Ukraine (Україна, pronounced oo-kra-yee-na in Ukrainian) is a Eastern European state that declared its independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Before that, it was under Russian and, even earlier, Polish rule, and most famous for its hard-to-pronounce Cossack Host, the Zaporozhians. For reasons that'll be explained later, "the Ukraine" is nowadays considered to be incorrect and even offensive. Ukrainians prefer their country to be called simply "Ukraine".
Traditionally the word "Ukraine" was translated to mean "Borderland." However some modern Ukrainian scholars claim that it should be translated simply as "the Country," or more poetically "the Homeland." This is because the Slavic word krai can mean both "edge" and "region." This can be a sensitive subject for some Ukrainians who consider the etymology "Borderland" to be the result of Russian imperialism and an attempt to delegitimize their nation. And that's all we'll say about that.
Ukraine as a state draws its history all the way back from the Kievan Rus'. The Kievan Rus' was an ancient state, and the first to unify the Eastern Slavic tribes. Ukraine, Belarus and Russia all claim descent from it. Unsurprisingly, its capital was based in Kyiv. The state was united for approximately 300 years from the late 9th century to the 12th century, when it fractured into various quarreling principalities. This left them easy prey for the Mongol Empire, which easily conquered the East Slavs and made them vassals for almost 300 years.
The Kievan Rus' and its splinters formed the last "Ukrainian" state for a long, long time. In fact, for the next 700 years from the 13th century all the way up to the end of the 20th century, there was little that could conceivably be called a "Ukrainian state," with Ukrainian land being variously ruled by Tatars, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, and Russians. Even Italians and Turks had a go at ruling Crimea. There was, however, a period of progressively declining autonomy in 1649-1783.
As you can imagine, this makes modern Ukraine a very interesting place. Ukraine has been a divided land for a long time. When Russia came to rule all the East Slavs, it considered itself to be carrying on the legacy of the Rus - uniting all the Slavic people. As far as Russia was concerned, these people were all "Russian," split into three main groups: Great Russia (modern Russia), White Russia (modern Belarus), and Little Russia (modern Ukraine). They went so far as to deny that Belarusian and Ukrainian were separate languages, considering them merely rustic "dialects" of Russian.
Despite historically close political and cultural ties, Ukraine was never Russified to the same extent as Belarus (where Belarusian is by now only commonly spoken by 10% of the population). The recent war is only the latest in a string of grievances going back centuries, starting with who can claim the mantle of the old Kievan Rus'. While Eastern Ukraine was ruled by Russia for many centuries and the Tsars attempted to impress on them the idea of being part of an All-Russian Brotherhood, many Ukrainians never quite shook the feeling that they were being ruled by a foreign power. Another issue is the Holodomor ("death by hunger"), a famine which lasted from 1932-33 due to Soviet crop seizures and agricultural policies, killing around 4 million Ukrainians. Many Ukrainians consider this little less than a Soviet holocaust, while many Russians claim the famine was due to factors outside of human control.
The problem is even bigger in Western Ukraine. While Eastern Ukraine was part of Russia for many centuries, Western Ukraine had only been ruled by Moscow since about the start of the 19th century. Until then it had been ruled mostly by the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. This makes Western Ukraine very culturally distinct from the rest of Ukraine, it being considered generally more "European" in everything - from architecture to religion. This divide is dramatically illustrated by typical Ukrainian voting results, with the country being split exactly down the middle: the east voting for the pro-Russia candidate and the west voting for the pro-Europe candidate.
However, while many Ukrainians object to being called Russian, there are in fact a large number of people in the east of the country who are ethnically Russian. Even more people speak Russian as a mother language (the hotbed of the current separatism, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, are more than 50% Russian speaking). This doesn't necessarily mean they want to be part of Russia, though. Historically, eastern Ukraine only became significantly populated after large-scale clearances and plantations were conducted in the 18th century, and by that time, it was under control of the Russian Empire, so Russian influence held firmly. Before that, it was Wild Wilderness sporadically settled by Tatars. The same holds even true for Crimea, where 90% of the population exclusively speak Russian. At the same time, the Tatar influence is also more entrenched on the peninsula (hence the Crimean Tatars).
