Drained by the Dnieper, the Dniester, the Buh, and the Donets rivers, Ukraine consists largely of fertile steppes, extending from the Carpathians and the Volhynian-Podolian uplands in the west to the Donets Ridge in the southeast. The Dnieper divides the republic into right-bank and left-bank Ukraine. In the north and northwest of the country is the wooded area of the Pripyat Marshes, with gray podzol soil and numerous swamps; wooded steppes extend across central Ukraine; and a fertile, treeless, grassy, black-earth ( chernozem ) steppe covers the south. The continental climate of the republic is greatly modified by its proximity to the Black Sea.
Ethnic Ukrainians make up more than three fourths of the population; Russians constitute around 17%, and there are Belarusian, Moldovan, Polish, Jewish, and other minorities. More than half the population is urban. The official language is Ukrainian. Many speak Russian as a first or second language, especially in E Ukraine and the Crimea, and in 2012, in a contentious move, Russian was made an official regional language in Russian-speaking areas. The majority of those practicing a religious faith belong to a branch of Orthodox Christianity—either the Ukrainian (formerly Russian) Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Russian patriarch, or a rival independent Orthodox churches that are headed by Ukrainian patriarchs and have attracted Ukrainian nationalists. Separate from both is the smaller West Ukrainian Catholic Church (also known as the Uniate or Greek Catholic Church), which in 1596 established unity with Roman Catholicism but was forced by the Soviet government in 1946 to sever its ties with Rome; these ties were reestablished in 1991, and the church experienced a revival.