First of all, this comic is alternate history. It diverges from the real timeline in 1995, and it's set in (alternate) 1995 to 1996. I try to make it pretty reasonable and authentic, because I'm a nerd, but it's not actual history all the time. Just sayin'. It also predates the current civil war.
So where is this comic set?
Ukraine is a country stuck between Russia and Romania, which got its independence from the USSR in 1991. The Second Crimean War is set all over Ukraine, so you might as well get a feel for the layout of the country. Most of the country is incredibly fertile farmland called the Black Earth Belt (Yana was born in this area, on her family's privately owned part of a collective farm). The Carpathian Mountains are in the west, and the Crimea, where all this trouble started, is a beautiful, near-tropical peninsula extending south into the Black Sea. The capital, Kiyv (or "Kiev", as the Russians call it) is to the north, about midway between east and west, on the Dnieper (pronounced nee-per) river.
So who lives there?
Ukrainians, natch. But not all of them are ethnic Ukrainians. You have a few Tatars (their ethnic homeland is in the Crimea) like Bekir, and some Jews, but the a large minority of the Ukrainian people are ethnic Russians, especially in the Russified and more industrial east. The vast majority of Ukrainians (of any ethnicity) speak Russian. It's almost a bilingual country. In spite of this diversity, it's not like a lot of sub-Saharan African countries -- Ukrainians tend to see themselves as citizens of Ukraine, not as members of warring ethnic factions. [Edited to add: this is unfortunately no longer true, after a coup with both moderate and ultranationalist elements in 2014 kicked off a civil war divided mostly along ethnic lines.] (For example, Iaroslav's father is an ethnic Russian from St. Petersburg who moved to Kiyv, married an ethnic Ukrainian girl, and eventually got so integrated into Ukrainian culture that he started putting himself down as an ethnic Ukrainian on the census. That really did happen, pretty often.)
The west of Ukraine is more rural and more strongly culturally Ukrainian. Yana, Bohdan, and Anastasiya are from there, and so is Iaroslav's mother. There is a very distinctive culture living in the west, in the Carpathian mountains, known as the Hutsuls -- Yana is Hutsul on her mother's side. They have a reputation like most mountain people all over the world -- independent, insular, heavily armed, rural and poor, but hospitable. For my American readers, they're basically Ukrainian hillbillies. As the fantastic blog Hornica puts it, "the Ukrainian media adore Hutsuls as some kind of pure distilled Ukrainian." So they get some hype ... which Bohdan wouldn't mind capitalizing on. (Not all of western Ukraine was part of the USSR when Stalin was engineering famines that killed millions and generally trying to snuff out Ukrainian culture and identity, too.)
Why do Bohdan's troops wear little sabre-shaped pins on their hats?
Cossacks, man. It's all about the Cossacks. They were a bunch of (at least this is their image) wild, free horsemen who lived out on the plains and drank and fought and did awesome trick riding and voted on their decisions in a council and didn't take any guff from anybody. Of course, the real world is more complicated and murkier than that, but Cossacks are an important Ukrainian symbol, like America's tough-guy frontier horsemen, the cowboys of the old west. Ukraine is even called "the Cossack Nation" in their national anthem.
One thing the Cossacks are famous for is fighting the Crimean Tatar raiders, who took Ukrainian slaves to sell in the Ottoman Empire. Bohdan and his men see themselves as modern-day Cossack warriors, fighting off Tatars and foreign incursions. For what it's worth, though, Bekir's people are coming back from a fifty-year Stalinist exile, and in the real timeline, there was next to no violence. The Slavic inhabitants of the Crimea tended to welcome the Tatars, since their return was a peaceful one. [Edited to add: this is also no longer true -- there have been attacks on Tatars since the civil war and anexation.]
Another thing the Cossacks are known for Bodan Khmelnytsky, who led an uprising in the mid-1600s against the Polish-Lithuanian
So what's with this "Spetsnaz" Iaroslav kept dreaming about?
The Spetsnaz was the military arm of the KGB -- essentially the Soviet Special Forces. There's a reason it's unwise to pick fights with Iaroslav, especially since he fought in the Soviet-Afghan war, which was more or less the USSR's Vietnam war.
So what about all that other random Ukrainian stuff?
Ok, random stuff --
-Anastasiya's hairstyle, with a braid coiled over the top of her head: This is a traditional Ukrainian peasant hairstyle. It doesn't mean you're an ultranationalist, but it's very much a deliberately Ukrainian look. See it here, modeled by the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
-Iaroslav wearing a striped t-shirt in his dream: That was the uniform t-shirt for the Soviet army. If you look closely, in one panel you can see his Spetsnaz dogtags, too.
-Bekir and his brothers drinking: Muslims from southern Russia and Ukraine will sometimes be ok with vodka. *fun with loopholes*
-Yana's family going to Canada: Canada has a big Ukrainian population, and there would probably be some kind of safety net for them from Ukrainian organizations.
Books I've used for research
Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Sheets
It's general stuff about the collapse of the USSR and what happened after -- a series of anecdotes about various newly independent countries by an NPR guy and war correspondent, who's really plugged into Russia. Good, quick read.
The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev by Daniel Treisman
Very well-written, in-depth look at Russia from, well, Gorbachev to Medvedev. :P The section on Chechnya gave me some good ideas about how a government would react to an unstable zone within their borders, and he also had a neat section speculating about what violence and instability in Ukraine would do. (And he basically summarized where this comic is going -- Mwhahaha! -- so if you read it carefully, it's got spoilers.)
Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union by Roman Szporluk
Pretty self-explanatory, no? Scholarly, easy read, and a regular gold mine for this comic.
Ukraine: A History by Orest Subtelny and A History of Ukraine by Paul Robert Magocsi are both pretty awesome overviews.
So, you made it to the end of the page? I'm impressed. Good for you. ;)