POPULATION: Over 50 million (total population of country; 75 percent, or 37.5 million, are ethnic Ukrainians)

LANGUAGE: Ukrainian

RELIGION: Christianity


Ukraine has had three periods of national statehood. The first period was that of Kievan Rus, with its capital in Kiev, which existed from the ninth to fourteenth centuries AD . The second was the Cossack period, lasting from the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. The third period began with the fall of tsarist (royal) Russia in 1918. A sovereign Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian National Republic, was established on January 22, 1918. However, it lasted only a few years. Ukraine was then divided among Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. After World War II (1939–45), all Ukrainian territories were integrated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence. Leonid Kravchuk was elected president. The government began implementing democratic, free-enterprise policies. On June 29, 1996, the Ukrainian Parliament approved the first Constitution of Ukraine, just a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of its independence.


Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, after France. It covers about 233,000 square miles (604,000 square kilometers) of land in Eastern Europe. Thanks to its wheat production, Ukraine is commonly referred to as the "breadbasket of Europe." Approximately 65 percent of its soil is fertile "black earth" (chornozem). It is also rich in mineral resources. Ukraine has a population of over 50 million people; 37.5 million of which are ethnic Ukrainians.


Ukrainian is the native language of over 40 million people. It is now the official language of Ukraine. It is spoken widely in central and western Ukraine. In cities where there are large concentrations of ethnic Russians, the Ukrainian and Russian languages are both commonly used. In eastern Ukraine near the border with Russia, the Russian language, spoken with a Ukrainian accent, dominates.

The Ukrainian alphabet resembles Russian, with a few subtle differences.

Examples of everyday Ukrainian words include dobryj den (hello), tak (yes), nee (no), bood laska (please), dyakooyoo (thank you), and do pobachenya (goodbye).


Ukrainian legends include tales of the founding of the city of Kiev by the three brothers Kyi, Scheck, and Khoryv, and their sister Lybed. Other legends tell of the magical weed of the steppes region called yevshan zillia. It had the power of bringing lost souls back to their homeland. There is also the tale of Oleksa Dovbush, a Ukrainian Robin Hood who lived in the Carpathian Mountains. He stole from the rich to give to the poor. A number of different sites in the Carpathians are named after him.


In 1988 Ukrainians celebrated the 1,000-year anniversary of Christianity in Ukraine. About 75 percent of Ukrainians belong to the Eastern Orthodox faith.

Under the communist regime (1920–91), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was forcibly incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church met a similar fate soon after its abolition by the Soviet government in 1946.


The most important holiday in the Ukrainian church is Easter. Ukrainians are known throughout the world for their pysanky (pie-SANK-ee), decorating of eggs at Easter. Acrylic or oil paint is applied to hollow eggshells in bold, geometric patterns. Families save their finest examples, passing the decorated eggshells down as treasured family heirlooms.

Both Christmas and Easter are celebrated according to the Julian calendar. (The Julian calendar was established during the rule of Julius Caesar in 46 BC . It was modified by Pope Gregory in AD 1582. The modified calendar, called the Gregorian calendar, is used by most countries of the world. Some religions, including Eastern Orthodoxy, use the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian. Thus Christmas Day is celebrated on January 7 rather than December 25.) New Year's is celebrated with special carols called shchedrivky.


The majority of Ukrainians mark the major events of the life cycle within the traditions of the Orthodox church.

The Ivan Kupalo festival has remained a popular custom among Ukrainian youth. Kupalo was believed to be the god of love and fertility. In his honor, young men and women gather around streams and ponds, where they build fires and sing songs. Some youths even practice jumping over the fire. They may braid field flowers into wreaths that are sent floating on the water. If the wreath floats, they will be lucky in love; if it sinks, they will be unhappy.


Ukrainians are very warm and hospitable. They greet visitors with the standard Dobryiden (Good day), and very often with three kisses on the cheek. Hugging is another way Ukrainians greet one another, followed by a hearty handshake. During the early 1990s, a popular greeting among Ukrainians was Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine). The toast is also a popular custom among Ukrainians. Often one person in a group will announce a toast, followed by the words na zdorovia (to your health), or day Bozhe (glory to God).


Approximately two-thirds of Ukraine's population live in cities. High-rise apartments built during the Soviet era (1920–91) are the most common dwellings there. Living quarters are often poorly constructed, overcrowded, and small by Western standards.

About one-third of Ukraine's population live in rural areas. In the small villages and homesteads, farming is the most common occupation. The standard of living in rural areas is lower than in cities. Recently, many rural dwellers have migrated to the cities to find more profitable work.


Family size has decreased rapidly in Ukraine. Many families have only one child because they cannot afford to have any more. Marriage is a festive affair, involving many old customs and traditions. In recent years, the divorce rate has been rising.

Women in Ukraine have been, and remain, economically dependent on men. The Ukrainian parliament is nearly all male, with only a few female deputies out of over four hundred parliament members.


