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Random Ukraine facts number 1: The National Anthem is rather pessimistically called: “Ukraine is Not Yet Dead”.


Random Ukraine facts number 2: Ukraine has borders with Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia, and a long stretch of coast along the Black Sea.

 

 

 

 

 

An Introduction to Ukraine
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Introduction to Modern Ukraine
Food and Drink
Language and Identity

Introduction: Ukraine is something of a mystery to most outsiders; an obscure sounding country that only came into existence in 1991 along with a clutch of new and unfamiliar names on the map. However, Ukraine is not to be dismissed as an inconsequential subdivision of the post-Soviet East. It is the second largest country in Europe and has a significant population of around 48 million people. There is a tremendous variety of landscape and culture, from the onion domes and boulevards of the capital, Kiev, to the Carpathian Mountains and ski slopes of the Southwest and the Mediterranean climate of the gorgeous Crimean peninsular and Black Sea Coast. Ukrainian culture is relaxed and hospitable. You are rarely far from a cafe or bar in any of Ukraine’s cities and nightlife is loud and late, particularly in the summer on the coast.

Much of Ukraine, however, remains rural and traditional. The village unit is still strong and the traditional image of duck ponds and picket fences lives on. Ukraine has a long history as an agrarian society, and became known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. The sad result of this was that Ukraine suffered horrifically in the face of Stalin’s collectivisation, not least in the brutal famine he inflicted on Ukraine in the 1930s as a matter of deliberate policy. Many millions died of starvation at a time of relative abundance in the USSR. The scars of the famine and the horrors of the Nazi occupation that saw another 4 million deaths just a decade later, still run deep.

Food and drink: It is popular to assume that a) Ukrainians drink vodka like water, and b) the cuisine consists of entirely of potato and cabbage. Both these ideas give a false impression of the country, but there is a seed of truth in each. Many Ukrainians like to drink it is true, but alcoholism is far from being the blight that it is in many Russian cities. Beer is increasingly popular and there is also a long tradition of affordable champagne and cognac from Odessa and sweet wines from Crimea. That said, if a Ukrainian offers you a vodka drinking competition, expect to lose.

Much cuisine is traditional and based on heavy peasant dishes of vegetables, meat stews, and of course famous Ukrainian borsch (beetroot soup). There is also a strong influence from both Turkey and the Caucasus, adding spices and rice dishes such as plov. The strongest influence from the Caucasus is the ubiquitous shashlik: barbequed chicken or lamb on a skewer, similar to a Turkish shish kebab. At the first sign of sunshine, the smell of burning wood and cooking meat fills the air. It is true to say that there are better countries in which to be vegetarian.

Spiritually, independent Ukrainians are turning back to religion in huge numbers. Many will tell you that Christianity has always been strong but was kept covert under the Soviets. There is some truth in this, however there is no question that independence and post-Soviet uncertainties have lead to a huge increase in religious belief. The Ukrainian Orthodox church currently boasts 10 million members.[top]

Language and Identity
As with many young countries, language and nationality are complex and murky issues. Ukrainian is the official language and has largely been successfully grafted onto a population that hardly used it before independence. All official signs and documents are required to be in Ukrainian and in Western Ukraine, a more traditionally nationalistic and anti-Russian area, you will hear little else. In central and eastern parts of the country Ukrainian is fast taking over from Russian, however there are notable exceptions such as Odessa and the Crimea, which are almost totally Russian speaking, and attempts to Ukrainianise them have been ignored.

In Kiev, both Russian and Ukrainian are common, and very often people speak a hybrid of both languages. Many people are also able to speak some English, however this is not universal, so do not be surprised if even some hotel staff have difficulty understanding you.

Many Ukrainians themselves are confused about the issue of their nationality and ethnicity. 17% describe themselves as Russian, while many are fervent about their Ukrainian identity. There has been a movement for an independent Ukraine for centuries and there is a strong nationalist element, often associating themselves with the region’s Cossack past.

Often such questions about identity are greeted with a shrug of the shoulders. Many people made somewhat arbitrary decisions on independence in 1991, and you will often meet people with a similar history and background who describe themselves in different ways. [top]