Ukraine: Where Nation-Building and Empire Meet

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

As the Ukraine crisis continues, there are debates emerging with regard to the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, in language, culture, and history.

The vast majority of ordinary Russians view Ukrainians, though linguistically distinct, as being a fraternal East Slavic nation, closely bound to Russia by culture, history, and intermarriage. They further assert that Ukraine is an integral part of Russian civilization, owing to the particularly special significance of Kiev to both Russians and Ukrainians. More nationalistic Russians go even further and claim that Ukraine is merely a “concept” and that the people known as “Ukrainians” are merely an extension of the Russian nation who speak a dialect of Russian.

Some Ukrainians, particularly in the Central part of the country, would sympathize with the argument that Russians and Ukrainians are a fraternal people. In the Russian-speaking Southeast this would be further elevated to Russians and Ukrainians being “the same people.” However, as one might imagine, the nationalist discourse in Western Ukraine, particularly Galicia, is radically different. To Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainians are “completely different” from the Russians. They have they own culture, language and history which they believe is “entirely disconnected” from anything to do with the Russians. Some more extreme Ukrainian nationalists even claim that the Ukrainian language is not only distinct from Russian, but also distinct among all Slavic or even Indo-European languages as well.

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Of course, the truth exists somewhere in-between these conflicting narratives. It is true that Ukrainians do speak their own language and that there are aspects of Ukrainian culture that are indeed unique to Ukrainians. However, it is also true that Kiev is the common point of origin for all East Slavs including Ukrainians and Russians; that at one time in their common history, they used to speak the same language (Old East Slavic); and that the contemporary Ukrainian and Russian languages (though not exactly the same) are indeed very similar. It is also true that the Ukrainians and Russians have much in common in terms of culture, and they have both had a major impact on one another. Examples of this cultural exchange include the squat-and-kick prisyadka dance move and the beet soup borscht, both of Ukrainian origin but deeply influential in Russian culture. Nikolai Gogol was a famous Russian-language author of Ukrainian origin who often included Ukrainian themes in his writings, e.g., Taras Bulba.  The great Russian painter Ilya Repin, though himself an ethnic Russian, was born in Ukraine and also included many Ukrainian themes in his work, signaling his great love for his fellow East Slav brothers.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Intermarriage is also a major component of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship. Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were both products of mixed Russo-Ukrainian parentage; their wives, Nina Kukharchuk and Raisa Titarenko, were both fully Ukrainian. Another former leader, Lenoid Brezhnev, was also of mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage while another, Konstantin Chernenko, came from a Russified Ukrainian family. In music, the famous Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuck is Ukrainian and the Bessarabian-born Russian tango singer of the 1930s Pyotr Leschenko was also of Ukrainian background. Additionally, the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the great Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov were all born to mixed Russian-Ukrainian parents.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century.  He is widely respected by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus’ to Christianity in the 10th century. Vladimir is widely revered by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Rus’, Malorussia, Ukraine, and the Politics of Identity

Another aspect of the very close relationship between the Russians and the Ukrainians is the historical development of the identity of the Ukrainian people. At one point, all of the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Carpatho-Rusyns) used to comprise a single people – the people of the Rus’ – who used to speak a single language known as Old East Slavic. Their faith was Orthodox Christianity. The only exception to this were the Kievan territories of Galicia and Volhynia. Forming the westernmost regions of the old Rus’, Catholic and Polish influence was very strong in these areas, particularly Galicia, and their princely families even intermarried with nearby Catholic Polish and Hungarian houses. Significantly, while there was a distrust of Catholicism in the other Rus’ territories further east, in Galicia and Volhynia, Catholic and Western ideas were welcomed and fully embraced. This early cultural division would later play a role in Ukraine’s regional identity differences centuries later.

Another key factor was language. In the 13th century, the Kievan Rus’ fell into decline and became subjected to the Mongol invasions. Its western principalities (largely correspondent to much of modern-day Central Ukraine and Belarus) were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which later unified with the Kingdom of Poland at the Union of Lublin in 1569, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The gradual “break-up” of the single Old East Slavic language into several different languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Carpatho-Rusyn – occurred during this period. Yet, even into the early 20th century, many of these East Slavs still self-identified as “Rusyni” and spoke a language which they called “Rusynski,” both referring to the old Rus’ state.

