In 2009, shortly after I decided to move to Ukraine to write my MA thesis, I dropped into the central library in Oxford and borrowed all the books they had on Ukraine (all two of them) and set off on a Ukrainian fact-finding mission.
Existing since the 6th century, Kiev was (like many English towns) created by Scandinavian Vikings and during the 10th century the state of ‘Kievan Rus’ became the largest and most powerful in Europe. It was run by a dude or ‘crown prince’ called Vladimir/Volodymyr (Vlad the great) who is widely regarded as the founding farther of Ukraine and was responsible for converting everyone to Orthodox Christianity. Apparently, he didn’t like Paganism anymore so he set about finding a replacement (I love the way religions work) and he found Christianity. Mr Volodymyr chose Orthodox Christianity because he liked booze and pork (so Islam was no good) and he liked women and indulgence too so Judaism and Catholicism were out of the question. Actually, Vlad was dam good at indulgence and had about 800 concubines and numerous wives.
Anyway, he baptised the whole city (in the Dnieper river) with his new religion and the eastern Slavs have been stuck with it ever since.
Things in Kievan Rus were pretty cool until 1240 when the Mongolians came on their little horses and destroyed everything.
Kiev was rebuilt but, in the following centuries Ukrainian land was controlled by its powerful neighbours: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (yes, little Lithuania used to be powerful), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Muscovite Russia and finally the Russian Empire.
Of course, there are many political explanations for these foreign occupations but what most history books don’t tell you is – the Polish and Lithuanians were mostly staying for the Rusalkas. That is, the green-eyed fish-women, who lived at the bottom of rivers. In the middle of the night, they would walk out to the bank, dance in meadows, ask questions and tickle men to death! …the Polish just love to be tickled!
Ukraine has two main languages (Ukrainian and Russian) and with some slight differences – both use the Cyrillic alphabet. Ukrainian is (apparently) predominant in Kiev and the west of the country and Russian in the east. I don’t understand either language (or Cyrillic) so both are equally confusing for me but, I believe that, like in the UK – the minority (in this case Ukrainian) will speak both and the Russian majority will mostly speak just Russian.
Ukrainian nationalism has a long and, well, unsuccessful history but the Ukrainian language and literature did flourish in the 19th century when the smooth-talking ladies-man Taras Shevchenko captured the national spirit in his poems and writings.
Unfortunately though, whilst benefiting from Ukrainian land (and mythical creatures) Ukraine’s foreign landlords haven’t always been good. To be honest, they have almost never been good and the Ukrainians have been subjected to a long history of serfdom, terror, exploitation and massacre. The worst by far, being Stalin’s forced collectivisation or Holodomor (1932–33) which resulted in the starvation of about 6 million Ukrainians – yes, that’s a horrific six million deaths in one year. The Nazis had their turn in 1941 and Babi Yar in Kiev was witness to the murder of more than 33,000 Jews over the course of a five day period.
Actually, go back a decade or so and the British and French also drew blood in Ukraine having a successful pop at the Russians in the Crimean War. We won but, if you fancy a laugh and you’re not familiar with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ then read here. It’s magnificent but, it’s not war…
Sadly, Ukraine also became infamous in 1986 when the ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear reactor blew up during testing, dumping large amounts of radioactive stuff on itself and its northern neighbours. The explosion and the subsequent handling or mishandling of events by the communist authorities highlighted how rotten and corrupt the entire Soviet system had become. It was, in many ways, the start of the end for the USSR.
Alas, Ukraine didn’t do too well from this break-up either or the IMF/World Bank sponsored ‘shock therapy’ capitalism that followed and the country lost 60 percent of its GDP from 1991 to 1999. Recovery picked-up between 2004 and 2007 only to be scuppered with the onset of the recent financial crisis.
So, Ukraine isn’t a rich country but, what they lack in money – they more than make up for in unhappiness. As you can see here (or here) Happiness surveys usually place Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus somewhere close to ‘grumpy’. However, experience tells me, that if you travel anywhere in Europe further south or east of Slovenia, you’ll find any number of people who despair at the state of their nation (with the possible exception of Albania and Turkey where nationalism often blinds reality) and can people be as pessimistic as the most ardent Daily Mail readers. However, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to these surveys, Ukrainians can be happy too – I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
…and anyway, statistics are only half the story and life in Ukraine doesn’t stop. In 2004, in the same year as its Orange revolution, Ukraine surely reached its proudest moment in history winning Eurovision with a song called ‘Wild Dance’. It’s probably because of this (and maybe Crimea) that, in 2007 Ukraine was ranked the 8th most visited country in the world!