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Is It Ukraine or The Ukraine?

 



If you were paying attention to international affairs before the year 1991, you might have noticed that the name of the former Soviet Socialist Republic of the Ukraine, often referred to as “the Ukraine,” started to be referred to simply as “Ukraine” since then.  The definite article the was dropped from the name at the time, just like it appeared on the map for Hasbro’s Risk board game.  But why did it go?  And why was it there in the first place?  For that matter, why are many media outlets referring to the nation’s capital as Kyiv recently instead of Kiev, which has been the English name for the city for centuries?


Hasbro Risk board.  Ukraine is even bigger than the Kievan Rus’ ever was!  Note: no article.


Let’s start with the name of the country.  For years in English, the place was referred to as The Ukraine, whether it was under Russian domination, Soviet domination, or independent.  This is not exactly a direct translation out of Ukrainian or Russian.  It can’t be, since the Russian and Ukrainian languages, like most Slavic languages, have no articles.  (There are three articles in English: a, an, and the, and we get a lot of use out of them.)  Russians and Ukrainians have never said “The Ukraine” in their languages because it’s never been possible to.  Yet today, Ukrainian diplomats and other officials insist that in English, we drop the article.  Most English-language media outlets comply with this.


A 2012 explanation by Oksana Kyzyma at the Ukrainian Embassy of London states that “‘The Ukraine’ is incorrect both grammatically and politically” and that “‘Ukraine’ is both the conventional short and long name of the country.”  She may or may not be correct about this being a question of grammar, but it certainly is a question of politics.


To understand why this is a sore spot for Ukrainians, you need to look at the history of the country and of the name.  Modern Ukraine used to be part of a federation called Kievan Rus’, a political confederation that stretched from Ukraine northward into modern Belarus, Russia, and Finland.  The name probably comes from an Old Norse word meaning “the men who row,” since rowing was the primary way that traveling was done in the region, which has many navigable rivers.  The Kievan Rus’ was founded in 879 CE, and its capital was moved to the city of Kiev in 882, which is where the confederation gets its name.  This confederation held together until 1240, due in part to the economic and political decline of its main trading partner, the Byzantine Empire, and then a death blow struck by the invading Mongol Empire led by Genghis Khan, who razed Kiev.  As Mongol power in the region subsided, the Kievan Rus’ did not reform, and was replaced by several smaller states: Russia, Belarus, and Finland.


The Kievan Rus’ and its boundaries during its heyday.  The Byzantine Empire (aka the Eastern Roman Empire) was its primary trading partner.  Byzantine missionaries also brought Eastern Christianity and literacy to the Kievan Rus’.  Map courtesy of SmartHistory.org.


Ukraine was not replaced so much as it was taken over by a new power: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was a major force in central and eastern Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries.  Parts of northern Ukraine were taken over by the Commonwealth, with much of it being colonized by Polish settlers, driving out Ukrainian natives.


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its height in 1619, with modern borders in red.

  1. Pink: Kingdom of Poland

  2. Duchy of Prussia (Polish fief)

  3. Grand Duchy of Lithuania

  4. Livonia

  5. Duchy of Courland (Livonian fief)


During all this time, Ukrainian territory was fought over by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, the Cossacks, the Ottoman Empire, and the Crimean Khanate, a powerful state in Crimea that was formed by the Mongol invaders and survived for several centuries afterward.  This culminated in a devastating war referred to at “The Ruin,” which dragged on from 1657 to 1686, in which all those nations fought over Ukrainian territory.  Simply put, the outcome of The Ruin saw Russia and the Cossacks ascendent, while Poland and Lithuania began to decline in the region.  Over the following century Russia solidified its control over the Ukraine [sic], while continuing to grab Polish and Lithuanian territory.  By 1795, Ukraine, Lithuania, and roughly a third of Poland were under Russian domination.  (Poland was no longer an independent state at all, with the rest of the country in the possession of Prussia and Austria.)


