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Where Russia meets the West

Ukraine's politics, economics and culture fall along an east-west divide.

Rinat Akhmetov, left, president of soccer team Shakhtar Donetsk, hands a team jersey to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during a reception to honor the team at the Ukrainian leader's office in Kiev May 26, 2009. (Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Though it often appears that more divides this expansive Slavic nation than unites it, an orange-hued wave of jubilation temporarily washed away all differences last week, as a Ukrainian club called the “Miners” ascended the heights of European soccer for the first time.

Shakhtar Donetsk, as the team is officially known, and which is owned by steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, defeated German side Werner Bremen to seize the UEFA Cup, Europe's second most prized club trophy, in front of a crowd 55,000 in Istanbul — including many wearing the team’s trademark orange jersey.

In Kiev, which can sometimes feel politically and culturally a million miles from Shakhtar’s home base in the industrial east, the euphoria was overwhelming and sincere. When midfielder Jadson, one of five Brazilians playing on the team, squeezed a shot by Bremen’s goalkeeper in overtime, viewers in bars, restaurants and living rooms across the capital erupted in ecstasy.

“Ukraine!” they bellowed. It was the country's first in a major European club championship, and a matter of pan-national pride.

The joy, however, was just a temporary respite from a division in this land of 46 million that, though at times overstated, is nevertheless very real. And as the country struggles to extricate itself from its economic morass, and prepares for crucial presidential elections in January next year, the differences among the various regions will come to play an increasingly significant role.

Ukraine is a land with a surfeit of histories. In the south, Russian empress Catherine the Great wrested Crimea from a Tartar khanate in the late 18th century. It remained part of Russia’s administrative realm until Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev bequeathed the territory to Ukraine in the 1950s as a symbol of Slavic unity.

The western portion of the country belonged in recent times to the Austro-Hungarian empire and Poland, but was annexed to the Soviet Union after the second world war. There the Ukrainian language dominates, and Ukrainian ethnic identity runs strong.

In the east, however, the situation is reversed. Russia historically controlled this region, and the two far eastern provinces — Donetsk and Luhansk — are geographically part of the larger Don river basin, or Donbass, which bleeds into western Russia.