Ukraine and its People

Ukraine and its People – Hugh P. Vowles

The history of the Ukrainian people is largely a record of their exploitation, persecution, enserfment, and struggles for freedom. Here indeed is a people of whom it might well be said that: ‘They were tortured, they were stoned, they were sawn asunder; they were set wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and in dens of the earth.’ So it is that leaders arose among them from time to time, fired with dreams of freedom and national independence. Some of the rebellions they led created widespread interest in Western Europe. Thus news of the Cossack and peasant rebellion of 1648 under the leadership of Bogdan Khmelnitsky even reached far-off England, where progress made by the Cossack leader was reported in various news-sheets of the time. It is even said that Khmelnitsky corresponded with Oliver Cromwell, though there is apparently no Ukrainian confirmation of this. British interest in Ukraine was maintained, and in the eighteenth century several English travellers visited Ukraine and recorded their impressions. In October 1818 Byron wrote his poem about the Cossack Hetman, Mazeppa, of whom he had read in Voltaire’s Histoire de Charles XII. After that time, however, little was heard of Ukraine in Europe – until recently. This valuable book offers many insights on homelands and waterways, the people, their religion, language and literature and their history.

Ukraine and its People

Ukraine and its People.

Format: eBook.

Ukraine and its People.

ISBN: 9783849662011.



Excerpt from the text:




The homelands of the Ukrainian people lie to the north and north-west of the Black Sea, and extend from the Carpathians to the river Don. Collectively they have neither natural nor political frontiers; though political frontiers cross these lands at various points without apparent reason, the people’s allegiance being divided thereby among several sovereign States. At the present time by far the largest and most prosperous part of Ukraine is that which forms one of the Republics of the Soviet Union. Next in size comes a region in the south-east of Poland, including East Galicia, with part of the ancient province of Volhynia, and, less definitely, country to the north as far as the Pripet Marshes. Ukrainian lands of less extent form the eastern extremity of what until recently was known as Czechoslovakia, and part of Rumania. The Ukrainians in the former Czechoslovak territory, like their kinsmen in East Galicia, are sometimes called Ruthenians and sometimes ‘Red Russians’ — though not with the meaning of the word ‘red’ as applied to communists. Their homeland has been given various names such as Ruthenia, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, Carpatho-Russia, and Carpatho-Ukraine. The Ukrainians of Rumania live in Bessarabia, a province having a frontier in common with Soviet Ukraine; and in Bukovina, on the south-east frontier of Galicia. Bukovina was a crown province of Austria before the Great War. Bessarabia, previously a Russian province, became a prey to conflicting interests after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, but was eventually taken over by Rumania. The Soviet Government has never recognized the annexation, but has pledged itself not to resort to force to recover the lost territory.

In general the Ukrainian lands form the western end of what is known as the black soil belt, a tract of great agricultural fertility extending from the Carpathians to the Urals and beyond, and, in Soviet Ukraine, from the Seim river (a tributary of the Desna) to the Black Sea. Unlike the more northerly expanse of European Russia, which consists of forest land with a clay soil, much of the black soil belt is treeless except in ravines and river valleys. Travelling south through Soviet Ukraine one comes to a huge, slowly undulating plain, a world of parabolic distances which makes one think of the open sea. In this land there are also occasional marshes and ponds, haunted by herons, storks, wild-ducks, and a variety of singing birds.

The grassy steppe of Soviet Ukraine is subject to the extremes of a continental climate, and the absence of hills and trees exposes the land to winds which may be excessively hot in summer and excessively cold in winter. If, owing to hot winds, the snow melts too soon, or if the melting is delayed by a continuation of very cold winds, widespread damage to crops or destruction of flocks may ensue. Moreover, the intense winter cold, with frost lasting sometimes as long as four months, makes the working year much shorter than it is in Western Europe.

