Eastern Europeans: Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova

The three independent states discussed in this chapter have strong historical links with Russia. The first two are, like Russia, Eastern Slavic nations with Slavic languages and an Orthodox Christian religious tradition; they share much of their history, and were tightly economically integrated during the Soviet period. Moldova has the same Orthodox religion, but is culturally and linguistically Romanian. Nevertheless, it too has at various times been part of either the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, and shares many cultural and economic features with the other two republics. Among the three, Belarus (population 10 million) is by far the most thoroughly integrated into post-Soviet Russian space. Since 1997, there has been a movement toward complete integration of the two countries into a union with a common currency, borders, military, and government.

Although it does make political sense, such a union has not yet fully materialized because of the complicated maneuvering involved. The majority of Belarusians speak Russian as their first language and continue to live close to the land in medium-sized to small towns. The economy of Belarus was tightly integrated into the R.S.F.S.R. economy during the Soviet period and remains intertwined with the Russian economy today, so a full union in the future does seem likely. At the same time, however, Belarus is experiencing problems with human rights abuses and is a pariah in Europe because of its highly authoritarian current leader, Alexander Lukashenko. In essence, Belarus remains a closed society and thus is unable to attract significant investments from the West. Nevertheless, its close economic ties with Russia translate into an average income almost twice as high as in neighboring Ukraine.

The much larger Ukraine (population 46 million, with an area bigger than France) is a bilingual country, split about 25% to 75% between Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and is much more independent minded. The Ukrainian and Russian languages diverged only a few centuries ago and are mutually intelligible. The Dnieper River is the main linguistic divide: More people west of it speak Ukrainian, and more people east of it (and also in the south and the Crimea) speak Russian. This prominent division is apparent in the country's post-Soviet politics, as evidenced by strong support in the 2004 presidential election for the more nationalist Viktor Yushchenko in the west, and the more pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in the east and south.

Tiny Moldova (population 4 million) is predominantly Romanian-speaking, but has about a 14% Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking minority, as well as 4% Turkic-speaking Gagauz and 2% Bulgarians. It is also home to a secessionist controversy and a self-proclaimed republic (see below). All three countries used to have substantial peasant Jewish settlements (shtetls), which were largely destroyed in nationalist pogroms in the early 20th century or by the Nazis during World War II. Urban Jewish communities remain prominent in Kiev, Odessa, Kharkov, Minsk, Kishinev, and other large cities. Although Moldova is 80% Orthodox Christian, it has many other religions, including Baptist, Armenian, and Jewish.

Physical Geography

The climate of this section of Northern Eurasia is distinctly European. Although winters here are colder on average than in much of Western Europe, the typical winter temperatures in northern Ukraine are similar to those experienced in the U.S. upper Midwest and not much colder than in Hungary or Slovakia. The average January temperature in Kharkov is only –7?C, and in Odessa –2.5?C. The Carpathians shelter Moldova from the worst outbursts of Arctic air, as do the much smaller Crimean Mountains protecting Yalta along the balmy south Crimean coast.

These areas have a Dfa climate, according to the Koppen classification; this is comparable to Ohio or the Balkans. The rest of the region has a Dfb climate, similar to Moscow or Minnesota. Much of Belarus is covered with forested swamps, called polesye. Potato, sugar beets, and flax are the most important crops in the republic. Ukraine has some forests in the west, but is primarily a steppe country with well-developed agriculture on the famous chernozems, or black soils. It was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and remains a globally significant agricultural producer of wheat, corn, sunflowers, hogs, geese, and other commodities. Moldova's agricultural specialties are orchard crops, vegetables, and wine production. Large sections of northern Ukraine and especially eastern Belarus suffered from Chernobyl's radioactive fallout in 1986 and remain out of production today. Moldova suffers from decades of pesticide and fertilizer overuse in its agricultural areas.

Cultural and Historical Features

The three countries are culturally distinct, but with many similarities as well—for example, in the distinctly Eastern European styles of folk songs, dances, dress, architecture, and diet common to all three. For centuries, these were peasant societies with a strong communal village life. Some villages in Ukraine remain huge (over 5,000 residents) as compared to Russian ones, especially along fertile river valleys. Parts of southern Ukraine were settled by the seminomadic Cossacks who had staged raids on the surrounding areas along the Black Sea border and into Poland and Turkey in the 15th–17th centuries.

