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Ukraine – History of the Flag

Last modified: 2023-09-09 by martin karner
Keywords: ukraine |
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Origins and History

In the 19th century, the area inhabited by Ruthenians, as the Ukrainians were then known, was divided between Russia and the Austrian Empire. Austria got Galicia after the partition of Poland in 1772. Territory was later added, including the Duchy of Bukovina. From 1815, the former Polish possessions of Austria were known as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Ukrainians were a majority only in the eastern parts of this kingdom. As a kingdom, Galicia had three flags.

The origins of Ukraine's flag can be traced back to the convention of the Supreme Ruthenian Council, meeting in Lviv in October 1848. At this meeting, an emblem (coat of arms) for the Ukrainians was adopted. This was a golden rampant lion on blue [Encyclopedia Ukraine, Flag Bulletin, 1992]. At the same time, (light) blue and yellow was accepted as the national colours of the Ukrainians. For flags, both the golden crowned lion on a (light) blue field, and the yellow over (light) blue, were used [Ukraine: A Concise Encyclopedia]. The Ukrainian colours became popular throughout Ukrainian lands, including those under Russia, but the order of the colours was not stable.

The first opportunity for Ukrainians to adopt the blue and yellow as a national flag came with the break up of the Austrian and Russian empires as a result of World War I. The Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) was proclaimed on 20 November 1917. This was planned as a republic within a (future) Russian federation. However, because of the Bolshevik takeover in Russia and the war launched into Ukraine, independence was declared 22 January 1918. On the same day, the national flag of yellow over light blue was adopted 22 March 1918. A naval ensign with a trident had been adopted a few days earlier, on 18 January 1918 [Encyclopedia Ukraine].

On 29 April 1918, a coup overthrew the UNR government. General Pavlo Skoropadsky set up the 'Hetmanate of Ukraine' ('Hetman' is an old title used by certain military leaders). The flag was now changed to light blue over yellow. At the same time, a new naval ensign and 'several dozen' flags for various government services were introduced. The Hetmanate lasted until 14 December 1919, when Hetman Skoropadsky stepped down and the UNR was restored. Under the restored UNR, the national flag of light blue over yellow was not changed again and the other flags from the Hetman regime were used with only 'minor changes' [6]. Independence was soon lost to the Bolsheviks and Ukraine eventually became a union republic of the USSR.

In the Austrian parts of Ukraine, in Galicia, Bukovina and Transcarpathia, a Western Ukrainian National Republic (WUNR) was declared in October 1918. A flag, blue over yellow, was adopted by this republic on 13 November 1918 [Encyclopedia Ukraine]. Union between the UNR and WUNR was declared 22 January 1919, but was never properly implemented because of the war that broke out with the Poles. Poland took control of Galicia, and kept it until the area became part of Ukraine and the USSR after World War II.

Another territory populated by Ukrainians, Transcarparthia, became a province of Czechoslovakia in 1919, where it was named Subcarpathian Ruthenia. On 20 March 1920 a provincial flag of blue over yellow was adopted [Encyclopedia Ukraine]. In 1938, Hungary started occupying the province step by step. Despite the Hungarian occupation (which lasted until the end of World War II), the provincial assembly proclaimed the territory independent as Carpatho-Ukraine on 15 March 1939. The national flag of Carpatho-Ukraine was also blue over yellow [Encyclopedia Ukraine]. After World War II, Carpatho-Ukraine was incorporated into Ukraine.

In 1919 the Zaporoge Cossacks took power in several territories in Ukraine. The flag was green and black.

Under Communism, the light blue and yellow flag of Ukraine was almost forgotten in the Eastern and Central parts of the country, the parts that belonged to the USSR from the time this union was formed. In Western Ukraine, which was part of Poland, the flag was used for a longer period and memory of it survived. Despite persecution of nationalists under Stalin, there were a few instances (heavily punished) of the light blue and yellow flag being displayed as acts of demonstration. It was in Lviv and Western Ukraine that the use of the flag was revived in the Spring of 1989, mostly by nationalist and human rights organizations, such as 'Rukh', 'Ukrainian Helsinki Union' and others [Krawchenko, 1990]. Two and a half years later, the flag became the national flag of independent Ukraine. The other national symbol, the 'tryzub', is now finally also found on the new Ukrainian kopeck coins, introduced on 2 September 1996. It is here surrounded by a wreath of wheat and oak leaves [Numismatics].
Jan Oskar Engene, 7 September 1996

