What follows is a brief account of Ukraine’s history and of its geographical and other features.
Ukraine is a country in southeaster Europe. It is bordered by Belarus on the north, by Russia on the north, north-east, and east, by the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea on the south, by Moldova and Romania on the south-west, and by Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland on the west. The capital is Kyiv. Area is 233,100 square miles (603,700 square km). Population – about 50 million people. Ukraine consists almost entirely of level plains and occupies a large portion of the East European Plain. The Crimean Peninsula, in the extreme south, has both lowlands and low mountains. Western Ukraine has some uplands, and the Carpathian Mountains extend through that region for more than 150 miles (240 km). Ukraine lies in a temperate climatic zone. The Dnipro, Don, Dniester and other rivers all drain southward through the plains to empty into the Azov-Black Sea Basin. Ethnic Ukrainians make up more than seventy percent of the total population.
The Ukrainian language belongs to the Slavic group of languages.
The Ukrainian economy largely depends on heavy industry and agriculture. Ukraine’s political system underwent rapid change in the early 1990s after the country gained its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in late 1991.
From prehistoric times, migration and settlement patterns in the territories of present-day Ukraine varied fundamentally along the lines of geographic zones. A number of soil-tilling cultures succeeded one another (Trypillya Culture, Chernyakhivska Culture, Zarubynetska Culture and others). In the first millennium BC, the Scythian civilisation spread over a greater part of the present-day Ukraine. During the 1st millennium BC the steppe hinterland was occupied successively by the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians. The Scythians, both nomads and tillers of the soil, intrepid warriors and refined artists, remain, to a large extent, an enigma waiting to be explored. Beginning in the 7th-6th centuries BC, numerous Greek colonies were founded on the northern coast of the Black Sea, in the Crimea, and along the Sea of Azov; these Hellenic outposts later came under the hegemony of the Roman Empire. The early Ukrainians practised agriculture and animal husbandry, engaged in such domestic industries as cloth making and ceramics, and built fortified settlements, many of which later developed into important commercial and political centres. Among such early settlements was Kyiv on the high right bank of the Dnipro River.
The emergence of Ukraine as a powerful state is closely connected with the rise of Kyiv, its capital. We know little of the early stages of Kyiv’s development, but there is enough evidence to suggest that Kyiv emerged no later than AD 5th century, and many historians argue it happened much earlier. In the 9th century Kyiv becomes the capital of a state that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north, from the Black Sea in the south, from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Volga River in the east. This state, usually referred to as “Kyivan-Rus-Ukraine,” incorporated many eastern Slavic tribes. AD 988 saw the adoption of Christianity by this state which became a Christian bulwark against the incursions of the heathen nomads of the steppes. Kyivan-Rus-Ukraine, which flourished in the 10th – 12th centuries, was treated with respect by Byzantine and western European powers. The east European Slavic cultures of later ages of sprang up from the culture of Kyivan-Rus-Ukraine.
The feuds among princes and local rulers of the state gradually undermined its power and continuous fighting for the possession of Kyiv proved to be disastrous: when the Mongol-Tartar hordes invaded the country in the 13th century they did not meet a unified opposition. Kyiv, after a siege, fell in 1240 and was practically razed to the ground. But the cultural traditions were picked up by the states that emerged later in the lands of what used to be Kyivan-Rus-Ukraine. The Halytsko-Volynska State with King Danylo at its head managed to withstand the pressure of the Mongols from the east and of the crusaders from the west. The continuity of culture was not disrupted. Meanwhile, Kyiv and other lands of the former Kyivan-Rus-Ukraine came under the dominance of the Grand Principality of Lithuania, but preserved their own cultural identity. In the early 15th century, Kyiv was granted the status of a free city under the Magdeburg Law. Powerful neighbours of Ukraine - Rzeczpospolita (Poland), Muscovy and the Ottoman Empire never stopped their attempts to grab great chunks of the Ukrainian territory, which attracted them by its fertility and natural resources.
