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Ukraine: Briefly about Her Past and Present

Geography and population

Ukraine, with a territory of 603.7 thousand sq kilometres and a population of 48.4 million people, is one of the biggest countries of Europe. Administratively, Ukraine is made up of 24 Oblasts and one Autonomous Republic (Crimea). The capital city is Kyiv.

Ukraine is bordered by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania and Moldova on the west and south-west, and by Belarus and Russia on the north and north-east; on the south, Ukraine is bordered by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

The longest river is Dnipro, and the biggest mountain chain is the Carpathians. It is in the Carpathians that the geographical centre of Europe is located.

Among 454 cities and towns of Ukraine the biggest are: Kyiv (population 2.6 million); Kharkiv (population 1.6 million); Dnipropetrovsk (population 1.1 million); Odesa (population 1.1 million); Donetsk (population 1.1 million), and Lviv (population 802 thousand).

The population of Ukraine is 48.5 million people, 67.2 percent of whom live in urban areas and 32.8 percent in the countryside. The number of ethnic Ukrainians is over 37.5 million people (77.8 of the entire population); over 8 million people are ethnic Russians (17.3 percent of the entire population). 67.5 percent of the Ukrainian citizens regard Ukrainian as their mother tongue.

Climate and natural resources

Ukraines climate is temperate continental, and subtropical at the southern coast of the Crimea. The mean temperature in January is 5o C (+ 23 F) and + 20o C (68 F) in July.

95 percent of the Ukrainian territory is spread out over the Eastern European Plain; 5 percent of the territory is taken up by mountainous areas; 14 percent of the land is covered with forests; 4 percent water reservoirs; 1.6 percent swamps. 71 percent of all the land in Ukraine is arable, with 12 million hectares (30 million acres) having the fertile black soil (chernozem). 5 percent of the worlds mineral resources are concentrated in Ukraine (coal; iron and manganese ores; uranium; graphite, and rock-salt).

Brief history

The Ukrainians are believed to have descended from those Indo-Europeans who settled in Eastern Europe. The available archaeological evidence suggests that roots of the pre-Ukrainians may be found in the Trypillya culture which dates from the fifth-to-third millennia BC; there may be some links to other ancient cultures which flourished in the territory of the present-day Ukraine, including the mysterious Scythians.

The pre-Ukrainians maintained trade and culture contacts with the ancient Greek city-states which sprang up on the shores of the southern Crimea in the 7th6th centuries BC; later, a part of the Crimea was included into the Kingdom of Bosporus which for a period of time was a major rival of Rome in the Black Sea area. The ancient Romans established their outposts in the Crimea, to be succeeded by the Goths and the Huns.

At the end of the tenth century, the city of Kyiv, the date of whose foundation is uncertain (it is safe to place the foundation of Kyiv no later than in the fifth century AD but it may be much older), became the capital of a powerful state, Kyivan Rus. It stretched as far north as the Baltic, as far south as the Black Sea, as far west as the Carpathians, and as far east as the Volga.

In 988, Ukraine-Rus was converted to Christianity, and the Christian culture was conducive to the rapid development of towns.

It was in the 11th century that the language spoken in Ukraine-Rus began to acquire features which later would develop into the Ukrainian language proper.

Kyivan Rus was a bulwark of European civilization, a sort of its easternmost Ultima Thule, at the edge of the Great Steppe, which was roomed by nomads who kept making incursions into the Ukrainian-Rus lands, some of which were widely disruptive and destructive.

The 13th century saw a devastating invasion of the Mongols which dealt a mortal blow to Kyivan Rus which had already been weakened by internal strife, with local rulers vying for power over Kyiv.

Tragic as the invasion was, it did not destroy the Slavic culture as it was upheld in the Halytsko-Volynske Principality in the western part of what used to be Kyivan Rus. This principality proved to be strong enough to withstand the pressure both from the east and from the west, fending off the attempts of the western crusaders to subjugate it. One of its rulers, Danylo, was crowned a king, and his kingdom preserved, to a great extent, the cultural heritage of Kyivan Rus.