Foreign rule further created a new dimension to the situation which involved religion. Rus’ lands under Mongol rule remained free to worship and practice their Orthodox Christian faith. By comparison, in those Rus’ lands under Polish-Lithuanian rule, Orthodoxy was at first tolerated. Later, however, the separateness in faith concerned the Polish monarchs as the Orthodox locals of the historic Rus’ lands saw their affinity not with Catholic Poland or Western Europe but with the world of Russian Orthodoxy. As such, Orthodox Christians were persecuted under Polish rule until in 1595, in exchange for an end to this persecution, the Orthodox clergy of the Polish-ruled lands agreed to the Union of Brest, forming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or Uniate) Church. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Russian Tsars later reclaimed the old western Rus’ lands from Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century Partitions of Poland, the Orthodox faith was reintroduced.  Significantly, in the Partitions, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria acquired the Catholic- and Western-leaning region of Galicia.

Additionally, an entirely separate situation existed further west in the region of Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia). This distant western region was a borderland frontier area at the time of Kievan Rus’.  It fluctuated between the control of Orthodox East Slav Kievan rulers to the north and east and Magyar (Hungarian) Catholic rulers to the south and west. With the fall of Kievan Rus’, this Carpathian territory fell under the complete control of the Hungarian monarchs. Overtime, the close proximity of the Catholic Slovak and Magyar populations combined with the area’s separateness from the other historic Rus’ lands due to the Carpathian Mountains led it to develop its own entirely distinct identity and language (Carpatho-Rusyn). This difference was reinforced with the Union of Uzhgorod in 1646 in which the Orthodox Rusyns joined the Catholic Church as part of the Byzantine rite, forming the separate Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.  A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls among other works.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.

As mentioned earlier, the Russian Tsars later reclaimed much of the old western Kievan Rus’ territories in modern-day Ukraine in Belarus during the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century.  Orthodoxy was also reintroduced in these regions. The “Rusyni” identity of old persisted among the locals and, during the 19th century, two rival nation-building projects on the territory of contemporary Ukraine sought to supplement this old “Rusyni” identity with a new identity. One was the Malorussian (“Little Russian”) identity, with the name “Little Russia” derivative from old Byzantine maps referring to modern Ukraine as “Lesser Rus'” or “Rus’ Minor.” The Malorussian project claimed that modern Ukraine was a natural extension of the Russian nation. In the Malorussian view, the Ukrainian language that developed from the break-up of Old East Slavic had to be supplemented by a common standard language. In their view, this was to be Russian, a language seen by Malorussian activists as the “successor” of Old East Slavic. Nikolai Gogol, an ethnic Ukrainian who wrote in Russian, was among those who favored Malorussianism.

Taras Shevchenko

Taras Shevchenko

Opposing Malorussianism, was Ukrainianism. Ukrainianism postulated that the East Slavic language that developed in Ukraine signified the development of an entirely separate ethnic identity, independent of other East Slavs. They called their nation “Ukraine,” a name that like “Malorussia” developed from cartographic toponyms and has been literally translated as “borderland.” Ukrainianists emphasized the unique and distinct culture of the people of the area above all else, with a special emphasis on language and culture. Of course, this did not exclude those who viewed themselves as “Ukrainian” but also saw Russia as a fraternal East Slavic nation nonetheless. The writer Taras Shevchenko is perhaps best representative of the “Ukrainianist” group, writing almost exclusively in the Ukrainian language, though occasionally writing in Russian as well.

Of these movements, Malorussianism was favored by the Tsars who regarded themselves as the legitimate successors to the rulers of the old Kievan Rus’. Consequently, the Malorussianist policies of official Petersburg should be viewed not within the context of an empire attempting to force an assimilation on a “conquered” people, but rather as part of a nation-building project, as part of the great “reunification of Old Rus'” and “gathering of the Russian lands” as the Tsars saw it.

