Part one of a five-part series that looks at Ukraine, co-host of the 2012 European Football Championships, from a historical, political and cultural perspective.
Part I - Ukraine, the early years and the beginnings of its sex trade
Part II - Ukraine and its troubled relations with Poland
Part III - Ukraine and its big brother, Russia
Part IV - Golden Age and the 20th Century
Part V - Ukraine - Munich connection
Kyiv is the English translation for the Ukrainian word. The Russian translation is Kiev.
The news when it comes out of Ukraine these days is rarely good, and this spring it has been absolutely atrocious. As more eyes have begun to focus on Ukraine ahead of the European Football Championships which it co-hosts with Poland beginning June 6th, some of the dark underbelly of Ukrainian politics, business and mentality has been exposed to light. From the recent fisticuffs in parliament, to the jailing of Yulia Tymoschenko, which most governments in the west see as politically motivated, price gouging ahead of the European Championships, a gang rape and burning of a victim who survived an excruciatingly painful weeks then died, to the feminist demonstrations of Femen (who use their naked breasts to get across their message), it has been a very busy spring in Ukraine, indeed. But to understand this country of extremes one must go back not twenty, a hundred or even three hundred years. Ukraine's history has been shaped by the events which have taken place on her soil for the last millennium.
The geography of present day Ukraine is mostly steppe, with few natural hills and only a few large rivers to slow the advance of an army. Many armies have advanced and retreated, and advanced again across those seemingly endless golden plains. The first to do so came on horseback from beyond the Urals. To those nomadic warlike peoples of the east, it must have looked as if a door was in place to the very center of Europe. Rather than knocking on that door they simply busted it in. On December 6th, 1240, the Mongol Hordes sacked Kyiv. At the time there were approximately 50,000 inhabitants (only about 2,000 survived the massacre), which made it the largest city in Europe. London needed another 100 years before it had as many people. Though it probably would have made little difference, the Kyivan Rus's ability to defend their lands against these invaders had been made weaker by incessant internecine fighting, which was to plague Ukraine throughout its history, and can still be seen today.
These people of Kyiv, the Rus', were named for either the people who had occupied the bluffs and shores along the Rivers Rus and Rusna in central Ukraine (the Ukrainian version), or a more popular version, they were named for the Finnish word Ruotsi, which means rowers, and was their name for the tribe of Varangians (Vikings) from Sweden who appeared in and around Kyiv in the mid-9th Century. Theses Varangians were 'invited', according to the oldest written records of this time period, "Chronicle of Bygone Years", which was compiled by the monk Nestor some two centuries later. However they got their name, we do know, that the earliest rulers of Kyiv had names exactly like the Varangians (and the flag colours of Sweden and Ukraine are also exactly the same), and that they expanded their realm very quickly to the south. Eventually they became so powerful that the Byzantine Empire on a few occasions was forced to give very favourable treaties to the Kyivan Rus' after losing battles. Constantinople was even occupied by the Rus' for a short time, and one of the emperor's daughters was married off to a Kyivan prince (king), to cement their alliance.
Sex slaves then and now
After the end of the control of the Mongols, the next group to lay claim to the lands in and around Kyiv were the Lithuanians, and more importantly the Poles, who then formed a formidable alliance in 1385. The Polish would become a thorny issue for Ukraine for the next 600 years. During the Polish-Lithuanian (part II of this series will look at this troubled relationship between Poland and Ukraine) domination which extended to Kyiv in the east but centred on the areas known as Galicia-Volhynia, in present day southeast Poland and northwest Ukraine, the Tartars began to control the southern parts of present Ukraine from their stronghold in Crimea. They mostly raided the other areas of the country to take back slaves to their overlord the Ottomans. Many were women and they were used for sex. A certain sultan, Süleyman the Magnificent, married one of these Ukrainian harem girls, Roxelana, who was captured near L'viv. She became quite famous for her machinations in the royal court, and their son succeeded Süleyman.
Because of the constant influx of different ethnicities, Ukrainian women have always been thought of as some of the most desirable in the world. Even in a book such as "The White Tiger", by Aravind Adiga (a recent Man Booker prize winner), which has nothing to do with Ukraine and everything to do with India, there is one character from Ukraine. She is a prostitute. Many young women from the villages are still duped regularly into believing that a better life awaits them in the UK or Germany, if they only go with the nice smooth talking man with the shiny gold watch and big Mercedes. Germany is one of the largest markets for sex-trafficking from Ukraine. There are hundreds of legitimate (and illegitimate) websites today offering Ukrainian women for marriage. They have so few opportunities many women will still trade their bodies for a chance at a better life for them and their family in the West. Prostitution is one of the main reasons why many men travel to Ukraine. While I was a professor in Kyiv I learned that many of the women students had had boyfriends who were 18 or 19 years old when they were only 13 or 14. When the girls were 15 or 16, their boyfriends were in their 20's. These same young girls dress very provocatively. This is very common. Many young girls get married before their 19th birthday because they are pregnant, and of course, most of these marriages fail. HIV is rampant. It is growing faster in Ukraine than any other country in Europe. Because Ukraine is such a conservative country, few people talk about condoms or sex, as if this will make it all go away. But slowly things are changing for the better.
During the time of the Kyivan Rus' women were given many rights that other women in Europe did not get until the early 20th Century. They could inherit property if their husbands died before them, and they could become the head of the household and allot patrimony to the sons. If a woman was murdered, it was the same crime as if a man had been murdered. And now it has come full circle. Groups like Femen, who have resorted to using their naked breasts to demonstrate against the world's mentality that Ukrainian women are simply sex slaves, is made up of highly educated women. Many Ukrainian women here in Germany and the world have become leading doctors, lawyers and businesswomen. They have begun to change the perception that only their bodies have value. More than two-thirds of all university students in Ukraine are female; the same is true for Ukrainians here in Germany. They have begun to educate themselves which is the first step to total independence from anyone or anything. It has taken a long time to reach this point but now that they have reached it, they will not give up their new-found freedom easily.
Michael V Owens lived in Ukraine for a year and was a professor of English at Kyiv International University. His father is from Dneprpetrovsk and his wife was born just outside of Kolomyia, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast.