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Updated 2022 May 27


Україна « Ukrana » (Ukrainian) / Украина « Ukraina » (Russian)

Ukraine is, in origin, a vaguely-defined region along the south of the North Slavic dialect continuum, generally lying north of the Black Sea, and originally named so as a borderland or marchland (from край « kraĭ », “border”) with respect to Muscovite Russia. ‘Ukraine’ and its cognates have generally been viewed as the equivalent of ‘Little Russia’ or ‘Lesser Russia’ (Мала(я) Русь « Mala(ja) Rusĵ »), as a name for one of the territories and cultures descendant from the medieval East Slavic society, Rus (Рѹсь « Rousĵ », later Русь « Rusĵ »). The main city is Kiev (Киев « Kiev » / Київ « Kiv »).

This region gave its name to a dialect, a population, a territory within the Russian empire, and finally, a state and country.

The formal organization of the territory within the Russian empire (including the Soviet Union), increased in size several times through Russian conquests, led to an independent state of Ukraine following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. The new state, within the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Українська Радянська Соціалістична Республіка « Ukransĵka Radjansĵka Socíalístična Respublíka » / Украинская Советская Социалистическая Республика « Ukrainskaja Sovetskaja Socialističeskaja Respublika ») as it existed immediately prior to independence, entered the conventional understanding of geography as a country, and entered the Westphalian system as an independent state with membership of the United Nations (which the Ukrainian SSR had nominally possessed even as part of the Soviet Union). While some of that territory has since been lost by Ukraine as a state (Crimea and parts of the Donbass in 2014, and further lands in the 2022 invasion by Russia), the lost territories are still conventionally attributed to Ukraine as a country.

As a dialect continuum, North Slavic has historically comprised countless local dialects that blend into each other, across conventional “language” lines. The standard dialect of Ukrainian is a component of North Slavic, but the western Ukrainian dialects blend into eastern Polish, and the eastern Ukrainian dialects blend into southern Russian. Moreover, the standard Ukrainian dialect is mutually intelligible with the standard Russian and Belarusian dialects (the other main members of conventional East Slavic) to a significant degree. Residents of Ukraine the country tend to follow a Ukrainian standard in the west and north, and a Russian standard in the east and south, but urban residents are much more likely to speak Russian, including in Kiev. There is also a large proportion of the population that regularly speaks a dialect that mixes the two, Суржик « Suržik ».

The population is typically treated as a unified ethnic group, whether speaking Ukrainian, Russian, or another dialect, and whether living in or outside of the region. For those who don’t speak Ukrainian, Ukrainian identity can be based on citizenship in the post-1991 state, but a regional identity also exists, and existed in the Soviet period as well. To the extent that Russia extends its annexation of Ukrainian land at the end of the current war, it seems likely that the Ukrainian identity of those newly subjected to Russian rule will be strengthened, for those currently alive if not necessarily future generations.

Ukrainians are traditionally Christian, falling entirely within Eastern Christianity, having been converted during the Rus period by missionaries from Slavic Macedonia, hence their traditional South Slavic liturgical dialect, Old Church Slavonic (Словѣньскъ « Slověnĵskə »), itself leading to borrowed Church Slavonic vocabulary and the use of the Cyrillic script. While the Soviet era resulted in a relatively-high incidence of atheism, most Ukrainians remain Christian, predominantly Eastern Orthodox. Among the Eastern Orthodox, most follow the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but a significant minority follow the Russian Orthodox Church (or Moscow Patriarchate). In the far west, a slim majority belong to an Eastern Catholic church, following Eastern Christian traditions but being in communion with the Roman Catholic church.

An important source of underlying cultural division in Ukraine is the political division between imperial spheres: Russia in the east, and Lithuania, Poland, and Austria-Hungary in the west. Part or all of western Ukraine was subject to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1345-1569), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1793), Austria-Hungary (1772-1918), and finally interwar Poland (1918-39). The 1939 partition of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union brought the remainder of the present country of Ukraine under Russian control. It realized its UN-recognized extent with the Soviet reassignment of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954.

A large population of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews lived in western Ukraine historically, including many of the victims of the Holocaust; most of the survivors emigrated, especially to Israel.

The expression ‘the Ukraine’ presumably resulted largely from its original meaning of “borderland”. After Ukraine’s independence, some (both Ukrainians and speakers of English) asserted that ‘the Ukraine’ was no longer appropriate in English, based on the idea that the definite article (‘the’) was appropriate to a province but not to an independent country, but this rule has no basis in actual English usage; numerous states of the world take the definite article. And East Slavic does not have a definite article, so the native name of Ukraine would not have changed at all upon independence.

While the Ukrainian and Russian dialects are very close to each other, there are differences between the standards and between their versions of the Cyrillic script, which have led to differences in the standard transliteration. Because much of Ukraine the country is Russian-speaking, it is fallacious to transliterate all names associated with the country as if they were Ukrainian. Things named in Russian should be transliterated so: ‘Kharkov’, not ‘Kharkiv’ (Харьков « Xarĵkov »); ‘Odessa’, not ‘Odesa’ (Одесса « Odessa »); ‘Lugansk’, not ‘Luhansk’ (Луганск « Lugansk »); ‘Slavyansk’, not ‘Sloviansk’ (Славянск « Slavjansk »); ‘Debaltsevo’, not ‘Debaltseve’ (Дебальцево « Debalĵcevo »); ‘Yanukovich’, not ‘Yanukovych’ (Виктор Федорович Янукович « Viktor Fedorovič Janukovič »), and even ‘Kiev’, not ‘Kyyiv’ or the now-popular ‘Kyiv’ (Киев « Kiev »). In the case of Kiev, the English name is old enough that it may only coincidentally reflect a transliteration of modern Russian, since ‘Kiev’ is also a possible romanization of the name in Old East Slavic (Кыѥвъ « Kyvə » / Кꙑевъ « Kýevə »); the oblique forms of the Ukrainian name use a similar stem (Києв- « Kiév- »).

For the modern state of Ukraine:



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