Geography is an historical discipline, something that was brought home with a vengeance in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when map makers drafted and published innumerable new maps.
A good model for understanding historical geography is provided by the history of books. Before the printing press, every copy of every book was hand-written; and before the age of throw-away material, the pages of skin and papyrus on which these old books were written was exceedingly durable. It not seldom happened that an old text was scrubbed off such a sheet and a new text inscribed upon it. But in the course of years, chemical traces of the old inks, embedded deep in the fibers and not totally removed, became visible again. Greek philologists termed such documents "palimpsests," for they were "scraped again."
The Ukrainian people and land, to take a metaphor from the study of ancient books, present us with a "palimpsest": many nations have left their imprint on Ukrainian culture, language and land. This is not merely of antiquarian interest, but poses the first practical modern problem for geographers, not for Ukrainians alone, but for nearly everyone interested in the subject. What name of names shall we use in discussing this coun-try? It helps to look at case studies involving other countries. The powerful Chinese have told the world to say "Bejing." instead of "Peking" or "Peiping." The small nation of the Finns will call their capital "Helsinki" when they speak Finnish, "Helsingfors" when they use the other language of the land, Swedish. They expect foreigners to know little or nothing of their land or language, so Finns tolerate either variety.
At various times Ukrainians have been dominated by Poland and Russia and by Austria-Hungary. Even here we must exercise caution: the Austria or Russia of 1914 are light years distant from the Austria or Russia of 1500 or the 1990s. There is understand-able confusion and even resentment therefore, when foreigners, who usually have little knowledge of the country, use a non-Ukrainian geographical name. Ukrainians, there-fore,ought to be tolerant enough to accept defensible and traditional variation. But to correct the unacceptable error one must all the more have exact standards. And non Ukrainians, certainly historians and geographers, need to know what name and what language is appropriate and exact on a case by case basis. Now that the Iron Curtain is down maybe you will drive from "Vienna," the Italian name of "Wien," to Ukraine. Let us say you would like to visit "Bratislava" in Slovakia (Slowakei) on your way. The older road signs in Austria (Oesterreich) pointed to Pressburg. But in case you drive from Budapest, the signs for "Bratislava" read "Pozsony." Be prepared.
With the help of private tour guides in Western Ukraine you reach the beautiful city of - how shall we call it? - Lviv, Lwow, or Lvov, or Lemberg? A native of the town may have been born an Austro-Hungarian subject in "Lemberg" before 1918, which is what the Austrian officials called it. After 1918 our Austro-Hungarian subject became a citizen of Poland, whose officials issued documents citing his domicile as "Lwow." Although he never left home, after World War II this person was then a resident of "Lviv" in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But our citizen's father always said this, even in the days of Royal and Imperial Austrian occupation. Officialdom in the Soviet era generally insisted on reintroducing the Russian name "Lvov," just as the British use the name "Londonderry," while the Irish insist on the Gaelic name "Derry." Since 1991 our man has lived in the independent Republic of Ukraine, capital Kyiv. If pronounced in eastern Ukrainian fashion Kyiv it will sound to the Anglo ear something like "kayiiv" - or in western pronunciation "Kayeeev." The only name the foreigner usually knows is "kee-ev," which he will accent on the second syllable. He won't know that this is a bad pronunciation of the Russian name, which for that matter is really pronounced "Kee-if," accent on the first syllable.
Dnieper River in Ukraine, Twitter/Tim Kopra photo from the space station
The Slavic nations emerging from the Soviet Union have a common genesis. They are East Slavs. Their history and geography, to invoke another analogy, is like archeology. Archeologists dig from the top, from the here and now, down, backward into the past, like peeling an onion. The outer skins of two of our onions are the names "Ukraine" and "Russia." These terms suggest to the novice that the Ukraine is an appendage to Russia, which was indeed its political fate since the ascendancy of Muscovy until independence was attained in 1991 and abortively between the World Wars.
If likewise the language we today call "Russian" has preempted the name once common to all East Slavs, it has developed from the speech of those emigrants from Kyivan (Kievan) Rus'. The language as it evolved in "Old Rus" is now known as "Ukrainian." The common ancestor of this and modern "Russian", together with Belorussian, was spoken along the Dnipro (Dnieper) from Novhorod in the north, south to Kyiv (Kiev) Novhorod and beyond. This language is called, perilously for the naive, "Old Russian". It could as well, just as inaccurately, be called "Old Ukrainian". But scholars with a sense of humor and history will understand each other when they say, with double anachronism, "Russian is a Ukrainian dialect." The least misleading term would be "Old East Slavic."
