Why Ukrainians Hate When You Say 'The Ukraine'

ukraine
A woman dressed in traditional Ukrainian clothing vyshyvanka holds a national flag as she takes part in "March in vyshyvankas" in Kiev, Ukraine, May 24. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

On Tuesday evening, two Republican presidential candidate hopefuls accidentally enraged Ukrainian Americans with a single word: "the." John Kasich and Donald Trump referred to Ukraine as "the Ukraine," a common but unfortunate mistake. Lindsey Graham made the same blunder at the third GOP debate. 

Adding "the" before Ukraine is actually a throwback to Communism. Prior to the fall of the USSR, Ukraine was known as "The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic." In 1991, the USSR fell, splitting Ukraine from Russia and permanently cutting off that pesky "the."

Because of the article's association with the Soviet Union, Ukrainians are particularly sensitive about it. "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians probably decided that the article denigrated their country [by identifying it as a part of Russia] and abolished 'the' while speaking English, so now it is simply Ukraine," explained Oksana Kyzyma, press secretary for the Ukrainian Embassy in the United Kingdom. "That's why 'the' Ukraine suddenly lost its article in the last 20 years, it's a sort of linguistic independence in Europe, it's hugely symbolic."

If the emotional history of "the" Ukraine is not enough, take it from the CIA World Factbook, which identifies Ukraine as such, article-free.

Had the Republican candidates realized their accidental association with Communism, they likely would have corrected themselves to say "Ukraine."