The Zaporizhian Sich, a free republic of the Ukrainian Cossacks that was established at the end of the 16th century, later, in the 17th century, turned out to be a decisive political power in Ukraine’s struggle for independence. The Zaporizhian Cossacks came out in support of all the Ukrainians who lived under foreign domination and sought freedom. They were also successors and continuations of the cultural traditions. After a period of cruel wars, Ukraine gained independence in the middle of the 17th century, with a Hetman as an elected ruler and military leader of the state. In 1654 Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky was forced by the pressure of political circumstances to sign a treaty, which put Ukraine under Russian tsar’s protection. For another hundred years though, Ukraine retained much of its autonomy, including its own laws and army. The union of the freedom-loving Ukraine and of the suppressive Moscow Empire was not a happy one from the outset. In the early 17th century Hetman Ivan Mazepa made an attempt to extricate Ukraine from much too tight an embrace of the Russian State and joined Sweden in its struggle against Russia. The attempt failed after the combined Swedish and Ukrainian forces were defeated in the Battle of Poltava.
The Russian pressure on Ukraine was stepped up, and by brutal force the Russian tsars did away with Ukraine’s autonomy and whatever liberties there might have been left. The free peasants were turned into serfs and self-government in any form was abolished. By the end at the 18th century Ukraine was no more then just another province of the Russian Empire, with the western Ukrainian lands finding themselves under the dominance of the Empire of Austria and Hungary. The 19th century saw a gradual re-establishment of the Ukrainian national identity and after the World War I, an opportunity presented itself to Ukraine to go once again independent.
In the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ukraine proclaimed its Independence of January 22, 1918, with Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, a prominent political figure and historian, becoming its first president. The Civil War of 1917-1920 that raged across the former Russian Empire was the fiercest in Ukraine. It became a scene of battles of many forces fighting for the supremacy of Ukraine: national liberation forces, Bolshevik armies, White armies commanded by the Russian generals, anarchists, armed forces of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Britain, France, Romania, Greece, and numerous bandit groups into the bargain. The Ukrainian People’s Republic succumbed under enormous pressure and was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922.
The thirties and forties turned out to be even more dramatic and tragic to Ukraine than anything it had lived through before. The Soviet totalitarian regime wrought havoc in Ukraine with purges, extermination of Ukrainian wealthy peasants and intellectuals, artificially induced famines (the famine of 1932-1933 took a terrible toll of several million lives). Ukrainian culture suffered enormous losses both in terms of intellectuals shot or dispatched to concentration camps, and of destruction of historical and architectural monuments, books, etc.
The Second World War brought new tragedies and new suffering, with three million Ukrainians killed in action at the battlefronts and five more million dying in the Nazi-occupied territories. The material losses of Ukraine in the war are estimated to have been almost a thousand billion dollars. In the post-war years, Ukraine developed its economy rather fast but lack of democracy continued to stifle Ukrainian national culture.
On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced a meltdown of its core and exploded. This disaster affected the lives of millions of people in Ukraine.
In the mid-eighties, there began in Ukraine and upsurge of the movement for national independence. This time, millions of Ukrainians, rather then individual dissidents and nationalists joined the movement. Newly formed half-clandestine democratic organisation and a widening search for national identity destabilised the communist regime. On July 16, 1990, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian parliament, adopted The Act of State Sovereignity, which was the first major step toward true independence.
After a coup to re-establish the tight Soviet control failed in Moscow in August of 1991, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted the Declaration of Independence on August 24, 1991. On December 1 of the same year, the all-Ukrainian Referendum confirmed the desire of the part of the majority of Ukrainians to live in an independent state. Ukraine inherited form the defunct Empire an enormous rocket and nuclear arms potential which made it the third mightiest nuclear power in the world. Ukrainian parliament soon after Ukraine had become independent, made an unprecedented move - it has been decided to get rid of all the nuclear weapons. In was the first time ever a nuclear power scrapped its nuclear weapons.
The first few years of independence turned out to be extremely difficult for Ukraine (in fact, they were difficult for all the former Soviet states): the economy in shambles; many industrial enterprises too big to be renovated; enormous military-industrial complex; obsolete technologies; totally defective agricultural system; depleted fertilities of the soil; badly polluted environment; ecological situation very much aggravated by the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster; ruined social sphere; no money for properly financed education, science and culture; runaway inflation (which turned all Ukrainians into “millionaires” who could hardly make ends meet). A list of woes is a long one indeed.
Recent years have brought about a change for the better. The national currency – hryvnya – was introduced more than four years ago and ever since in has remained more or less stable. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union the economic decline slowed down and finally stopped and in many industries a definite increase of production has been observed.
Cultural life is on the upswing. Small and middle-sized businesses are more active than ever before. Ukrainian foreign policy has been successful in making Ukraine much better known on the arena of international politics. There is enough confidence generated now to look into the future with hope. The new century – and the new millennium – should become a new era in Ukraine’s development.