A similar national project was also taking place in Italy, which had just been unified under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There, the Italian language, based on Tuscan and the Central Italian dialects, was to become the literary standard. However, in the southern island of Sicily, the locals spoke their own Romance language Sicilian, related to Italian but also distinct in its own right. In Rome, the king regarded Sicilian just as the Tsar regarded Ukrainian, as a backward provincial dialect which, with the expansion of education and literacy, would be eventually supplemented by “clean Italian” or in the Tsar’s case, “clean Russian.” Indeed, like Ukrainian, Sicilian developed distinct from other languages in Italy by virtue of its geographic separation from the mainland and historical invasions of the island by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spanish, and others. Yet Sicily was viewed by Italianist advocates as an integral and historical part of Italy, just as Ukraine was regarded as an integral and historical part of Russia by the educated class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

An additional development to all of this was the emergence of three new historical territories overtime. They included Zaporozhia which established itself in the “wild fields” south of Polish-ruled territory in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In this region, rebellious Orthodox Christian Cossacks fought against the Polish monarchs.  Then, in the 17th century, the area of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) emerged around the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy.  Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of Novorossiya was formed along the Black Sea after the Russian Tsars had finally succeeded in taking Ottoman-held territory along the coast.  In all of these regions, Ukrainian (or Malorussian) populations played primary roles in their historical formation and settlement.  Further, in all three of these regions, Orthodoxy was the primary faith.

The Malorussian-Ukrainian debate also took place across the border in the Austro-Hungarian-ruled East Slavic territories of Galicia, North Bukovina (Chernivsti), and Carpathian Rus’. There, the debate existed between Ukrainianists and Russophiles (effectively Malorussian activists under a different name). It became even more complex in Carpathian Rus’ ruled under the the Hungarian realm of the dual monarchy, between Ukrainianists, Russophiles, and Rusynists (those who chose to self-identify as Rusyn or Carpatho-Rusyn). In Galicia where Catholic influence of both the direct Roman Catholic and Uniate strands remained strong, the debate was eventually won by the Ukrainianists. However, in Carpathian Rus’, the debate over ethnic identity still persists to this day.  Notably, during this period, many people from these Austro-Hungarian-controlled territories (particularly Galicia and Carpathian Rus’) also emigrated further west in search of opportunity.  They arrived in the United States and Canada, establishing the core of what would become the contemporary Ukrainian and Carpatho-Rusyn diasporas of today.

National Identity in the Soviet Era

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko's "Earth" (1930).  The film is perhaps Dovzhenko's best-known work and it is part three of the director's "Ukrainian trilogy" which also included "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Arsenal" (1929).

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). The film is perhaps Dovzhenko’s best-known work and it is part three of the director’s “Ukrainian trilogy” which also included Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the civil war in Ukraine of 1917-21, and the establishment of the USSR, Ukrainianism as a movement won out over Malorussianism.  In the 1920s, the new Soviet government undertook a “Ukrainization” policy in the newly-declared Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of its broader nativization or korenizatsiya (коренизация) policy toward nationalities, by promoting and advancing the Ukrainian literary language. This had the effect of encouraging a major cultural and literary renaissance in Ukraine during the NEP that many Ukrainians still fondly remember today.  The advent of new art forms, like film, helped advance this renaissance, in which the great Ukrainian filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko played a leading role.  A pioneer of early Soviet film, Dovzhenko is credited for not only his contributions to the development of Ukrainian cinema but also for Soviet and Russian cinema overall.

The Ukrainization policies were abruptly halted in the 1930s under Stalin whose NKVD purged the republic of real or perceived nationalists, “kulaki,” and “enemies of the people.” Yet, it should be noted that Stalin was not interested in the Malorussian-Ukrainian identity debate, but more concerned with strengthening his position throughout the entire USSR, and to this end he purged writers and intellectuals in all Soviet republics.

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Compounding all of this was the terrible Soviet famine of the early 1930s. The famine hit Ukraine very hard and some Ukrainian nationalist historians even go so far as to assert that what happened was a deliberate attempt at genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government. However, this fails to take into account the fact that the famine also affected many non-Ukrainians too, including Germans, Poles, Jews, and Russians.  Likewise, the famine also hit southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan, two other major cereal-producing regions of the Soviet Union, very hard. Among those who witnessed the starvation was a young Mikhail Gorbachev, a native of southern Russia, who personally experienced the horrors of the terrible famine first-hand. It affected his own family and killed off half of his village.