In its natural state the steppe produces a variety of grasses, some of which grow to a considerable height and bear silvery plumes which wave in the wind. Under cultivation the black soil is capable of providing magnificent crops. It is rich in humus, it absorbs moisture readily, and is more easily worked than the clay soil of the forest zone. Even on the old three-fields system of agriculture corn has been grown on it for over fifty consecutive years without any need to add manure.

It must not be supposed, however, that the whole of the territory occupied by the Ukrainian people is steppe. In the northern part of Soviet Ukraine the open steppe is replaced by an intermediate zone in which thinly wooded steppe melts gradually into forest land. To the west of this lie the Pripet Marshes, where conditions are very different. Here are vast morasses interlinked by a network of streams. In some parts these morasses are covered with reeds and rushes, elsewhere they are studded with pines and other trees. Here and there is a stretch of sandy dune forming an island suitable for grazing cattle or for raising crops; but these islands are often well-nigh inaccessible, and the peasants must be adepts in sailing their boats on the languid streams and in finding their way through the treacherous marshes. A series of drainage schemes put in hand from time to time during the past seventy years has resulted in much more land being brought into cultivation. But still the marshes as a whole are estimated to cover between seven and eight million acres — rather less than one-quarter the area of England. Despite partial drainage, the region is still inimical to health. Fevers as well as throat and lung diseases are common, owing to the combination of a damp atmosphere with poisonous gases liberated by the putrefaction ceaselessly taking place in the marshes. The poverty-stricken condition of the people, together with bitterly cold weather in the winter when the marshes are usually frozen over for at least two months, naturally increases the virulence of recurring epidemics.

Turning to Carpatho-Ukraine we find a country cut off by the Carpathians from the black earth belt, but possessing other advantages, The soil at the lower levels is good, and crops are sheltered by the mountains from north and north-east winds. This region also gets the benefit of moist and relatively mild winds from the south-west. These are factors of considerable importance to agriculture, by which the great majority of the Ukrainian people live, making it possible to work in the fields for at least seven or eight months of the year. On the uplands of Carpatho-Ukraine there are extensive forests. Here live the Hutzulians, highlanders of Ukraine, many of whom were formerly employed in the timber industry but have lately suffered greatly in consequence of political changes in that region.

Little need be said about Bessarabia and Bukovina, since these are in effect merely extensions of Soviet Ukraine and Galicia respectively. Much of Bessarabia presents the same wide, open, treeless spaces as Soviet Ukraine. In the north, however, there is mountainous country with wide-spreading forests. In Bukovina too there is much forest land. The soil is exceptionally fertile, and under more favorable economic conditions might be made remarkably productive.

As might be expected, crops vary in kind or area sown according to natural conditions. Wheat, rye, barley, and maize are grown throughout the greater part of Ukraine. Potatoes, sugar-beet, sunflower, and hemp are widely cultivated; whilst cattle and pig breeding, poultry farming, and like activities are common to all the sections into which Ukraine is politically divided. In Carpatho-Ukraine, East Galicia, and Bukovina grapes, tobacco, and hops are grown. Cotton growing has recently been greatly developed in Soviet Ukraine.

Some parts of Ukraine are rich in mineral resources. There are, for example, valuable oilfields in East Galicia in the neighborhood of Boryslaw and Dohobycz, though the output of the wells has declined in recent years. In Soviet Ukraine there is the great Donetsk coalfield, covering an area nearly equal to all the British coalfields combined. Apart from importation, Donetsk was practically the sole source of coal in Tsarist Russia. Some two hundred miles farther west is the iron-ore region of Krivoi Rog, output from which has been enormously increased under the first and second Five-Year Plans. Other minerals such as manganese, zinc, lead, and silver are also mined in this region.

Oil and coal are two of the primary resources for the production of power; and a third resource of ever-increasing importance, the flow of water, is also widely available in Ukraine. Under the Soviet regime these and other resources in various parts of the U.S.S.R. are being exploited on a scale which has already placed the Union in the front rank as a producer of electric power. The most notable of such developments is the giant hydro-electric power plant on the Dnieper, near the site once occupied by the famous Zaporozhye Cossack Camp.

