Questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask
Q: What is Ukraine?
A: Ukraine (not “the Ukraine”) is a country in Eastern Europe, between Russia and Central Europe. It’s about the area of Texas, with a little less than twice the population. Its history goes back thousands of years — the first domesticated horses were here — and has long been characterized by intersections between “east” and “west.” It has a long history of being subjugated by foreign powers. It’s been independent only since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The last time it was independent, for a few years right after World War I (and before that, briefly, in the 1600s), it had different borders and different demographics.
Q: Why are they protesting?
A: The protests started, mostly in Kiev on Nov. 21, after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for economic integration with the European Union. Symbolically, the decision was seen as a turn away from Europe and toward Moscow, which rewarded Ukraine with a $15 billion stimulus package. Russia subjugated or outright ruled Ukraine for generations. But this is about more than just geopolitics. Yanukovych and his government, since taking power in 2010, have been increasingly seen as corrupt. The protests surged Jan. 16, when Yanukovych signed an anti-protest laws.
Q: I heard this was about Ukrainians wanting ties with Europe and their government selling out to Moscow.
A: Lots of Ukrainians want their country to be “European,” but a third say they’d prefer integrating with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. Ukraine is divided by language, by history and by politics. One-third of the country speaks Russian as its native language; they mostly live in the eastern half. Most Ukrainian-speakers are in the west. Those two halves have different politics — and different visions for the country.
Q: How did it get so divided?
A: Ukraine was conquered and divided for centuries: by the Polish, the Austrians and, above all, the Russians. But Russian rulers didn’t want to just rule Ukraine, they also wanted to make it Russian. The Russification of Ukraine began 250 years ago with Catherine the Great, who oversaw Russia’s “golden age” in the late 1700s. At first, she controlled only eastern Ukraine, where she developed vast coal and iron industries to feed Russia’s expansion. Although she later took the west as well, she and subsequent Russian rulers focused on the east, which also happens to include some of the most productive farmland in the world.