Ukraine (pronounced in Ukrainian UKRAYINA) is a country in south-east Europe, the second largest of the continents after Russia. Ukraine borders Belarus on the north, Russia in the north, north-east, and east, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea in the south, Moldova and Romania in the south-west, and Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland in the west. The capital is Kyiv.
Ukraine occupies an area of 233,100 square miles (603,700 square km) and its population is about 50,900,000.

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The Church of Rizdva Presviatoyi Bohorodytsi (Nativity of Most Holy Mother of God) at the Far Caves of the Lavra Monastery.

Physical and Human Geography

Ukraine consists almost entirely of level plains and occupies a large portion of the East European Plain. The central part of the country consists of the Dnipro Lowland, through which 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. The Ukrainian language is related to Russian and Belarusian 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 Belarusians, Moldavians, Poles, Bulgarians, Jews, Greeks, Tartars, and others. The highest population densities are found in the industrialised Donetsk Basin and Dnipro Bend regions and in the agriculturally productive forest-steppe belt.

The belt of mixed forest and steppe running west-east across south-central Ukraine has rich black soils whose intense cultivation has made the country a major producer of winter wheat and sugar beets. Other crops include sunflower seeds, corn (maize), potatoes, grapes, oats, rye, millet, and buckwheat. Fruits and vegetables are grown on the outskirts of cities, and cattle and pigs are raised throughout the country.

Ukraine has rich reserves of iron ore, bituminous and anthracite coals, and manganese-bearing ores located in close proximity to each other. This region, in the east-central Ukraine, is the industrial heartland of the country and one of the major heavy-industrial and mining-metallurgical complexes of Europe.

Ukraine also produces natural gas and petroleum, though reserves of these fuels were much depleted during the Soviet period. The Ukrainian economy largely depends on heavy industry and agriculture. Besides its basic mining industries, the Donetsk Basin has ferrous-metals industries that produce iron and steel in large quantities. Durable goods manufactured in the Donetsk Basin include mining and metallurgical equipment, automobiles, and tractors.

The chemical industry produces large amounts of sulphuric acid and mineral fertilisers. Ukraine's food-processing industries yield granulated sugar and meat, fruit, and dairy products. The country's light industrial and consumer goods sectors are underdeveloped in comparison to its heavy industry and agriculture, however.

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The interior of the Refectory Church of  St. Antony and St. Feodosiy Pechersky (of the Caves), 19th century.
Wall-painting by V. Yizhakevych.

Political System

Ukraine's political system underwent rapid change in the early 1990s after the country gained its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in late 1991. During the Soviet period (1922-91), Ukraine had been governed by the Ukrainian Communist Party, which in turn was subordinated to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. After gaining independence, however, Ukraine's rubber-stamp legislature, the Supreme Soviet, was converted to a functioning parliament called the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), whose members (People’s Deputies) are chosen to four-year terms in free, multicandidate elections. The chief executive of Ukraine is the president, who is also chosen in free elections. The day-to-day administration of the government rests in the hands of the prime minister, who heads the Cabinet of Ministers and is chosen by the president with parliamentary approval.

Some Historical Facts

Different parts of Ukraine whose indigenous population was Slavic were invaded and occupied in the first millennium BC by the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians and in the first millennium of the Christian era by the Goths, Huns, Bulgarians, Avars, Khazars, Magyars, and Pechenegs. The most significant development of this entire period, however, was the movement of some Slavic tribes in the 5th and 6th centuries into the forest and forest-steppe region of western and north-central Ukraine. From there the Slavs would eventually expand farther north into territories of the future Russian state around Moscow.

Among the Slavs’ earliest settlements was that of the name of Kyiv along the Dnipro River, which was the capital of the Polianian tribe. 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, and a church hierarchy was formed under the auspices of the Byzantines and the patriarch at Constantinople.

Christianity gave the eastern Slavic peoples their first written language, called Church Slavonic. Kyivan Rus-Ukraine reached the height of its power in the 11th century, and Kiev 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 Kipchak, and shifts in trade routes. The Mongol conquest in the mid-13th century decisively ended Kievan power, but a Slavic principality of Galicia-Volynia 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 Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde.

After the Union of Lublin in 1569, rule over Ukraine was transferred from Lithuania to Poland. The negotiation of the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596 divided the Ukrainians into Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic faithful. Religious dissent and social strife between the Ukrainians and their Polish overlords were augmented by the Zaporozhian Cossacks, nominally subjects of the Polish king but 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), 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. Poland-Lithuania was forced to recognise Muscovite suzerainty over Kyiv and the lands east of the Dnipro, and the Cossack hetmanate was gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire. 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. In Austria-Hungary conditions were more favourable, and, by the time of World War I, the Ukrainians of Galicia had set up a network of viable cultural, political, and religious institutions. After the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Ukrainian and Bolshevik forces struggled for control of Ukraine until 1921, when the Soviet government emerged victorious. In 1924 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union.

