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January 31, 2014

9 questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — 4. Wow. How did Ukraine get so divided?

Ukraine was conquered and divided for centuries by neighboring powers: the Polish, the Austrians and most of all the Russians. But Russian rulers didn't just want to rule Ukraine, they wanted to make it Russian.

The Russification of Ukraine began 250 years ago with Catherine the Great, who oversaw Russia's "golden age" in the late 1700s. At first, she controlled only eastern Ukraine, where she developed vast coal and iron industries to feed Russia's expansion. Though she later took the west as well, she and subsequent Russian rulers focused overwhelmingly on the east, which also happens to be some of the most productive farmland in the world.

 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.

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