Ukraine is Europe's second-largest country (after Russia) and the largest country wholly within Europe. Not surprisingly for such a large area, Ukraine offers a wide variety of landscapes, cultures and other attractions.
The history of Ukraine has been one of foreign interference and domination. The roots of modern Ukraine can be traced back to the invasion of Vikings and other Scandinavians and the establishment of Kievan Rus, which was to become a powerful state in Eastern Europe from the 10th through the 13th century and the predecessor state of today's three modern East Slavic nations: Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. During this early period, Prince Volodymyr (Vladimir) converted to Christianity in 988 and founded what would become the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches. This period of Ukrainian power ended in the mid-13th century with the Mongol invasions.
During the 14th century, large parts of Ukraine were controlled variously by Lithuania or Poland. During this period, colonization of the vast Ukrainian steppe began and eventually gave rise to the rugged, militaristic and self-governing bands of Cossacks (Kozaks) that bridled under Polish rule. In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Cossack leader (or "hetman"), led a revolt against the Poles. Seeking foreign support, he allied himself with Russia through the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav (which has been controversial ever since – some saying that this opened the door to Russian domination).
Cossack attempts to stem Russia's expansion into Ukraine failed and by the end of the 18th century, Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula and controlled all Ukrainian land east of the Dnipro (Dnieper) River. Meanwhile, lands to the west of the river were incorporated into the Austrian empire. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, introduced serfdom to Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine in 1795 and encouraged active colonization of the south by ethnic Russians and others. Over the next century, the Ukrainian language and culture were actively suppressed.
The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 brought an end to the Russian empire and in 1918 Ukraine declared itself to be an independent country. Independence, however, proved short-lived. Soviet troops invaded and Ukraine was soon incorporated into the Soviet Union, dominated once again by Russia. The suppression of Ukrainian religion was added to the continuing suppression of Ukrainian language and culture.
The first half of the 20th century included some horrific years for many Ukrainians. During 1932 and 1933, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation during a famine orchestrated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Mass arrests and executions by Stalin led to the death of many more Ukrainians during the 1930s. Then World War II (known as the "Great Patriotic War" in Ukraine) broke out and much of the fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Red Army took place in Ukraine, which suffered enormous human and material losses.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Soviet domination was restored to Ukraine. In 1954, during a ceremony to commemorate the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who lived in Ukraine for a time during his early years) presented the Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian S.S.R. as a gift. Although under Soviet times this grand gesture had little practical effect, it was to prove critical following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
For many Ukrainians, life improved under Khrushchev. While their freedoms were often limited, they also enjoyed many benefits including excellent educational opportunities and medical care, guaranteed employment, adequate pensions, very inexpensive travel (within the Soviet sphere of influence) and, above all, a sense of certainty about the future. Living standards, although still well behind western norms, also increased significantly beyond historical Ukrainian standards. During the 1980s, however, the economy stagnated and Ukraine suffered the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which led to the deaths and sickness of many Ukrainians and the contamination of large portions of northern Ukraine.
In 1991, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, collapsed. Ukraine quickly seized the opportunity to declare independence. There was some initial confusion about Crimea where, though technically part of Ukraine (thanks to Nikita Khrushchev), the population remained ethnically Russian. Matters were further complicated by the Soviet Black Sea naval fleet having its main port in Crimea at Sevastopol. A compromise was reached and Crimea became an "autonomous republic" within the country of Ukraine.
Since independence, Ukraine (as it is now called, rather than "The Ukraine," which implies a region as opposed to a country) has faced many challenges. The transition to a free-market economy has led to many hardships. Factories have closed, salaries have gone unpaid, pensions denominated in pre-independence currency have become nearly worthless and people who once saw a stable future have had the rug pulled out from under them. Despite these challenges, Ukraine has many advantages: rich agricultural soil, an abundance of natural resources and a population that is generally well educated. It will be interesting to watch over the coming years how Ukraine develops and whether it, like other formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe, can make the transition and fully integrate into the European community.
The capital of Kyiv (Kiev) is a surprisingly beautiful city. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, many of Kyiv's historic older buildings have been restored, modern buildings have been added and many Orthodox churches – destroyed during Soviet times or World War II – have been rebuilt based on the original plans. Despite the building boom, Kyiv has preserved its reputation as one of the world's greenest cities, with tree-lined streets and large parks. Odessa, a major seaport on the Black Sea, has a completely different, almost Mediterranean, feel to it. The western city of Lviv (Lvov) is also unique, with its history tied more to Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, than to Russia.
While Crimea lacks the cosmopolitan flair of Kyiv, Lviv or Odessa, it abounds with spectacular natural landscapes from rugged mountains to the beautiful Black Sea coast. Crimea has historically been a crossroads for many cultures – including Scythian, Greek, Karaim, Tatar, Turkish, Russian and many others. These influences remain in the culture and architecture of the region.
A Word About Spelling: The two dominant languages in Ukraine are Ukrainian (the official national language since 1991) and Russian. Both use a version of the Cyrillic alphabet. Although the languages have many similarities, there are enough differences in the alphabets, spellings and many of the words to create a fair amount of confusion. Further confusion arises when Ukrainian or Russian words, including place names, are transliterated into Latin letters. One example: the capital of the country is "Київ" in Ukrainian (which is transliterated as "Kyiv") and "Киев" in Russian (which transliterates as the more commonly seen "Kiev").
In these pages I will generally use a transliteration of the Ukrainian version of place names. Ukrainian is, after all, the country's official language. In many cases, however, I will also include in parentheses the Russian equivalent since this is the version that will be found in many guide books and maps, especially older ones.