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Protesters clash with riot police on January 19, 2014 during an opposition rally in the centre of the Ukrainian capital Kiev in a show of defiance against strict new curbs on protests. 200,000 protesters expressed frustration over the lack of a clear programme from the opposition leaders after almost two months of protests over the government's ditching of a pact with the EU under Russian pressure. Ukrainian police used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon in a bid to disperse the hundreds of people who sought to storm police cordons near the Verkhovna Rada parliament in the capital.

Protesters clash with riot police during an opposition rally in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on January 19, 2014.


Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published January 29, 2014

Ukraine's spreading protests are clearly tied to a modern dilemma: Should the country's allegiance lie with President Vladimir Putin's Moscow, or with the European Union? Yet a look back into its history and geography helps explain why that question is hardly new, and how the passions and upheaval of today stem from centuries of battles over Ukraine's precarious position between East and West.

It was a history that created fault lines. Eastern Ukraine fell under Russian imperial rule by the late 17th century, much earlier than western Ukraine. This helps to explain why, after the fall of the Soviet Union, people in the east have generally supported more Russian-leaning politicians. Western Ukraine spent centuries under the shifting control of European powers like Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The western third of Ukraine was even part of Poland for several years leading up to World War II. That, to some degree, helps explain why people in the west have tended to support more Western-leaning politicians. The east tends to be more Russian-speaking and Orthodox, with parts of the west more Ukrainian-speaking and with heavier Catholic influences.

A map of Ukraine

(Read about Ukraine's push for democracy in National Geographic magazine.)

But it's not just about geography or religion. "The biggest divide after all these factors is between those who view the Russian imperial and Soviet rule more sympathetically versus those who see them as a tragedy," says Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

At first there were no such divisions. In the ninth century, Ukraine, known as Kievan Rus, was becoming the early seat of Slavic power and the newly adopted Orthodox religion. But Mongol invasions in the 13th century curtailed Kiev's rise, with power eventually shifting north into Russia to present-day St. Petersburg and Moscow.

(Related video: Ukraine at the Crossroads)

Over the centuries, Ukraine—with its rich black soil that would help it become a major grain producer—was continually carved up by competing powers. In the 16th century major swaths of the country were under the control of Poland and Lithuania, with Cossack fighters patrolling Ukraine's frontier with Poland.

In the 17th century, war between the Tsardom of Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resulted in more internal divisions. Lands to the east of the Dnieper River fell under Russian imperial control much earlier than Ukrainian lands to the west of the Dnieper. The east became known as "Left Bank" Ukraine and a center of industry and coal. Lands to the west of the Dnieper, or "Right Bank," were to be ruled by Poland. A small part in the west, called Galicia, was allotted to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the last 19th century. The Austro-Hungarian empire ended at the end of World War I, but that small part of western Ukraine remained outside the Russian empire and was incorporated into the U.S.S.R. only as a result of the Second World War.

Under the reign of Catherine the Great, the steppe areas of eastern Ukraine became major economic centers of coal and iron. The Ukrainian language—spoken in rural areas—was twice banned by decree of the tsar, says Karatnycky (and today both languages are spoken in the country). But peace did not last for long. After the communist revolution of 1917, Ukraine was one of the many countries to suffer a brutal civil war before becoming a Soviet Republic in 1920.

In the early 1930s, to force peasants into joining collective farms, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine that resulted in the starvation and death of millions of Ukrainians. Afterward, Stalin imported large numbers of Russians and other Soviet citizens—many with no ability to speak Ukrainian and with few ties to the region—to help repopulate the east.

This, says former Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, is just one of the historic reasons that helps explain why "the sense of Ukrainian nationalism is not as deep in the east as it is in west."

On ecological maps you can even see the divide between the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine—known as the steppes—with their fertile farming soil and the northern and western regions, which are more forested, says Serhii Plokhii, a history professor at Harvard and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. He says his institute has a map depicting the demarcations between the steppe and the forest, a diagonal line between east and west, that bears a "striking resemblance" to political maps of Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 and 2010.

With the protests spreading east, says Pifer, the protest "has metamorphosized into much more. This started out to be about Europe, but it's also turning into protests over democracy and the end of corruption." There also appear to be political divisions based on demographics, between younger and older generations, not just geography and a turbulent history.