Millions starved to death in this cruel campaign of forced collectivization and suppression of the so-called “kulaki.”  Yet, Western correspondents like Walter Duranty disguised the facts while Stalin and Soviet officials claimed that the campaign had made the “eternally happy” people of the Soviet agricultural heartland “dizzy with success.”  Overall, ethnicity meant little to Stalin.  Nobody was safe from the terror of the vozhd.  He was an equal-opportunity mass murderer.

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Soviet era also saw the rise of industrialization.  The heavily industrial coal-mining region of the Donbas (Donets Basin), centered on the cities of Donetsk (also known as Yuzovka or Stalino) and Luhansk (also known as Voroshilovgrad) really emerged during this period.  Prior to this, the Donbas had been an area with a mixed Ukrainian and Russian Cossack population divided between historical Sloboda Ukraine, Novorossiya, and the Don Cossack Host.  The Soviet era firmly established the Donbas as a unique region in its own right, a truly working-class “Soviet” region where Russian was the primary language.  It was in this area that, during the Stalin era, Aleksei Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement emerged.

World War II left an indelible mark on Ukraine.  In the war, most Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians against the onslaught of the Nazi German war machine.  Many Ukrainian villagers in present-day Central and Southeastern Ukraine experienced violent atrocities at the hands of the hated Nazi invader and the country’s sizeable and historically significant Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.  The war also brought about the unification of Ukraine with the West Ukrainian territories of Galicia, Volhynia, North Bukovina, and Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia).  The addition of these new territories not only “unified” Ukraine but signal a “reunification” of all East Slavic territories for the first time in history since the fall of the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century.  The new territories also presented (and continue to present) new complications for Ukraine’s collective identity.

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a "hero."

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a “hero.”

While the vast majority of the people in Central and Southeastern Ukraine view World War II as the “Great Patriotic War” and the Red Army as “saviors,” the view is different in Western Ukraine.  In Galicia (centered on the city of Lviv), the Soviet Union is looked on as a “conqueror” or “oppressor” while the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and Stepan Bandera who are viewed throughout most of Ukraine as wartime collaborators with the Nazis, are seen as “heroes.”  The “hero” view of Bandera also exists but is less prevalent in Volhynia where there are more positive views of the Red Army.

Meanwhile, in North Bukovina and Carpathian Rus’, the view of the Red Army as a “liberator” is much more common and there are reasons for this. North Bukovina’s Slavic population had been repressed under Romania’s chauvinistic government. Meanwhile, Carpathian Rus’ faced attempted Magyarization under Hungarian rule and neglect as part of Czechoslovakia. This, together with the region’s traditional Russophile sentiments, led the locals to welcome inclusion into the Soviet state.  Further, the additional factor of the unique Carpatho-Rusyn culture of Carpathian Rus’ also added to the complexity of Ukraine’s collective identity.  The region’s absorption into Soviet Ukraine also signaled their official shift in ethno-identification from “Carpatho-Rusyns” to “Ukrainians.”  Still, a sense of distinctiveness among the people of Zakarpattia continued to persist.

Following Stalin’s death, Ukraine experienced a very brief renaissance under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev, who was himself of partial Ukrainian background, even awarded the peninsula of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine, partially out of Slavic sentimentality, partially for economic and irrigation reasons. However, by the 1970s, Ukraine, along with the rest of the USSR, began to fall into stagnation.

Still, Ukrainian speakers co-existed alongside Russian speakers with no problems. Intermarriage and cultural exchange with Russians was commonplace.  The only issue with which the Soviet government had to deal was in newly-acquired Galicia, where the insurgent forces of the OUN continued conducting guerrilla operations into the mid-1950s. Yet, overall, Ukraine remained well-integrated into the Soviet Union.

By the time of glasnost, no significant national movement emerged in Ukraine except for the Rukh movement based in Galicia. Generally, most Ukrainians were uninterested in nationalism and more interested in a stable country and a working economy. 72% backed Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty in 1991, though later that year, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of a vaguely-worded referendum on “independence” with no explicit mention of an actual separation from the USSR (which was present, for example, in the wording of Armenia’s referendum on independence).

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine's first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Post-Soviet Ukraine

Following the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was widely expected to do well as an independent state. Despite the stagnation of the Soviet economy, Ukraine fared as one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. It had an extensive Black Sea coast, rich farmlands, Carpathian Mountain pastures, and heavy industry. However, these expectations faded within the first years of the country’s independence. From the outset, Ukraine faced two challenges: state-building and nation-building.  Its corrupt political class was unable to meet both.