The subsequent history of Slavic Easterners and Westerners is what sets the descendants of the East Slavs apart. After centuries of bondage under the Mongol Tatars, the received wisdom is that Muscovy's heirs are doomed to absolutism. They, on the other hand, feel that the Westerners, in the 16th and 17th centuries under the impact of the Jesuit-led Counter-Reformation, spearheaded by Catholic Lithuania and Poland, have slipped their Slavic, Orthodox moorings.
And when the power of Poland ebbed, Muscovy expanded. And Russia's sell defense against resumed German "Drang nach Osten" ("drive to the East"), Ukrainians-and Poles-were caught in the middle. (Compare "England's difficulty, Ireland's advantage".) Territorially modern Ukraine is not coterminous with Kievan Rus - the Old East Slavic ancestral homeland, and "Ukraina" is not the name that the ancestors of the nation called their land.
Furthermore, it was practice in early Europe to specify ethnicity, and only imply territory. In the documents of Kyivan (Kievan) Rus', for example, what in modern English stylistics is termed "the journey from Scandinavia to Greece" was really worded "road from the Vikings to the Greeks."
A millennium ago Christianity, i.e. Byzantine Christianity, was adopted, really imposed, at Kyiv (Kiev). The faith was accepted two centuries later in a minor Kyivan Rus' colony deep in Finnish and Baltic territory. This settlement took its name from the river on whose banks it stood, the Moskva, English Moscow.
Earlier yet, in Greek and Latin texts, the East Slavs were termed Antes. In Classical and Hellenistic, Iron Age, times the lands of today's south Ukraine were inhabited by Cimmerians, probably of Thracian language, this nation separating the Slavs from direct contact with ancient Greek culture. In the southern steppes the Scythians (700 - 300 B.C.) or Scyths and the Sarmatians (300 B. C.- 200 A.D.) held sway. These two were of Iranian language, and traces of the Scythian word for "river", "don" (Sanskrit "dhanu") can be found in several hydronyms on Ukrainian territory: Don, Dnepr, Dnieper, Dnestr, Dniester. Transcribed into English the Ukrainian forms are: Din or Don, Dnipro and Dnister. Dunai has the same intermediary source as German Donau.
Farther north in the Slavic heartland, that is, in southeastern part of Poland and western and central western part of Ukraine, there are no Iranian hydronyms to be found. Slavic river names predominate. This indicates, that the homeland of the Slavs on the eve of their expansion in the age of migrations was in this Ukrainian-Polish region, north of the Carpathians. Regions south of here, as the hydronyms attest, were won from Persian and Turkish rule in recent centuries.
Indo-Europeans = Kurgan peoples. Slavs are a branch of the great Indo-European language family that extends from Iceland and Ireland in the West to Bengal on the Indian subcontinent. Ukraine is the "center of gravity" for this language family. The term "Indo-European" belongs to comparative linguistics and "Kurhan Culture" to archeology. Students of the question of the Indo-European homeland are compelled to know Ukrainian geography, since this was the marshaling region of the Indo-Europeans, or Kurhan peoples. Maria Gimbutas demonstrated in the late 1950s that the development of Kurhan Wave 3, or "Battle Ax people", deriving from the Globular Amphora culture, give us the ancestors of the northwestern European peoples, also passed through Ukrainian-Polish territory on their way to the northwest. The "Mycenaean" type of "battle ax" is found in the Ukraine as well as in the Aegean. Kurhan Wave 4. It was in this epoch, that the Iranian river names were established, and Indo-Aryans-Scythians, Sarmatians, Ossetians-developed in the Pontic steppe. These are regions, which were won from Persian and Turkish rule in recent centuries, u Farther north, where there are no Iranian river names, lies the Slavic heartland, where Slavic river names predominate, in west and central west Ukraine and southeastern part of Poland, which indicates that the homeland of the Slavs on the eve of their expansion in the age of migrations was in this region, north of the Carpathians. It was from here, that East Slavs settled the valleys of the great rivers to the East, in formerly Scythian-Sarmatian territory.