They protected the core Slavic territories from invaders from both the east and west. The history of Ukraine's statehood is a long and convoluted one, but essentially centers on internal struggles between pro-Russian and pro-Polish groups and on its emerging nationalism since the mid-18th century, with perpetually shifting affinities and borders. Areas of western Ukraine have seen hundreds of border adjustments in the past five centuries, with portions of it belonging to Poland, Prussia, Austria–Hungary, Russia, and even Turkey and Sweden for various periods of time. Ukraine in this sense is a classic example of a political transition zone in perpetual search of an identity. Post-Soviet Ukraine remains in the same position today, politically torn between East and West.

Ukrainian culture incorporated elements of Polish high culture during the long period of Polish rule (1400s–1654) and non-Slavic elements from the nomadic steppe cultures (Huns, Polovtsy, Khazars, Tatars) into its primarily Eastern Slavic basis. A few aspects of its culture come from pre-Christian times—for example, the tradition of coloring waxed eggs for Easter (pysanki), which used to symbolize the cult of the sun. Ukraine has produced many distinguished cultural figures. Its most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), and the lesser-known Lesya Ukrainka (1871–1913) were among the first to write in the Ukrainian language. Nikolai Gogol was from Ukraine and publicized many of the local folk tales from his childhood village in the short stories Evenings in Dikanka, although he mostly wrote in Russian and lived in St. Petersburg. Joseph Conrad, a Pole, and Sholom Aleichem, a Jew, were born in Ukraine and vividly described it in their stories. There are a few contemporary writers in the West who have Ukrainian origins (e.g., Chuck Palahniuk). The modernist painter Kazimir Malevich was from Ukraine.

Two famous Ukrainian composers were Dmitry Bortniansky and Mykola Leontovitch. A survey of Hollywood stars reveals many with Ukrainian or Jewish–Ukrainian roots, including Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Strasberg, and Milla Jovovich. There are literally dozens of U.S. and Canadian athletes who have some Ukrainian roots (e.g., the hockey greats Wayne Gretzky and Terry Sawchuk). In the world of science and technology, Igor Sikorsky the inventor of the helicopter, was born in Kiev. Famous mathematicians, including Mikhail Krawtchouk, Viktor Bunyakovsky, and Georgy Voronoi, worked in Ukraine.

The list could go on and on. Belarus and Moldova are smaller countries and have proportionally fewer famous names associated with them, but with a careful look one discovers quite a few. A final cultural fact worth mentioning is that many American and Canadian families with early-20th-century “Russian roots” have ancestors who actually came to North America from one of these three countries (especially Ukraine or Belarus), not from Russia proper. Canada alone received close to 2 million Ukrainian migrants into its prairie provinces by the beginning of the 20th century.


Although Ukraine is of course by far the biggest of these three countries, its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita ($6,900 in 2008) trails far behind that of Belarus ($11,800). This may come as a surprise, given the poor image Belarus has in the Western media because of its human rights violations. Economics and politics are separate things, however, and the prosperity of Belarus is determined primarily by the overall integration of its economy into Russia's much larger economy, not by its political virtue. Ukraine and Belarus are both below average in income globally. Moldova, on the other hand, is the poorest economy in Europe; its GDP per capita ($2,500) is similar to that of Mongolia, India, or Nicaragua. This may seem surprisingly low; after all, the country enjoys a favorable climate, rich agricultural soils, and a well-educated workforce, and its cities seem to look better than the income alone suggests. Nevertheless, it has no fossil fuels and lacks sea access for trade (it was deliberately landlocked by the Soviet planners to prevent secession after World War II; the main sea outlet was given to Ukraine), and it suffers from many years of incomplete reforms and an ambivalent stance toward both Russia and Ukraine. Moldova could be strengthened by a closer alliance with ethnically similar Romania, since the latter is now a full European Union (EU) member, but there are enough internal differences between the two to keep them separate.