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A complex of buildings of Mykhailivsky Zolotoverkhy (St. Michael of Golden Domes) Monastery.
The central church of the Monastery, St. Michael’s, was built in the 12th century.
Its interior was decorated with magnificent mosaics and frescoes.
In later centuries the Monastery grew in size, new buildings were added, including a bell tower with a golden dome.
In the 30s of this century the Monastery was barbarically demolished by the Soviet authorities.
Today, architectural landmarks, destroyed during wars and atheistic campaigns, are being rebuilt.
It is a sure sign of spiritual renaissance in Ukraine.

North-western Ukraine (including Galicia and part of Volynia) remained in the hands of Poland, which had fought against the Bolsheviks in 1919-20. Beginning in the 1930s, the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin carried out a policy of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture in the Ukrainian S.S.R., 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. In that same decade, the Soviet regime tightened its control over Ukrainian cultural life, and any remaining manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism were suppressed.
The German-Soviet Treaty of Nonaggression (1939) that extinguished independent Poland brought the Western Ukrainian territories into the Ukrainian S.S.R.

Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union (1941) and its rapid conquest of Ukraine initially found some local support, but the Germans' ruthless exploitation of Ukrainian agriculture and labour to meet their own needs soon provoked guerrilla resistance.

After the defeat of the Germans in 1945, all the ethnically Ukrainian lands that had been part of Poland, Romania, or Czechoslovakia between the wars were taken by the Soviet Union, with most of them going to the Ukrainian S.S.R. After the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reforms of and into national policy in the late 1980s, Ukrainian nationalist feelings gradually awoke, leading the newly democratised Ukrainian parliament to declare the republic's sovereignty in 1990.

Independence and Recent Developments

In the wake of the hard-line Communists' failed coup against Gorbachev, the Ukrainian parliament declared Ukraine's independence (August 1991), an act that was approved by the Ukrainian populace in a referendum in December. As the Soviet Union collapsed that month, Ukrainian independence gained international recognition. The new country's government was slow to reform the Soviet-era state-run economy, which was plagued by declining production, rising inflation, and widespread unemployment in the years following independence.

In June 1997 the Ukrainian parliament adopted a new constitution, despite sustained opposition from leftist deputies who had submitted an alternative draft on March 22 to restore a Soviet-style regime. The new constitution was accepted by 315 votes to 36 after an all-night sitting. It confirmed the authority of the president, maintained a unicameral parliament, and affirmed Ukrainian as the state language while making allowances for the use of other languages (Russian and Crimean Tartar, for example) in areas where they were the primary languages spoken.

Each successive new government stated that among its aims was to accelerate foreign investment in Ukraine but did not meet with much success. Ukraine's economic performance was sluggish, with most revenue being used to pay off wage arrears amounting to many millions of dollars in the state sector alone. The share of output from privatised firms was growing but not fast enough. With inflation under control, the government achieved a psychological breakthrough in September 1996 with the introduction of a new currency, the hryvnia.

It is totally wrong to look upon Ukraine as “a young state” as it is sometimes called in the media. Ukraine has more than a millennium of recorded history. Only a handful of European countries can claim a history spanning such a long time. Unfortunately for her, Ukraine much of this time was under foreign domination and her struggle for independence was subverted by many factors. At present it is not only the inefficiency of the Soviet-type economy of which Ukraine has not gotten rid of yet, not only politically divided parliament, weak governments, rampant crime and corruption, it is also her historical legacy of being in the shade of “the Big Brother” that hinders its more rapid movement towards radical reforms. Ukrainian mentality must undergo a considerable change before the country makes a decisive economic breakthrough. And it will take time. A new generation must rise, free from “the spirit of slavery” that still lives in the heart of many Ukrainians. The leftist forces, paradoxically, are pulling the country back into the poverty-stricken communist past and the nationalistic forces are not strong enough to pull it forward into the more prosperous future. The centrist forces seem to be lacking any popular support altogether. The half-baked reforms have brought economic hardships for the majority of the population and the communist are using nostalgia for the poor but more or less stable Soviet regime to their advantage.

Ukraine has gone through so many trials in her past that one can have little doubt that she sooner or later will overcome the present-day difficulties.

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