For many Americans, any and all former Soviet republics get lumped into a nebulous mass of geographical uncertainty, authoritarianism, and Borat-type culture. Ukraine is a bracing tonic against these stereotypes; a nation whose rich culture belies its relatively brief geopolitical history.
The region of what today is called Ukraine has been at a political and geographical crossroads for much of its existence. It has been in the sphere of influence of the Byzantines, Scandinavians, the Golden Horde of the Mongols, then, later, Poles, Lithuanians, Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, and, of course, Russia.
By the late middle ages, people known as Cossacks were living on the banks of the Dnieper downriver from Kiev. Out of their culture and history would be later forged modern Ukrainian identity, as they struggled to define themselves against their often more powerful neighbors. An interesting glimpse into this crucible can be had through its name: by the nineteenth century, nationalists had rejected the myriad historical names for this region such as Ruthenia or Volhynia in favor of Ukraine, a name which translates roughly to “the borderlands”, this region having been the frontier of the Polish state for many years.
Independence finally came to Ukraine in 1991, on the heels of the dissolution of the USSR. Today, this country continues to define itself against the backdrop of renewed Russian aggression as well as a Soviet legacy which lives on in language, architecture, as well as in a vast swath of land along its northern border which will remain uninhabitable for millennia into the future.
This last, of course, is a reference to the exclusion zone surrounding the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On my visit to Ukraine recently I visited the capital, Kiev, as well the Exclusion Zone to its north. These next few posts will feature pictures from both that hopefully capture some of the beauty, hope, as well as menace and fear that run intertwined through this fascinating country.
Example of old and new seen here: remnants of Soviet legacy clearly visible around the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, formerly the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Above left is the Motherland Monument, one of the tallest statues in the world. On the right is the atrium of the monument. Below, a beautiful mural on. In recent years, Kiev has turned itself into a mecca for street art.