Mongol attacks. 

In 1253, Danylo Romanovych became the first King of Rus’: the Orthodox ruler was recognized and titled by Pope Innocent IV. He accepted the royal crown in hopes of securing aid from European allies. Unfortunately, it did not bring the desired outcome, and Danylo Romanovych continued to confront the Mongol invasion on his own. The crown itself has been considered lost for centuries.

The Bulava (the mace)

the symbol of power from the Cossacks to modern Ukraine / (the 16th century)

Ukrainian symbols Mazepa

Today, the mace is one of the official symbols of the President of Ukraine. It is an old symbol of power that originated from the Cossack tradition of democratic rule. 

From the 15th century, many Ukrainian men left their life as peasants and gathered to live as free men in the military communities called Sich in the southern steppes of Ukraine. They became known as the Cossacks, the well-trained fearless warriors with sabers, who fought for the freedom of the Ukrainian people and eventually created an autonomous Hetman state. Back then, the mace was given to the elected Cossack leader and military commander – the Hetman.

There were many glorious hetmans throughout the Cossacks’ history, and Ivan Mazepa is among them. He is widely known for siding with King Charles XII of Sweden against the Russian Tsar Peter I in the Battle of Poltava. However, Mazepa also put a lot of effort into education and Ukrainian cultural revival by founding schools and printing houses. Numerous churches were built in Ukraine during his administration, which shaped the Ukrainian Baroque architectural style, also known as Mazepian Baroque. 

The Constitutional document of Pylyp Orlyk

that predates Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of the Laws” / (1710)

Ukrainian symbols Constitution

The Cossacks did not have a democracy identical to modern ones, yet it was a system with many democratic features, including the general assembly and an elected leader. In 1710, Pylyp Orlyk, the Hetman-in-exile, concluded an agreement with the Cossack elders and the Cossacks – the Constitution of Bendery – that institutionalized the unique organization of their state. The document was also confirmed by a diploma signed by King Charles XII of Sweden. The Latin-language original is currently preserved in the National Archives of Sweden.

The Constitutional document of Pylyp Orlyk consisted of the preamble and 16 articles. It established the principle of the separation of government powers into the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. The articles also limited the executive authority of the hetman and established a Cossack parliament called General Rada. 

The document testified to the political maturity of the Cossack state and was very progressive for the early 18th century. For the first time in Europe, a model of a free and independent state based on the people’s natural right to freedom and self-determination was developed.


poetry that became prophecy / (1840)

Ukrainian symbols Kobzar

Each country has its great national writer, and for Ukraine, it is Taras Shevchenko. The poet, the prophet, the father of the nation. “Kobzar” (meaning a wandering folk bard) was his first poetry collection, published in 1840. The full collection of Shevchenko’s works later received the same name.

Shevchenko came from a family of serfs, and many of his poems described the difficult life of Ukrainian peasants under serfdom in the Russian Empire. Shevchenko’s works were also devoted to the history and the future fate of the Ukrainian nation. The “Testament” is among his most important poem, and it has been translated into more than 150 languages around the world. It is the poet’s epistle to his descendants:

Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.

Besides Shevchenko, there was a constellation of great writers and poets in Ukraine: Ivan Kotliarevskyi, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka, Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi, and others. Their work helped to develop and preserve the Ukrainian language and culture, when it was suppressed, and to shape the Ukrainian national idea along with philosophers and politicians.

The Unification Act (Act Zluky)

when the dream of a free and united Ukraine became tangible / (1919)

Ukrainian symbols The Unification Act

For a couple of hundred years, Ukrainian territories had been divided between different empires. By the start of the 20th century, the country’s western part was controlled by Austro-Hungary, while the central and eastern parts – by the Russian Empire. 

When those empires began to crumble as a result of the First World War, Ukrainians used that chance to reach for independence once again. Two states were founded: the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) and the Western Ukrainian National Republic. In 1919, when they faced an existential threat from neighboring countries, representatives of both republics proclaimed the unification of the two states, bringing Ukraine together after centuries of separation. 

These events were a powerful sign of how Ukrainians viewed themselves and their nation’s future. Even though the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established by the communist forces soon after, the idea of Ukrainian statehood and independence, formulated in the UNR, did not cease to exist. It was carried through the years, for instance, by the work of the Government-in-exile of the Ukrainian National Republic.

The biggest event, honoring the Unification Act, took place in 1990. The human chain 700 kilometers long was created to connect Ivano-Frankivsk and Kyiv. According to various estimates, between 400,000 and three million people joined the demonstration.

Nowadays, the Day of Unity of Ukraine is celebrated on January 22, and each year people gather in smaller human chains to symbolically bring together the right and the left banks of the Dnipro river in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s status as one of the founders of the UN

an important page of the history of modern diplomacy / (1945)

Ukrainian symbols UN

When the United Nations was established in 1945, Ukraine (the Ukrainian SSR) became one of the 51 founding members of the organization and contributed to the development of the Charter of the UN. Although Ukrainian participation was highly influenced by the USSR’s foreign policy back then, a seat in the UN still provided a unique opportunity to share information about Ukraine and develop independent diplomacy over time.

Today, amid the ongoing Russian aggression, the UN has become an important platform to bring attention to the war and make Ukraine’s voice heard by the global community. Several resolutions concerning the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the situation of human rights in the temporarily occupied Crimea have been adopted by the UN since 2014.

However, that’s not all Ukraine brings to the table: the country participates in the activity of the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Human Rights Council, and other principal organs of the United Nations. Several times it was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and, since 1992, Ukraine has actively contributed to UN peacekeeping operations.

The Maidan

the birthplace of Ukraine’s new fight for democracy and freedom / (the 21st century)

Ukrainian symbols revolution

From the Viche (a general meeting of the city residents in Kyivan Rus’) to the General Cossack Assembly, Ukrainians have a long tradition of popular gathering on the most important issues. Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the central square of Kyiv, became the place where this tradition was reborn in modern times.

Three revolutions and numerous smaller protests took place there. In 1990, the Revolution on granite became a forerunner of independent Ukraine. In 2004, the Orange revolution united Ukrainians in their desire to defend their right to fair elections. And in 2013-2014, the Revolution of Dignity arose from the need to protect democracy and the European vector of the country.

A unique location at the crossroads of East and West resulted in a very turbulent history of the Ukrainian land. However, Ukrainians managed to carry the idea of statehood through the centuries. Ukraine isn’t a new state, born in 1991: its roots stretch back to the Ukrainian National Republic, Hetman state, the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia, and Kyivan Rus’, founded in the 9th century.

Ukrainians built a strong and culturally developed state more than once, and each time it was an important part of European history. From the dynastic unions and military coalitions in the Middle Ages to defining modern democratic principles, contributing to the global cultural heritage, and establishing international organizations in later years.

All of the symbols described above represent a long tradition of Ukrainian statehood. But more than that – they tell a story about freedom and the values Ukrainians hold dear and still fight for today, just as they have always been. 

Text: Veronika Lutska
Illustrations: Anastasia Levytska