Author Anna Reid, who was a Kyiv correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995, tells the story of Ukraine by dedicating each chapter to a different city or region. For example, in the first chapter, entitled "The New Jerusalem: Kyiv," Reid traces the great Slav civilisation of the tenth century that created and maintained Kyiv.
I found Borderland to be a very readable book because Reid mixed personal anecdotes and literary references with her (extensive) historical research. Ukraine is a vast country with a complex history, but Reid was able to successfully summarize its past by creating a "quilt" of sorts, constructed with patchwork stories about all of Ukraine's diverse inhabitants.
From the first page:
Flat, fertile, and fatally tempting to invaders, Ukraine was split between Russia and Poland from the mid 17th century to the end of the 18th, between Russia and Austria through the 19th, and between Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania between the two world wars. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it had never been an independent state.
Being a borderland meant two things for Ukraine. First, it inherited a legacy of violence, and second, it was left with a tenuous sense of national identity. I think the issue of language helps to elucidate the latter point. In the eastern part of the country, almost everyone speaks Russian. In fact, in the Crimea (a south-eastern region on the Black Sea,) many residents refuse to accept that Ukraine is an independent nation at all - they still consider themselves Russian citizens. However, in the western part of the country, nearly everyone speaks Ukrainian. Indeed, Lviv (a large city near the Polish border) became the birthplace of the Ukrainian independence movement. Also, Ukrainian is a more rural language associated with the peasantry, while Russian is spoken in most big cities.
I think the cultural dynamic between Russia and Ukraine is fascinating. It will be very interesting to see how it plays out in Kyiv and Chernobyl, the places where I will be spending most of my time. I hope I made the right choice when I decided to learn the Ukrainian language this summer instead of Russian...From what I've read, most Kyiv residents are bi-lingual, but I have no idea what language is dominant in the north-central region of Ukraine, where Chernoybl and Pripyat are located. Fortunately, Russian and Ukrainian share some vocabulary, so there is a chance that I will be able to understand one by knowing the other.
This post is getting long, but before I stop writing I want to share with you an interesting map that shows the Ukrainian-speaking world:
There appears to be a significant Ukrainian community in Canada. Who knew!