In terms of state building, Ukraine had to develop independent institutions and a functional national economy. Kiev was able to develop institutions which were basically successors to the pre-existing Soviet republican institutions. However, Kiev was never able to establish a national economy. Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president oversaw a corrupt privatization in the 1990s. An oligarchy and a corrupt political elite quickly emerged, stifling Ukraine’s potential development. Poverty, unemployment, organized crime, human trafficking, and other social ills that became characteristic of Ukraine’s post-independence landscape also came to the fore.

Regional politics also remained. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the people of Galicia, the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism, continued to vote for candidates with nationalist, pro-Western, or anti-Russian credentials. By contrast, the Russian-speaking Southeast (including the Donbas and Crimea) consistently voted for pro-Russian candidates. The more divided, Surzhyk-speaking Central oblasti oscillated between candidates, as did the remote Rusyn-speaking Zakarpattia oblast. Outside of Galicia and Western Ukraine, nationalism generally gained little traction. In the Center and Zakarpattia, it was viewed with indifference and distrust. In the Southeast, it was met with outright hostility.

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

The Impact of the 2004 Orange Revolution

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, backed by Washington and American NGOs, was viewed by many Ukrainians as a means of solving the country’s problems and bringing it back on its feet. However, it only exacerbated them. Fundamental issues, such as corruption, remained largely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the pro-Western and nationalist policies of President Viktor Yushchenko enhanced the divisions among Ukrainians. His total affinity for Washington, his push to see Ukraine join the EU and especially NATO, as well as his efforts to rehabilitate and bestow awards on controversial figures like Stepan Bandera, created joy in Western Ukraine, confusion in the Center, and anger in the Southeast. Notably, in 2006, the landing of the US marines in the Crimean city of Feodosiya as part of a US-Ukrainian military exercise prompted major anti-NATO protests from the local population.

The Orange Revolution also intensified these regional divisions on an electoral level. Before the revolution, the politics of Central Ukraine had been more divided, with its oblasti acting as “swing states” and “election spoilers” between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. But the Orange Revolution somehow changed this pattern. Though divisions in Central Ukraine persisted and still do persist to this day, the threshold majority began favoring more pro-Western politicians. Coincidental to this development was the rise of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (henceforth PoR) which claimed to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. In elections, the PoR began to secure the solidly Russian-speaking oblasti from Odessa to the Donbas.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (AFP)

Most striking how these new political divisions began to change historical relations between oblasti in Ukraine. A good example is the division that now exists between Sumy and Kharkiv. Historically, these two cities and their oblasti had a long history together, going back to their common foundation in the 17th century as part of the frontier region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine). In post-Soviet Ukraine, both the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasti followed each other’s electoral patterns. However, starting with the Orange Revolution, these two oblasti began to diverge from one another. Sumy, despite its Russian-speaking culture and heritage, was the native region of Viktor Yushchenko who became “nationalized” in Galicia. Yet, despite his nationalist ideology, Yushchenko’s place of birth in Russian-speaking Sumy strengthened his credentials in Washington and among American NGOs as “the man who could bring East and West together.” However, as the case of Sumy illustrates, Yushchenko only intensified the divisions. As a result of the Orange Revolution, the Sumy oblast and city began to be carried by pro-Western politicians. Pro-Russian politicians still came close to them in elections, but the overall political orientation began to shift. By contrast, Kharkiv became a solidly pro-Russian PoR oblast.

Superimposed on all of this was the growing geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia for influence in the post-Soviet space. Many commentators warned against the expansion of US influence in the region, particularly with regard to the NATO military alliance. Yet in the 2000s, Washington began to push beyond expanding NATO into Central-East Europe. They also began to look toward the former USSR, particularly the two most strategic ex-Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia. The sponsorship by Washington and American NGOs of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in these countries deeply troubled Moscow. The Kremlin subsequently began to throw its support behind the PoR and Yanukovych as the most “pro-Russian” force in the country.

Therefore, the development of divergent political forces domestically within Ukraine, combined with the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, have effectively set the stage for the present-day conflict in the country.  A solution to Ukraine’s protracted crisis can still be found – but it first and foremost requires a ceasefire, humanitarian aid relief for the people of the Donbas, and, most importantly, political will.   Moscow has signaled its readiness for such a process.