From <>:
THE PRINCELY ERA. Some information about the flags of the Princely era in Ukraine can be gleaned from the written sources and the art of the time: the chronicles; biographies such as the Life of Borys and Hlib; epics such as Slovo o polku Ihorevi (The Tale of Ihor's Campaign); foreign works, particularly Byzantine and Bulgarian (Manasses's chronicle, etc); Queen Gertrude's kilim; the seal of King Yurii I of Galicia; Novgorodian and Muscovite miniatures; and so on. The earliest banners were triangular and were attached to a staff either directly along one side or perpendicularly to a cross-staff. At the close of the 13th century square flags with pennants along the free side appeared. Red was the most common color, followed by white and azure; yellow was rare. Parti-colored flags were not uncommon. The most common symbols that appeared on Rags were the cross, the celestial bodies, and the emblems of the princely dynasties – the trident and the bident. Old Ukrainian flags can be divided into princely-dynastic and military banners; the latter were completely red. The standard of Kyivan Rus' was a predominantly red flag with a golden trident or bident, the emblem of the individual grand prince. Later the standard of the Rus' kingdom of the Galician-Volhynian period displayed a golden lion on an azure background.
LITHUANIAN-POLISH PERIOD. All Ukrainian territories the principalities and provinces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the voivodeships of the Polish Kingdom with their lands and counties – had their own banners, which were usually the same as their coats of arms. The Peremyshl land, for example, had a flag and coat of arms consisting of a golden two-headed eagle on an azure background. Sometimes the emblem of a territory was placed on a different background in the flag; for example, the flag of Kyiv voivodeship was green, displaying on the right side a silver Archangel Michael on a red shield and on the left side a black bear on a silver shield. Local flags were quite common: municipal banners (the famous 'Golden Banner' of Kyiv), guild flags, military standards, etc. The Renaissance left its mark on the flags of the period: The flags of magnates and landowners and state and church authorities were modeled on their family or personal coats of armsand displayed a variety of forms and colors.
In the 15th century the flag of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania continued the Old Ukrainian tradition and was red with a golden tridentlike emblem (kolona) of the Gediminas dynasty. Later it was red and displayed a white horse in gold harness on which sat a white knight holding a sword in his right hand and an azure shield with a two-barred golden cross against his left shoulder (known in Lithuanian as vytis, in Polish as pogon, and in Ukrainian as pohonia; this was also claimed by the Belorussians as their national emblem).
THE COSSACK PERIOD. The most common banners were rectangular or oblique (skosheni), that is, right-angled trapeziums with angular upward or downward cuts. Triangular pennants were used on the lances of cavalrymen and as standards of small military units. The most important state emblems were the two hetman standards: the first was red with a white figure of the Archangel Michael; the second had a representation of the coat of arms of the individual hetman. The flags were in the charge of the *general standard-bearer. The flags of the Hetman state in the 17th century were of many colors, but red was predominant. There were company, regimental, and kurin standards, banners, and pennants. In the 18th century azure flags with golden or yellow crosses and sometimes other devices (celestial bodies, weapons, saints) began to predominate. The right side of regimental and company flags displayed the national emblem – a Cossack with a musket on a golden or yellow shield – on an azure background. The left side displayed the regimental or company emblem. The Zaporozhian Sich had its own flags. The great banner of the Sich was red with a white Archangel Michael on the right side and a white Greek cross surrounded by a golden sun, crescent, and stars on the left side. The flags of the kurins and palankas were usually crimson with representations of the Archangel Michael or white cross. The ensign used in sea campaigns was white and contained a depiction of St Nicholas. In the 17th and I8th centuries, not only military units, but also so-called privileged cities and their guilds had their own flags.
19TH-20TH CENTURY. With the downfall of the Hetman state and the annexation of central and Western Ukraine by Russia and Austria, Ukrainian state, territorial, military, and other flags disappeared. In Ukraine within the Russian Empire, only the vertically striped white-blue-red imperial flag and the official government flags based on it were used. The flag of the Austrian Empire was at first yellow with a black, two-headed eagle and then a black and yellow vertically striped flag. There were no territorial flags in the Russian Empire. Under Austria, only two flags of Ukrainian territories were official: the flag of the Kingdom of Galicia, which was changed three times (azure-red-yellow, azure-red, and red-azure) and the azure-red flag of the Duchy of Bukovyna. The Supreme Ruthenian Council in Lviv adopted the coat of arms of the Romanovych princely dynasty – a golden lion on an azure background – as the emblem of the Ukrainian people in October 1848. Standards of independent military formations and civic organizations appeared. They were either azure flags with a golden lion or horizontally striped yellow-azure or azure-yellow flags. The modern Ukrainian flag spread quickly under the Austro-Hungarian regime and at the beginning of this century in Russian-ruled Ukraine. The order of colors was not fixed, but publications on this question at the beginning of the 20th century argued for the yellow-azure flag. This flag was adopted by the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen in 19l4.
THE MODERN PERIOD. The flag of the first Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) was yellow-azure. On 18 January 1918 a naval ensign with a trident was adopted, and on 22 March 1918 the national flag was approved. Under Hetman P. Skoropadsky's regime the order of the horizontal colors was changed to azure-yellow, and a new naval ensign as well as several dozen government flags were designed on this basis. With minor changes these flags were retained under the second UNR. The flags of military units and partisan detachments were freely chosen – yellow-azure, azure-yellow, or modeled on the old Cossack flags. In 1920 the Directory of the UNR-approved battalion and brigade banners and company flags. On 13 November 1918 the azure-yellow flag of the Western Ukrainian National Republic was adopted. Two other state flags were adopted that same year: the blue-crimson-green flag of the Kuban and the Crimean flag, which was azure with a yellow Crimean sign (tamga). On 20 March 1920 the provincial azure-yellow flag of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which was a part of Czechoslovakia, was adopted. On 15 March 1939 this flag was recognized officially as the national flag of Carpatho-Ukraine. The All-Ukrainian National Rada in May 1920 and the Governmental Constitutional Commission of the Ukrainian State on 1 October 1920 expressed their support for an azure-yellow flag. Between 1920 and 1939 only the yellow-azure flag was used in Galicia and by some important Ukrainian organizations abroad, such as the Plast youth association. This practice was based on vexillologic studies. The same flag was used by Ukrainian military formations – the Ukrainian Liberation Army and the Division Galizien – in 1943–45. The controversy between the advocates of a yellow-azure andthose of an azure-yellow flag was decided by the 27 June 1949 resolution of the Ukrainian National Council, which stated that until the national emblems were defined by an independent government of Ukraine, the azure-yellow flag would be the Ukrainian national flag.
The first flag of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was adopted in March 1919. This was a red flag with the Cyrillic initials YPCP (for the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic) in gold standing in a red, gold-bordered canton. When Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, it received a new flag: a red flag with a crossed golden hammer and sickle, a red, gold-bordered, five point star above them, and the Cyrillic initials YPCP at the bottom (for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR approved a new flag on 21 November 1949: the upper horizontal stripe, constituting two-thirds of the flag, was red; the lower, azure. The upper part displays the same golden sickle, hammer, and star. The Ukrainian SSR does not have its own naval or merchant-marine flag. Ships in Ukrainian ports fly the ensigns of the Soviet Union. Hardly any territorial flags have been in use in recent times. Only the more important cities in Western Ukraine, such as Lviv and Chernivtsi, had their own flags before they came under Soviet rule.
Dov Gutterman, 15 March 1999