A considerable part of Ukraine later came under the domination of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but preserved much of its cultural originality. The official language of Lithuania in the 15th century was what is called Old Ukrainian; the city of Kyiv acquired the status of a free city which it was granted under the Magdeburg Law.

Poland, Muscovy and Turkey, attracted by the fertility of the land and advantageous geographical position of Ukraine, were the neighbours that wanted to establish their control over parts of this country. The Zaporizhian Sich which emerged as a sort of a Cossack state in the area around the southern reaches of the Dnipro River, gradually acquired the status of an upholder of freedom and cultural traditions. In the mid-seventeenth century, after a period of wars of independence fought under the leadership of Hetman (military and state leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine once again emerged as an independent state formation.

In 1654, the hetman, in the face of an imminent invasion from Turkey and Poland, was forced to sign a treaty in the town of Pereyaslavl with Russia which put Ukraine under the protection of the Russian tsar. As later events showed, it proved to be a turning and tragic point in the history of Ukraine Russia was turning into an empire and an independent Ukraine was not something it would tolerate. Only five years after the treaty in Pereyaslavl was signed (the treaty gave considerable rights and privileges to the Ukrainian land owners and nobles, Ukrainian clergy and autonomy for the Zaporizhian Sich Cossacks), a much stricter control was established by Russia over the hetman and the Cossack starshyna (self-government); the number of Russian troops stationed in Ukraine also grew considerably.

In the early 18th century, an attempt of Hetman Ivan Mazepa to break free from the Russian clutches badly failed. The last vestiges of autonomy were done away with; no traces of former liberties were left and serfdom was introduced. At the end of the 18th century, Ukraine was torn apart by Russia and Austria.

In spite of the loss of statehood, prominent cultural figures of Ukraine, and later an ever widening circle of Ukrainian intellectuals, never abandoned the hope of restoring Ukraines independence. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an upsurge of activity in the national liberation movement and a growing national awareness gave the movement the muscle and blood. The First World War triggered revolutions as a result of which three empires collapsed the German, the Austrian-Hungarian and the Russian. Thus favourable conditions were created for Ukraine to make a bid for independence. On January 22 1918, the Ukrainian Peoples Republic was proclaimed a sovereign state, and its first president was Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, an eminent Ukrainian historian, political and public figure.

The period of time from 1917 to 1921 proved to be the years of great trials and tribulations for the Ukrainian people. The Civil War raged in the land with many sides vying for power: the Russian White Guards; the German forces; the Bolsheviks and their Red Army; the Polish army, and the anarchists there were too many of them for the Ukrainian armed forces to deal with. The situation was further aggravated by rampant banditry and attempts by Britain, France, Greece and Rumania to join the fray and get whatever advantages they could out of the confusion. The successive Ukrainian governments, fighting against overwhelming odds, succumbed and the power was eventually seized by the Russian Bolsheviks, alas not without help from their Ukrainian comrades. In 1922, Ukraine became a soviet socialist republic, one of several in the friendly family of nations the Soviet Union.

Ukraine had probably never before experienced that much horror as it did being a soviet republic. The 1930s saw the famine of staggering proportions which in 19321933 took lives of at least 8 million people; hundreds of thousands intellectuals and other subversive elements were either shot by Stalins firing squads or exiled to Siberia. The idea was to liquidate the very foundation, upon which the Ukrainian national identity could grow into a national liberation movement.

In the 1940s, Ukraine was the hardest hit in the war of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Three million Ukrainians died at the front, and five million perished in the areas occupied by the Nazis. The material damage to Ukraine was estimated to constitute about one thousand billion dollars.

The post-war reconstruction made Ukraine a rather developed industrial and agricultural land; Ukrainian culture was allowed to develop within the boundaries set by the communist regime; on the other hand, any deviation from the official line was fraught with danger of prosecution and imprisonment. Dissidents and Ukrainian nationalists continued to be arrested, tried and sent to concentration camps up to 1985.

The 1980s were the time of growing national awareness and social unrest. On July 1990, Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian parliament, adopted The Act on State Sovereignty which was a first step to regaining full independence.