Regarding the issue of "the Ukraine vs Ukraine." Obviously Russia and Ukraine don't have this English grammar problem, but they have their own version of it which involves the prepositions "на" (pronounced "na") and "в" (pronounced "v"). In Russian and Ukrainian, the preposition "na" is used to refer to regions or areas, while "v" is used to refer to proper nouns or definite locations. Until independence it was considered correct to refer to Ukraine using "na," but now many Ukrainians have switched to "v." Russians, however, have stubbornly continued on using "na." This is a problem, because to Ukrainians this signifies that the speaker doesn't consider Ukraine a "real" country.
Another controversy is the spelling of the capital. "Kiev" is the romanization of the Russian spelling, while "Kyiv" is the Ukrainian spelling (due to the use of slightly different alphabets). Since independence, Ukrainians have made it a point, even passing a law, that English-speakers should write it as "Kyiv." Accordingly most political organizations, such as the US government and the United Nations, spell it as "Kyiv" on official documents, but the old spelling of "Kiev" remains in wide colloquial use among English-speakers.
Emotions can run high when discussing the history between Russia and Ukraine. At worst Russian nationalists see Ukraine as a part of Russia which is not and never was its own state, while Ukrainian nationalists see Ukraine as completely unrelated and indeed culturally superior to Russians. This is a debate which will probably never be settled.
Really, the only time that Ukraine and Russian can really agree on something is when some foreigner is trying to kill them both. During the Middle Ages this applied to the Mongols, and later the Poles, and finally of course to the Germans. WWII was a time of extreme hardship for Slavs in general, with Poland, Ukraine and Belarus (the three Slav states located between Russia and Germany) suffering the highest casualty rates of any other combatant.
A notable recent event was the 2004 Orange Revolution, where peaceful demonstrations forced the re-run of a questionable election and changed the government from pro-Russian to pro-Western (later elections changed it back, but were more peaceful). Another event of note was Ukraine holding the Euro-2012 football championship, along with Poland, and preparations for the event were painstakingly made. The most notable event in Ukraine of the 2010s so far has been the semi-violentnote revolution of 2014 which overthrew the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych; this episode is called the Euromaidan, i.e. "Europe Square" (because the triggering event was Yanukovych rejecting a deal with The European Union to take a deal with the Russians). In response, Russia annexed Crimea and started stirring up trouble in Eastern Ukraine; The Other Wiki has dubbed this the Crimean Crisis. For its part, Crimea seems indifferent or possibly happy to be part of Russia (except for the Crimean Tatars), while most surveys say that Eastern Ukraine is indifferent or possibly happy to remain a (prickly) part of Ukraine (protesters aside). Or rather they were. After protesters took over several regions of Eastern Ukraine, a full on civil war broke out, that only seems to have quieten with the current Minsk treaty. Oh, and "quieten" here means that the front line didn't move significantly in either direction, but the combat itself never ceased. Every day there are reports of losses, shootings, assaults, etc.
Ukraine is also known as the location of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, near its northern borders. It is home to the former V.I. Lenin Memorial Nuclear Power Station and the surrounding Zone of Alienation, most of that being in neighboring Belarus.
During Soviet times, Soviet planners wanted to prevent any one region from establishing totally independent arms production, and a lot of defence and aerospace plants (such as Antonov and Yangel) ended up in Ukraine. When the USSR collapsed, the Russian Federation found itself in the unenviable position of having the vendors of many of its equipment and weapons systems in a foreign country and often they weren't very cooperative. Ukraine is sitting on top of a lot of old Soviet industrial bases, needless to say. Also for a while they inherited all the nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles the Soviets had stationed in Ukraine, but they decided to give them up, as did Belarus and Kazakhstan, which had found themselves in similar positions.
Before Crimea was annexed by Russia, the Russians used to lease a naval base there in Sevastopol. The Ukrainian parliament used to have one brawl per year (a literal brawl, with fists flying and things being thrown) over whether to let them stay. The Ukrainian parliament usually has additional brawls each year over other issues; it's that kind of government. Now that Russia controls the entire peninsula, it's a moot point.
