Ukraine covers about 603,700 square kilometers and has about 48,498,000 people. Kiyiv is the capital and largest city. Formerly a union republic of the USSR, Ukraine became an independent country and a charter member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), above, when the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991.
Ukraine is a rich farming, industrial, and mining country in southeastern Europe. It consists mostly of fertile steppes. Ukraine is bordered by the Black Sea to the south and the Carpathian Mountains to the west. The long history of the Ukrainian people began with prehistoric agricultural tribes who inhabited the Dniepro and Dniester river valleys. Later, Slavic peoples settled in the area. By the A. D. 800’s, Vikings from Scandinavia called the Varangian Russes established a loose system of control over the land on both sides of the Dniepro River. In time, this region became the heart of the Kiyivan state, dominated by Kiyiv, the first large powerful city-state in the area.
Following the reign of Yaroslav (1019–1054), which marked the height of Kiyiv’s power, the Kiyivan state broke up into principalities (regions ruled by princes). In the mid-1300’s, some of the principalities in Ukraine and Belarus were taken over by the expanding Lithuanian and Polish states. They adopted the feudal relations in the society which made Ukrainian peasants work for their landlords without any kind of payment.
By 1795, Russia had gained control over most of Ukraine. In 1918, after the Russian turnover, the Ukrainians established an independent non-Communist state. But by 1920, Communists brought most of Ukraine under their rule as a Soviet republic. In 1929, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians suffered from the Soviet government’s take-over of their privat lands, cattle, houses and farming equipment. The Ukrainians’ opposition to Soviet domination and its restrictions on their cultural freedom continued through the 1930’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. Ukraine remained under the strict control of the Soviet central government until the late 1980’s, when a new Ukrainian nationalist movement appeared. In 1991, in the midst of political upheaval in the Soviet Union following an attempted government coup in August, Ukraine declared itself independent.
In December 1991, Ukraine, along with Byelarus (now Belarus) and Russia, established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). A week later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union and replace it with the CIS.
In early 1992, tension developed between Russia and Ukraine over control of the naval fleet in the Black Sea. Although Yeltsin claimed that the Black Sea fleet was now a part of the commonwealth, Ukraine’s nationalist leaders maintained that most of the fleet was now owned by Ukraine. In September 1993, Russia and Ukraine agreed to divide the fleet. Both countries later renounced the pact, and the fleet’s status remained unresolved through 1996.
Ukraine’s economy came close to collapse in 1993. Inflation stood at 70 per cent a month, and the government estimated that about 80 per cent of its people lived under the line of poverty. Parliament approved a stabilization plan that called for land reform, an end to price controls, and drastic cuts in subsidies. Also in 1994, Ukraine signed an agreement with the United States and Russia to transfer its long-range nuclear weapons to Russia, where they would be destroyed. This transfer was completed in 1996.
In 1996, Ukraine adopted a new constitution. It was the last of the former Soviet republics to do so. About 75 per cent of the people in Ukraine are Ukrainians, a Slavic nationality group that has its own customs and language. Most Ukrainians belong to the Eastern Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, and Baptist churches. Russians, a separate nationality group, make up about 20 per cent of the remaining population.