For more information on Ukraine’s historical, regional, and linguistic dynamics, see my earlier entries: What Is Ukraine? (2 March 2014, updated 15 May 2014), Who Are the Rusyns? (19 April 2014), The Historical Geography of Ukraine (15 May 2014, updated 24 August 2014), and 10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine (21 June 2014).

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Between East and West: The Curious Case of Kirovograd

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.

Location of the Kirovograd Oblast in Ukraine

Location of the Kirovograd Oblast in Ukraine

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.”

Aleksandr Dugin's Proposed Territorial Extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya

Aleksandr Dugin’s proposed territorial extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya.

The Proposed Territorial Extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya by the Donbas Rebels

The proposed territorial extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya by the Donbas rebels.

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.

Location of Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of historic Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

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).

The Historical Geography of Ukraine: An Overview

Updated and expanded on 24 August and 2 September 2014 with additional information.

Given all the discussion about Ukraine’s regional divisions, I thought that it might be useful for observers if I gave a quick overview of the historical geography of Ukraine by the larger regions within the country.  This may help sort out the uses and abuses of history in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Regional Map of Ukraine

Regional Map of Ukraine

Western Ukraine:

Location of Galicia in Ukraine

Location of Galicia in Ukraine

Galicia:

  • Contemporary regions: Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasti
  • Major cities and towns: Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk
  • Notes: Part of Austria-Hungary and then interwar Poland before becoming part of the USSR. It must be emphasized that this region was never part of the Russian Empire, though it was a principality of the old Kievan Rus’.
Location of Volhynia in Ukraine

Location of Volhynia in Ukraine

Volhynia:

  • Contemporary area: Volhyn and Rivne oblasti
  • Major cities and towns: Lutsk and Rivne
  • Notes: Part of the Russian Empire and then interwar Poland before becoming part of the USSR.
Location of Northern Bukovina and Northern Bessarabia in Ukraine

Location of Northern Bukovina and Northern Bessarabia in Ukraine

Northern Bukovina and Northern Bessarabia:

  • Contemporary area: Chernvisti oblast
  • Major cities and towns: Chernvisti and Khotyn
  • Notes: Though geographically part of the West, this region has voting and linguistic patterns that are similar those found in Central Ukraine. The locals largely speak the mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk (spoken by most in Central Ukraine) and elections here are very close. There is also a large Romanian minority (about 20% of the total population) which plays an additional factor in the region’s politics. The area was part of the interwar Kingdom of Romania and Romanian nationalists in Bucharest still claim the region as rightfully their’s.
Location of Carpathian Rus' in Ukraine

Location of Carpathian Rus’ in Ukraine

Carpathian Rus’, also known as Subcarpathian Rus’ or Transcarpathian Rus’:

  • Contemporary area: Zakarpattia oblast
  • Major cities and towns: Uzhgorod, Mukachevo, Khust, and Rakhiv
  • Notes: Part of the Kingdom of Hungary within Austria-Hungary and then part of interwar Czechoslovakia before becoming part of the USSR. The homeland of the Carpatho-Rusyns, Carpathian Rus’ is sometimes considered its own distinct region due to its unique ethnic, linguistic, and cultural character. There is also a 12% Hungarian minority in this region. Hungarian nationalists in Budapest who refuse to recognize the 1920 Treaty of Trianon still claim the region as rightfully their’s.
Location of Dnieper Ukraine in Ukraine

Location of Dnieper Ukraine in Ukraine

Central Ukraine:

Dnieper Ukraine:

  • Contemporary area: Most of the Central oblasti of Ukraine, particularly the Kiev, Cherkasy, Poltava, and Zhytomyr oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Kiev, Cherkasy, Poltava, and Zhytomyr
Location of Podolia in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of Podolia in Ukraine and Transnistria

Podolia:

  • Contemporary area: All of the Vinnitsyia and Khmelnytskyi oblasti, with the southwesternmost parts of the Kiev oblast, the westernmost parts of the Cherkasy oblast, the northern portions of the Odessa oblast, and the northern parts of the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova.
  • Major cities and towns: Vinnitsyia, Khmelnytskyi, Kamianets-Podilskyi, and Rybnitsa
Location of Polesia in Ukraine

