Kelly Sans Culotte

Eastern Europe

Ukraine Primer
A brief look at geography, history, and politics.
By Tomek Kitlinski

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JAN. 28, 2005. Ukraine is Europe's second largest country after Russia. With 233,089 square miles, almost 49 million people, fertile soils, a relatively mild continental climate and massive mineral riches, the country has a huge, yet largely unfulfilled, potential. Geographical location and history have not been kind to it. The country is uncomfortably wedged between East and West, Russia and the European Union.

In the ninth and tenth centuries of our era, Ukraine was the center of the first great Slav civilization, the original Russian state known as Kievan Rus. This golden era soon ended. For the next thousand years, the country was partitioned off and colonized by its neighbors, among them Poland, Austro-Hungary, Czarist Russia and, after a brief independent interlude, the Soviet Union, which annexed it as a Soviet Republic in 1920.

Five million Ukrainians died of starvation during Stalin's forced agricultural collectivization in the 1930's, and tens of thousands more were killed in the great terror and political purges of the period, which were particularly brutal in Ukraine. World War II devastated the country and killed millions of Ukrainians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared independence on August 24, 1991.

The early and mid-1990's witnessed a brief national revival. Universities were revamped, the media got some independence, ethnic minorities began to be recognized, non-governmental organizations, including those focusing on gender, began to operate. A smattering of small gay social groups and gay-friendly clubs surfaced. Then this emerging civil society largely collapsed. To blame: the weight of widespread corruption at every level of government and society, organized crime (Russian-style mafias), a deteriorating economy made worse by crooked "privatization" schemes, environmental damage (sequels of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, heavy industry pollution, deforestation), and an HIV/AIDS epidemic spiralling out of control.

After a decade of despair, and impotently watching the post-Communist pillaging of their nation, Ukrainians are now fighting back. Their "orange revolution" may not solve the country's monumental problems, but at least it seems to have stopped its free fall, for now.

From the Web

World Factbook: Ukraine
Human Rights Watch: Ukraine Overview
Nash Mir (Our World) Gay and Lesbian Centre, Kiev (Ukrainian, English)

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