Belarus is a heavily industrialized economy centered on Minsk (population 1.8 million). Other big and historical cities include Vitebsk, Polotsk, Mogilev, Brest, and Gomel. Machine building accounts for almost one-quarter of the country's GDP. Since the Soviet period, it has been a center of tractor and heavy truck building; electronics manufacturing; and potassium fertilizer, rubber, and plastics production. It has adequate timber and water reserves, but low energy reserves. Belarus is also the main conduit of Russian oil and gas to Europe, and of European food and goods to Russia, via its pipelines and highways. However, the authoritarian government of President Lukashenko hampers free market reforms, punishes political opposition, and creates unpredictability and discomfort in doing business here. As noted earlier, Belarus is a pariah state in Europe, with little to no representation in the affairs of the EU or other important bodies. Many of its politicians are even refused entry to the EU or the United States because of the country's abysmal political rights record with respect to dissidents. However, Belarus does a lot of business with Russia,

Ukraine, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and some Middle Eastern and Asian partners. A recent visit from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, seeking Belarusian weapons and offering cheap petroleum, showed an interesting new connection across the Atlantic among the “coalition of the unwilling” to accept U.S. global hegemony.

The Ukrainian economy is diverse. Its main strengths are mining of iron ore in Kryvoy Rog, manganese near Nikopol, and coal in Donbass; hydropower production and associated aluminum smelters on the Dnieper River; various types of manufacturing (shipbuilding, train engines, railroad cars, cars, engines, small and large military equipment, electrical and refrigeration equipment); and agriculture. About one-quarter of the industrial output is accounted for by metallurgy, and another quarter by energy production. Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye were major industrial centers of the Soviet military. The largest intercontinental ballistic missiles and some airplanes were assembled here. Today many of the military factories have been converted to civilian uses (furniture, appliances). There are five major hydropower facilities on the Dnieper and five nuclear stations (with a total of 15 reactors, including the remaining 3 in Chernobyl, which were finally shut down in 2003). Food processing accounts for 16% of the total industrial output. Ukraine is, however, deficient in petroleum and natural gas.

Some limited production of oil occurs along the Black Sea margins, but most must be imported from Russia. Transshipment of oil and gas from Russia and of gas from Turkmenistan provides two major sources of revenue, but is also the subject of frequent bickering over “fair” prices. Mining and manufacturing in the eastern part of the country (Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts) produce close to half of all industrial output. The cities in the middle (Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye) are intermediate in terms of industrial production.

Although Ukraine's primate city, Kiev, is a large city with over 3 million residents, it has relatively little manufacturing for a city of its size. However, it plays a major political and cultural role in unifying the divided country and is home to many museums, theaters, hospitals, universities, and schools. It also leads the country in investments and consumption. The hilly but nationalist west is much poorer, and is predominantly agricultural; cities there include Lvov and Ivano-Frankovsk.

Tourism is well developed in the Crimea Peninsula, near Odessa, and in the Carpathians. In the Crimea, it is much hampered by high prices, low-quality service, and poor infrastructure as compared to nearby Turkey or Bulgaria. The presence of the Russian Navy in Sevastopol is a source of additional tension; a new agreement pushed by Kiev would gradually phase it out of the country by 2014. Still, the Crimea is one of the most beautiful corners of Northern Eurasia.

Whereas Ukraine is 68% urban, Moldova is only 46%. About half of its industry is in food processing. Agriculture accounts for 18% of its GDP, as compared to only 9% for Ukraine or Belarus. Many agricultural products of Moldova are expensive perishable crops, such as grapes, berries, and fresh vegetables. Politically motivated bans on Moldovan wine and fruit exports to Russia in 2006 seriously crippled the already fragile economy; Moldova has vacillated in recent years between more pro-Russian and pro- EU stances, and the export ban was the kremlin's punishment for that. The country is also experiencing a shortage of labor: Close to a million Moldovans have left the country for employment in the construction, retail, food, and textile industries of Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Italy, and France. Ukraine and Moldova are also notorious exporters of sex industry workers for the urban European and Asian markets, especially the United Kingdom, Greece, the Netherlands, and Israel.

