Background to Ukraine

Ukraine is a state in Eastern Europe that declared independence from the Sovi­et Union in 1991. It lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and through­out most of its history was occupied by neighbouring states. The country is lo­cated at 49 degrees North latitude and 32 degrees East longitude. Ukraine’s neighbours to the north are Belarus and Russia; to the west, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary; to the southwest, Romania; and to the east, Russia. It covers 603,550 sq km and is the second largest country in Europe, roughly the size of France or the state of Texas. The capital of Ukraine is Kyiv (Kiev is Russian). Ukraine is made up of twenty-four oblasts (provinces) and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea on the Black Sea.

The borders of Ukraine changed several times in the twentieth century. In 1922, after the First World War, the Ukrainian So­viet Socialist Republic was established within the Soviet Union from the parts of Ukraine that had been under the Russian Em­pire. The western regions of Ukraine, which had been divided among Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia, were incorpo­rated into the Ukrainian SSR only after the Second World War. In 1954, Crimea was trans­ferred from the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic to Ukraine. In 2014 the Russian Federation invaded Crimea and illegally annexed it.

Most of the territory of Ukraine consists of vast plains known as steppes. Approximately 44 percent of this land has extraordinarily rich and fertile soil known as “chornozem,” or black earth. This soil is especially good for growing wheat and other grain crops, as well as vegetables such as sugar beets. Ukraine is also a land rich in minerals — particularly, iron ore, coal, manganese and salt.

The lack of natural border protections, coupled with its richness in both natural resources and agriculture and its strategic location as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, have made Ukraine a land historically coveted by its neighbours. Throughout the centuries, both European (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) and Asian (Golden Horde, Ottoman Empire) forc­es invaded, fought over, and ruled over Ukrainian territory. For more than three hundred years, (seventeenth–twentieth centuries) most of Ukraine’s territory was ruled by the Rus­sian Empire and later the Soviet Union.


The population of Ukraine in 2014 was 46 million. According to the 2001 census, 77.7% were Ukrainians, 17.3% Russian, 0.6% Belarusian, 0.5% Moldovan, 0.5% Crimean Tatar, 0.3% Polish and 0.2% Jewish. In 1989, out of a population of 51.8 million living in Ukraine, 69% lived in urban communities and 31% lived in rural areas.

The population demographic decline has three main causes — a low birthrate (related to difficult economic conditions within the country), relatively low life expectancy, and emi­gration. The rights of minorities are respected in Ukraine. The literacy rate is 100%, with comparatively high levels of enrollment in higher education.

Ukraine under Soviet rule

In 1918, Ukraine became independent, but this new state was invaded by the Red Army and most of its territory became part of the Soviet Union. In 1922, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a part of the USSR and was governed from Moscow, like all Soviet republics.

Ukraine was known as the ‘Breadbasket of Europe,’ and its grain was exported first by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian SSR was also a vital industrial center within the Soviet Union:

In 1928 Ukraine produced 71.9% of the pig iron within the Soviet Union, 77% of the iron ore and  69.9% of coal production.

According to the Soviet census of 1926, Ukraine had a population of 29 million people, which was just under 20% of the total Soviet population. Ukrainians were the largest ethnic group within the USSR after the Russians.

Under Soviet rule, Ukraine saw a period of massive industrialization and urbanization. While this led to economic growth, it also had extremely negative ecological and envi­ronmental consequences. Air, water and soil pollution continues to be a massive problem, and in 1986, Ukraine suffered the worst nuclear disaster in history at the Chornobyl Atomic Energy Station, the consequences of which are still felt today.


ii   United Nations statistics Division.