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The word ukraina means "borderland," and indeed for centuries the country was a border province of great empires. Its history has been a constant struggle for independence and freedom.

So, what is this country in the geographical center of Europe like? Bordered by Russia in the east and northeast, Belarus in the north; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary in the west, and Romania and Moldova in the southwest, it is the second-largest European country in territory after Russia, with the fifth-largest population (approx. 47.5 million); 78 percent of the population are ethnic Ukrainians, 17 percent of the population are Russian, with other ethnic minorities, mainly from the bordering countries, making up the remaining 5 percent.

Ukraine is blessed with some of the best soil in the world, with the fertile chernozem ("black earth") found in most of the countrys central belt. Ukraines moderate continental climate, with its four distinct seasons, annual snowfall, and adequate precipitation in the summer, is conducive to agriculture, a traditional occupation of Ukrainians. A traveler arriving from western Europe, however, will f ind Ukrainian winters more severe. Kyivs average temperature in January is only +71°F (-6°C). although the typical reading in July is, at +66°F (+19°C), the same as in Germany or Great Britain. Yet, a tourist can always escape southward to the Crimea, where the gentle Mediterranean climate, warm sea, and picturesque mountains provide an ideal vacation destination.

The Carpathian Mountains and alpine meadows in the west descend to the rolling hills of Podillya, and to the thick forest of Polissya further east. The steppes stretch all the way south, to the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where the Crimean Peninsula enjoys a Mediterranean climate. This may sound like a perfect, guidebook description of a Fairy-tale drive-through vacation, but add biting cold with heavy snowfalls in winter, reckless driving on bad roads, and the infrastructure, which is only discovering the meaning of the word.

When you travel to Ukraine, you enter a country full of paradoxes. Ukrainians are proud of their roots, and reticent about their recent past, the country participates in international space programs and produces the world`s largest aircraft, but still lives in a universe of superstitions. The Ukrainian way of life is a bizarre mix of the old Soviet legacy, centuries-old customs, and the search for a new European identity.

The independent state of Ukraine is seventeen years old, and, as a teenager, is discovering its personality in a turbulent way. The first years of independence saw the euphoria of freedom replaced by rampant inflation, poverty, and crime. Corruption became widespread, and frequently changing governments led to political uncertainty. The country managed to survive severe economic crisis, gradually turning into one of Europe`s most vibrant economies, with economic growth increasing by one-third in the last four years.

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