Ukrainians generally wear Western-style clothing. Young Ukrainians enjoy following Western trends and fashions. They especially like popular brand-name or designer clothes. Different regions of Ukraine have their own traditional costumes. These are worn on holidays or other special occasions. The costumes are decorated with beautiful, colorful embroidery unique to each region.

12 • FOOD

Ukrainian cuisine plays a role in customs and rituals. There are ritual breads for Christmas, Easter, weddings, and funerals. These include Easter paska bread, and wedding korovai and dyven. Other traditional foods are pyrohy (baked pies with fillings), varenyky (filled, cooked dumplings), and holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls). Borshch (red beet soup) is served with dinner. Pork and pork products, such as ham, sausage (kovbasa), and blood sausage (kyshka), are the most popular meats. Ukrainians also eat large amounts of potatoes, cooked buckwheat (kasha), and different types of rye bread. Some popular drinks include tea, coffee, honey liqueur, kvas ( an alcoholic beverage make from fermented bread and water, and sold from barrels by street vendors), kompot (homemade fruit drink), and vodka ( horilka in Ukrainian).


Borshch Ukrainsky


  • 2 cans of sliced beets (12 ounces each)
  • 2 cans of beef broth
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and cut in half lengthwise
  • ½ cup sour cream (plain yogurt may be substituted)


  1. Combine beets and beef broth in pan.
  2. Heat slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
  3. Ladle into bowls.
  4. Float a hard-boiled egg half, cut side up, in each bowl, and top with a spoonful of sour cream or yogurt.

Note: This may be served hot or cold.

Adapted from Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1995.


Ukrainian children are required to attend school for eleven years, from about the age of seven to the age of eighteen. After grade nine, students have two choices: they can continue in a general academic program or enroll in technical or trade school. There are about 150 schools of higher education in Ukraine, including 9 universities. The largest and most popular universities are the Kiev State University, Lviv State University, and Kharkiv State University.


The music of Ukraine is firmly rooted in its folklore. The bandura, Ukraine's national instrument, may have from twenty to sixty-five strings and is similar to a lute. The bandura is most often played to accompany dancers and singers. In the late 1800s, Ukrainian musicians known as kobzari (kawb-ZAHR-ee) developed epic songs called duma (DOO-mah), depicting heroic efforts of Ukrainians to win freedom and peace. The compositions of Mykola Lysenko (1842–1912) are infused with Ukrainian folk themes and motifs. Borys Lyatoshynsky (1895–1968) is considered the father of modern Ukrainian music. Leading contemporary composers include Volodymyr Huba, Ivan Karabyts, and Oleh Kyva. To date, the most important Ukrainian pop composer is Volodymyr Ivasiuk (1949–79). The most original of the newer songwriters is Taras Petrynenko.

The "father" of modern Ukrainian literature was Ivan Kotliarevsky, author of the Eneida (1798), which transformed the heroes of Virgil's Aeneid into Ukrainian Cossacks. The most outstanding poet of the nineteenth century was Taras Shevchenko (1814–61). The greatest realist of the late 1800s was Ivan Franko, whose novels told of life in contemporary Galicia (a western region of Ukraine, later ceded to Poland).

During much of the communist era (1920–91) in Ukraine, literature was strictly censored by the government. Certain literary styles, such as Socialist Realism, were promoted by the Communist Party during this time.


Ukraine is now in the process of moving into a market economy, which has been socially and politically difficult because of inflation, unemployment, and general economic uncertainty. Most of Ukraine's population is employed in agriculture or in the metalworking, construction, chemical, or food industries.


Ukrainians engage in soccer, volleyball, track and field, basketball, hockey, skating, and swimming. Soccer is definitely the biggest sport, and the favorite team is Kiev Dynamo. With the success of Olympic medal-winners Oksana Baiul and Victor Petrenko, ice skating has also become very popular. Ukrainian gymnasts won twenty-two medals in the Summer 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Skiing, mostly in the Carpathian mountains, is also a sport enjoyed by many.


Ukraine's new democratic government lacks funds to support the arts. However, one can still find numerous art exhibits, concerts, literary evenings, and plays in most cities. The Shevchenko National Opera Company, Ivan Franko National Theater, and State Operetta are home to opera and ballet performances, as well as other cultural events.

Folk dancing is done on special occasions, such as weddings and festivals. In a popular folk dance called the hopak, male dancers compete against each other, performing acrobatic leaps.


Embroidery (vyshyvannia) is the most popular Ukrainian folk art and hobby. It is known for its varied colors, complex stitches, and intricate designs. The Ukrainian vyshyvka (embroidered design) is applied to many everyday items, including pillows, aprons, towels, and other household articles.


As a newly independent country, Ukraine faces a number of social problems similar to those in the West. Alcoholism, unemployment, organized crime, drugs, prostitution, and the AIDS epidemic are the main areas of concern. The crime rate has also risen, especially in the cities.


Kardash, Peter. Ukraine and Ukrainians . Australia: Fortuna Co., 1991.

Kubijovyc, Volodymyr, and Danylo Husar Struk, ed. Encyclopedia of Ukraine . Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, Inc., 1993.

Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History . Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press in association with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1988


World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998…

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