The best way to begin to understand Ukrainian culture is to review early Ukrainian history. This will give us a good step from which to look at traditional Ukrainian culture. Unlike the Russian people, who descended from northern tribes descending from Scandinavia and the far north, Ukrainian history was influenced by southern civilizations such as Scythians and Greeks. Invasions by the Huns and the Khazars between the 3rd and 9th centuries mixed Ukrainian bloodlines with those from all over Asia. During the 10th century, Kievan Rus was established and the golden age of Ukrainian kings was born. During this period, many important events took place, notably; King Volodymyr the Great introduced Christianity to the Ukrainian State.
The region fell to the Mongols Golden Horde in the 13th century, and was eventually ruled by Poland and Lithuania. This was known as the Age of the Kozaks, Ukrainian horseman that formed one of the largest armies of the time to fight against the invading armies of more powerful nations. These Kozaks were active in their fight for independence well into the Russian occupation, before eventually coming under the control of Russia in the late 18th century.
In 1918, Ukraine declared its independence, only to be reclaimed in 1922 by Communists during the Bolshevik Revolution. Ravaged by war and Nazi occupation during WWII, Ukraine remained under Soviet rule until declaring its freedom in 1991. Ukrainian culture has been defined in many creative styles. Literature is arguably the most prominent expression of Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian literature had been developing since the early 11th century, when people of the early Kievan Rus drafted some of Ukraine’s first works in early Church Slavonic, such as the Hypathian Chronicles. The first historical epic of Ukraine, Slovo o polku Ihorevi, was written during this period. The major authors of this period were two monks known as Ilarion of Kiev, Cyril of Turov, and Prince Volodymyr Monomah II. The 16th century brought such innovations as the printing press that allowed the church to spread information during a period of Polish occupation. Works such as Perestoroha and Apocrisis bound together the religious community in these tough times.
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Ukraine experienced the Baroque period in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the rest of Europe. The best known poet of the 18th century was Hryhory Skovoroda, often referred to as the “Ukrainian Socrates”. The Ukrainian dialect was greatly strengthened during, and after, the 18th century when Ukrainian began to overcome Russian as the language of literary choice. The 19th century brought about the Golden Age of Ukrainian literature with authors such as Ivan Kotlyarevski (Eneida), and Hryhory Kvitka Osnovyanenko. The romanticism was centered in Kharkiv during the 1830’s producing more ‘enjoyable’ works that were read by both the affluent and the poor alike. The trio of Shashkevich, Holovatsky, and vahylevich wrote the most notable works.
Taras Shevchenko, the greatest recognized poet of Ukrainian history, was the first to write of the Russian oppression of the Ukrainian serfs in poems such as Haidamaky, which eventually became national treasures.
Authors such as Marko Vovchok, and Ivan Nechuy-Levitski supported Ukrainian realism. Their works took a more somber role of looking at the aspects of their country around them, from the suffering of the serfdom to the Ukrainian intelligencia. Lesya Ukraina, who worked in prose, best defined Modernism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Authors such as Pavlo Tychyna, Mykhylo Symenko, and Mykola Bazhan produced the greatest works of their time during this period known as the ‘realism’. After this period, Ukrainian works became more and more oppressed by Soviet occupation, and would eventually end the trail of great Ukrainian works. Ukrainian art took shape in two very notable forms. In music, the bandura; and in visual arts, the pysanka, or, Ukrainian Easter egg. The bandura is an old instrument from the old days of the kozak armies. Banduristiv, as they were called, would roam from the different villages singing songs about the kozak battles, and sharing the rich history of the country at a time when travel was long and dangerous. The pysanka is a decorated egg that descended from pagan times as an offering of good will and religious gift between family and friends. The pysanky were found to be very superstitious, and played an active role in a persons life, be it as a blessing for good crops, or as an icon of protection over a families home.
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The pysanky are an art form that is unique to Ukraine because of their heritage, applications, and meanings in Ukrainian life. The most interesting aspect of pysanky is perhaps the method in which they are created. The method, known as ‘dye transfer’, involves applying thin layers of wax in intricate patterns by hand, and dipping the egg in a different color varnish between each layer of wax. The wax is laid down between layers of varnish to protect the colors in between. The wax on the finished egg is carefully removed showing upwards of a dozen or more layers of color that to this day remain as one of the most difficult art forms for an artist to master. In modern day America, the Ukrainian community is alive and well. With youth groups such as CYM (pronounced Sum), and Plast, traditions are being passed on through Ukrainian families in order to keep Ukrainian cultural traditions alive. Every Saturday many teenagers attend Ukrainian School in order to learn about the finer details and traditions that make the Ukrainian culture such a unique and varied culture.