Travel: Ukraine in transition 

After decades of subjugation Ukraine continues to search for its niche within modern Europe


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"I was born in Austria, I went to school in Poland, I got married in Russia and now I live in Ukraine." says the old man.

"You have certainly traveled a lot during your life," the visitor comments.

"No," replies the old man, "I have never left my village."

The story captures the essence of Ukraine's history - a region buffeted between east and west, a place where political boundaries have shifted depending on the whims and relative military strength of neighbouring countries and warlords. From Mongol horsemen in 1240 to the tanks of Hitler's Panzer Units in WWII other people have fought their battles on Ukrainian soil. And the vast expanse of flat land, the central European steppe that makes up most of the country, is virtually indefensible.

We spent a few days in the ancient city of Kiev before beginning our trip down the Dnieper to the Black Sea. Europe's third longest river, after the Volga and Danube, is not only the geographic division between eastern and western Ukraine but also a boundary between cultures, economies and religions. Orthodox eastern Ukraine bristles with the smoke stacks of heavy industry. When it was part of the USSR eastern Ukraine was the heart of the Soviet military-industrial complex, but even then Moscow kept "little Russia" on a short leash. Almost every product manufactured in the Ukraine was dependent on some critical component made exclusively in Russia. Most of the people in eastern Ukraine are ethnic Russian. Russian is the dominant language and the economy is still closely linked with that of Moscow.

In contrast, western Ukraine is predominantly agricultural.

There is a saying among Ukrainian farmers that the soil of the steppe is so rich that "a spade left in it overnight will start to grow by morning." Before the fall of the Czars and the emergence of communism Ukraine was truly "the breadbasket of Europe," exporting vast amounts of food to Mother Russia. But that all changed in 1917 when Stalin began to nationalize Ukrainian agriculture. Farmers were kicked off their traditional land, herded on to collective farms and given grossly unrealistic quotas. The result in 1932-33 was a famine that took almost eight million lives, most of them village farmers and their families. Today the population of western Ukraine is mostly Catholic and ethnic Ukrainian. While their economy is still closely bound to that of Russia, many of its citizens foresee closer ties to the west in the future.

For the first four days of our trip the Dnieper is more like a lake than a river. The surrounding landscape is utterly flat and a succession of five hydroelectric dams has backed the water into a series of vast, shallow reservoirs bounded by low, scrub-covered banks. Except for the occasional farmhouse and a few cultivated fields there is little evidence of human settlement. And until we reached the industrial city of Zaporozhye, three days south of Kiev, the river itself is eerily quiet. I asked Henry, one of the ship's crew, why there was so little ship traffic.

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