In addition, Moldova is home to an ongoing political secessionist conflict in the Trans-Dniester region—the only such conflict in Northern Eurasia outside the Caucasus. The unrecognized Trans-Dniester Republic (TDR) lies east of the Dniester River along the Ukrainian border, with Tiraspol as its self-proclaimed capital; it accounted for only 20% of Moldova's population, but almost half of its industrial output, in 1991. This region has long-standing historical ties to the Russian Empire as compared to the part of Moldova (Bessarabia) on the west bank of the Dniester, and is heavily Russian- and Ukrainian- speaking. In early 1992 the TDR sought greater cooperation with Moscow and Kiev than was allowed by the newly independent government in Kishinev. After a few skirmishes, a major war was prevented by the Soviet 14th Army, which was positioned in the republic. Some Russian peacekeepers remain to guard the TDR today on an informal basis, but in general the Russian leadership has chosen to distance itself from the TDR.

The Moldovan government is forced to tolerate the status quo, which may or may not last very long. The TDR is not officially recognized by any foreign government, but in the aftermath of Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, the TDR is likely to seek similar solutions. It is important to note here that the TDR is not merely a Russian–Ukrainian exclave inside Moldova, as it is sometimes wrongly perceived to be. Instead, a full quarter of its population is Moldovan; however, its leadership continues to favor unity with Russia, not Romania, as the long-term political goal—a very different viewpoint from that of the official government in Kishinev. The TDR also glorifies all things Soviet and in some respects resembles a Soviet theme park, complete with old Soviet slogans and even Soviet vending machines from about 1980 in the streets.

Challenges and Opportunities in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova

The countries described in this chapter are on divergent tracks with respect to future development. Belarus seems to be firmly committed to greater political unity with Russia, at the expense of political freedoms at home. Ukraine is more and more openly seeking full membership in NATO and eventually the EU, while remaining a pragmatic trade partner with Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) republics. It has the most established democracy of the three, but is experiencing fierce internal competition between its western and eastern regional elites, so its future is quite uncertain. In the spring of 2010, Victor Yanukovich became the new president of Ukraine, reflecting growing dissatisfaction with the poor state of the Ukrainian economy 6 years after the Orange Revolution.

For the moment, at least, it seems that both countries will be moving forward with shelving some of the old disputes. They have already made the decision to extend Russia's lease of the navy port in Sevastopol in exchange for cheaper natural gas prices for Ukraine. Ukraine farther distanced itself from NATO and is likely to start looking for fresh opportunities in reengaging with its northern and eastern neighbor. Nevertheless, other pro-Western or nationalistic politicians, especially the outspoken former Prime Minister, Yulia Timoshenko, remain active and will continue to reshape Ukraine's political future. Moldova is in a severe recession at the moment, and it is hard to know how soon and in what direction the situation will change there. Greater unity with Romania seems likely, but full integration into the latter or the EU either may never happen or may still be 10–15 years away.


  1. Explore the meaning of the word Ukraina (Ukraine). What does it suggest about the country's geographic position? What might it be called from a Polish, Russian, or Crimean Tatar perspective? From a Ukrainian nationalist perspective? Have a debate in class, outlining views on Ukraine's history from each of these perspectives.
  2. Study famous battlefields of World War II that involved territories in Belarus (Brest, Vitebsk, Minsk) and Ukraine (Kiev, Kursk, Lugansk, Sevastopol, Kerch). In small groups, give in-class presentations comparing the geographic aspects of these battlefield locations.
  3. Explore in greater depth the electoral geography of Ukraine today, using online sources and some of the suggested readings at the end of the chapter. Why do you think the rift is so severe?
  4. Compare and contrast the Ukraine–Russia relationship with the Canada–U.S. relationship. List similarities and differences (e.g., relative sizes, languages, political systems). Is this a fair comparison? Why or why not? Can it help predict the future development of Ukraine–Russia relations?
  5. Investigate the geographic history of the borders of any one of the following historical entities: Galicia, Volhynia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia, Bessarabia, Transnistria. How does the history shape the existing territorial claims in the region?
  6. Study the history of recent political developments in Belarus. Is it fair to call the political state under Alexander Lukashenko “neo-Stalinist”? Why or why not?
  7. Evaluate available tourism options for the Crimean Peninsula and the Carpathian Mountains.
  8. Make an inventory of items you personally own (clothing, electronics, etc.). Are any of those made in either Ukraine or Belarus? What does this suggest about the foreign trade of those countries with your country? You can expand your search by visiting a few department stores in your area.
  9. Discuss the pros and cons of Ukraine's joining the EU and NATO in the future.
  10. Discuss the pros and cons of Moldova's joining Romania in the future.