The name Ukraine comes from the Slavic word for Borderland due to the area’s complex history, as it was dominated by various peoples over the centuries.
Historically, the area has been much fought-over, for various reasons. Its geographical position, being at the cross roads between the Baltic and Black Seas, and also on the boundry between Western Europeand Central Asia, made the area an important trade route. The area also had naturally rich fertile soil for agriculture. Ukraine was known as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Soviet Union or USSR, providing much food; Hitler also wanted to capture Ukraine for this reason.
The country Ukraine should be referred to as ‘Ukraine’ and not ‘The Ukraine’; the latter infering that it is a geographical area, rather than an independent country, which it now is.
Ukraine only gained independence from USSR in 1991. It wasn’t until the end of the First World War that all of modern-day Ukraine came under Russian rule. Significant Russian domination of Ukraine began during the 17th century and gradually increased. By the First World War, only a small area in the west, around L’viv, remained outside Russia’s control; this area was under Polish, and then Austro-Hungarian rule.
The twentieth century was a time of great trauma, dramatic changes for Ukrainians (policitally, economically and socially), and resulted in the somewhat unexpected formation of an independent country. It is estimated that wars, famine and purges in the first half of the 20th century cost the lives of half the males and one quarter of the females in Ukraine's population!
Ukraine saw much fighting in World War One, which ended for Ukraine in 1917 after the Bolsheviks(Communists) overthrew the Tsarist government in Russia [see Russian history 1892-1917] and made peace with Germany. A brutal Civil War followed, as the Bolsheviks established domination of what eventually became the USSR.
Ukrainians had more than their fair share of hardship under the USSR. The 1920's was a traumatic period with communism and collectivisation of agriculture and industry being enforced throughout USSR. Ukraine suffered severely in Stalin’s famine of the early 1930's, in which it is estimated between five and seven million people died. As a consequence of the aspirations of some Ukrainians for an independent state, Ukraine suffered a higher proportion of Stalin’s horrendous purges of the late 1930's.
In the summer of 1941, Hitler ordered a three-pronged attack on the USSR. One of these ‘prongs’, and most successful of the three, was to plunder and ravage the rich agricultural land and the natural resources of Ukraine; and by the end of 1941, most of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. However, Hitler’s other advances into the USSR failed and, during 1944/45, Stalin’s army pushed the Germans forces back and out of Ukraine.
Ukraine remained a part of the USSR until August 1991 when, after a relaxation of communist control and the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’, the USSR itself began to collapse and an independent Ukraine was declared.
Ukrainian nationalism and the desire for independence had been in existence for centuries, but there was never a strong and widespread nationalist movement. The vast majority of people lived, worked and rarely travelled more than a few miles from their birth place. They were generally unconcerned about the country which ruled them, worrying only about their own economic and living conditions.
Nationalism did increase from around the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. This was partly as a result of the disaster, but was mainly due to Russian policy changes in glasnot and peristroka. The Chernobyl disaster encouraged the communist leaders of the USSR, who were already realising that there were huge flaws in their system, and knew that major changes were needed to save the regime. It was in fact these changes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the ending of its domination over Eastern Europe.
Beginning in 1989, an independent Ukraine gradually evolved, until the declaration of independence in August 1991. Since independence there have been significant democratic reforms and today Ukraine would describe itself as a Democratic Republic.
Democracy is popular and strong, though there still is a Communist Party which has a small but significant support base, especially amongst the older generation who yearn to go back to the glory days of communism. Much of this is attitude is due to the economic downturn experienced since independence and a consequent lower level of pension payouts, amongst other things.
It should be remembered that Ukraine has been independent of the dominant and centralised USSR for only a short time and many politicians are ex-communists or with little experience of running a country. There is much bureaucracy and inefficiency. Bribery is common everywhere; from the police and armed forces, to the cleaning lady in the tower block!
More on: History of Ukraine
Ukraine’s topography consists almost entirely of steppe – gently rolling, partially wooded plains with a belt of highland running from the north-west to the south-east. There are mountains in Transcarpathia, in the west, and in Crimea, in the far south. Nearly 3,000 rivers flow through Ukraine.
Ukraine is the largest country that is geographically entirely within Europe. Situated in Eastern Europe, it covers an area of 603,700 sq km, and has land borders with Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova.
The capital is Kiev which, with a population of 2.8 million, is Ukraine's largest city.
July and August are the warmest months with temperatures usually between 20-30°C.
The North of Ukraine is normally completely frozen between December and February. Roads therefore become impassable for weeks, leaving rural villages often cut off from nearby towns and cities and from the supplies and medical facilities there.
More on: Geography of Ukraine
Ukraine has the potential to be a major economy: rich farmlands; a well-developed industrial base; a pool of highly-trained labour; and a good education system. However, despite these advantages, the economy remains in poor condition, having suffered significantly in the economic crisis of 2008.
The country is relatively rich in natural resources, particularly in mineral deposits. Although oil reserves are largely exhausted, it has other important energy sources, such as coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity and nuclear fuel raw materials.
It has a major ferrous metal industry, putting it in the top 10 of the largest steel producing countries of the world. Its chemical industry and manufactured goods sector make an important contribution to the economy, while the country possesses a massive high-tech industrial base, though much of it is state-owned and underdeveloped in terms of business practices. Ukraine is also a major producer of grain, sugar, meat and milk products.
Since the late 1990’s, the government has pledged to reduce the number of government agencies, streamline the regulatory process, create a legal environment to encourage entrepreneurs, and enact a comprehensive tax overhaul. However, in some politically sensitive areas, reforms are slow in being realised.
Most of Ukraine’s trade is with Russia and countries within the European Union.
More on: Economy of Ukraine
Ukraine has a population of around 45.7 million, which has been declining slightly in recent years.
The majority population mix is 73% Ukrainian, concentrated in the western half of Ukraine; and 22% Russian, who are mainly concentrated in the eastern half of Ukraine.
The remainder of the population are mostly Belerussian, Moldavian, Bulgarian, Polish, Hungarian or Romanian. These nationalities tend to be concentrated close to the border with their national homeland. There is also a small but significant number of Jews who are concentrated in the cities.
Christianity in Ukraine dates back to the earliest centuries of the apostolic church and has remained the dominant religion in the country since its acceptance in 988 as the state religion. The majority of Ukranian Christians share a common Eastern Orthodox faith, while belonging to a number of different denominations.
Western Christian traditions, such as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, have had a limited presence in Ukraine since at least the sixteenth century, but worshipers of these traditions remain a relatively small minority in today's Ukraine.
PCI's links with the Church in Ukraine are in Transcarpathia, in the West of the country, with members of the Transcarpathian Reformed Church or those belonging to congregations (where they exist) of the Hungarian Reformed Church.
More on: History of Christianity in Ukraine