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Ukraine or The Ukraine? A Brief History

March 15, 2017
Culture & History



Oh Ukraine. Misunderstood, shrouded in mystery, and undeniably enthralling. Your unique, and often tumultuous history has created a country that is not quite east, but not quite western. A smattering of different cultures, languages, and peoples can be found in Ukraine, making it both beautiful and complicated.

Ukraine has a long history of being dominated by foreign powers. From Poland, Mongols, the Russians, Lithuania, to the Austrians, countless countries and powers fought over and across this borderland between east and west. Ukraine claimed its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and prior to this had not experienced freedom as a country since the 1600s (unless you count the short blip in the inter-war years). This has forged Ukraine into a melting pot of languages and cultures, and also has left the country divided.

In the years surrounding World War I, Ukraine was not only affected by the Ukrainian-Soviet War, but also the Russian Revolutions that replaced the tsarist regimes with the formation of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, occupied by Russian Soviet military, was considered one of the founding members of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian-Soviet War has several interpretations. Soviet historians alluded that it was a revolt against oppressive Polish & Western powers by the Ukrainians. However, in modern day Ukraine, historians consider the Ukrainian-Soviet War a failed uprising against the Soviet Regime.

After the war, Russia controlled most of Ukraine and it was included in the Soviet Union, while Poland retained control over some of the western region. Ukrainian nationalists and Polish intelligence were against the control of Ukraine and launched several guerrilla-style attacks in effort to wage a partisan war. The last of the Ukrainian nationalists were annihilated in the Holodomor.


translation: death by hunger

Rarely referenced outside of Ukraine is the systematic and planned starvation of Ukrainian nationals by the Stalinist regime and Soviet government. It occurred from 1932-1933 alongside the widespread Soviet Famine. The official estimate is that between 7-10 million died in the Holodomor, though some estimates are 2.4 million up to 12 million. During this time, the Soviet Government deliberately took food from peasants and many say that it was in effort to quell Ukrainian nationalist parties and their attempts at sovereignty.

It is not officially recognized by Russia, Europe, or the United States as a genocide.

There is a reason Ukraine used to be called a "breadbasket" !

Ukraine also suffered greatly in World War II. The country was briefly reunited after Poland was annexed by Nazi Germany, but western Ukraine was eventually controlled by the Axis Powers and the remainder under Soviet rule. Some Ukrainians served the Axis Powers under Germany or Austrian rule while others fought in the Red Army. The country was the site for many large and heart-wrenching battles, deportations, and mass murders on both sides.

Post-war Ukraine saw slow development in industry, infrastructure, and technology. The Chernobyl disaster in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, helped to spur the nationalist sentiments felt throughout Ukraine in the late 1980's. Ukraine became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Present day Ukraine remains, largely, divided. There is strong support for Ukrainian nationalism, closer Russian ties, and also for joining the EU. The separation of ideology is best seen geographically. The War in Donbass, beginning in 2014, involved two separate oblasts in Ukraine, 'uninvited' Russian soldiers, and the eventual Russian annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian insurgents continue the conflict today despite the ceasefire as issued 12 February.


Why should you care? 

If you haven't noticed by now, I have a slightly different view of travel than many other people. I am endlessly intrigued by history, culture, and language and Ukraine has an interesting and complicated past (and present). The places we visit and travel to are not just destinations or quick stop overs. Everywhere you go has a history and a people that have shaped it into what it is today. These aren't just stories, names, or numbers. These are people and lives that have been shaped and changed by the course of history. I think it is important to remember that.

You may wave off a country like Ukraine and say "oh I hear it's dangerous" and skip it on your list of places to see. I believe that would be a mistake and I hope that I can convince you to visit. A country should not be put on a scale of "worthiness" to visit or based on why you would want to go there. A country is not what it "offers" its guests. Go because you want to learn and expand your mind and heart. You will be surprised what you find when you are simply open to experience.

Interesting Facts about Ukraine

-It is NOT called "the Ukraine" and referring to it as such can be insulting to Ukrainians. The idea behind it is that in Russian/Slavic languages, Ukraine means "borderland" or something similar. So it was like "the borderland". it can also be seen as not recognizing Ukraine's sovereignty from Russia. Besides, who would say "I'm going to the Australia"? No one.

-Home to the world's deepest metro system (In Kyiv, it is 105.5 meters underground)

-Kyiv is the proper spelling, Kiev is the Russian form

-Between 1300 and the 1900s, Ukraine practically ceased to exist

-Ukraine inherited the third largest amount of nuclear warheads after its separation from the Soviet Union. However, Ukraine chose to dismantle the warheads, return them to Russia, and dismantle the silos

-Thousands of Jews were offered protection by Ukrainian religious leaders during WWII

-Ukrainians almost never smile in public-same goes for much of Eastern Europe! That doesn't mean they're rude! 

-Surzhyk refers to a mixture between the Ukrainian and Russian languages. During the Soviet era, Ukrainians had to learn Russian and most ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian

Siggi Einarson

My name is Siggi-dubbed by my American friends because of the Icelandic yogurt-I am a writer, polyglot, and aspiring expat, not a cup of yogurt (unfortunately).

My love for travelling began with a trip to Iceland and Sweden to visit my family when I was just 15 years old. I spent so long dreaming of the possibilities of life abroad but I always figured these dreams were too far reached. Flash forward almost 10 years, here I am again, both cursing and thanking this damn travel bug.

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