As Seen in…
Why visit Ukraine?
Humans seem to have moved into Ukraine by about 32,000 B.C. via the Crimea and the first properly recorded civilisations were the Scythians whose Iron age culture dominated the centuries B.C.. in the last centuries B.C. and first A.D. Greek, Roman and Byzantine colonies around the Black Sea coast have left significant archaeological remains to suggest they flourished on the key trading area that linked the interior with Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The first millennium A.D. saw incursions from the Goths, Huns and Bulgars and a series of tribal divisions made for a complex patchwork of influences. By the 10th century, however, the emergence of a new dominant power centred on the Ukrainian region changed the face of Eastern Europe forever: the Kievan Rus’ became a huge empire, perhaps founded by Varangian peoples from Scandinavia, which held sway from the White to the Black Seas, from the Volga to Latvia. It laid the foundations for the establishment of Russia and the Ukraine and brought Orthodox Christianity to the region. Some of the real draws for those exploring its history date from this period, notably the labyrinthine cave monastery at Kyiv and the stunning ‘Rock of Podolia’ fortified town that has stood since 1062 at Kamyanets-Podilskjy on the Smotrych River.
Its ‘Golden Age’ was centred on Kyiv, and was only curtailed by the Mongol invasion of 1240 which razed the capital to the ground. From the ensuing political chaos emerged Ruthenia in the north east and Lithuanis, and then Poland’s kingdoms in the north west. To the South, the Islamic khanate was the lasting legacy of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde and continued well into the 17th century. Religious conflict between eastern and western Catholicism and both ranked in opposition to the Muslims of the Crimea helped shape the next 5 centuries, characterised by Tatar slave raids. In 1648 a key Cossack uprising carved out an independent nation which lasted briefly before the entire region became a battleground between Russia, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and the Crimean Tatars – themselves later annexed by Russia – for control.
The former two nations ultimately carved out the region between them and the majority of the south by the late 1800s became ‘New Russia’, looking to the Tsar as their leader. Largely rural and underpopulated, the southern area was encouraged as suitable for settlement by Catherine the Great and so millions of German, Polish, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and even Greek migrants moved in with the underlying purpose of thinning out the Turkish Islamic population. By the end of World War I, the land was decisively Russian-leaning and after the conflict a new nationalist driven Ukraine emerged which, following the communist revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1919, was subsumed into the USSR as The Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. Throughout the soviet period, land was added to the country so that by 1954, the current borders emerged, less the currently contested Crimea.
Following harrowing episodes of invasion, counter-invasion and destruction in World War II, a brutal famine and then Stalin’s appalling deportations and ethnic cleansing of Ukraine devastated the nation. Ukraine was still heavily involved in soviet politics and prosperity and production rose in the 50s and 60s. The period saw an intensification in cold-war military installations and, having a key strategic position of the fringes of western Europe, nuclear sites, missile command bunkers, bomber airfields and early warning stations all still remain open to visitors to experience the tensions of the cold war.
In 1984, the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster brought the country to the world’s attention and outsiders today are now safe to tour the haunting ghost town of Prypat. Between 1990 and 1991 independence from the Soviet powers was won: initial cordiality with Russia began to founder in successive decades and the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan and Revolution saw popular uprisings shift Ukraine towards EU membership, much to Russian disquiet. Allegations of eastern interference in elections and poisoning of key politicians culminated in the Russian annexing of the Crimea, an issue that remains unresolved.
Nonetheless, the path to further integration with the west has continued and travel throughout the country offers a unique blend of a sense of adventure in a landscape which is broadly very familiar.