Political system

On August 24 1991, Ukraine proclaimed its independence, and during the referendum held on December 1 of the same year, the Ukrainian people confirmed their choice of independent development by saying yes to it. Leonid Kravchuk was elected the first president of a newly independent Ukraine; in 1994, he lost the election to Leonid Kuchma who was re-elected in 1999.

Ukraine faced a multitude of very difficult tasks which had to be solved within a short period of time: a new political system had to be built; new statehood principles based on law had to be introduced; a new system of national security and defence had to be created; new relations with other countries of the world had to be established Ukraine wanted from the very start to be into the European and world community; social, economic and ecological reforms had to be carried out; the nuclear weapons were to be scrapped. The enormity of all these large-scale, time, labour and finance consuming tasks was further exacerbated by the multiple crises the country was living through economic, political and psychological. On top of all that, Ukraine continued to deal with the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster (21 percent of the Ukrainian territory was polluted by the fallout radioactive materials and it affected 7 percent of the Ukrainian population).

In 1996 a new constitution was adopted; the runaway inflation, which was endemic in the former Soviet Union, was curbed and the national currency, hryvnya, was launched.

Ukraine was the first among the post-soviet countries to establish working relations with the European Union. A charter was signed with NATO in 1997. Over the years, Ukraine sent its peacekeepers to the Balkans; it was a guarantor of peace in Moldova; Ukraine is a member of the Council of Europe and of the Security Council of the United Nations Organization.

At present, Ukraine is a presidential-parliamentary republic. Verkhovna Rada Supreme Council is made up of 450 deputies who are elected for a 4-year term. In the spring of 2002, the fourth parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine. Considerable political changes in the distribution of political power occurred, with six major political forces entering parliament.

Economy

Ukraine possesses a considerable economic, industrial and agricultural potential; it has gained a wide and positive experience in such industries as metallurgical, mining, energy production, chemical and metal-working. Grain harvests can be up to 50 million metric tons a year (Ukraine has long been known as the bread basket of Europe).

At the same time, Ukraine has inherited from the Soviet Union a malformed and inefficient economic complex and outdated material basis. At present, Ukraine is going through a difficult transitory period. Structural reforms, particularly in the industrial sphere, are badly needed but they are implemented either too slowly or not at all; industries with the closed cycle of production are insufficient in number; the law system is flawed and because of its imperfections cannot stimulate the growth of the private sector of the economy, or provide conditions necessary for the successful development of small-sized and medium-sized businesses; investments are slow to come.

In the post-soviet period, the gross national product of Ukraine has dropped by 52 percent; the industrial production shrank by 48 percent and the agricultural production was reduced by 51 percent. Unemployment and poverty became major social problems.

According to the International Labour organization the level of unemployment reaches 11.7 percent of the labour force, and if all other forms of hidden unemployment are included shorter work days; days off and vacations without pay, etc. then the figure will be much higher up to 3035 percent.

All of these factors contribute to the existence of the shadow economy which has reached such proportions that now, according to some estimates, about half of the Ukrainian gross national product is produced in the shadow sector which employs about 11 million people. A sharp social polarization of the Ukrainian population has resulted, with 10 percent of the population earning 40 percent of all the revenues. Prime-ministers who are dismissed practically every year do not have enough time to work out a worthwhile economic policy. The current government has been in power for too short a time for political and economic analysts to pass any definite judgement on it.

Religion

Ukraine is tolerant to religious confessions of all kinds.

The biggest religious denominations are the Orthodox Churches of the Kyiv and Moscow Patriarchates (the Kyiv Patriarchate, dissolved in the Russian Empire, was re-established after Ukraines independence). The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Greco-Catholic Church, banned in the Soviet Union, were revived after Ukraine regained her independence.

51.6 percent of the Ukrainian population declare themselves Orthodox Christians. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has 10 040 parishes (which constitutes almost 72.3 percent of all the parishes) in Ukraine; The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate has 3196 parishes; The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church has 1110 parishes, and the Greco-Catholic Church has 3334 parishes, Roman Catholic has 842 parishes.

There is a number of other Christian confessions: Protestant, Evangelical Christian Baptist, and others; Judaism and Islam are practised religions as well. There are 262 Judaic communities and 462 Muslim communities in Ukraine.

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