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Apparently the "Ukraine" is actually split east and west. Many people in the eastern part would prefer for their country to be part of Russia, while protesters in the western Ukraine wants something different, perhaps full "independence." Unless they want to align with some country in Europe, or "Europe" generally.

Both parts of Ukraine were originally part of Kievan Rus, early in the past millenium. But they seemed to diverge around mid-millenium when the eastern part became part of Russia, while the western part became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet under e.g. Bogdan Khiemelnytsky, many in the western Ukraine didn't want to be part of the Commonwealth, either.

Where do the stated wishes of western (and eastern) Ukrainians differ today, and how do those statements align with those of the past? Or put another way, what historical differences between western and eastern Ukrainians would cause them to differ today? Or is the distinction between west and east Ukraine, although grounded in "history," now an artificial one today?

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Although it's easy to assume Euromaidan is rooted in the Ukrainian cultural split (West/Ukrainian speaking vs East/Russian speaking), it's not. It has a lot more to do with economics, human rights and corruption than it has to do with history. You'll find a good overview here: forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2014/02/19/… –  Yannis Rizos Feb 20 at 15:55
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Related (on Politics.SE): Why does Russia try to stop Ukraine from approching to the EU –  Yannis Rizos Feb 20 at 15:58
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@YannisRizos Good point that although historical context is important, it is not always a prime determinant. Other more immediate issues can force action as much or more than history does. –  Mike Feb 20 at 16:18
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Actually, I doubt that many people anywhere in Ukraine would actually want to become Russian citizens, given how much (about 0) an ordinary citizen's life/health/property is worth in Russia, should he fun afoul of even the lowest official. People know that, even in East Ukraine and hardly want the same kind of insecure life for themselves. Cultural identification is something else, of course - no argument about that. –  Felix Goldberg Feb 20 at 16:26
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@FelixGoldberg: corruption in Ukraine is even worse than in Russia. In fact, I think that the current crises was caused by frustration with the abuses Ukrainians constantly suffer from their own government. "Berkut", the police that attacks the "maidans", was involved in intimidating voters during elections that installed Yanukovich, among other things. From what I hear from people who live there the "anti-maidan" protesters were mostly organized and paid by the government; there are a few videos on youtube with evidence. The East-West split much discussed here is not the primary cause. –  Michael Feb 22 at 8:36

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Population of Ukraine is split into two parts. Roughly by the Dnieper river. These parts have very different history. They speak different languages (most of them). Shortly the story goes like this.

Western Ukraine has its origin in Kievan Rus. Soon after Mongol invasion, part of this territory joined the Kingdom of Poland, another part the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Later Poland and Lithuania united in one state called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwelth. However the population of the present Western Ukraine never mingled with the rest of the population of the Commonwealth because of the religious difference. (Ukrainians were mostly Orthodox, Poles and most "Lithuanians" Catholic). Modern Belorussia was also a part of the Commonwealth.

The territory of Eastern Ukraine (Wild steppe) was settled much later, by settlers from Russia and from the Commonwealth (Cossacs). Until 18th century this was a nomad territory, controlled by various Tatar descendents of the Mongol state.

As a result of 17th century wars it went to Russia, and the territory of the modern Ukraine was split along Dnieper between Russia and the Commonwealth.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was destroyed in the end of 18th century, jointly by Russia, Prussia and Austria. As a result, most of the Ukraine "united" within Russian empire, except a small part which remained in Austria. After WWI, this part went to Poland and Roumania, and in 1939-40 Soviet Union invaded Poland and Roumania, and joined this remaining part to Soviet Ukraine.

So there was always a tension, within Ukraine: one part of the population feels "European" and another feels "Russian". One historian noticed that the dividing line almost exactly coincides with the dividing line between steppe and forest geographical zones:-)

The most radical pro-European part is exactly that one which was annexed by Soviet Union in 1939-40. (Lviv, Ternopol regions). The most pro-Russian are eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, etc.

A separate part is Crimea peninsula, which was never historically a part of Ukraine. Its population was Tatar. It was invaded and annexed by Russia in 18th century. In 1940-s the Soviets expelled all Tatar population from Crimea. Only after collapse of Soviet union they were permitted to return. Crimea was administratively joined with Ukraine only in the second half of 20th century. Most of the non-Tatar population is Russian. It is very questionable which part Crimea will take in the current conflict.

This, to my understanding explains the differences in Ukraine. I don't give any references, all this information can be easily checked with Wikipedia. (Or you may consider this first-hand account as I lived most of my life in Ukraine, in both parts of it:-)

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One could look to the 1596 Union of Brest when the Ukrainian bishops (in Poland-Lithuania) chose not to recognize the new Muscovite Patriarch and formed the Uniate communion (Greek Catholic Church of the Slavic Rite). The Uniates formed in what is today western Ukraine and Belarus, whereas those across the border in the expanding Muscovy (what we now call Russia) chose to become Russian Orthodox.

One could make a case that this religious division kept the border between Poland-Lithuania and Russia as a cultural fault line even after the political border shifted westward with Russian expansion.

You can see the remnants of the old border in other ways too. Western Ukraine was considered part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the nineteenth century whereas eastern Ukraine was not.

During the "Russian Civil War" of 1918-1921 (which Norman Davies claims is a misnomer), the short lived "West Ukrainian Republic" fought both Pilsudski's Polish forces and the Russian backed Bolshevik army. Unfortunately, the Soviet reconquest of Ukraine kept us from seeing how an independent West Ukraine would behave.

In "Clash of Civilizations", Samuel Huntington uses the old Polish-Lithuanian/Russian border as the dividing line between the Western and the Orthodox civilizations. Interestingly, he makes several mentions of the possibility of Ukraine splitting in two. This did not happen in the almost 20 years since he wrote it, but it remains a possibility.

Sources:

"Europe: A History" by Norman Davies (1996)

"The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" by Samuel Huntington (1996)

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Why does Norman Davies claim that the Russian Civil War is a misnomer? –  Felix Goldberg Feb 20 at 16:23
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He thinks it is myopic of Western historians to treat the Soviet reconquest of Ukraine and the Caucasus as an internal "Russian" event. –  Mike Feb 20 at 16:49
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"It is still more unfortunate that the creation of the Soviet Union, which began in December 1922, is often thought to have involved a mere change of name. In this way the lengthy process of decomposition of the Empire, and the five-year labors of the Bolshevik's to replace it, can be passed over in silence. Crucial distinctions between "Russia", "the Russian Empire", "Soviet Russia", and "the Soviet Union" only entered general discourse when the Bolshevik's handiwork started to fall apart 70 years later." –  Mike Feb 20 at 16:54
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I would say it is a good term for Reds vs Whites in Russia itself, not as good elsewhere in the empire with diverse break-away movements that failed. –  Mike Feb 20 at 17:28
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West Ukraine was mainly conquered by Poland in 1919 rather than by the Soviet Union (who took the rest of Ukraine). –  Henry Feb 20 at 23:33

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