People tend to get the flag upside-down. An easy way to remember the correct orientation is the flag represents the blue sky over rich fields of grain. This is a modern mnemonic however, and not official. There is occasionally confusion even among Ukrainians about what order the colors should be, possibly because historically sometimes the flag was flown with gold above blue. In those cases, the gold was said to symbolize the domes of Orthodox cathedrals while the blue represented the river Dnipro which flows through Kyiv. In any case, the blue-gold flag of Ukraine goes back centuries, and any definite original symbolism, if there ever was one, has been lost.
- Ukrainians (especially those from west of the Dnipro River) will object to being called "Russians" because they are a separate nation whose history is rich in sad moments because of Russia's actions, including purges, being sent to Siberia, suppressing Ukrainian language, culture, and identity (though at one point Soviet Russians encouraged own national identity of Ukrainians) and, worst of all, engineering a famine under Stalin (the Holodomor) that killed between 7-10 million Ukrainians in one year. Or so they claim. As is the case with Basques in Spain or Irish and Scottish people in Britain, it's difficult to sort out the grains of truth from propaganda perpetrated by both sides. Holodomor alone raises doubt about whether it was just Stalin's economic failure, ethnic genocide, or democide (given that people from some other USSR republics were also subject to it). In fact, there is no controversy on whether Holodomor should be seen as a crime (it is, at the very least, a crime of negligence; both Russian and Ukrainian authorities agree on this): the real matter of heated controversy is whether it should be seen as a "crime of Stalin's regime against its people" or a "crime of Russia against Ukraine".
- Ukraine had its own representative in the United Nations, with the entire USSR and Belarus having representatives as well. Initially, Stalin attempted to have each of the sixteen Soviet republics to get a vote, under the reasoning that each was still sovereign country. However, Harry Truman pointed out that with this logic, each of the 48 (at the time) American states should be given a vote as well. However, Ukraine and Belarus were still given votes because America was feeling nice and the Soviet Union had far fewer allies than the West.
- The popular "Carol of the Bells" originated in Ukraine. As a New Year's Carol. In fact, Christmas is a very strict religious holiday in Ukraine, and all merriment happens on Saint Nicholas Day, which falls on either December 6 or 19 (depending on which calendar you use), and on New Year's, which is celebrated on January 14th thanks to the Ukrainian Orthodox Calendar being chronically behind. Also, the translation is horribly, horribly wrong. It's not about bells at all. It's about a swallow flying into people's homes to signal the coming of Spring.
- Although it is associated with the Russians and is present in the kitchen of all by all the Eastern Slavs, Borscht originated in Ukraine. They also have their own national kind of vodka, called Horilka.
- Since the late 2010s, Ukraine has been a volatile country prone to political upheavals and internal conflicts. So don't be surprised if everything you know about this country will be proven wrong next year.
Famous Ukrainians include:
- Director Sergei Bondarchuk was born in the village of Bilozirka, in modern-day Lanivtsi Raion (Ternopil Oblast).
- Leonid Brezhnev, architect of zastoi ("peaceful co-existence and resource economics") came from Dnipro (Dnepropetrovsk). He was also totally bros with Richard Nixon.
- The serial killers known as the "Dnepropetrovsk maniacs", of 3Guys1Hammer infamy.
- Andrei Chikatilo, "the Butcher of Rostov", also of Serial Killer infamy.
- Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko (Earth), born in Sosnytsia.
- Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up in the Air, The Conjuring) and her sister Taissa Farmiga (of American Horror Story fame) were born in the USA from Ukrainian parents.
- The classic 19th century writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (though he's often lumped together with Russian-born writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov). Although he was evidently Ukrainian and the events of his books took place in Ukraine, he is also considered a Russian writer by Russians because of his monarchical views, which regularly causes conflicts between Ukrainians and Russians.
- GSC Game World, a video game studio, creator of the Cossacks and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series most notably.
- Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, which is named for the writer Gogol. Hutz often refers to himself as Russian, however.
- Susana Alimivna Jamaladinova (better known as Jamala), winner of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest for Ukraine. Her paternal family are Crimean Tatars deported to Central Asia during WWII. The singer herself was born and spent her childhood years in Kyrgyzstan before glasnost allowed her family to return to Crimea. The song she submitted (and won through) in the Eurovision is based on her great-grandmother's life as a deportee.
- Jinjer, a metal band from Horlivka that has been making waves in the Death Metal scene in the 2010s.
