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This webpage reproduces a chapter of

The Story of the Ukraine
by Clarence Manning

published by
Philosophical Library
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p19  Chapter One


Ukraine is often called the granary of Europe and its natural wealth has long made it the object of envy of all of its neighbors and of all aggressive peoples in the eastern part of the continent. At the same time its geographical position has made it of pivotal importance in all of the European combinations, whether for war or peace.

What then is Ukraine and where it is situated? In the simplest definition it is the area which is bounded by the Black Sea on the south, the Carpathian mountains on the west, and the Don River on the east. To the north its boundaries are far less definite, for there is no natural barrier and the northern section merges more or less imperceptibly into the southern part of the area inhabited by the Great Russians. This boundary has changed with the passing of the centuries but it has remained surprisingly constant when we consider the involved political history of eastern Europe.

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Map of Ukraine

[A larger version, in which the placenames are much more readable, opens here (1.3 MB).]

The country occupies the southernmost of the great belts of land that stretch across Europe and Asia on the great plains of the east. That is the belt of the steppes, wide expanses of level rolling country, with the celebrated and enormously fertile black earth regions which have been cultivated more or less continuously for over three thousand years. To the north in the Great Russian area is found a broad belt of forest land that covers the greater part of the old Russian Empire but Ukraine itself is ideally fitted by soil and climate to be a prosperous agricultural area which will offer an abundant living to hardy and rugged people who are not afraid of physical labor.

 p20  The greatest extension of the country is from east to west, for it is far narrower from north to south, but despite all this Ukraine is a large country with an area of some 200,000 square miles and under favorable conditions it could easily support its population of some forty million people, most of whom speak the Ukrainian language, live according to the Ukrainian mode of life and are conscious of their national character.

Across it from north to south flow most of the great rivers that empty into the Black Sea. There are the Dnyester, the Dnyeper and the Don, three great highways between central and northern Europe and the Black Sea. Ukraine lies squarely across their path and hence it comes about that country controls all the arteries that lead into the Black Sea and from there through the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean. It gives the land a tremendous economic position which its own people and their conquers have never undervalued.

That favorable position contains within itself the source of danger. Unfortunately at no time in their history have the Ukrainian people moved sufficiently to the north to occupy the head waters of these streams and to take control of the rivers that flow to the north into the Baltic. The people there have always looked with envy at Ukraine, they have always tried to descend these rivers, usually broad and sluggish, and to take possession of the fertile plains which they saw stretching in all directions.

Ukraine is the natural highway between the east and west. For centuries before recorded history begins, the nomad tribes pushing westward from central Asia found these same plains the most accessible and convenient road to Europe. Long before there came a national consciousness in the area, long before any existing European country even dreamed of coming into being, warriors mounted on small fast horses poured across this region, carrying their  p21 culture into Europe and making their way eastward again with the spoils of the west. Likewise invaders from the west sought access to the territory for the purposes of carrying their raids into the east and of returning home with the riches of the Orient.

Trade followed the same general route. No one attempts to estimate when the trading caravans on their way from western China and central Asia to the early trading centers of Europe first passed across the territory for purposes of peace as did the military groups for war and plunder.

Thus, at an early date, Ukraine was at the crossroads of the world. The Scandinavian Vikings were but following in the path of many peoples who sought to emphasize the route from north to south, exactly as others travelled from east to west. Kiev as the central point in these crossroads had a trading importance that was unequalled by any place except perhaps Constantinople, where sea‑borne traffic added to the wealth of the population and offered a simpler outlet to the rest of the world.

It is small wonder then that Kiev as a trading center can trace its origin before the dawn of history and that the area around it was inhabited from the earliest days of man in Europe. It is small wonder that Ukraine developed into a power­ful and independent state long before the countries to the west and that it was one of the richest daughters of the Byzantine Empire. It is small wonder that for centuries the wishes of the rulers of Kiev were to be considered throughout all of eastern Europe.

Yet the very accessibility of the country and the lack of definite boundaries to the north and to a lesser degree to the east cast upon the rulers of the land gigantic problems of self-defence. They had to be constantly alert, lest armed raiders harry their country and plunder the population and the rich grainfields.

Geographically Ukraine occupies one of the most important  p22 locations in Europe. It is a position well adapted for the organization of a power­ful state which is vitally interested in the development of communications with the outside world. A Ukraine developed for the benefit of her own people and playing her part in world organization would have been a stabilizing factor for much of Europe. It would have ended many of the most violent disputes that arose as one neighbor after another claimed her territory, and sought to build their own greatness and permanence on her ruins.

Besides that, the country is rich. Its fertile soil is an almost inexhaustible resource. For millennia her fields have yielded wheat and the black earth, often several feet in depth, is still not exhausted. There is hardly a staple crop, with the exception of cotton, that is not adapted to the climate. Her soil is richer than that of any of her neighbors. It yields copious returns for the labor of her inhabitants. In the past centuries wheat, sugar beets and many other crops including fruits, have been produced and exported for the welfare of her neighbors and little or no attention has been paid to the welfare of the inhabitants of the country.

As if this were not enough, Ukraine possesses an almost inexhaustible supply of mineral resources. The coal and iron mines which have been exploited during the last century have been among the most important in the Russian Empire. The industries of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union were long dependent upon the raw materials which came from this section of the continent. There is oil in the west. This mineral and that are found in commercial deposits and it is now realized that the mineral resources of the country are fully equal to the wealth that lies buried in the fields.

The land with such natural gifts is inhabited by a thrifty, industrious population who have shown in peace  p23 and in war their love of liberty and a proud, stubborn independence which has all too often degenerated into a factionalism that has broken the hearts of many of the wiser leaders. It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that the people of the plains have often found it more difficult to unite for a common cause than have the people of the mountains, who are more or less isolated in their narrow valleys. It has been easier to separate them and to divide their interests; once damage has been done to their organization it has been harder to repair. That is now and has been in the past the great weakness of the population. Once the fabric of the state was shattered in the early days, Ukraine, always aspiring to recover her lost unity, found it very difficult to achieve. The cities were unable to dominate the country. The peasants were interested in their several local problems and the foreign invaders far too often were able to manoeuvre them at will and to block those measures which alone could unify the land and enable the population of the villages to meet them on an equal level.

All this has made Ukraine throughout the ages a land of wealth and of sadness, a land thirsting for liberty but again and again debarred from obtaining it. Here are all the resources, human and physical, that are needed to produce a great state, while untoward factors have worked against it and kept the land in turmoil.

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Page updated: 25 Apr 22