Ukraine: a Beginner's Reference
Created 2004; updated April 2014
Location, population, languages, and religions
Many people don't know much about Ukraine. Ukraine is a large country in Eastern Europe (about the size of Texas or France) with a population of 45 million. It is a Slavic country with two dominant languages — Ukrainian and Russian — that are spoken about equally (though only Ukrainian is the official state language). Most Ukrainians today consider themselves Christians, with major religions being Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
The capital of Ukraine — Kiev (also written Kyiv) — has over 3 million people. Other large cities are Kharkov (or Kharkiv), Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk (or Dnipropetrovsk), Odessa (or Odesa), and Lviv. The spelling of these cities in English can differ depending on whether the names have been transliterated from Ukrainian or Russian.
History and borders
Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union (USSR) until its peaceful breakup in 1991. Parts of Ukraine have been independent countries in the past, and modern-day Ukraine has been independent since August 24, 1991 (Ukrainian Independence Day). Ukraine maintains close economic, political, cultural, and linguistic ties to Russia, but is a separate country with its own political system and geopolitical strategy. In early 2014 a serious conflict erupted between the two countries that resulted in the de facto absorption of Crimea by Russia and threatens to destabilize the rest of Ukraine as well. Other countries that border Ukraine are: Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova (including the breakaway republic of Transdnistria).
Notable segments of Ukraine's economy include agriculture, metallurgy, ship building, energy (Ukraine has nuclear power plants and large hydroelectric dams), chemical industry, and mining. Ukraine is poorer than most countries in Europe, but its market economy has grown since 2000, following eight years of economic contraction resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union's centrally controlled economy. During this collapse, Ukraine's GDP (gross domestic product) fell 60% — far more than during the Great Depression in the United States. This caused millions of Ukrainians to emigrate in search of work and a better life. Since 2000 things have gotten better — especially in the big cities — but people continue to emigrate. The country's finances have been poorly managed, with high levels of corruption, and in 2014 Ukraine is on the verge of default but shows signs of recovery. Today there are quite a few rich people, a modest middle class in larger cities, and large numbers of poor people. However, a large majority of households own their own houses, apartments, and/or land, which is a hidden source of security and wealth. Ukraine's currency is the Hryvnia. U.S. dollars and Euros are also widely used.
Ukraine is a democratic country with a parliament (Verkhovna Rada) and a president who serves for five years. Past presidents have been: Leonid Kravchuk (1991-94), Leonid Kuchma (1995-2004), Viktor Yuschenko (2005-2009), and Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014). The current acting president is Oleksandr Turchinov. In late 2004, the Orange Revolution brought Yuschenko to power after election results were widescale allegations of election fraud favoring candidate Viktor Yanukovich. There is much competition for power and control of large industries in Ukraine, with powerful oligarchs heavily influencing national politics. Voters themselves are split between those who favor a European political course (mostly in the west, center, and north) and those who favor closer ties with Russia (mostly in the east and south). These two halves of Ukraine also have cultural and linguistic differences and are often at odds politically. In its international relations Ukraine must balance the interests of neighboring Russia, the European Union, and the United States. As of early 2014 Ukraine is in a state of crisis as a result of near-bankrupcy and strained ties with Russia following the Euromaidan violence and Russia's takeover of Crimea.
Geography and climate
Ukraine is a mostly flat or rolling country with fertile plains which are heavily farmed and some forests in the north. There are large rivers such as the Dnipro, which flows south into the Black Sea. There are low mountain ranges in Crimea — in the extreme south of Ukraine — and in the far west (the Carpathians). The highest peak is Hoverla at 2061 meters above sea level (6762 feet). Most of Ukraine is quite cold and often snowy in the winter, but warm or hot in the summer. The weather is similar to the northern Great Plains and Upper Midwest (i.e. North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa).
Travel and tourism
Ukraine is an increasingly popular destination for international tourists, mainly from Europe, but also from the United States, Canada, Turkey, the Middle East, and Asia. Many of these countries enjoy a visa-free regime with Ukraine. The most visited cities are the capital, Kiev, Lviv, and Odessa. The peninsula of Crimea has also been popular as a summer destination because of its many beaches and resorts (such as Yalta) along the Black Sea coast. There is also skiing in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. Visitors to Ukraine often visit Orthodox and Catholic churches, Jewish sites, and ancient monasteries and fortresses. Ukrainian souvenirs are also popular among tourists and include woodwork, painted eggs, and embroidery. Ukraine's crime rate is quite low — especially violent crime — and the country is definitely safe for tourists. This may be changing in 2014 due to separatism and violence in eastern and southern Ukraine. English is spoken well by increasing numbers of young and middle-aged people.
Ukrainians are known for their hospitality and enjoyment of conversations, eating, and drinking. It is quite easy to make friends in Ukraine. Many foreigners come to Ukraine for romance as well. In the cities you will see a lot of people with a European mentality side by side with Soviet influences. Much of Ukraine is agrarian, and many villagers live in old-fashioned houses and ride horse carts around. Cell phones and electronic devices have become very popular in Ukraine, as well as automobile use, which has created traffic problems in the cities.