- Milla Jovovich of Resident Evil and The Fifth Element fame was born in Kyiv, although she identifies more with Russia, as she was raised in Moscow until she emigrated to the US at the age of five. Her parents are likewise not Ukrainians; her mother is a Russian actress from Tuapse (with roots in Tula), while her father is a Montenegrin expat from Yugoslavia.
- Nikita Khrushchev, who led the entire Soviet Union after Stalin's death. While not Ukrainian (he was from Kursk Oblast, near the Russia/Ukraine border), he (among other things) inadvertently laid the ground for the current situation in Crimea, by taking it from Russian Soviet Republic and giving it to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. This no doubt seemed to Khrushchev like a more logical geographical fit, seeing as Crimea is actually connected by land to Ukraine and not to Russia, but whether it was a proper cultural fit is a completely separate issue and much more complicated.
- The Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, heavyweight boxers and very well known ones in that sport — Vitali currently holds the WBC belt, Wladimir the IBF, WBO, IBO and Ring Magazine ones. Vitali became a politician, taking a seat in Parliament, and was a major leader of the Euromaidan, and briefly ran for president in 2014 before withdrawing and endorsing Petro Poroshenko for the post. Vitali is currently the Mayor of Kiev.
- Wladimir Korolenko, a short story writer, journalist, Human Rights activist and humanitarian.
- Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program.
- Sydir Kovpak: The famous Ukrainian-Soviet partisan, known for their bold actions, one of the leaders of the partisan movement in the USSR during the Second World War.
- Mila Kunis. That '70s Show, Black Swan and Family Guy. Born there, moved to the US.
- Model and actress Olga Kurylenko was born there. She later moved to France and took French citizenship. Appeared in films like Hitman, Quantum of Solace or Oblivion.
- Nestor Makhno, leader of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (an anarcho-communist army) named "Makhnovshchina" after him during the 1917-1921 Ukrainian War of Independence, which was a part of the Russian Civil War. Initially on the Bolsheviks' side until 1919, they ended up fighting them and everyone else. Bolsheviks prevailed and Makhno fled, dying in Paris in 1934.
- Actor Jack Palance's birth name was Volodymyr Palahniuk. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who settled in Lattimer, Pennsylvania.
- Natalia Poklonskaya. She was the Prosecutor General of the pro-Russian Crimean government presently in power, before her election to Russian Parlament, but you probably know her better as the latest out-of-left-field infatuation of Japanese online culture, and the internet in general and all.
- Petro Poroshenko, the current president (since 2014), an oligarch owning several lucrative manufacturing businesses such as Roshen Confectionery Corporation (which earned him the nickname "Chocolate King"), several financial assets and a TV channel.
- Vadim Pruzhanov, keyboard player for the power metal band DragonForce.
- Singer Ruslana Stepanivna Lyzhychko (aka Ruslana), winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest for Ukraine.
- Andriy Schevchenko, football striker.
- Taras Shevchenko, 19th century poet, writer, artist, as well as folklorist, ethnographer and political figure. Saying that he is to modern Ukrainian language what William Shakespeare is for English language or Molière for French language would be an Understatement. His influence on Ukrainian culture has been so immense that even during Soviet times, the official position was to downplay the strong Ukrainian nationalism expressed in his poetry, suppressing any mention of it, and to put an emphasis on the social and anti-Tsarist aspects of his legacy.
- Yakov Smirnoff (he of the Russian Reversal fame), though he usually identifies as Russian, probably because it was still part of the USSR when he left and everybody in America called the USSR "Russia" at the time.
- Steven Spielberg's paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who settled in Cincinnati in the 1900s.
- Lee Strasberg was born in a part of Galicia, Austrian Poland, which is now part of Ukraine.
- Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko, one of the most notable commanders of the Red Army during World War II.
- A small-time politician who worked with Lenin during Red October, Lev Davidovich Bronstein.
- Yulia Tymoshenko, the country's former PM. Considered one of the sexiest female politicians in the world, a fact she uses, she once posed in designer dresses for the local version of Elle magazine (during her first premiership) and commented that she'd like to pose for Playboy. You may know her best from her role as Token Evil Teammate in The Legend of Koizumi.
- Oh and she's an important opposition figure and a powerful woman in her own right, but let's just concentrate on her looks.
