No Longer “Little Russia”, Ukraine Emerges From the Shadows

Coined “Little Russia” by Catherine the Great, Ukraine and the surrounding southern portions of the environs were presented to Russian nobles and German compatriots in an effort to forge a global empire. Orthodox Serbs commandeered Cossack lands with the Tsarina’s assistance and Turks lost the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Empire. Centuries later, Ukrainians still strive to keep Russia at arm’s length economically and culturally. Just as Canada is not America and Scotland is not England, Ukrainians are quick to tell travelers that Ukraine is NOT Russia.

Ukrainian nationalism has a long history dating back to the time when Taras Shevchenko threw down the gauntlet of independence with his book of Ukrainian poems entitled, Kobzar, giving voice to the Ukrainian language rather than Russian. These days attitudes towards Russia are a mixed bag of animosity and tolerance. Families are often integrated bi-nationally and relatives live on either side of the border.

Ten years into the country’s most recent and certainly most secure state of independence, Ukrainians embrace anything and everything that has the stamp of their own culture. A cultural renaissance has blossomed. Children learn Ukrainian crafts at school. All official government business is conducted in Ukrainian. Even some street and place names have changed slightly from the Russian spelling to the Ukrainian denotation. Ukrainians are quick to declare that the language itself is an older and more sophisticated language than Russian with a lilt that is more pleasing to the ear.

All is not copasetic with Ukraine’s new found cultural voice however. Eastern Ukrainians historically have remained integrally connected to the Russian language and culture while the blood of western Ukrainians runs wild with nationalistic vigor. Travelers should be sensitive to the country’s bid for cultural survival and while not every display by the locals may be kind-hearted, the struggle to intertwine two histories and cultures is as old as the landscape itself.