Location of Polesia in Ukraine

Polesia:

  • Contemporary area: Northern parts of the Zhytomyr, Kiev, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasti, sometimes including the northern parts of Volhynia too.
  • Major cities and towns: Chernihiv, Shostka, Nizhyn, and Korosten

Southeastern Ukraine:

Location of Zaporozhia in Ukraine

Location of Zaporozhia in Ukraine

Zaporozhia:

  • Contemporary area: The core territory of this region encompassed the Dnipropetrovsk oblast, the northern portions of the Zaporozhia oblast, and virtually all of the Central Ukrainian oblast of Kirovograd. Additionally, it included the very small southernmost portion of the Poltava oblast south of the Dnieper River, around the southern side of the industrial city of Kremenchuk.  Zaporozhia also extended east to include parts of the Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti and south to include the northernmost portions of the Nikolayev and Kherson oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporozhia, Kryvyi Rih, and Kirovograd
  • Notes: The word “porozh” in Ukrainian and Russian indicates “rapids” so the name literally means “land beyond the rapids” (referring to the rapids of the river Dnieper).
Location of Sloboda Ukraine in Ukraine

Location of Sloboda Ukraine in Ukraine

Sloboda Ukraine (Free Ukraine), also known as Sloboda Zemlya (Free Land) or Slobozhanshchina:

  • Contemporary area: Almost all of the Kharkiv oblast, except for the southernmost parts.  Also included were the southern portions of the Central Ukrainian Sumy oblast, the northernmost portions of the Donetsk oblast, and the areas of the Luhansk oblast north of the Seversky Donets river.
  • Major cities and towns: Kharkiv, Sumy, Izyum, and Starobilsk
  • Notes: The Tsarist-era Kharkov guberniya approximately corresponds to the boundaries of Sloboda Ukraine.  According to the Tsarist census of 1897, the guberniya’s population was majority ethnic “Little Russian” (i.e., Ukrainian).  Also, until 1939, the city of Sumy and the southern portions of the modern-day Sumy oblast were part of the Soviet-era Kharkov oblast.
Location of Donbas in Ukraine

Location of the Donbas in Ukraine

The Donbas:

  • Contemporary area: The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti (also the breakaway “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk).
  • Major cities and towns: Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol, Slavyansk, and Kramatorsk
  • Notes: The name is short for “Donets Basin.” In Tsarist times, the Donbas region was administratively divided. The northern portions of both oblasti were part of the Kharkov guberniya (the historic Sloboda Ukraine), while their western portions were part of the Yekaterinoslav guberniya (the eastern part of historic Novorossiya), and their eastern portions were part of the Don Host Oblast which also included significant portions of Southern Russia. Due to the latter fact, some might argue that the eastern Donbas was once “part of Russia.” However, such an argument is problematic because, in this region, the distinction between what is “Russian” and what is “Ukrainian” becomes increasingly blurred. For instance, this area between Russia and Ukraine is so demographically mixed that some Ukrainians might conversely claim parts of Southern Russia as “Ukrainian.” The blurriness is compounded by the fact that the Cossacks who historically lived in these areas were not from an exclusive national group. They were both Russians and Ukrainians.
Location of Crimea

Location of Crimea

Crimea, also known as Taurida:

  • Contemporary area: The Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol administered by Russia, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, claimed by Ukraine.
  • Major cities and towns: Sevastopol, Simferopol, Kerch, Feodosiya, and Yalta
  • Notes: In addition to the Crimean peninsula, the Tsarist-era Taurida guberniya also included significant portions of the modern Kherson and Zaporozhia oblasti in contemporary Ukraine. However, this “mainland” part of the guberniya (also considered to be part of “Novorossiya proper”) significantly differed demographically from the peninsula. According to the 1897 Tsarist census, the mainland’s population was primarily “Little Russian” (Ukrainian) with a significant “Great Russian” (ethnic Russian) minority, while the population of the peninsula was largely “Great Russian” and Tatar with a significant Ukrainian minority and additional ethnic minorities of Germans, Jews, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Poles, and others.
Location of the Budzhak in Ukraine

Location of the Budzhak in Ukraine

The Budzhak:

