AS a nation, Ukraine is a paradox. Historically, it is an ancient land, the first organized state of the eastern Slavs, the birthplace of the culture and people known as Rus. Politically, the Ukrainian nation is a neophyte, its two brief periods of existence as an independent state amounting to little more than five years in the last three centuries.
The current borders of independent Ukraine, defined by the Soviet state that collapsed at the end of 1991, embrace the rich but confusing history of this part of Europe. To the east are industrial lands that have looked to Russia for their livelihood and culture. To the south is Crimea, a peninsula where the Russian and Ottoman Empires battled for supremacy for centuries.
In the center, on the banks of the broad Dnieper River that bisects the country, sits Kiev, the first capital of ancient Rus. Its magnificent cathedrals hark back to the great Byzantine civilization that brought Christianity to the eastern Slavs.
To the west are vast lands that, despite the incursions of the Russian Empire, remained largely under Polish rule until the outbreak of World War II. The three western provinces of Galicia, long under Polish rule, also formed the outer rim of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than a century.
In a recent trip by car across a wide sweep of this land, from Kiev in the center to Lvov in the west, this reporter stopped to talk to Ukrainians along the way. I found a nation and a people still struggling to find their identity, reaching often profoundly different conclusions in that quest. ZHITOMIR: The priest
AS one heads west on Route 19, the apartment blocs of the Kiev suburbs quickly disappear, replaced by rolling, muddy fields, dotted with pools of melted snow. Neat Ukrainian villages of brick houses surrounded by wooden fences punctuate the long stretches of empty road. Collective-farm workers in padded green jackets and fur hats drive horse-drawn carts piled high with hay alongside the tarmac.
The city of Zhitomir is a quiet, pleasant provincial capital. At the city center, on Lenin Square, the book store ``The Propagandist'' still stands as a reminder of the days of Soviet communism not long gone.
But nearby, the tall, yellow onion domes of the Transfiguration Cathedral testify to the renaissance of an older, more enduring faith. Inside, the high multiple domes are covered with elaborate frescoes of angels floating on a pale blue sky. Scenes of the life of Christ Jesus decorate the arches that define the cathedral's nave.
On a weekday morning, a crowd of mostly older women, their heads tightly bound in flowered kerchiefs, bow and cross themselves as a choir, hidden in a corner, sings out the psalms.
Father Partheniy, a young Russian Orthodox priest who was born here and has served eight years in Zhitomir, stands in a corner, clad in long black robes, his uncut beard reaching down to his chest.
Fr. Partheniy recounts how the cathedral, built in 1874, was turned into a fish warehouse after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It was restored as a church after World War II, but its frescoes, originally drawn by the finest artists of Moscow and St. Petersburg, were restored only recently.
``There was a stereotype in the West that there remained no believers in Russia, that everything was suppressed by communism,'' the young priest continues, embarking on a long monologue, part religion, part politics, delivered with an intensity that matches his deep blue eyes. ``On the surface it looked like that, with red flags and stars all around, but in reality people cherished their faith. Today is a workday, and nevertheless there are people here. On holidays our church is full.... If faith exists, no concentration camp can destroy it.''
But Fr. Partheniy's ``faith'' is not only in God but in the brotherhood of a united Slavic people. For him, the foe is no longer the Communist devil but ``Western democracy,'' which has promoted the division of Ukraine from its Russian brothers. Underlying it all is a dark vision, presented matter-of-factly, of an ongoing war between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom: ``It seems to me that Yugoslavia is a testing ground where the West is elaborating different political scenarios. The scenarios worked out in Yugoslavia are now being implemented here. Because Serbs and Rus are Slavs, with a common language and common religion, Western methods will be the same here....
``The division between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine is artificial. It is subversion against a single people. But there is a prophecy of the ancient saints that Rus will all unite. And it will be united by Russian Orthodoxy.... There is a Masonic principle of `divide and conquer,' and it is being implemented here. People are being divided into religious confessions - Baptists, Protestants, Adventists, Catholics - to prevent the unity of the Orthodox Church that is standing in the West's way.
