Area (233,089 square mi (603,700 square km)
Population 45.36 million 2014
Capital Kyiv (Kiev)
Highest Point 6,762 ft (2,061 m)
Lowest Point 0 m
GDP $131.8 billion 2014
Primary Natural Resources iron ore, coal, manganese, oil.
WHERE EUROPE EDGES into Eurasia, there lies Ukraine, from ancient times known for its fertile black soil, or chornozem, imparting to this great rolling steppe land the distinction of having been “the breadbasket of Europe.” As such Ukraine, meaning “the borderland,” has been the coveted prize of neighboring empires and regimes, particularly those of RUSSIA, GERMANY, AUSTRIA, HUNGARY, POLAND, and TURKEY.
Frequently dismembered by or among them, a consciousness of national identity nevertheless endured, and in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine reemerged on the maps of Europe, internationally recognized as an independent state. It is the second-largest country in Europe.
PLAINS AND PLATEAUS
Topographically, Ukraine consists mainly of plains and plateaus, with less than 5 percent of the national territory being over 1,640 ft (500 m), in the Carpathian and Crimean mountains. The climate is temperate, semicontinental, and cool, with precipitation decreasing from west to east while temperatures increase from north to south. Soils and associated vegetation zones have developed accordingly, from the marshy, glaciated lowlands of Polissia in the north to the forest steppe zone to its south, characterized by fertile soils supporting deciduous forests.
Further south can be found the chornozem soils and finally a broad grassland zone that extends to the BLACK SEA. It is characterized by chestnut soils and considerable salt accumulation and is subject to drought. Most of Ukraine’s major rivers (the Dnipro, Dnister, Boh, Pripet, Desna, and Donets) are part of the Pontic watershed and drain into the BLACK and Azov seas, although the rivers of the northwest, the San and Buh, empty via the Vistula river into the Baltic Sea. Kyivan Rus’ arose in the mid-9th century as a result of the international trade and communication routes provided by these river systems, connecting the Scandinavian peoples of the Varangian (Baltic) Sea with Byzantium, Central Asia and the Islamic world.
Although significant numbers of Ukrainians have dispersed throughout Western Europe as labor migrants since 1991, adding to an existing Ukrainian diaspora located primarily in CANADA, the UNITED STATES, AUSTRALIA, and the UNITED KINGDOM, Ukraine remains home to some 48 million people, overwhelming Ukrainian by ethnicity. An ENCLAVE of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians is found on the eastern side of the country’s principal river, the Dnipro, in the region known as “Left Bank Ukraine.”
Smaller minority communities include the Crimean Tatars, Belarusians, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Moldovans, Hungarians, Jews, and Roma. The capital city is Kyiv, once the center of Kyivan-Rus’. Via Byzantium Christianity was introduced from Kyiv throughout the eastern Slavic realm of Europe, beginning in 988, in the reign of Volodymyr the Great.
Most Ukrainians still identify with various Orthodox denominations, although in “Right Bank” Ukraine, particularly in Galicia, a region once under Austro-Hungarian and later Polish control, centered on Lviv, Ukrainian Catholicism predominates. As a consequence of the Treaty of Brest of 1596, Ukrainians here maintain traditional Orthodox practices, including a married priesthood, but have an allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and the pope, the bishop of Rome.
Ukrainians, although related to the Russians and Belarusians, are a people with a distinct language, culture and historical experience, which separate them from their near neighbors. Imperial (tzarist) Russian historiographers and, at times, their Soviet successors, repeatedly attempted to subsume them, referring to Ukrainians as “Little Russians.” These scholars tried to appropriate entirely the patrimony of Kyivan Rus’, banning the Ukrainian language and literature, even asserting there never was and never would be a Ukrainian nation. This assimilationist Russification project failed, despite several centuries of effort.
Easily accessed from west or east, much of Ukraine was ravaged over the centuries by various invasions, notably those of the Mongol-Tatars, who sacked Kyiv in 1241. Subsequently, despite Polish, Lithuanian, Tatar, and even Swedish interventions, it was Muscovy that became the dominant regional power, as the Russian empire expanded south. Resistance to foreign occupation was offered primarily by Ukrainian cossacks, notably during the campaigns of the great leader, or hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657).
By 1795, however, Ukraine was fully occupied and partitioned, most held by the tzarist Russian Empire with a portion in the southwest under Austro-Hungarian control. Several attempts were made to reassert Ukrainian independence in World War I, particularly between 1917 and 1921. Eventually, western Ukrainian territories were incorporated into interwar POLAND, Czechoslovakia, and ROMANIA, while the remainder of the country fell under Soviet rule, with various territorial realignments subsequently precipitated by the Nazi-Soviet pact (1939–41) and their later falling-out. Ironically, Ukrainian lands were finally reunited under Soviet hegemony after the war, with the peninsula of Crimea appended in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, a symbolic “gift” from the Russian people to the Ukrainians celebrating 300 years of allegedly “fraternal” association. Before, during, and after the war, despite severe repression, national liberation movements contested foreign domination. In the postwar period , political and religious dissidents likewise challenged the Soviet state.
EFFECTS OF WORLD WARS
Ukraine’s rich natural resources were exploited and its population massacred or enslaved during both world wars. In World War II, Ukraine lost more of its people than any other nation in Nazi-occupied Europe. Those losses further weakened demographically a nation that had already suffered many millions of deaths during the genocidal Great Famine (or Holodomor) of 1932–33, a Stalinist crime against humanity. Environmental degradation further soiled Ukraine during the Soviet period, particularly after the catastrophic nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in April 1986. Political corruption, a weak civil society, declining birth rates, out-migration and a failure to undo the consequences of communism, coupled with resurgent Russian pretensions over the fate of Ukraine, currently threaten the country’s stability and even independence. Today, Ukraine remains a post-genocidal society unable to fully regain its place in Europe because of the crippling legacy of its most recent past yet undeniably determined to reintegrate itself within the folds of European civilization.
Until 2004, political corruption, a seemingly weak civil society, declining birth rates, out-migration, and a failure to undo the consequences of Communism, coupled with resurgent Russian pretensions to Ukrainian territories, threatened the country’s stability and even independence. Then, remarkably, following the Orange Revolution—massive, peaceful protests against fraudulent election results, coupled with unprecedented international attention focused on Ukraine—it became clear that despite the crippling legacy of living in a postgenocidal society, Ukrainians were united in wanting to recover their country’s rightful place in Europe. And so, finally, freedom came to Ukraine.