A century ago, imperial dreams were common among major nations of the world — Britain, France, Germany, Japan and even the United States all had them.

Most evaporated in the traumas of World War II and its aftermath. Yet the Soviet Union's multinational empire, subordinating peoples of more than a dozen distinct nationalities to ethnic Russian rule, lived on, until the Soviet collapse of 1991.

The jewel of that Soviet empire was Ukraine, a vast and abundant breadbasket inhabited by more than 40 million people, generating over 10% of the world's exports of feed grains. With formidable military-industrial capabilities that crucially supported Soviet global power, Ukraine was also home to the Soviet Union's largest port, Odessa. That ice-free harbor town and naval base also served as the Soviet Union's southern window on the Balkans, the Middle East and the wider world.