Where does East Ukraine begin and West Ukraine end? Conversely, where does West Ukraine begin and East Ukraine end? These are not easy questions to answer primarily due to the existence of the Surzhyk-speaking Central Ukraine, which lies between East and West. Indeed, it is Central Ukraine that comprises the great “transition point” by which Lviv gradually merges into Luhansk and vice versa.
It is for this reason that simply drawing an arbitrary “dividing line” through Ukraine is exceedingly dangerous and problematic.
Nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in the mixed oblast of Kirovograd. Much of the area was part of the historic region of Zaporozhia, and later Novorossiya. At one time, a good portion of the oblast’s northern raioni comprised the region of Nova Serbia, a short-lived borderland march on the Polish frontier that was organized as a safe haven for Serbian, Romanian, and other Balkan refugees. The capital city, after which the oblast is named, was founded in the 18th century as “Yelisavetgrad” meaning “City of Elizabeth” after both the Russian Tsaritsa Elizabeth and her patron saint of the same name. Following the Russian Revolution, the city was renamed Zinovievsk after the Communist leader Grigoriy Zionviev. However, after the assassination of Sergey Kirov and the beginning of Zinoviev’s fall from grace with Stalin, the city assumed its present name in the 1930s. Since the Soviet collapse, there have been proposals to return the city to its Tsarist-era name or to give it a new name entirely, though no official steps have been made in this regard.
Elections between pro-Western and pro-Russian political candidates in this specific oblast have been especially close. Yuschenko and Tymoshenko both won here, but by close margins. In 1999, the oblast favored the Communist Petro Symonenko for President of Ukraine. In the 2014 presidential election, the majority of the oblast’s raioni registered low voter turnout, with only the capital city and the westernmost raioni near Poroshenko’s native oblast of Vinnitsya registering high voter turnouts. Linguistically, the Kirovograd oblast is inhabited by both Russian and Surzhyk speakers who frequently intermarry and mix socially with one another. In terms of classification, Kirovograd can be best described as “mezhdu” (между) in Russian or “mizh” (між) in Ukrainian — that is, an area somewhere in-between.
Defining this as a region either as part of the Russophone oblasti or outside of them is thus very problematic. In fact, conflicting maps in this regard have already emerged. Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian nationalist thinker and the chief ideological supporter of the Donbas rebels, has presented a map showing the proposed “Novorossiya” state including all of the Southern and Eastern oblasti plus Kirovograd. Meanwhile, maps issued by the rebels show Kirovograd as not being included within the scope of “Novorossiya.”
Ironically, one can say that the Kirovograd oblast is actually more “Novorossiya” than the Kharkiv region, an area that was never historically part of Novorossiya. Instead, Kharkiv was the center of the old historic region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) along with other cities like Sumy and Izyum. Yet strangely, the Donbas rebels always claim Kharkiv to be part of “Novorossiya,” while Kirovograd, which was largely a part of both historical Novorossiya and Zaporohizia, is sometimes included in “Novorossiya” by the rebels and sometimes not.
The situation of Kirovograd illustrates the complexity of Ukraine’s linguistic and cultural divisions and demonstrates that any effort to simply divide Ukraine into two even halves would be extremely difficult, problematic, and dangerous. If conflict were to emerge here, it would not fall simply along linguistic lines, but rather along familial and interpersonal ones. This fact alone is most likely at least part of the reason that official Moscow has thus far refrained from invading Ukraine or giving material support to the Donbas rebels (instead, as I have previously argued, it is the nationalists and hardliners in the Kremlin who are backing the rebels in their own capacity).