For decades, the Western world perceived Ukraine as simply a part of Russia. But borscht, painted eggs and many of the famous Cossack song and dance traditions originated in Ukraine. Western Ukrainians consider themselves to be 100% Ukrainian and the vanguard of their culture, speaking their language and trumpeting their nationalism. In the east, where over 10 million ethnic Russians live, nationalism is less intense, and most people speak Russian.
Ukrainian, like Russian and Belarusian, is an Eastern Slavic language. It’s arguably the closest of the three to the original 9th century Slavonic used in Kiev before the more formal Church Slavonic from Bulgaria was introduced with Christianity in the 10th century. Despite being watered down by Russian and Polish and being banned by Tsar Alexander II in 1876, the Ukrainian language persevered and is becoming more widespread. It was adopted as the country’s official language in 1990, though Russian is understood by almost everyone.
The origins of Ukraine’s national literature go back to medieval Slavic chronicles such as the 12th century Slovo o polku Ihrevim (The Tale of Ihor’s Armament). The beginnings of modern Ukrainian literature stem from mid-18th century wandering philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian Socrates. Skovoroda wrote poems and philosophical tracts in Ukrainian, aimed at the common person rather than the elite. Taras Shevchenko, an ardent nationalist who was born a serf in 1814 and became a national hero, was the first major writer in Ukrainian. His work launched a golden age of Ukrainian literature. The most talented and prolific writer of the early 20th century was Ivan Franko, whose work spanned fiction, poetry, drama, philosophy and children’s stories. Many writers made the Soviet occupation their subject, and many suffered for it. Vasyl Stus’ Winter Trees (1968) and Candle in the Mirror (1977) set the agony of dissidence to poetry; Stus eventually was killed in a Soviet labour camp. The Union of Ukrainian Writers in Kiev was instrumental in bringing about independence from the USSR in 1991.
Ukrainian music has its roots in centuries-old oral traditions of bylyny (epic narrative poems) and dumas, which were long lyrical ballads glorifying the exploits of the Cossacks. The roots of Ukrainian folk music lie in the legendary kobzar, wandering minstrels of the 16th and 17th centuries who accompanied their songs of heroic exploits (mostly of the Cossacks) with the kobza, a lute-like instrument. The bandura, a larger instrument with up to 45 strings, replaced the kozba in the 18th century. Bandura choirs were soon all the rage, and the instrument became the national symbol. Today, the Ukrainian Bandura Chorus from Kiev performs worldwide. Mykola Lysenko is probably the best known Ukrainian classical composer, famous for basing piano works on Ukrainian folk songs. Popular contemporary musicians include the punk band Plach Yeremiyi and the singer-songwriter Nina Matvienko, who draws heavily on Ukrainian folk traditions.
Christianity came to Ukraine late in the 10th century. The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054, and Orthodoxy itself later split into three main branches, each one with a different relationship to Moscow-controlled Russian Orthodoxy and to Roman Catholicism. Church buildings dominate Ukrainian architecture. One unique genre is the wooden church, featuring gables and wooden-shingled onion domes and cupolas – all held together by complex joinery without nails. As part of their campaign to crush Ukrainian identity and nationalism, the Soviets demolished hundreds of sacred buildings in the 1930s, including four 12th century cathedrals. Painting also has its roots in religious themes. Until the 17th century, the key expression was the icon – a small image of Christ, the Virgin, angels or saints, painted on a limewood panel and attributed with healing and spiritual powers. Church murals, mosaics, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts developed at the same time as the icon. The rise of the Cossacks in the 17th century stimulated new schools of secular painting with nationalist themes. After the deadening chill of decades of Soviet Realism, stylistic experimentation and nationalist themes are once again rampant.
Ukrainian cuisine stems from peasant dishes based on grains and staple vegetables like potatoes, cabbage, beets and mushrooms. Meat is typically boiled, fried or stewed. Desserts are usually laden with honey and fruit, mainly cherries and plums, and often baked into sweet breads. While the small dumplings known as varenyky are by far the most popular Ukrainian snack, the sacred dish is salo – pig fat. Salo consumption goes back centuries, and Ukrainians age and prize it as obsessively as the French do wine. Borscht originated in Ukraine and is still the national soup; the beet and mixed-vegetable broth is typically served with cream. Ironically, good Ukrainian food is hard to find in Ukraine, as most top-end restaurants serve trendy Euro cuisine. The best Ukrainian cooking is found in the home; if you get invited to someone’s house for a meal, you’re in for a treat. Alcohol is plentiful and the drink is usually horilka, a clear distilate of wheat, rye or sometimes potatoes.