- She is currently serving yet another term... this time in prison for abuse of power. Though it was widely accused of being a political prosecution, with sending her to prison being the actual abuse of power.
- Since February, 2014 she's a free woman. It was just in time for the Russian intervention in Crimea...
- Katheryn Winnick is of Ukrainian descent and speaks Ukrainian as her first language.
- Viktor Yanukovych, the country's President from 2010 until forced out of the office in 2014 by the events dubbed Euromaidan. He has since fled to Russia. His opulent mansion was opened to the public, revealing just how much money he was embezzling from his office, including a toilet made of solid gold and a private restaurant aboard a ship on his lake. No matter how unusual it may sound, even the pro-Russian Ukrainians did not like him.
- Viktor Yushchenko, the country's former President until his epic defeat in the 2010 election. Him of the pockmarked face, which was the result of alledged attempted poisoning.
Works set in Ukraine
Anime & Manga:
- There's a sweet and tearful Moe Anthropomorphism of Ukraine in Axis Powers Hetalia.
- Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka's second major story arc goes to the disputed region of eastern Ukraine with M Squad being sent to investigate if the Donbass Republic has magical girls assisting them in their war against Kyiv.
Since the country has been included in USSR for the biggest part of the 20th century, expect a lot of Soviet era films to show up here.
- In The Battleship Potemkin (1925). The mutiny happens in Odessa and it was filmed on location, using the famous Potemkin Stairs, originally known as "Boulevard steps", "Giant Staircase", "Primorsky Stairs" or the "Richelieu steps" (renamed "Potemkin" in 1955 for the 50th anniversary of the mutiny).
- Commissar (1967) is a Soviet film set in a largely Jewish Ukrainian village during the Russian Civil War.
- Earth is a Soviet propaganda film from 1930, presenting a highly inaccurate version of collectivization of farming, in one Ukrainian village.
- The 1929 experimental Soviet film Man with a Movie Camera, a visual collage of urban life in Stalin's Soviet Union, was shot exclusively in Ukraine. Footage was taken in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa.
- Only Old Men Are Going to Battle is a 1973 Soviet film set in Ukraine, directed by and starring Ukranian Leonid Bykov, about a Soviet fighter squadron going up against the Germans during World War II.
- The Asthenic Syndrome was made and set in Odessa as well as many other films by Kira Muratova.
- Winter on Fire is a documentary chronicling the anti-government protests in Kyiv in 2013-14, which led to revolution.
- The first novel of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz's trilogy, With Fire and Sword (Ogniem i mieczem in Polish), takes place during Bohdan Khmelnytsky's 1647 Cossack rebellion against the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth.
- The fourth novel in Tsar Gorokh's Detective Agency has the arrival of Zaporozhian Cossacks as a plot point. The unit's commander, Colonel Levko Chornyi, goes to Nikita and tells him that someone stole the ceremonial mace his hetman has gifted the Tsar. Should the mace fail to turn up, Chornyi's honor will demand that he put a bullet in his head rather than return in shame. The protagonist Nikita sends his "junior assistant" to visit the Cossack unit and look for clues. The assistant ends up "going native" and refuses to take orders from a "Muscovite", while also planning a pogrom of the local Jewish family. The mace was actually stolen by the Austrian ambassador in order to sabotage the alliance between Russia and the Cossacks. The Cossacks end up liking the "hockey" game Nikita has introduced and form their own team, even making it to the finals. The Colonel ends up being a Reasonable Authority Figure, if a little anti-semitic.
- The 2000 Real-Time Strategy game Cossacks European Wars has 17th century Zaporozhian Hetmanate Ukraine as a playable nation. The Ukrainian campaign includes Cossack uprisings against Poland (the Khmelnytsky rebellion most notably) and the Polish campaign in The Art of War is mostly about crushing said uprisings. Ukrainian peasants cannot be captured, the serdiuk is the best rifleman of the game and the hetman is the cavalry unit with the most health points and hit points in the game.
- The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games (2006-2009) are all set in the Zone of Exclusion around the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
- Servant of the People is a 2015 Work Com about an idealistic history teacher becoming the president of the country.
- Episode 2 of The Brave is set in 2017 eastern Ukraine as the SOG team searches for a CIA agent who is being hunted by Ukrainian rebels and their Russian handlers.
the Ukrainian flag