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Ukrainian history began with the rumble of hooves - Scythians dominated the steppes north of the Black Sea from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC, initiating centuries of outside political and cultural domination. Traces of Scythian culture can be found in Kiev's Caves Monastery, where the tombs contain superb goldwork depicting highly detailed animal and human forms. Following the Scythians, a series of invaders, including Ostrogoths, Huns and the Turko-Iranian Khazars, ruled areas of present-day Ukraine.

The first people to unify and control the area for a long period were Scandinavians known as the Rus. The Rus took Kiev in 882 AD, and by the late 10th century the city was the centre of a unified state known as Kievan Rus, which stretched from the Volga west to the Danube and south to the Baltic. In 988, the Kievan Rus leader Volodymyr accepted Christianity from Constantinople, beginning a long period of Byzantine influence over Ukrainian politics and culture. By 1520 the Ottoman Empire controlled all of coastal Ukraine.

Military devastation and plague had wiped out much of the population of the Ukrainian steppe by the 15th century, when the region became popular with runaway serfs and Orthodox refugees escaping more tightly controlled neighbouring domains. These people came to be known as

Ukrainian nationalism flourished in the 1840s, prompting Russian authorities to ban the Ukrainian language in schools, journals and books. Following WWI and the collapse of tsarist authority, Ukraine finally had a chance to gain its independence, but none of the bewildering array of factions could win decisive support. Civil war broke out and the country quickly descended into anarchy, with six armies vying for power and Kiev changing hands five times in one year. After prolonged fighting involving Russia, Poland and various Ukrainian political and ethnic factions, Poland retained portions of western Ukraine and the Soviets got the rest. Ukraine officially became part of the USSR in 1922.

While the leadership in Moscow sorted itself out, another Ukrainian national revival took off in the 1920s. When Stalin took power in 1927, however, he made a test case out of Ukraine for his ideas about 'harmful' nationalism. In 1932-33 he engineered a famine that killed as many as 7 million Ukrainians. Execution and deportation of intellectuals further depopulated the country. Stalin also went after the country's premier religious symbols, its churches and cathedrals, destroying over 250 buildings. During the purges of 1937-39, millions more Ukrainians were either executed or sent to Soviet labour camps. WWII brought further devastation and death, with 6 million perishing in the fighting between the Red Army and the German forces. It's estimated that during the first half of the 20th century, war, famine and purges cost the lives of over half the male and a quarter of the female population of Ukraine.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and the appallingly slow official Soviet response provoked widespread discontent, and the Uniate Church emerged from isolation two years later. The Ukrainian People's Movement for Restructuring, an umbrella nationalist movement founded in Kiev by prominent intellectuals and writers, won local seats across the country in 1990. In July of that year, the parliament issued a sovereignty - but not secession - declaration to little effect. Shortly after the failed Soviet coup in August 1991, the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) was banned, and in December the population voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Leonid Kravchuk, former chairman of the CPU, was elected as the first president of Ukraine. Factionalism forced the government's resignation in September 1992, and disagreements with Russia over Ukraine's cache of inherited nuclear weapons and control of the Black Sea fleet (harboured in the Crimean port of Sevastopol) strained relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, skyrocketing inflation, fuel shortages and plummeting consumer power plagued the country and exacerbated regional and ethnic differences. Pro-Russian reformer Leonid Kuchma beat Kravchuk in the 1994 presidential election. The CPU benefited from the political and economic turmoil, capturing a substantial majority of parliamentary seats in the 1994 elections. In the late 1990s, new tensions arose between Ukraine and Russia over Ukraine's closer ties with NATO. A worrying turn from political stability occurred in late April 2001 with the dismissal of the Prime Minister, Viktor Yushchenko. He has vowed to return, but in the short term, Ukrainian politics looks fragile indeed.


For decades, the Western world perceived Ukraine as simply a part of Russia. But borscht, painted eggs and many of the famous Cossack song and dance traditions originated in Ukraine. Western Ukrainians consider themselves to be 100% Ukrainian and the vanguard of their culture, speaking their language and trumpeting their nationalism. In the east, where over 10 million ethnic Russians live, nationalism is less intense, and most people speak Russian.

Ukrainian, like Russian and Belarusian, is an Eastern Slavic language. It's arguably the closest of the three to the original 9th century Slavonic used in Kiev before the more formal Church Slavonic from Bulgaria was introduced with Christianity in the 10th century. Despite being watered down by Russian and Polish and being banned by Tsar Alexander II in 1876, the Ukrainian language persevered and is becoming more widespread. It was adopted as the country's official language in 1990, though Russian is understood by almost everyone.

The origins of Ukraine's national literature go back to medieval Slavic chronicles such as the 12th century Slovo o polku Ihrevim (The Tale of Ihor's Armament). The beginnings of modern Ukrainian literature stem from mid-18th century wandering philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, the 'Ukrainian Socrates'. Skovoroda wrote poems and philosophical tracts in Ukrainian, aimed at the common person rather than the elite. Taras Shevchenko, an ardent nationalist who was born a serf in 1814 and became a national hero, was the first major writer in Ukrainian. His work launched a golden age of Ukrainian literature. The most talented and prolific writer of the early 20th century was Ivan Franko, whose work spanned fiction, poetry, drama, philosophy and children's stories. Many writers made the Soviet occupation their subject, and many suffered for it. Vasyl Stus' Winter Trees (1968) and Candle in the Mirror (1977) set the agony of dissidence to poetry; Stus eventually was killed in a Soviet labour camp. The Union of Ukrainian Writers in Kiev was instrumental in bringing about independence from the USSR in 1991.

Ukrainian music has its roots in centuries-old oral traditions of bylyny (epic narrative poems) and dumas, which were long lyrical ballads glorifying the exploits of the Cossacks. The roots of Ukrainian folk music lie in the legendary kozbar, wandering minstrels of the 16th and 17th centuries who accompanied their songs of heroic exploits (mostly of the Cossacks) with the kozba, a lute-like instrument. The bandura, a larger instrument with up to 45 strings, replaced the kozba in the 18th century. Bandura choirs were soon all the rage, and the instrument became the national symbol. Today, the Ukrainian Bandura Chorus from Kiev performs worldwide. Mykola Lysenko is probably the best known Ukrainian classical composer, famous for basing piano works on Ukrainian folk songs. Popular contemporary musicians include the punk band Plach Yeremiyi and the singer-songwriter Nina Matvienko, who draws heavily on Ukrainian folk traditions.

Christianity came to Ukraine late in the 10th century. The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054, and Orthodoxy itself later split into three main branches, each one with a different relationship to Moscow-controlled Russian Orthodoxy and to Roman Catholicism. Church buildings dominate Ukrainian architecture. One unique genre is the wooden church, featuring gables and wooden-shingled onion domes and cupolas - all held together by complex joinery without nails. As part of their campaign to crush Ukrainian identity and nationalism, the Soviets demolished hundreds of sacred buildings in the 1930s, including four 12th century cathedrals. Painting also has its roots in religious themes.

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