Whether what is happening today will become a trend or is a short-term change to earlier divisions is unclear, says Harvard's Plokhii. "But the old lines are not applicable to the degree they were even just one month ago."

Norman Berdichevsky
Norman Berdichevsky

Crimean Geography Lesson for Liberals and Conservatives

Norman Berdichevsky

Both “liberals” such as Hillary Clinton who recently compared Putin to Hitler and knee-jerk conservatives who see the crisis in the Ukraine as a Cold War II are in need of a more restrained, nuanced and intelligent view, taking into account both history and geography – two subjects that Americans traditionally disregard. The American press, radio and television have almost been unanimous in their ignorance of history and geography of the Russian-Ukrainian borderlands. The strategic value of the Russian naval base in the Crimea is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal combined.

Apart from one brief mention on the Sunday Fox News Report, I have not come across any reference to the simple fact that since Russian ejection of the Ottoman Turks from the Crimean Peninsula by Catherine the Great in 1783, the region has always been part of the Great Russian concept of the motherland and Russian language through Czarist times and including the first thirty-five years of incorporation in the USSR when it was NOT an administrative unit of the Ukrainian SSR but of the RSFSR (Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic).

Its transfer by administrative fiat in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was an act of cosmetic political farce designed purely to throw Ukrainians a bone and pretend this “generosity” would help erase long memories of the terrible famines of the 1930s (largely caused by Stalin’s policies) and the large degree of collaboration with the German invaders in World War II, thereby solidifying the “brotherhood” of the two peoples. Khrushchev was of mixed Russian and Ukrainian ancestry and was detested in the Ukraine as serving his Russian masters. His “generosity’ was designed to pacify Ukrainian pride and promote his own image.

His 1954 maneuver was even more of a total repudiation of the concept of respecting “territorial integrity” and ”self-determination” than attempted by any Czar and loudly proclaimed today as “inviolate principles of international law.”In 1954, ethnic Russians were the overwhelming majority of the population and had expressed no wish whatsoever to become part of the Ukrainian SSR. Almost nothing changed on the ground as a result of this move and Russian rather than Ukrainian continued for many years to be the major official language of the Crimea.

On February 27, 1954 Pravda published a short announcement on its front page that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR had decreed on February 19 (no need to tell the people immediately) the transfer of the Crimean “oblast” (region) from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The decree ran a mere eight lines stated that this measure “Was being taken because of the economic commonalities, territorial closeness, and communication and cultural links" between Crimea and Ukraine.”

In 1991 with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, it was widely expected that President Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Federation, would restore Crimea to Russia but the mercurial and often inebriated Yeltsin didn’t bring it up during negotiations with Ukraine. Had he insisted on retaining the Crimea then or making it subject to a referendum, it would have been very unlikely to be the source on international tension.

Americans often confuse nationality and language. Many Ukrainians who typically used Russian everyday in work and for official purposes (especially before the 1954 transfer) still regarded themselves as Ukrainians.


Philip Yezierskis
Philip Yezierskis

It does not make much sense for Russia to hold dominion over the Ukrainian people after 70 years or so under the devastations of Russian Communism.  Let us keep in mind, for example, the 1932-33 famine-genocide of the Ukrainians, intentionally created by Stalin and his patriotic Russian workers.  How many millions of Ukrainians starved to death ? How many thousands of Ukrainian children died day by day ?  No, it makes no sense for Ukraine to be politically tied-up with Russia.  And I'm not even bothering about issues of mafia interests.  What I am concerned about is the Spiritual/Political integrity of the Ukrainian people after decades of Communist devastations. Putin is still unconsciously possessed by Cold War Communist instincts. 

Joe Beef
Joe Beef

There are many millions of ethnic spread all over Russia. Historically Ukrainian lands included the the Don east of present Ukraine. 

Joe Beef
Joe Beef

Not all fault lines are the same. Relatively recently the east was also very Ukrainian and nationalistic. There have been a number of Russians settling there in the 20th centuary; but many are still Ukrainian, but Russian speaking. Previous governments have been setting up Ukrainian language schools; but Yanukovich has been closing them.

Just about everyon in Ukraine can speak Russian. But Yanukovich only recently learned, and his right hand man, Azarov could not.