Ukraine, unfortunately, was in the middle of all this.  The name of Ukraine comes from the Polish or Russian word for “borderland.”  This makes sense since Ukraine was on the borderland of both countries’ political ambitions.  English-speaking observers of the time clearly noticed this, which is why the nation’s name was translated into English as “The Ukraine”: “the borderlands.”


The Crimean Khanate circa 1600.  Modern Ukraine had quite a few borders running through it at the time--thus a genuine “borderland”.  (Map by Oleksa Haiworonski, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)


Ukrainians retained an identity following this, one that’s distinct from the other nations descended from the Kievan Rus’.  Two modern nations--Russia and Belarus--get their names from the Kievan Rus’, which they see as their cultural ancestor.  Of course, though Ukraine doesn’t get its name from the Rus’ part, it still sees the Kievan Rus’ as its cultural ancestor, too.  The major political power in the region gravitated to Moscow after The Ruin, but the city of Kiev was built back and became the capital of The Ukr… er, Ukraine.


Following the Russian Revolution, which ousted the Tsar and gave birth to the Soviet Union, Ukraine entered into civil war and spent four years, from 1918 to 1922, attempting different governments, fighting invasions from Russia and Poland, and eventually agreeing to be one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union.  Ukraine remained under Soviet control until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when it declared its independence, and was a borderland no more.


Ukraine today, February 19, 2022.  The Russian annexation of Crimea is not recognized by the United Nations or by most nations of the world.  Only eleven nations recognize it, and Ukraine is not one of them.  (Map from the Washington Post, January 21, 2022.)


In sum, what this means is that referring to Ukraine as “The Ukraine” refers to the Soviet years and the centuries before, when it was under foreign domination of one kind or another.  This is why “The Ukraine” is insulting to modern Ukrainians, and why they ask we English speakers to break the habit of referring to the country with the definite article.


This is also why Ukraine has insisted to media outlets to refer to the capital of the country as Kyiv, not Kiev.  Both names obviously have the same root, and Kiev is the Russian term.  Ukraine, not wanting to be seen as an extension of Russia, prefers that foreign media use Kyiv, the Ukrainian name for the city.  Over the past decade, referring to the country without the article has become more common in English-language media, and over the past few years, Kyiv has become the preferred term (though speaking for myself, it’s difficult to break the habit of saying Kiev.  But if I can break the habit of saying The Ukraine, I can get used to saying Kyiv in English).  In American media, there doesn’t seem yet to be agreement on how to pronounce it--both “KEEV” and “KEE-yiv” are common--but English-language media got the memo.


 

Ukrainian

English transcription

Russian

English transcription

 

 

Київ 

Kyiv

Киев

Kiev

 



Ukraine isn’t the only place name in English to have once carried an article, and some still do.  For various reasons, the nations of Sudan, Congo, Netherlands, Gambia, Yemen, Philippines, Seychelles, Bahamas, and Lebanon also started out being preceded by “the”, as well as Yukon Territory in Canada and Hejaz in Saudi Arabia.  Officially most media outlets have dropped the article for some of these countries, and state departments have done the same.  Including an article in a geographic name is not necessarily offensive, and the reasons one might appear vary.  One consistent factor is that names seem to get articles added to them if they were significant places that were not independent states at the time when English-speaking people started to have major interactions with them.  This also happens in German, where the name of the country is “die Ukraine,” and German media don’t seem to be inclined to change it.  German also includes the article in the names of Turkey and Switzerland (die Türkei, die Schweiz), which is something English has never done.  


Sometimes an article is called for in the official names of countries, which tend to be more descriptive.  Nations like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Mexican States require it, to name just a few.  Unlike what has been traditionally done with Ukraine, the shorter forms of these nations--America, Britain, Iran, China, and Mexico--don’t retain the article.


The significance of articles is not universal, by any means.  Not only is it true in a lot of languages (like Ukrainian) that the article does not exist, some languages use articles a lot more frequently than English.  In French, for example, every country has a gender and is referred to with that article most of the time.  It’s unlikely that Ukrainian diplomats would take offense to French officials saying “l’Ukraine.”  It will be interesting to see if German-language media ever heads in the same direction as their anglophone counterparts.



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