Ukraine (pronounced in Ukrainian UKRAYINA) is a country in south-eastern Europe, the second largest of the continent after Russia, and one of the most populous in Europe. Its history spans more than a thousand years. For several centuries it had stayed under Russia's domination and regained independence in 1991.
Ukraine 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. Ukraine occupies an area of 233,100 square miles (603,700 square km) and its population is about 50,000,000. Ukraine consists almost entirely of level plains and occupies a large portion of the East European Plain. The Dnipro River runs from north to south. Other lowlands extend along the shores of the Black and Azov seas in southern Ukraine, while 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 and receives 16 to 24 inches (400 to 600 mm) of precipitation annually. The Dnipro, Don, Dniester, and other rivers all drain southward through the plains to empty into the Azov-Black Sea Basin. Ukraine's most important river, the Dnipro, is extensively dammed along much of its course for hydroelectric and irrigation purposes.
Ethnic Ukrainians make up more than seven-tenths of the total population of about fifty million people. The Ukrainian language is related to Russian and Belarussian and belongs to the Slavic group of languages. Russians are the largest minority group, accounting for about two-tenths of the population. Other ethnic minorities of varying sizes are Belarussian, Moldavians, Poles, Bulgarians, Jews, Greeks, Tartars, and others. The highest population densities are found in the industrialized Donets Basin and Dnipro Bend regions and in the agriculturally productive forest-steppe belt.
Some historical facts
Among the Slavs' earliest settlements was that of the name of Kyiv along the Dnipro River. The state known as Kyivan Rus-Ukraine arose in late 9th century. The Kyivan Rus-Ukraine reached its zenith in the 10th and 11th centuries under the rulers Volodymyr I (St. Vladimir) and his son Yaroslav I (Yaroslav the Wise). Volodymyr I adopted Christianity as the official religion of his realm about AD 888.
Christianity gave the eastern Slavic peoples their first written language, called Church Slavonic and Kyiv became eastern Europe's chief political and cultural centre. The 12th and 13th centuries saw the decline of Kyiv owing to internal dissension, struggles with the invading nomads. The Mongol conquest in the mid-13th century decisively ended Kyivan power, but a Ukrainian principality in western Ukraine that had emerged about 1200 continued into the 14th century. In the 14th century Lithuania annexed most Ukrainian lands except for the Galician principality, which passed to the kingdom of Poland; and in the meantime southern Ukraine remained under the control of the Tartars.
After the Union of Lublin in 1569, rule over Ukraine was transferred from Lithuania to Poland. Religious dissent and social strife between the Ukrainians and their Polish overlords were augmented by the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were in fact a class of free warriors. From their stronghold along the lower Dnipro River, the Cossacks in 1648, led by their Hetman (military leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky, rose against the Poles and formed a semi-independent, if short-lived, state. Khmelnytsky's need for help against the Poles led to an agreement with the Muscovite tsar in 1654. In the late 18th-century the Russian Empire obtained the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnipro, except for Galicia, which went to Austria. A Ukrainian nationalist movement developed in the 19th century, but in Russian-held Ukraine the movement faced political repression and restrictions against the Ukrainian language.
After the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Ukrainian and Bolshevik forces struggled for control of Ukraine until 1921, when the Soviet government emerged victorious. Beginning in the 1930s, the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin carried out by brutal force a policy of rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine. This policy met with peasant resistance, which in turn prompted the confiscation of grain from Ukrainian farmers by Soviet authorities, with the result that a famine in the early 1930s took an estimated five million lives.
Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union (1941) brought devastation to Ukraine and enormous suffering to its population. A major reconstruction effort after the defeat of the Nazis restored the country's economy to its pre-war level in a short time. After the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reforms in the late 1980s, Ukrainian nationalist feelings gradually awoke, leading the newly democratized Ukrainian parliament to declare the republic's sovereignty in 1991.
A millennium of cultural development has created a wide spectrum of spiritual achievements. Splendid architectural landmarks, very rich folk art, music, a network of drama and music theatres, art schools, thousands of artists creating in all possible styles attest to a high level of cultural development despite all political and economic upheavals. Dynamo Kyiv is a leading soccer club in Ukraine, well known in Europe for its remarkable victories over many grandees of European football. Ukrainian boxers successfully compete at the world's professional boxing level. Ukrainian national teams and individual athletes win gold, silver and bronze at the Olympic games and at world and European championships.
Both Western and domestic observers agree that Ukraine has a great economic potential but the pace of reforms is slowed down by the leftist opposition, ineptitude, inefficiency and corruption. In the fall of 1998 Ukraine was hit by a bad economic crisis. But Ukraine's very rich historical and cultural legacy, determination on the part of many forces working for the good of the country, will hopefully pull Ukraine through and launch it successfully into the 21st century.