Joe Beef
Joe Beef

The protesters in Kiev came from all walks of life and probably from all corners of the country. Kiev is mainly a Russian speaking city; close to the east. For sure there were many Russian easterners among them when on one day there were 300,000. Think how many more with the same opinion stayed home. As we see now the protests are spreading to the east and south.

The media made it sound like it was west vs east. But the main point of the protest is to change a very corrupt government and system. Sure Yanucovitch had more support in the east. But it looks like that's quickly changing. Remember that the police attacked first. And at least some of the rioters I believe have been government infiltrators. The anti-protest law was passed with fraud; and I believe it was a deliberate provocation.

Taking into account the insanely massive voter fraud in 2004; I would not put anything past this government.   

CJ Wilkinson
CJ Wilkinson

"A small part in the west, called Galicia, was allotted to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the last 19th century." Incorrect"

Should say: " A small part in the west, called Galicia, was allotted to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 18th century.  

Joseph White
Joseph White

A sound analysis. The cleavages of the past resonate for a long, long time.

Zvyczaj Czaj
Zvyczaj Czaj

Fundamental European values and East Europe.
Notes to the Letter international academic community " Support Ukrainians and they can help us build a fairer Europe" .
About Fundamental European values in the Russian work from 1630 " first Lithuanian town that we passed was a castle Lojeŭ (modern Belarus, on
the Dnieper River)... Archimandrite (
originally referred to superior abbot) Elisha met us in Kiev. And Archimandrite Elisha and brothers told me "Here, the land in Lithuania is Liberty: if someone wants to have some kind of belief , faith he has such belief."" «Здесь-де земля в Литве вольная: кто в какой вере хочет, в той и пребывает». (Lithuania this decline - the full name of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Russian, Samogitian and other lands. "Russian" here from "RUS`", not Russia, Lithuania in official texts called "LITVA")
In fact, near Lojeŭ (name by UN WGRS) was 100 years the border between Asia represented by Mongol Empire and Europe represented by Grand Duchy of Lithuania, until the reconquest of Ukraine in 1363 by Olgerds. In western Europe, more commonly known Reconquest in Spain. In compliance and Ukrainian national historical tradition is that the Ukrainians in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were not an oppressed nation (but not in Poland).
See more on the UkrainianБитва_на_Синіх_Водах
See the map of French late 18th century town Lojeŭ a border town of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth with Russian Empire
The border was here 150 years, since the Left-bank Ukraine was in Russia. After Truce of Andrusovo in 1667 Kiev in Tsardom of Russia.

Tom Mengel
Tom Mengel

This seems to illustrate a common problem in both the EU and Russia and their minions (as well as here in the US where we try to peddle our "democratic way" to the world).  The thought that a "modern" progressive political system can somehow just come in and magically change a generational culture overnight is naive at best and quite often results in bloodshed and destruction of any residual culture with no set alternatives in place (think Syria).  The usual chain of events is a race downward to a small scale strong-man criminal style system of rule (often misnamed as some kind of political faction) unless some outside power is willing to step in and hold the existing rulers to some higher level of function.  To be successful this must continue for a long time until the over all population somehow get a higher level government together but it almost always causes resentment to the "occupying forces", a lesson we Americans should probably really take to heart after spending trillions of dollars attempt to implement "democratic reform" style of haphazard control in two Mideast countries without success.  The big questions for the Ukraine right now is who will stabilize the economy and offer a framework to resolve the differences in favor of the people (I myself would not bet on Russia on this one, and I think the average Ukrainian would probably agree).  It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially between Russia and the EU and what is will do with that relationship outside of the Ukrainian crisis for a long time to come.

Rhem Evans
Rhem Evans

This was very informative. However, is historical ownership and an ethic majority really enough to stake a just claim?

The Mexican government could rightfully make a similar argument for southern Texas or New Mexico - it doesn't mean they'd be justified in doing so.

vikenti gorokhovski
vikenti gorokhovski

Crimea was given to Ukraine by Khrushchev because Soviet leaders never respected any laws they wrote. But one unlawful act doesn't excuse another and Putin broke every letter in every agreement Russia signed with Ukraine. Ukrainians collaborated with Germans no more than Russians did (but nice going) and Stalin's policies wiped out six million of Ukrainian population. By the way, since Norman knows history, he should know that Crimea (T'mutarakan") was part of Kiev Rus (not for long) way before Russia even existed.