I was reading about the history of the flag of Ukraine, and I think I have yet another version. While taking a short course in the history of Russia, I was informed that with the partition of Poland, these large portions of Ukraine came under Austrian control. Traditionally, the colors of Ukraine were yellow over light blue. When the Austrians gained the region, they began a rigorous propaganda campaign against the Russians and the original flag of the Ukrainian people was changed, to light blue over yellow. Information supporting this lies in the flag of the Austrian Empire at the time (black over yellow). The Ukrainian People's Republic that was delcared on the 16th of July in 1917, had the yellow over light blue flag.
Greg Walker, 10 September 2000

I have seen somewhere a photo of a flag presentation to Ukrainian troops serving with the German forces on the Russian front in World War II. That flag was yellow over blue, with the white trident in centre. Also, the sleeve badge worn on the otherwise German uniforms of these troops displayed the trident on a shield of yellow over blue. I have often wondered about this arrangement of the colours.
Devereaux D. Cannon Jr., 10 September 2000

Heraldists considered that "right" arrangement of the colours on flag is:
upper stripe – colour of figure on the shield (gold trident);
lower stripe – colour of the shield (blue).
Ukrainians used both combinations of colours. But most popular is blue over yellow.
Victor Lomantsov, 11 September 2000

The meaning of the colors on the Ukrainian flag:
Yellow for borderless wheat-fields and blue for clear and peaceful sky is the famous unofficial meaning. Second version – blue and yellow – colours of shield and trident of national Coat of Arms; Third – colours of Coat of Arms of Rus vojevodship (with Lviv city) in ancient Polonia.
Victor Lomantsov, 2 May 2005

Sources of Information

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