The director of Harvard's Ukrainian Research Institute, Serhii Plokhii, recently told National Geographic that the country is divided between a super-fertile steppe in the east and forestland in the west - an ecological split that lines up almost perfectly with the linguistic-political line.
So many Russians swept in to Ukraine's southeast - a number of them troops, to fight the neighboring Ottoman Empire - that it became known as "Novorossiya," or "New Russia." Russian leaders, hoping to make the territory permanently Russian, banned the Ukrainian language.
Then came Joseph Stalin. In the 1930s, the Soviet leader "collectivized" peasants into state-run farms, which led several million Ukrainians to die of starvation. The governments of Ukraine and the United States consider it a deliberate act of genocide, though historians are more divided. In either case, after the famine, Stalin repopulated the devastated eastern farmlands by shipping in ethnic Russians.
Today, Ukraine is only about one-sixth ethnic Russian. But the cultural imprint goes much deeper, and not just because so many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. When the Western-oriented, Ukrainian-nationalist politician Viktor Yushchenko became president, in 2005, "about 60 percent of TV programming was in Russian and 40 percent in Ukrainian," according to the Christian Science Monitor. By the time he left office in 2010, "that ratio [had] been roughly reversed." Most magazines and newspapers were still in Russian. This came after five years of "Ukrainianization" so aggressive that, even though he spoke fluent Russian, he would only converse with Russian President Vladimir Putin through an interpreter.
5. This is getting complicated. Can we take a music break?
Great idea. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folk and popular music, including one of their many classical greats, Mykola Lysenko. A Ukrainian nationalist, and by his death in 1912 a major star, Lysenko loved to incorporate Ukrainian folk melodies into his compositions - for example, his simple but beautiful Second Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano, performed by his now-deceased granddaughter Rada Lysenko.