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Fact Sheet: Ukraine

Fact Sheet: Ukraine

Capital: Kiev
Chief cities: Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and Lvov (In Ukrainian: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa and Lviv)
Population: 41,223,000 (1970 census)
Languages: Ukrainian and Russian
Government: Communist; Ukraine is one of the autonomous republics that make up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Chief religions: Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic
Natural resources: Iron, manganese, coal, oil, wheat, potatoes, fruit and fish

The Ukraine shares the same origins as Byelorussia and Russia. However, one can speak of two Ukraines – Ukraine of the West, influenced and governed successively by the Lithuanians, Poles and Austro-Hungarians, and Ukraine of the East, absorbed by czarist Russia. Today the divisions of a geographically united Ukraine remain.

In the 9th century A.D., the Varangians migrated from their Scandinavian homeland to the Dnepr, Don and Volga river regions. The Varangians intermarried with eastern Slavic natives and were later called the Rus. By the mid-10th century, the Rus, with Kiev as their capital, had established strong commercial ties with Constantinople.

In 988-89 A.D., emissaries were sent abroad by Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, in search of a religion to replace his people’s pagan practices. When Vladimir’s emissaries arrived in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor directed the patriarch to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Haghia Sophia. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on the earth,” the emissaries recalled. “Surely God dwells with the Greeks.” After their return to Kiev, Vladimir adopted Christianity in the Byzantine manner and instructed the people to be baptized. By the 12th century, rival Rus cities vied with Kiev to control commercial trade routes. In the north, Novgorod and Pskov declared independence from Kiev in 1136 and created a republic. Smolensk in the west was absorbed by the Lithuanian and later the Polish Kingdoms. Moscow, Vladimir and Suzdal in the east, though attached to Kiev, grew in economic and political independence. In the western province of Galicia, Vladimir’s descendants created an independent principality which in the 13th century became a part of Poland. Kiev itself fell to the Mongols in 1223. The Mongols ravaged Kiev, pillaging and murdering her inhabitants. Medieval Kiev never recovered. The “Mongol yoke” was not completely shaken until the 15th century. For more than 200 years, the Rus princes were vassals to the Mongolian warlords. Any pretensions of independence ended in certain death. Despite its political impotence, Kiev’s cultural legacy survived.

The church replaced the state in artistic and cultural patronage. Kiev’s greatest legacy became the Orthodox Church. In Moscow, which replaced Kiev as the seat of the Orthodox Church in the 15th century, the czars built imposing cathedrals to glorify the “Third Rome.” The Polish and Lithuanian aristocracy in Galicia tried to impose Roman Catholicism, but the Ruthenians, as the people were called, tenaciously clung to their Orthodox faith.

As Poland expanded, its aristocratic lords bound the Ruthenian peasants to the land but many fled to escape serfdom. These serfs, called cossacks, were considered outlaws by the Poles. The cossacks were traditionally Orthodox and politically unmanageable. They aggravated the Poles and Austro-Hungarians but became staunch supporters of the czar.

In 1596, under the influence of the Roman Catholic nobility in Poland, nine Orthodox bishops recognized the spiritual authority of the pope and established the Ukrainian Catholic Church – Orthodox in tradition yet loyal to the Holy See. The Council of Brest-Litovsk, which the Orthodox never recognized, sought church unification, yet it split the population of Galicia into three religious camps: the Orthodox (clearly the majority), Ukrainian Catholics and the Polish Roman Catholic minorities.

Ukraine of the East, dominated by the Cossacks, sought and obtained Russian protection in the 17th century. The Russians quickly assimilated their “little brothers,” as they referred to their Ukrainian kinsmen, and extended the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukrainian nationalism developed as the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires crumbled. In the 19th century, Kiev was the hub of Ukrainian nationalism. But it was repressed by the czarist government.

After the Russian Revolution, an independent Ukrainian republic was established, uniting the western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine for the first time since Kievan Rus. It was a short-lived independence as the tide of communism swiftly overtook the Ukrainian nationals.

During World War II, factions of Ukrainian nationals joined the Nazi invader and revived ambitious of independence. Nazi brutality and the eventual success of the Red Army, however, doused any hopes for an independent Ukraine.

In 1946, Josef Stalin rewarded the Russian Orthodox Church for its support during the war and abolished the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Overnight, a community of five million believers was declared illegal. Bishops, priests, religious and laity who refused to swear loyalty to the Orthodox patriarch were beaten, imprisoned or executed.

Persecution officially came to an end in December 1989 when Pope John Paul II received President Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev promised the pope that the Ukrainian Catholic Church would be legalized. The pope in turn blessed Gorbachev’s campaign of glasnost, but the “cold war” between the Catholics and Orthodox continues.

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