``And those who speak in support of Orthodoxy are being labeled chauvinists and even anti-Semites and nationalists. In Israel Jews can be Jews, and in Germany, Germans can be Germans. But Russians are supposed to forget they are Russians and just be citizens of a sovereign state. What state, we'll soon forget as well.'' NOVOGRAD VOLYNSKY: The army officer
THIS is the last major town before one enters the northwestern province of Rivno. Here, as recounted in Isaac Babel's powerful collection of stories, ``The Red Cavalry,'' the armies of Poland and revolutionary Soviet Russia fought in 1920, until the Poles finally drove the Soviets out.
But the Red Army returned in 1939, the product of the unsavory Molotov-Ribbentrop pact - named for Stalin's and Hitler's foreign ministers - that divided poor Poland, again, between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
The town is still dominated by the sprawling grounds of an armored division, once part of the western ramparts of the Red Army's defense lines. But the red star is gone from the fur hats and forage caps of the soldiers and officers, replaced by a yellow trident set on a blue background, the symbol of an independent Ukraine.
In a grocery store near the base, two Bulgarian construction workers sip sodas, taking a break from their work building housing for officers withdrawing from East Germany.
The project is financed and run by a German government eager to ease the departure of the once-mighty Red Army that occupied what is now a reunified Germany.
Volodya - he refuses to give his last name - is a 23-year-old senior lieutenant in the tank division, the proud 1992 graduate of a military academy. He is happy to serve in what is now the Army of independent Ukraine.
``It is better because it is an almost purely Ukrainian army,'' says the tall young man, his fair hair cut close in military style. ``There are no nationalist prejudices in the ranks now,'' he says.
But Volodya worries about the economic ruin that has come to Ukraine, and like many here he blames it in part on the ruptures among the nations that once made up the Soviet Empire.
``When the Soviet Union collapsed, I said to myself, `Europe is integrating and we are going to pieces,' '' Volodya says, standing in front of racks of the giant-sized glass jars of murky fruit juice and pickles that still fill grocery stores from Brest all the way to Vladivostok.
``It should not be like this. An economic union should exist. I don't know whether it will be a union of nations, but I'm pretty sure it will be an economic union.'' PTYCHA: The farmer
PAST Rivno, the capital of the neighboring province, the countryside takes on a more recognizably Western feel. The flat land becomes more hilly, with patches of mixed birch and fir trees on the crowns of the hillocks. The structure of an old Roman Catholic church stands out in Dubno, spread out in a shallow valley, serving notice of the faith that dominates in this part of Ukraine.
The villages are composed of well-kept private homes, their stucco walls etched with geometric designs. A pair of swans fills the space between two windows on one roadside home.
In the village of Ptycha we stop by the home of Stepan Pisotsky, who is out in the yard, tending his chickens. Cautious, he asks the strangers claiming to be foreign journalists, the first ever in this village, for their ``documents.'' Satisfied, he invites us into his home for what turns into an afternoon of talk, food, and drink, typical of the hospitality of the Ukrainian countryside.
Stepan lives here with his wife, a thin woman, her hair tied tightly in a kerchief, her parents, and his daughter, a cheery schoolgirl in a frilled skirt and purple sweater. They leave us alone in the family room, which has a television in the corner, cabinets along the wall, covered stuffed chairs, and a table with chairs. On the wall hangs an icon of Christ Jesus, draped with an embroidered cloth, as is traditional in Ukraine.
The dark-haired 35-year-old graduate of an agricultural institute is the agronomist of the Shevchenko Collective Farm, an ``agro-industrial complex,'' in the old Soviet terminology, encompassing 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres), nine villages, and around 1,500 people, about 800 of whom are working and the rest retired. Since independence, about 2,000 hectares have been turned over to the collective farmers in the form of large private plots, so they can grow their own grain and vegetables and raise their own livestock.
Stepan, speaking in Ukrainian with the soft, accented endings of the formerly Polish west, explains that ``on one hand it is bad now, because the state does not support us anymore, but on the other hand they do not demand a lot, as they did in the past.'' The collective farm manages, and people live off their private plots, selling produce to the state or in the market.
Collectivization did not take place here until the mid-1940s and early '50s, because this part of Ukraine was part of Poland until 1939. People here escaped the famine caused by forced collectivization that killed millions of Ukrainians. ``My grandmother told me stories from the 1930s, when refugees from eastern Ukraine came here because they didn't have anything to eat,'' he recalls.
But they are moving slowly here to privatize the land, the agronomist explains, worrying that if they divide it all, the farms will be tiny and there will not be enough equipment to go around. Still, now they are torn between work on the private plots and their jobs on the collective farm, Stepan tell us.
