National Geographic News
A woman cries near a memorial for the people killed in clashes in Kiev.

A woman wipes away tears as she walks away from a memorial in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine.


Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published February 24, 2014

Charged with the mass killings of civilians, Ukraine's recently ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, is now on the lam.

Last November Yanukovych touched off months of deadly protests in the capital of Kiev and other cities by caving into pressure from the country's former overlords in Moscow and shelving a landmark trade deal with the European Union. Dozens of citizens died last week in clashes with police and security forces in Kiev.

On Saturday evening, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from his post as president.

The new government has now issued a warrant for the president's arrest, but his exact whereabouts are unknown.

Yanukovych left Kiev by helicopter on Friday after signing an agreement to end the protests. On Saturday, he arrived in the eastern city of Donetsk, where he was prevented from leaving the country on a private jet. He then drove to Ukraine's pro-Russian Crimean Peninsula and was most recently rumored to be in Sevastopol, the home port of both the Ukrainian navy and Russia's Black Sea fleet.

The Fault Lines of History

A look back into the country's history and geography helps explain why Yanukovych would flee eastward, and how the passions and upheaval in the recent news stem from centuries of battles over Ukraine's precarious position between East and West.

A map of Ukraine.

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 Roman Catholic influences.

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

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 of 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)

East and West

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 as 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 late 19th century. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ended at the conclusion of World War I, and Galicia remained outside the Russian Empire, becoming incorporated into the U.S.S.R. only as a result of the World War II.

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 Ukrainian and Russian 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.

Ukrainian Identity

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 some 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 university's Ukrainian Research Institute. The institute has created 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 the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 and 2010.

As the protests spread east, the conflict "metamorphosed into much more," says Pifer. It was initially about Europe but in the end turned to the issues of democracy and the end of corruption. There also appeared to be political divisions based on demographics, between younger and older generations, not just geography and a turbulent history.

Chase Boyse
Chase Boyse

I think that if the pro-Russian people/protesters want to be part of Russia, they can move to Russia. There's lots of room to move to considering how big Russia is and it would solve the conflict.

Naveed Larik
Naveed Larik

It rightly said that Ukrain Is fertile crescent of Eastern Europe. However, Identitical crisis It has is still bound with Pro-Russian Desighns. Historical Drifts must end this time any how,If Indeginious Ukranian are resolved to Resolve age old Disputes.

Monty Weddell
Monty Weddell

These  Ukrainian troubles have existed for over a hundred years, and have now become generational. One solution is to divide the country into East and West and let the citizens decide where to live and allow self independant rule. One section may join the EU, if preferred, and the other join Russia, or they can have national elections and decide on one. Their mentality of perpetuating living by the code of the feud may be hard to eliminate. Usually, a strong authoritarial ruler historically has been the only way to resolution. The USA under Obama is of little use. We wish these Ukrainians the best.    

Olha Hodlevska
Olha Hodlevska

OSCE’s counseling of Ukrainian Parliament is urgently needed, because the deputies don’t understand the danger and make a lot of mistakes right now. They give Russia a pretext for intervention and Moscow reacts like a flash. The events may develop in just a couple of days.

Olha Hodlevska
Olha Hodlevska

Putin is interested in splitting Ukraine now to preserve his influence at least in the east. Since today they issue Russian passports in Crimea. They are preparing Georgian scenario for us. The new Ukrainian government is too weak to withstand.

Aleksandr Kazantsev
Aleksandr Kazantsev

@Olha Hodlevska I wouldn't say about Putin's personal influence in the East of the country. People who live there and those who live in Crimea feel that they are not safe in their own country. The government of Ukraine cannot protect them at present and seems not to be willing to. 

Who else will do that? Americans, maybe Germans? They don't care.

Nina Mccutcheon
Nina Mccutcheon


Brian Murphy
Brian Murphy

@John Gunnett @Nina Mccutcheon  Sadly I do not think God is the answer as Religion is the main cause of most wars.  It also allows for a  break between two groups of people as we see with race, culture, beliefs, etc...  Once two groups can be formed based on anything a war can exist.  Most war is based on survival, land, money, food, water and resources, but is cause by groups of people believing they have a difference.  I agree that war needs to stop, however, creating an "answer" for 'everyone' is likely impossible and therefore war will likely exist forever.  Perhaps the world should agree to solve problems with games instead of guns some day.  

Eric Schneider
Eric Schneider

"Religion is the main cause for most wars" - this statement is misleading and false.  That is like saying a doctor is the cause for most illnesses because I go to the doctor every time I am sick.  Your second part of two groups competing for things is correct - human vice in some form is a cause for war.  And that is exactly what Religion (philosophy of virture and vice) attempts to deal with ... giving humans a rational reason and belief system (morality) of why they should not be selfish - and choose to commit virtues rather than vice (at least my religion has that set of beliefs - you can argue for and against how effective that is, but it doesn't change right from wrong).  Without God and religion, then there is no rational or just reason why someone should not commit a crime if they can get away with it.  These people without a belief system, who are only held accountable by man made laws and enforcement of those laws - are evil (evil translates to sociopath if you are not religious).  The only thing one can ask oneself is - what do I choose to be and do (good or evil?).

Larry Arrington
Larry Arrington

@Eric Schneider  Excellent analysis Eric…

One thing I would add which does tend to “muddy” the situation is that God and “religion” are not exactly one in the same.  Religion is man’s attempt to understand God, but God exists outside of religion.  That’s why some people in the protestant Christian community say that God wants “Relationship” rather than “Religion”. 

Unfortunately, human nature tends to “hi-jack” religious ideals as a means of “control”, which is actually what leads to the war that Brian Murphy was talking about.  Thus it is not God but man who is ultimately behind those conflicts.


Popular Stories

  • 'Extinct' Bird Rediscovered in Myanmar

    'Extinct' Bird Rediscovered in Myanmar

    The Myanmar Jerdon's babbler was thought to have gone the way of the dodo—until scientists stumbled across it during a 2014 expedition.

  • Lost City Found in Honduras

    Lost City Found in Honduras

    A joint Honduran-American expedition has confirmed the presence of extensive pre-Columbian ruins in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region rumored to contain ruins of a lost "White City" or "City of the Monkey God."

  • Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Small, young galaxies should be free of interstellar dust, but an object called A1689-zD1 is breaking all the rules.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »