Monday, October 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Russians in Ukraine Re-identifying as Ukrainians

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 6 –More than three million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine have re-identified themselves as Ukrainians since 1991, nearly a thousand times the number of Ukrainians who may have dual citizenship in the Russian Federation, a ratio that appears to be increasing and is of increasing concern to Moscow.
On the one hand, this pattern suggests that ethnic Russians in Ukraine increasingly identify themselves with that country and its titular nation, an attitude that makes it more difficult for Moscow to play this ethnic card against Kyiv. And on the other, it points to the weakness of Russian ethnic identity more generally, something few Russian nationalists want to admit.
In an interview posted on Moscow’s at the end of last week, Nikolai Shul’ga, deputy director of the Kyiv Institute of Sociology and head of the Foundation for the Support of Russian Culture noted that the number of people in Ukraine identifying themselves as Russians fell from 11.3 million in 1989 to 8 million in 2001 (
Emigration explains only a few hundred thousand of that 3.3 million decline, he said. Most of it reflects “ethnic conformism,” a feeling on the part of many there that it is “more suitable” to declare oneself an ethnic Ukrainian, even if one speaks Russian and feels himself part of Russian culture.
Indeed, he continued, what is happening in Ukraine is a separation of language and national self-identification, with the number of Ukrainians who declared Russian to be their native language actually increased by more than a million between the 1989 Soviet and 2001Ukrainian censuses.
There are at least three reasons for this: First, some of the Russians who had re-identified as Ukrainians nonetheless declared Russian as their native language. Second, the two censuses asked questions about identity and language in a different order, with language first in the former and identity first in the second, an order that by itself may have contributed to this change.
And third – and this may be the most important finding for both Ukraine and the Russian Federation – the changes between the two censuses suggest that for many but far from all people in Ukraine, national identity and native language are not nearly as tightly linked as many have assumed in the past.
For Kyiv, this means that national identity in Ukraine is increasingly strong, with people retaining their Ukrainian national identity even if they continue or decide to begin to speak Russian, a pattern few Ukrainian nationalists find acceptable but one that points to the success rather than the failure of Ukrainian statehood.
And for Moscow, this pattern means that promoting Russian language in Ukraine as the Russian government and its allies continue to try to do – most recently by a new website directed at Russian speakers in Ukraine ( – may not have the identity or political consequences that the Russian government would like.
Asked whether he believed that the number in Ukraine of those who identify themselves as ethnic Russians will continue to fall, even if the use of Russian continues to be widespread, Shul’ga said that over the next several years “the number of Russians and Russian speakers will decline significantly.”
Meanwhile, another report last week calls attention to another aspect of the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian identity. Next year marks the centenary of completion of the tsarist program to resettle Ukrainians (and others) in the Russian Far East in order to strengthen the central Russian government’s control of that region (
The Ukrainians who were moved there called their place of settlement “zeleniy klin” [‘the green triangle”] and were able to maintain not only their language but even their identity well into the 20th century despite the efforts of the Soviet authorities to russianize and russify them.
The identity of this several hundred thousand-strong community played a key role in the defeat of the White Russian forces in the Far East during the Russian Civil War because the Whites unlike the Reds refused to promise to respect the right of the Ukrainian nation to self-determination.
Soviet researchers, émigré historians like Ivan Svit, and American scholars like John Stephan pointed out that many residents in the Far East retained their Ukrainian identity even when under pressure from the Soviet authorities they learned Russian and declared themselves to be ethnic Russians.
(In the mid-1980s, in a move few now recall, the United States broadcast to the region from Japan in Ukrainian, the only time in the history of US international broadcasting to the Soviet Union when the US broadcast to a region in a language different than the one the Soviet government declared was the language of the titular nationality.)
And in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, some in the Ukrainian parliament called for the recognition of the Zeleniy klin as Eastern Ukraine, a proposal that went nowhere but did call attention to the millions of people in the Russian Federation who continued to define themselves as Ukrainians even if they had to declare something else.
Now, this anniversary of the formation of the Green Triangle is likely to call the attention not only of many in Moscow and Kyiv but of analysts in the West that Ukrainian national identity is stronger than many have thought and that Russian national identity for many, except when supported by a strong state, may very well be weaker.

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