Ukraine emerged as an independent nation at the very beginning of 1992 (right after the fall of the Soviet Union). It never existed as an independent country before. In this regard it was very different from other former Soviet Union republics that were a part of the USSR (such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and others). These nations had been independent states before they became a part of the Soviet Union (shortly before the WWII). Therefore, they had a very clear sense of national identity and some semblance of government structure. Just as a teenager struggles to break away from his/her parents and create an identity Ukraine is also going through “teenage process” of growing up and understanding where she stands.
The nation of Ukraine was cobbled together of two very uneven parts. The larger part (about 75% of the country) is made of Eastern, Central and Southern Ukraine (many people refer to it as Eastern Ukraine). This larger part was traditionally (for more than a thousand years) a part of Russia. In fact, Kiev, the capital of Ukraine was the first capital of the Russian nation (around the IX century A.D.). It was an integral part of the Russian Empire.
Eastern Ukrainians do speak Ukrainian and Russian, sometimes Russian being their first and primary language. Even their Ukrainian dialect is influenced by Russian. They all belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. They all speak a mixture of Russian/Ukrainian in their daily lives. The majority of the population got their education in Russian. They always identified themselves with Russia. My mom is that kind of a Ukrainian. She was born in Eastern Ukraine (as was I). She grew up speaking Ukrainian and went to a Ukrainian speaking school. Her native language is Ukrainian but she, of course, easily switches from Ukrainian to Russian. She culturally identifies herself with Russia.
Western Ukraine is a totally different ballgame. It is takes up about 25% of the country. It was not a part of Russia and was mostly divided between Poland and Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result, they are mostly Catholic and their Ukrainian dialect has a lot of German and Polish vocabulary. Western Ukrainians do not particularly like to speak Russian and stick to their dialect as their first language. Much of Western Ukraine was not a part of Russia until it was forcefully added to the Soviet Union as a part of Ribbentrop-Stalin pact in 1939. Do you see now where the problem is? These two parts are very different from each other and have very different sensibilities, cultures, priorities and agendas.
The division is even more obvious when we consider WWII. Some Western Ukrainians started cooperating with Nazi Germans who invaded that territory as a part of their attack on the Soviet Union. They resisted Soviet troops when they freed those territories from Nazi Germans. Needless to say, Russians never forgot it. And both sides still carry a grudge.
For 22 years since Ukraine became an independent from USSR there was an internal struggle between Easterners and Westerners in Ukraine. First off there was a heated debate about the language. Since Ukraine now became an independent state the Government started enforcing Ukrainian as an official language. If you speak Ukrainian in the street or at the market it is one thing but when you are ordered to run all business, government and technical documentation in Ukrainian when all your life you have done that in Russian it is a totally different matter. The majority of the country was not used to it. And since the overwhelming majority of industry is in the Eastern Ukraine they did not want to do it. Even today the majority of the country speaks Russian as their main language and only uses Ukrainian for bureaucratic purposes. .
Also, since Westerners are more adept in speaking Ukrainian they started being very aggressive in taking key government positions and Easterners became very suspicious that these “ultra nationalistic” forces will be subjugating them. In the meantime Westerners naturally gravitate to the West and Easterners towards Russia. The majority of industrial centers and all large cities are in Eastern Ukraine and naturally oriented towards Russia. But Western Ukraine became more influential in the government. This is partially what caused “Orange Revolution” –another rift between the two sides.
More to come….