Ukraine has always been a crossroads of history and the current conflict illustrates the yawning gap between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking Orthodox east and the pro-European, Ukrainian-speaking Catholic west.
Kiev is considered the cradle of Slavic civilization
Passions roused by the disputed presidential election, officially given to Viktor Yanukovych, the prime minister and Moscow's favored candidate, despite claims of massive fraud, are as much about a cultural divide as politics.
His rival, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, is pro-Western -- although he was born in the agricultural northeast near the border with Russia -- and keen to move Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. A reformist, he speaks Ukrainian and is married to an American,
Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (right) and his opponent, pro-Moscow Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych
Yanukovych is from the coal-mining community of Donetsk, a Russian-speaking area that accounts for 10 percent of Ukraine's population and some 20 percent of its gross domestic product. He wants to make Russian an official language and was openly supported by Moscow during the election campaign.
"These differences have been exploited by the authorities to stay in power," said Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine specialist at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. "They made the contestable decision to emphasize the Russian language, the relationship with Russia, they caricatured Yushchenko as an American puppet, called him Bushenko."
The capital Kiev, with its liberal lifestyle, lies somewhere in the middle of the conflict, an ancient city embracing both cultures, founded in 482, once the heart of an empire and considered the cradle of Slavic civilization.
Indeed, Ukraine can lay claim to a varied history dating back thousands of years and mirroring the progress of human civilization. It can point to the world's oldest house, a 15,000-year old shelter made of mammoth bones, the world's oldest known map, 12,000 years old and etched on a mammoth tooth, and the world's oldest known recognizable oven, at 20,000 years old. Historians believe man first rode on horseback some 6,000 years ago on the Ukrainian steppes and around the same time wore the first pair of trousers, a garment ideally suited to riding.
The gold-crusted domes of the 11th century Monastery of Caves in Kiev
The glorious golden-domed churches and monasteries of Kiev were the work of King Vladimir and his son Yaroslav in the 10th and 11th centuries, while the broad main avenue in Kiev, Kreshchatik, (literally "christening street"), is a reminder of where their subjects made for the river to be baptized.
Ukraine, known affectionately as "little Russia," was part of the Russian empire from 1654 until its collapse in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution. It quickly declared independence, but was occupied by Bolshevik troops in 1918 until a treaty in 1921 assigned western Ukraine to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, while the eastern and central territories formed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Famine under Stalin
The Stalin years saw some of the darkest chapters in Ukrainian history. With its wide, rolling plains it was the ideal bread basket, but Stalin's forced collectivization and a huge increase in demand for wheat led to a grain shortage and an "artificial famine," still considered by Ukrainians as an act of genocide, which saw between seven and 10 million people perish.
Ukraine suffered again in World War II, trapped between Moscow and Berlin. Officially six million died, but recent research has put the figure nearer 10 million, whether in combat, due to the privations of war, massacred by Nazis and Soviets alike, or in concentration camps. The most notorious killing ground was Babiy Yar, Kiev, where in September 1941, German forces executed nearly 34,000 Jews. Around 150,000 Ukrainians and others were later believed to have been killed there. In 1940, the population of Kiev was 900,000; in 1945 it was barely 186,000.
At the end of the war the Soviets united the western and eastern sides and Crimea, formerly part of the Russian Federation, was added in 1954.
Independence, a first
By 1991, growing opposition to Moscow led Ukraine to declare independence.
Ukraine has struggled during the post-Soviet years, as the economy shrank, inflation rocketed and corruption riddled government, but investment has begun to pick up and the economy grew by more than 12 percent during the first nine months of 2004.
Alex Vatanka, editor of Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, said eastern Ukraine and Russia were still in many ways interdependent through their heavy industry. "Russians and Ukrainians in the eastern side really need to work together economically, and by extension politically," he told AFP.
But as Russia became increasingly authoritarian, he went on, people in the west "want to get away from that and come closer to the European Union."