The history of statehood on the territory of Ukraine begins with two archetypically European encounters. Medieval statehood on the territory of today’s Ukraine, like that of France and England, includes an encounter with Vikings. The men from the north sought to establish a trade route between the Baltic and Black Seas, and used Kiev, on the Dnipro River, as a trading post. Their arrival coincided with the collapse of an earlier Khazar state, and their leaders soon intermarried with the local slavic-speaking population. Thus arose the entity known as Kievan Rus. Like all of the states of medieval eastern Europe, Rus was a pagan entity that did not so much convert to Christianity as choose between its western and eastern variants. Like all of its neighbors, it hesitated between Rome and Byzantine before its rulers chose the latter. Rus was seriously weakened by problems of succession before its destruction was ensured by the arrival of the Mongols in the first half of the thirteenth century.
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At this point the history of Rus fragments into parts. Most of the lands of Rus were gathered in by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, an enormous warrior state with a capital in Vilnius. Its Grand Dukes styles themselves the inheritors of Rus, and adapted many of the cultural achievements of Rus, such as its slavic court language and legal traditions. Although the grand dukes were pagan Lithuanians most of their subjects were eastern Christians. After the grand dukes of Lithuania became, by personal union, the kings of Poland, most of the lands of Ukraine were part of the largest European state. Constitutional reforms of 1569 established this state as a republic known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In this „republic of two nations“ the lands of Ukraine were part of the Polish crown, and the lands of Belarus part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In this way a new division was created within the old lands of Rus.
This was the first epoch of oligarchical pluralism in Ukraine. Ukrainian noblemen took part as equals in the representative institutions of the republic, but the vast majority of the population was colonized in large estates that produced grain for export. Local warlords were joined by Polish noblemen as well as Jews, who helped to establish a feudal order in the country. It was in this era that Jews helped to create the small cities remembered as shtetls.
This political system brought the Cossack rebellion of 1648, in which free men who had escaped the system challenged its logic. Fatefully, the allied with a rival state that had roots in ancient Rus, the Duchy of Muscovy. The city of Moscow had been on the eastern frontier of Rus, and unlike most of the territories of Rus it remained under direct Mongol control. Whereas the territories of today’s Belarus and Ukraine were in contact, through Vilnius and Warsaw, with the renaissance and the reformation, neither of these trends reached Moscow. Its break from Mongol rule is dated conventionally at 1480. The Dukes of Moscow, like the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, styled themselves the inheritors of Kiev Rus. They did not however control Kiev for nearly half a millennium after the destruction of that medieval state. For most of the time Kiev was ruled from Vilnius and Warsaw.