It is abundantly evident that the rivers of Soviet Ukraine will in future figure prominently in the development of the country. But for the present we are more concerned to stress the important part they have played in times gone by. All the Ukrainian homelands — with the exception of Carpatho-Ukraine, which is accessible from Galicia by mountain passes— are united by navigable rivers. For example, the Dniester is navigable in small boats from East Galicia down to the sea. It touches Bukovina, and winds along the frontier between Soviet Ukraine and Bessarabia. Farther north it is possible to propel small craft through the Pripet Marshes and along the Pripet to the Dnieper, means of transport being thus provided between a large tract of Soviet Ukraine and lands lying to the west. These rivers and their tributaries have been used for transport for hundreds of years, and facilitated control of Volhynia by the Princes of Kiev from the ninth century onwards.

But the Dnieper has played a still more important part in Ukrainian history. To understand why, we must now look farther afield.

European Russia, including the former western territory of the Tsars, is itself a great plain or plateau nearly nine times the size of France in area. This plateau, which presents greater physical resemblances to Western Siberia than to Western Europe, has no mountains to check winds, to bring down rain from clouds borne by winds from the sea, or to arrest the advance of arctic weather from the north; or again, to act as barriers to freedom of travel between one part of the plateau and another. Nevertheless, the boundless forest in the north — huge stretches of which still remain — together with numerous formidable swamps and ferocious wild beasts, must formerly have sufficed to deter men from wandering over great distances, were it not that nature provided roads through the wilderness whereby all obstacles might be circumvented.

Over the plateau flow many slow-moving rivers, forming what is perhaps the finest natural network of waterways in the world. The watersheds from which these rivers flow, some north, some south, are low; and gradients are in general so gentle that except for occasional rapids the rivers are navigable in small boats far upstream. The principal watershed is the Valdai Hills in the province of Novgorod. The highest point on these hills is 1100 feet above sea-level, but few of the rivers rise at a greater height than 600 feet and many have their sources in the foothills. The headwaters are so near together that it is relatively easy to drag boats over land, across the watersheds, from one river to another; excellent water roads thus being provided from the Baltic to both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Already by the second century A.D. a number of Gothic rovers had made their way from the Baltic through what is now Soviet Ukraine to the Black Sea. Later came the Vikings, with whose advent Ukraine may be said to emerge from the misty region of conjecture on to the stage of history. The routes ordinarily followed were along the West Dvina from the Baltic and down the Dnieper, or alternatively from the Gulf of Finland by way of the Neva to Lake Ladoga, thence up the Volkhov to Lake Ilmen and on to the source of the Lovat, across the Dvina, and so down the Dnieper to the Black Sea. Yet another route, taking the rovers farther east, was provided by the Volga, which, after following a sinuous course for some 2400 miles, empties its waters into the Caspian Sea.

Lack of natural frontiers, and the geographical position of Ukraine, have greatly influenced the history of that country. Looking back into the distant past we see a constant movement of peoples; invasions and migrations, piratical exploits, and trading activities. This movement necessarily resulted in a complex intermingling of races and reacted extensively upon the characteristics of the people. The Black Sea— Baltic water road lays the country open to attack and colonization from the north, a fact of which the Vikings took full advantage. The black soil belt provided a natural highway for invaders from the east. To the south the Black Sea afforded ready access to Constantinople, thus ensuring contact with the civilized world of the time. For some centuries the bulk of the trade between the Orient and Western Europe — so long, that is, as this trade was controlled by merchants of the Greek Empire — passed over the water road through Ukraine, thereby stimulating the growth of towns which sprang up on the Dnieper and farther to the north. The influence of Byzantine civilization has left its mark not only on Ukraine but on the whole of European Russia to the present day. For example, when Christianity came to these lands it was the Greek Orthodox confession which was established there. Poland, on the other hand, was under West European influences and adopted Roman Catholicism. As we shall have occasion to note later, proselytizing zeal on behalf of the rival Churches gave rise to prolonged persecution of which the Ukrainian people were the principal victims.


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