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Vast and vaguely mysterious, Ukraine is barely known to outsiders despite being one of the largest countries in Europe. Long associated with its colossal neighbour Russia, it’s a country of varied landscapes and surprising cultural diversity. The Carpathian Mountains that spill over the border with Poland, Hungary and Romania dominate the west of the country while flat plains carpeted with sunflowers and cereals make up much of the central and eastern region. To the south are the almost Mediterranean-like Black Sea coast and the Crimean Peninsula, which remains a huge draw for holidaymakers every summer.
Ukraine's capital, Kiev, founded in the eighth century, displays a heady mix of architecture befitting of a city that was once capital of Kievan Rus, the precursor of the modern Russian state. A wealth of baroque and Renaissance architecture can also be found in Lviv, one of Europe's oldest cities, while Odessa is probably best known for the Potemkin Stairway that featured in Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film The Battleship Potemkin.
History of Ukraine
Ukraine has long been associated with its much larger and more powerful neighbour Russia and first came under Russian control in the 1650s when the only real alternative was invasion by the Poles.
By the 19th century, although the western part of Ukraine was under Austro-Hungarian control, the remainder (and majority) became part of the Russian Empire. After various attempts at independence around the period of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Ukraine became a republic within the USSR and its territory enlarged slightly around the time of World War II. Crimea became part of Ukraine in 1954 and, due to its predominantly Russian population and strategic position on the Black Sea, is still the subject of ongoing dispute between Ukraine and Russia.
In 1986, in the final years of the Soviet era and during the Perestroika period of President Gorbachev, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine brought worldwide attention, and was arguably a significant factor in accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Full independence came with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Ukraine's foreign relations are still dominated by the Russian Federation, a fact which displeases many of the country’s ethnic Ukrainian population (particularly those in the west of the country).
Rigged presidential elections in 2004 that declared Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the victor sparked bitter public outcry and resulted in the so-called Orange Revolution and the subsequent 2005 election of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko as President, with Yulia Tymoshenko as his Prime Minister. However, Yanukovych soon returned to power as Prime Minister in 2006 and in 2010 was elected President once more. It remains to be seen whether Yanukovych’s more pro-Russian stance will compromise any of the pro-Western and democratic advances made by the Orange Revolution.
About 60% of Ukraine’s population claim to be either not religious or do not identify with a particular church. Around 15% are members of the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church while 11% belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. Another 5%, mostly in western Ukraine, adhere to the Uniate (Eastern-rite) or Ukrainian Greek Catholic tradition. Other minorities include the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant groups. There is also a Muslim minority (mainly consisting of Tatars in Crimea), which makes up 12% of the population.
Ukrainian people are generally warm and friendly to visitors. It is not at all uncommon for Ukrainians to invite strangers into their own homes. Shoes should be removed on entering a home. Formal attire is rarely required, though people dress smartly for the theatre. Visitors should avoid ostentatious displays of wealth in public places. Men should not shake a woman’s hand unless it is offered to them. Women should cover their heads when entering a church or mosque.
Language in Ukraine
Ukrainian is the sole official state language. It is still widely spoken in western and central Ukraine, although Russian is spoken by virtually everyone. Russian is the main language spoken in Kiev, eastern Ukraine and Crimea.