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January 30, 2014

9 questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — 5. This is getting complicated. Can we take a music break?

Great idea. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folk and popular music, including one of their many classical greats, Mykola Lysenko. A Ukrainian nationalist, and by his death in 1912 a major star, Lysenko loved to incorporate Ukrainian folk melodies into his compositions - for example, his simple but beautiful Second Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano, performed by his now-deceased granddaughter Rada Lysenko.

Lysenko's life, more than a century ago, charted many of the same issues driving today's crisis. Ukraine was then a part of Imperial Russia, which pushed composers and musicians to use only the Russian language. Lysenko refused, composing two operas in Ukrainian, which he refused to translate into Russian, even though this meant they could never be performed in Moscow. Because an 1876 Tsarist decree banned the use of Ukrainian in print, Lysenko had to have his scores printed in secret abroad. He died a hero to Ukrainians, his music cherished by contemporaries like Pyotr Tchaikovsky, but recordings are criminally difficult to find today.

6. So I get that Russia used to rule Ukraine, but it doesn't anymore. Why do I hear so much about its role in all this?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been highly aggressive in pushing Ukraine to reject the European Union and, he hopes, instead join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union, which consists of a few other former Soviet states. That included threatening to impose economic sanctions on Ukraine. In 2004 and 2006, when the pro-Western Yushchenko was in power, Russia shut off natural gas exports to Ukraine over political disputes, doing serious damage to the economy.

But if Putin taketh away, he also giveth. A few weeks after Yanukovych rejected the EU deal, Putin offered Ukraine a stimulus package worth $15 billion and a 33 percent price cut for Russian natural gas. That will make it much tougher for Yanukovych to walk away from Putin's embrace, particularly given how much of the popular discontent is driven by the poor economy.

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