KIEV, UKRAINE -- The landslide vote for independence in the Ukraine transformed this republic of 52 million people from a Slavic "little brother" looking fearfully eastward toward Russia into a newly confident nation claiming its place in Europe and the non-Soviet world.
Only one month ago, Ukrainian leaders were far from confident that the referendum scheduled for last Sunday would approve independence. They were especially apprehensive that the eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, with their ethnic Russian majorities, would turn against independence, thus confirming Moscow's long-held contention that the Ukraine was less a nation than a collection of disparate regions, split by religion as well as ethnicity, that could never be held together.
Such a prediction may yet be proven correct. But Sunday's vote, in which independence won approval in every voting district while racking up 90 percent support overall, appeared to show that a national consciousness had emerged that does not depend entirely on ethnic Ukrainian identity.
That consciousness seemed rooted, above all, in a belief that Russia and the Soviet Union -- which many Ukrainians considered to be one and the same -- have exploited the Ukraine's agricultural and mineral wealth for decades or even centuries. Accordingly, many Ukrainians said they were convinced that the Ukraine without Russia can shed its Communist legacy and achieve prosperity and democracy much faster than the two chief Soviet republics can in alliance -- or, for that matter, much faster than Russia can alone.
And ethnic Russians, in many cases, seemed as persuaded as ethnic Ukrainians that they would be better off without being wedded to their giant neighbor to the east.
"There was amazing support from non-Ukrainians," said Bohdan Hawrylyshyn, an adviser to newly elected President Leonid Kravchuk. "You couldn't possibly have projected it. . . . It reflected everyone's sense of, 'We just want to take over our own destiny.' "
The referendum scored its most one-sided successes, as expected, in the western Ukraine, which was incorporated into the Soviet Union only in 1939 and where independence fervor has always been greatest. In Ternopol, for example, 98 percent of voters supported breaking away from the Soviet Union, according to official but not yet final results.
But in heavily Russian Donetsk, 80 percent of the voters also supported independence, and in the largely Russian Black Sea port of Odessa the figure was 86 percent. In the capital, Kiev, with sizable minorities of Jews and Russians, support for independence was greater than in western Ukraine's Lvov.
Even Soviet military units based in the Ukraine apparently decided they would be better off without their commanders in Moscow, all the more remarkable since all soldiers and sailors based in the republic were permitted to vote regardless of their home addresses. Ukrainian radio reported that in the Lvov region, for example, more than 80 percent of the troops voted for independence.
The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, with its own active independence movement, was least enthusiastic. But even there, independence attracted 56 percent.
Such votes reflected in part a careful, deliberate policy by the entire political elite -- ranging from the pro-independence Rukh movement to Kravchuk, a former Communist -- not to frighten the 11 million ethnic Russians who live in the Ukraine. The republic's defense minister and chief prosecutor are ethnic Russians; no presidential candidates demanded the official banning of the Russian language; and, in an interesting clue to how the government viewed its nationhood, Ukrainians living in Russia or elsewhere abroad were not permitted to vote.
But the success of that policy clearly rested on something more fundamental: a sense that a land as inherently wealthy as the Ukraine must have been cheated to end up so poor. In Kiev's Independence Square these days, smokers borrow each other's cigarettes to light up because matches are in such short supply. A Ukrainian host apologizes for the dimness of his living room, saying he cannot find light bulbs. Automobiles line up at unmanned gasoline pumps on a rumor that fuel might arrive during the day.
Said Sonya Otkidash, 57, "We think we should be masters in our own land."
Anna Solanyk, an ethnic Russian born in Georgia who heads a neighborhood election commission in Kiev, found curtains in the national colors of the independent Ukraine -- blue and yellow -- to hang on the voting booths Sunday. She blamed Moscow for the Chernobyl nuclear power accident, which she said claimed her husband's life. "Besides, every other republic will be free," she said. "Why not Ukraine?"
Hawrylyshyn, a longtime advocate of the renewal of the Ukrainian language, said he has been amazed how quickly it has resurfaced during the past two years after having been almost totally subjugated to Russian. Yet, he noted, on the evening after the referendum he strolled through the park behind Kiev's elegant czarist Mariinski Palace and passed maybe 30 people, "not a single one of them speaking Ukrainian."
"Now, it didn't bother me, having seen the vote," he said. "But it was a paradox."
Indeed, independence undoubtedly meant different things to its various supporters, with some favoring complete rupture and others hoping for little more than symbolic changes. Almost every official noted that the Ukraine, dependent on Russia for oil and tied to its economy at every level, will have to maintain close trade relations with Russia.
But many also expressed the hope that the Ukraine, shedding itself of the struggling Russian colossus, will be better able to align itself with Hungary and Poland and Czechoslovakia to the west, with Turkey across the Black Sea and with the West in general.
"Because of its size and resources and location, Ukraine is going to be important to Western Europe, even more important to Eastern Europe," said George Yurchyshyn, deputy governor of the National Bank of Ukraine. "Ukraine will become a significant crossroads."