Dev Kumar
Dev Kumar

@Joe Beef  "but many are still Ukrainian, but Russian speaking" 

Now, I've come across this particular expression in different variations across different portals. Not able to understand why an ethnic Ukrainian would speak Russian if the ethno-political division between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians is so deep. So, when you say 'Ukrainian' who speaks Russian are you referring to a person who is an ethnic Ukrainian (with no Russian roots whatsoever) or are you referring to an ethnic Russian who is a national of Ukraine? 

Dev Kumar
Dev Kumar

@Joe Beef  Yes, the protests are spreading to the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine but the objectives of the protesters in the east and south appear to quite different from those of protesters in KIev and other parts of western Ukraine.  

Armand Spenser
Armand Spenser

@Joe Beef I am not buying this. All protest leaders are from Western Ukraine. The protests are not spreading either East or South. There's no question the govt is corrupt but those leading the protests aren't freedom fighters of any sort. It's Eastern mafia vs Western mafia, nothing more. The people of Ukraine will loose either way.

Joe Beef
Joe Beef

@Tom Mengel   I don't think you can compare this situation with the middle east. What the media rarely mentions is that Yanucovitch in 2010 said he would sign with EU (still does). Very few believe this major fraudster.

70% want some time or another to sign. Looks like Putin's actions were blackmail. Ukrainians are a very resouceful and resilient people. But with the right government and peoples actions on all levels they can hope for real democracy and an end to massive corruption. I hear US in the 1880's had problems somewhat similar. Canada will support. A large portion of people there are descendants of Ukrainian pioneers.

The Ukrainians are peddling their own democracy, thank you.

Sebastian Corn
Sebastian Corn

@Tom Mengel Fully agree. I am a Romanian and I can tell that many Romanians think that the political fault described in the story above runs across our country, dividing Eastern and Western interrests and policies. This said, I want to point out that we are living „first hand”, right in the usual chain of events you were talking about, i.e. „the race downward to a small scale strong-man criminal system of rule”. 

In this situation, I asked myself many times if we could not talk about a so-called social and historic metabolism, that makes a given population, nation or country, to pass through compulsory steps that require a certain amount of time to fulfill a specific type of political organization. History is cyclic, it has its own patterns, and the outside pressures, although positive from a general point of vue (democratic values, let`s say), can bring about a counter local reaction.

Is there anything we can do about it?

Proper education, wide education. However, what we notice now, and not only in Romania, is a progressive collapse of  the systems of education. They are too pragmatic and job oriented. In my opinion, this helps on short term only. What we need is sticking to general humanist values - it is the only way in which societies could be built properly with their own, local means.

Local resentment is a big problem, indeed. Things should be solved locally.

Paul Randall
Paul Randall

@Armand Spenser  Also known as the 1%. Bankruptcy is what happens to nations when the 1% have complete control of the economy, the government and the judiciary. Ukraine may be bankrupt but Ukraine is not Broke. 

Armand Spenser
Armand Spenser

@Joe Beef @Tom MengelThere are a few things to consider in this "fight for democracy" and other marketing slogans:

1) Ukraine will continue to depend on Russia for energy supplies so there's no way, currently, to be truly independent as both the current (East-friendly) and previous (West-friendly) govts have nearly bankrupted the country

2) EU agreement resembles the Economic Hitman-esque trade pact where country has to remove all barriers to multinational corporations taking over vital industries and resources. People are naive if they think this agreement will allow Ukraine to prosper as an equal partner in the EU.

It is a sad situation and a struggle between two corrupt fractions in the country, nothing more. It seems, whichever way they go, the people of Ukraine will suffer. It is also quite possible that the country will be split in two. I do hope that further bloodshed is avoided.

Joe Beef
Joe Beef

@Sebastian Corn @Tom Mengel  A good measure of the east is also against Yanukovich now. He is quickly losing support there. 92% of Ukraine voted for independance in 1991. A majority in every oblast.

Armand Spenser
Armand Spenser

@Joe Beef @Sebastian Corn@Tom Mengel The vote in 1991 has nothing to do with current Yanukovich's support in the East. It's still quite strong, but people realize the govt is corrupt. Still, they don't consider Western mafia as an alternative and there is no evidence they're joining the current protests.

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