Stepan and his father-in-law are assiduous viewers of television news, and Stepan proves an astute and articulate student of current events. ``It is interesting to live now,'' he says. ``In the past it was impossible to go abroad. I have gone once to Poland. Now we have some standards to compare our lives to.''
Soon our talk turns to Ukraine and its future. In this part of the country, there are no doubts about independence, Stepan insists. ``On the contrary, we are strongly for independence. We have certain questions to ask our leadership about our relations with Russia, though. I don't understand how they can put up with Russian claims to the Black Sea Fleet - it is ours - or how Russia can demand half our gas industry.''
Are you afraid, we ask, that Russia will once again assert its control over Ukraine, perhaps to demand the annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine? ``Everything depends on you, on the United States and on Europe,'' he retorts in a soft but confident voice.
``I was very satisfied with the tripartite agreement signed between [Ukrainian president Leonid] Kravchuk, [President] Clinton, and the Russians, and with the security guarantee given by the US to Ukraine,'' he says, referring to the January document in which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
But Stepan worries whether the Americans will ``keep their word'' and back it up with political and economic support for Ukraine. He foresees another Munich betrayal by the West.
``Hitler demanded Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia was divided. The US should learn from history, and this should not be repeated here. As soon as the US said the Baltics are not part of the Russian zone of influence, Russia stopped making demands on their territory.''
We move to the dinner table, now spread with homegrown produce, plates of pickled vegetables, sausage, ham, fried meat, and potatoes. Stepan raises his glass in a first toast: ``To Ukraine!'' OLESKO: The violin teacher
A STONE castle atop a hill dominates the little town of Olesko in the westernmost Ukrainian province of Lvov. The castle, first built in the 13th century, was inhabited by a chain of Polish nobles who ruled over the peasants in the lands below. Today it houses a picture gallery filled with portraits of Polish noblemen and their families.
As evening falls, down the road from the castle the lights are still on in the single-story building housing Olesko's music school. Children emerge, instrument cases in hand. The sounds of a violin, working its way slowly through scales and exercises, fills the air.
Olga Antonovna Mala, dark hair down to her shoulders, dressed in a blue sweater and plaid skirt, tells us she has been teaching the children of this village of 2,000 people for some 15 years. But times are tough now in independent Ukraine - there is no money for culture these days, she says. The school is short of instruments and the teachers' pay is meager.
But spirits here are undaunted. ``We hope that the situation will improve and reforms will come,'' she says, to the assenting nods of Hannah Savchuk, the mother of an accordion student, who joins us in the hallway. ``The most important thing is now we have an independent Ukraine. We pin our hopes on that.''
``Of course,'' she admits, ``at this moment Ukraine cannot stand on its own feet. In the past, everything was controlled by Moscow. But Ukraine is a great country, not like Bulgaria or Yugoslavia, but like Britain or France. It can support itself. We have a hard-working people.''
In this part of Ukraine, there are people who were alive in the days of the Ukrainian Rebel Army, the guerrilla force led by Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera that fought both the invading Germans and the Red Army, the latter well into the early 1950s. Soviet propaganda portrayed these forces as fascists, as Nazi collaborators.
``In the past, the history of these organizations [that] we were taught was based on lies,'' the violin teacher says. ``Now we know they were fighting for an independent Ukraine.''
This small town boasts two churches: one Uniate, or Eastern Catholic; and one Eastern Orthodox, though it is loyal to the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church that has broken with the Moscow Patriarchate. The Uniate church reopened only in 1991 after being banned under Soviet rule, accused of collaboration with the Nazis, but also because of the demands of the Russian Orthodox Church. ``We had secret services in homes,'' Hanna recalls.
Olga Mala fears that the Russian fist will grip Ukraine again. ``We are afraid of [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky,'' she says, referring to the Russian extremist who gained huge support in last December's parliamentary election. ``He really says scary things.''
Would people here fight again, like Bandera, we ask. ``We would fight, but unfortunately the struggle wouldn't last long,'' she says with a serious face. ``Russia is a far mightier state and will break Ukrainian resistance and reestablish its control over us.''
But Olga recalls as well the history of their Olesko castle, which stood unconquered during the Tatar invasions. ``It was never captured,'' she says, her eyes gleaming as she tells the tale.