Ukraine has one of the most impressive histories in the region, hailing from the mid-AD centuries and Kiev (in Kyivan Rus) coming by way of the Vikings. The capital is one of the oldest cities of Eastern Europe, the precursor to many countries in this area including massive Russia and the heart of Slavic culture.
Beautiful buildings went up in Kiev in the 10th and 11th centuries, including St Sophia’s Cathedral (with fabulous frescoes), the Caves Monastery, the Golden Gate of the old town, and St Michael’s Monastery. This was the Golden Age for Ukraine, which saw it become a major religious, as well as cultural center. It declined under the Mongols, and was also taken by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for four hundred years, and then finally Russia. The Ottoman Empire controlled the Ukraine coast in the 1500’s.
Visitors will find that all towns sport Soviet-style buildings and vast statues —Lenin mainly—along with Stalin, Pushkin, and noteworthy historical figures such as Taras Shevchenko. Most of the sites are in Kiev, including the grand Mariyinsky Palace of 1750, though non-touristy Lviv also has an old town and its Armenian Cathedral dates back to the mid-1300’s. Kiev’s Podil district—the Lower Town, where Andrew’s Descent is—has an entirely different look, where workers’ homes hail from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Russia was good for the Ukraine monetarily and it prospered at the time of the Russian Revolution, becoming an important part of the Soviet Union in 1922 until independence after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Kiev was badly damaged in WWII by German bombs, which can be seen at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, but many other towns were spared.
Other significant highs and lows in Ukraine history include the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the Orange Revolution—which ultimately brought in Victor Yushchenko in 2005—the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko for ‘abuse of office’, and Ukraine’s co-staging of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
The capital city, Kiev, is as multicultural as they come, with significant Polish, Armenian, and Jewish communities. Although Ukrainians are quite friendly and Kiev is certainly easier-going than Moscow, some visitors may find them to be closed off and a little rough around the edges. Likening local folks to Russians is a major faux pas here and not advised when swilling vodka in a bar.
Ukrainians are very proud of their heritage, as evidenced by the flag-waving on Independence Day and Kiev Day. Trade fairs are popular events, and on Sorochinsky Yarmarok visitors can see people don traditional garb for merrymaking. Dress is casual, while higher end dining in the capital often requires formal attire, and women are to wear a hat or scarf when visiting Orthodox churches.
Ukraine is big on the arts and every town has at least one theater (Kiev with many), along with innumerable galleries. Its museums cover all genres, while some of its arts and crafts are known the world over. Ukrainian craftspeople churn out fabulous jewelry and ceramics, along with handcrafted dolls, decorative eggs, and beautiful embroidery.