  • Contemporary area: Portion of the Odessa oblast situated south of Moldova, east of Romania and the Danube, and west of the Dniester, on the Black Sea coast.
  • Major cities and towns: Izmail and Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (Akkerman)
  • Notes: Historically the southernmost part of Bessarabia, this region was part of the interwar Kingdom of Romania until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. In Soviet Ukraine, it was administered as the Akkerman oblast, later renamed the Izmail oblast. In 1954, the oblast was abolished and incorporated into the Odessa oblast. A multiethnic region, the Budzhak is majority Ukrainian with substantial Bulgarian, Russian, Romanian, and Gagauz minorities. The name “Budzhak” is derived from the Turkish word “bucak,” meaning “district” or “corner.”
Location of the Yedisan in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of the Yedisan in Ukraine and Transnistria

The Yedisan:

  • Contemporary area: The southern portions of Transnistria and the Odessa oblast (excluding the Budzhak), the southern portion of the Nikolayev oblast, and the southwestern portion of the Kherson oblast.
  • Major cities and towns: Odessa, Nikolayev, and Tiraspol
  • Notes: The name “Yedisan” (alternatively transliterated as “Edisan” or “Jedisan”) is derived from a nomadic Nogai Turkic tribe who once inhabited this area. It literally means “seven titles” referring to seven different subdivisions among the tribe. In the 17th century, the region was incorporated into Imperial Russia by Catherine the Great as part of Novorossiya and settled by Ukrainians (Malorussians), Russians, and others. The area was also known as “Ochakov Tartary” after the historic fortress of Ochakov located in the contemporary Nikolayev oblast.
Location of Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

Novorossiya (New Russia):

  • Contemporary area: The Nikolayev and Kherson oblasti, the southern portions of Transnistria and the Odessa oblast (excluding the Budzhak), the southern part of the Zaporozhia oblast, the southeasternmost area of the Kharkiv oblast, the Western half of the Donbas (including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk), and most of the historical region of Zaporozhia. Novorossiya also occasionally included Bessarabia (Moldova proper with the Budzhak region of the Odessa oblast), Crimea, and the Don Host Oblast (the eastern half of the Donbas and significant portions of Southern Russia).
  • Major cities and towns: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, Tiraspol, and Berdyansk
  • Notes: It must be emphasized that, with the exception of its southeasternmost area, much of the territory of the modern-day Kharkiv oblast was not part of Novorossiya. Further the majority population of the core territory of Novorossiya (Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, southern Transnistria, western Donbas, and historic Zaporozhia) in the 1897 Tsarist census were identified as ethnic “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) with significant minorities of “Great Russians” (ethnic Russians) and, in the Odessa area, Jews. Consequently, the idea of making this region a part of Soviet Ukraine was logical from a geographic and ethnographic standpoint. Thus, it must be emphasized that the assignment of these territories was not a “great mistake” by the Bolsheviks as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and others have been claiming. Indeed, it is likely that Putin is advancing the Novorossiya claim to placate hardliners like Rogozin in the Kremlin who want to invade Southeastern Ukraine and are attempting to use historical revisionism to show that the region is “another Crimea” in order to justify such actions. However, no invasion can be justified and would be a disaster for both Russia and Ukraine.
Location of Novaya Serbiya in Ukraine

Location of Novaya Serbiya in Ukraine

Novaya Serbiya (New Serbia):

  • Contemporary area: Northern portions of the Kirovograd oblast, with some adjoining areas of the neighboring Cherkasy, Poltava, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Novomyrgorod
  • Notes: Founded by Tsarist Russia as a military frontier with Poland in the 1750s populated by Serbs, Montenegrins, Romanians, and others from Habsburg Austria (hence the name). The territory was later abolished in 1764 and incorporated into Novorossiya.
Location of Slavo-Serbiya in Ukraine

Location of Slavo-Serbiya in Ukraine

Slavo-Serbiya (Slavo-Serbia):

  • Contemporary area: Border regions between the modern-day Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti.
  • Major cities and towns: Artemivsk (Bakhmut)
  • Notes: Founded by Tsarist Russia as a refuge for Serbs, Montenegrins, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Greeks, and others. The territory was later abolished in 1764 and incorporated into Novorossiya.

For more information on Ukraine’s diverse regional divisions, see my earlier post, What is Ukraine? from March here, now updated and expanded to include the latest information about Ukraine.