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How Victory for Nationalism in Kiev Alienated 'Civic Ukrainians' and Caused the Civil War

Cause of civil disorder and war in Ukraine: Russians in Ukraine along with Russian-speaking Ukrainians were happy to see themselves as 'civic Ukrainians' but could not sign under the political project of Ukrainian nation-building on an anti-Russian foundation

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Mikhail Pogrebinskiy is an Ukrainian scholar, since 1993 the director of Kiev Centre of Political Studies and Conflictology and adviser to Ukraine Prime Minister 1998-2000 and to the Head of Presidential Administration (2002).

Text bellow is excerpted from a new book: Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives. There are a total of 23 chapters and 25 contributors in the book. It is available for free download via a Creative Commons License here.

A longer excerpt from this chapter was first reproduced at New Cold

Russians in Ukraine do not represent such a distinctive national group as other large minorities in other countries. The thing is that both contemporary Russians and Ukrainians (at least, inhabitants of the lands of the former Russian Empire, that is the majority of contemporary Ukraine) originate from the people of common (All-Russian, ‘Orthodox’) identity, where the differences between Great Russians (‘Russians’) and Little Russians (‘Ukrainians’) were rather of regional or sub-ethnic nature.

I think that it would be more correct to consider Russians, alongside Ukrainians, to be a state-constituting nation of Ukraine within its 2013 borders, and not a national minority. It is worth noting that almost half of ethnic Ukrainians prefer to speak Russian in private life.

In order to provide an adequate description of the ethnic structure of the population of Ukraine, Ukrainian sociologist Valeriy Khmelko introduced the concept of ‘bi-ethnors’, i.e. people with ‘double’ Ukrainian-Russian identity (Khmelko, 2004). Representative surveys of the population of Ukraine carried out during the last 20 years are summarised in this table:

Surveys of ehtnic status of Ukrainians, 1994-2014

Surveys of ethnic status of Ukrainians, 1994-2014

As can be seen from the table, the share of mono-ethnic Ukrainians has increased by 10%, compared to the first survey, and the proportion of bi-ethnors has decreased, similarly to the number of mono-ethnical Russians, which is down by almost 30%.

2014 numbers are quite predictable due to the loss of Crimea, where the population is mostly Russian. Since Ukrainian civil identity has been shaped not only by ethnic Ukrainians, it is important to ask what has played a decisive role in the formation of Ukrainian civil identity.

As Ukrainian researcher Aleksey Popov argues, it was the creation of the USSR with the quasi-statehood of its union republics. In the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Russian-speaking population started to identify themselves with Ukraine (Ukrainian SSR) – ‘we live in Ukraine, so we are Ukrainian citizens, “Ukrainians.”‘

It was particularly facilitated by the linguistic proximity of the Russian and Ukrainian languages, and had led to the fact that despite mixed population (Russian and Ukrainian speaking), there was no division into national communities, as was the case in the Baltic republics, in Transcaucasia, in Central Asia, and in the Russian autonomous republics of Caucasia.

Partly because of the total absence of any conflicts between Russians and Ukrainians on the domestic level, the establishment of an independent Ukraine in 1991 was achieved practically seamlessly.

However, that lack of manifestation of the Russian element in Ukraine had its limits. Many Russians, and Ukrainians who identify with Russian culture and language, voted for Ukrainian independence from Russia, but did not support Ukraine’s exit from Russia’s sphere in favor of Western Europe.

Similarly, support for independence did not mean support for a gradual ousting of Russian language – a tendency that at the time was only of a declarative sort. Moreover, the citizens clearly did not foresee that dramatic decline in the living standards.

Russians and the Russian-speaking population above all have responded to the situation with a strong desire for closer ties with Russia and for the state status of Russian language, which found its expression during the presidential election of 1994.

Ever since, practically every election has registered the splitting of the country into two Ukraines: the absolute majority of the Russian speaking population voted for one presidential candidate, and the absolute majority of the Ukrainian-speaking population for their opponent.

At the same time, the Russian element in Ukraine does not represent a unified force. Russians do not have an influential party of their own, although the presence of such ethnic parties is an integral feature of other European countries.

Belgium, for instance, is divided into parties by ethnic markers (Flemish and Walloon); Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia; Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro; Swedes in Finland; the peoples of Spain (the Basques, the Catalonians, the Galicians, etc.) – all of them have their own parliamentary parties.

Therefore, one can often unmistakably count how many votes a national party would get – for the noted Hungarians, Swedes, and Albanians, that number corresponds to their share in the total number of voters in their country.

In Spain or, for example, in Great Britain, with its Scottish and Welsh nationalists, such results fluctuate noticeably, thus apparently reflecting ethnic proximity as well.

In Ukraine, however, there have only been substitutes for Russian parties – such as the Communist Party (CPU) or the Party of Regions (PoR). Some of them, such as the CPU, reflected not so much the Russian but Soviet identity. Others – the PoR, tried to present themselves as representatives of industrial South-East, while forgetting their declarations after coming to power and ignoring the interests of their supporters.

The type of Ukrainian identity that has developed over years, and which has been shared by Russians and representatives of national minorities, can be referred to as a ‘civil identity’. Importantly, the Ukrainian ‘civil identity’ was not anti-Russian and it presupposed sympathies toward Russia and Russian culture, therefore it was acceptable for Russians in Ukraine. Importantly, the devotion to this identity has been shared until recently by the absolute majority of the citizens of our country.

However, along with ‘civil identity’, another identity type has played a significant role in the events of the end of 2013 and 2014, namely ‘political identity’. It presumes adherence to a certain assortment of political positions and it defines the community of people united by:

  • a) the Ukrainian language,
  • b) hatred for ‘colonial’ past in the USSR/ Russia,
  • c) memory of the 1932-1933 Holodomor seen as genocide of the Ukrainians, and
  • d) reverence for OUN-UPA nationalist guerrillas and ‘heroes of the nation’ like Bandera, Shukhevych, and others.

That is the community the third President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, used to call ‘my nation’. Those who do not share that assortment of predicates are not considered by the proponents of this identity to be ‘real Ukrainians’ and, according to them, should be re-educated.

This type of identity, until recently, was shared by an apparent minority of Ukrainian population, which, although constituting a majority in the West of the country and prevalent among some elite groups – people of letters, diplomats, etc. – still constituted less than 15% of the total population.

The reservation ‘until recently’ is important here, as I would argue that the events of 2014, the loss of Crimea, and the war in the South-East, have essentially changed the balance between the two types of identity in favour of the ‘political’ one, with a considerable part of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians now holding with it. However, it is difficult to say how large that group is exactly until corresponding research has been carried out.

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