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Intro to Ukraine

A Short, Oversimplified, and Incomplete Introduction to One of the Most Complicated Regions of Europe

(I haven't spent a lot of time on this section - maybe it's better that way)

Assorted facts (not chosen with any special care)

Present day Ukraine is the largest country that is totally within the boundaries of Europe.  It's approximately the size of Texas. 

The the lack of natural borders makes it easy to invade. 

In the Soviet era it became an important industrial region.

Kiev was the third largest city in the Soviet Union.

Ukraine is one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the world. It is one of the top exporters  of wheat, corn, sunflower oil and honey.

Between 1933 and 1945 more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the world.


Some historical background 

There were many ethnic, national, and imperial forces at play in Ukraine during the time of the stories in this web site. These were the result of a long and complicated history during which boundaries shifted, peoples migrated, or were deported, assimilated, or massacred. Local languages, cultures, and religions were suppressed in some places and allowed to develop in others. People in the towns and cities tended to adapt more to the prevailing government’s language and culture than those in the countryside.  There are many historical events which shaped Ukraine. Here are just a few.


From the 16th century most of Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Common-wealth which for hundreds of years was one of the largest and most populous countries in Europe. It contained many ethnicities and was tolerant of different religions (including Jews, which is why so many Jews moved to this area). The area that became Ukraine had Polish nobles (they got the good estates) and even in 1900 Polish was a common language in Ukraine. The name Shugaevsky may have a Polish origin.


Outline of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth with its major subdivisions after the 1618  Truce of Deulino, superimposed on present-day national borders.   Source: click here

At the end of the 18th century, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria (and ceased to exist for a time). Austria took the area containing Galicia (mostly within the dark green on the map below), which contained Poles and Ukrainians and other populations (as well as some soon to be important oil reserves). Russia took the area to the east.

Partition of Poland.png

This map seems to use mostly Polish spellings. Source: click here

The Russian Empire ruled with an iron hand, suppressing the Ukrainian language and culture and Russifying the areas under it’s control. This had the greatest effect in the cities and on the more educated and wealthier classes. The Austrian Empire allowed Ukrainian culture and language to develop. And so there developed a division between these areas that continues to this day. Also we should add that the Galician Ukrainians converted to the Greek Catholic Church (from the Ukrainian or Russian Orthodox Church). The Greek Catholic Church accepts the leadership of the Pope but still worships using the Orthodox rituals.

During Austro-Hungary's rule of Galicia, the western part was mostly Polish and the eastern part was mostly Ukrainian. But even in the eastern part the wealthier and educated townspeople were predominately Polish. Lvov (where Ariadna and her family lived for a short while) was considered a culturally important Polish city by the Poles, but the countryside was mostly Ukrainian (with a large percentage of Jews). Przemysl, Ariadna’s “adopted birthplace”, is also on the map below. Przemysl is now in present day Poland close to the Ukrainian border. Lvov is now in Ukraine.


Galicia is at the upper right. Rena spent some time in the city of Lvov, which is in a small purple (Polish) area in a sea of yellow.   Source: click here

It was once impossible to draw a line around any ethnic group in eastern Europe without including other ethnicities. At the time of these stories, eastern Galicia was 80% Polish, the rest being mostly Ukrainians and Jews. The western part was 65% Ukrainian, the rest being mostly Poles and Jews. There were other ethnicities as well. The survey could be influenced by what ethnicities were recognized and whether some people were being lumped together with peoples they didn’t identify with. For example, Rusyns and Lemkos sometimes got counted as Ukrainians.

After the First World War, Galicia became part of a new Poland. The Poles  suppressed Ukrainian culture. When Hitler and Stalin split up Poland it was occupied by the Soviet Union. Soon after that it was occupied by Germany. Germany tolerated some Ukrainian organizations (perhaps as a way to offset Polish nationalism). Some Galician Ukrainians even fought in the Nazi military including the SS and were involved in war crimes. This is a hotly debated subject now and most available information on the web is not trustworthy. 

After World War II the map of Europe was redrawn and there was the forced relocation of many peoples. Poland lost the area around Galicia and the Poles still living there were forced west. In compensation, Poland was given lands on their western border and the Germans in those lands were forced to emigrate. Czechoslovkia which once had a large German minority also forced out Germans. And on and on. This is oversimplified but you get the idea.

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