Sophie Pinkham at n+1:
“Ukraine” means “on the border,” and it has always been stuck in the middle. Its current territory was split between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and held some of the largest Jewish enclaves in Europe. People in Western Ukraine spoke Ukrainian, Russian, German, Romanian, Hungarian, and Yiddish, and traces of this heritage are still evident. Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great seized it, and it still houses a Russian naval base. Crimea still had a sizeable Tatar population in 1944, when Stalin deported the Tatars to starve to death in Central Asia (in the 1990s, the children of the survivors returned). Stalin had allowed the Ukrainians to starve to death at home, in the famine of 1932 and 1933. Ukraine was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of World War II, with its Jews shot and dumped into mass graves—many of which are still marked only as the graves of “Soviet heroes.” Today, many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian; some speak surzhik, a blend of the two languages that varies according to place and mood. Eastern Ukraine is much more sympathetic to Russia, after two centuries of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (with the associated entrenched corruption). Western Ukraine, on the other hand, has a vivid memory of being part of “Europe,” and they want very badly to be part of it again; many Western Ukrainians seem to feel that they are Europeans who have been held hostage for decades, held back from the European destiny that ought to be theirs. Rakhiv, a tiny town in Western Ukraine, boasts a spot that someone once declared “the geographic center of Europe”; this is still a point of great pride. Tourists come and take pictures near the sign, as men in fedoras drive horse-drawn carts down the mountain roads.