Are Russians and Ukrainians the Same People?

To justify his meddling in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has claimed Ukrainians as Russian people. Is he right?

01.10.16 5:01 AM ET

In the last few years Vladimir Putin has surprised many observers of the international scene not only by his actions, but also by his words.

In the middle of the Ukraine crisis, while the Russian media was vilifying the new government in Kyiv as nothing less than a “fascist junta,” he repeatedly went on record claiming that Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. What it meant in practice was demonstrated in March 2014, when the Russian troops took over the Ukrainian Crimea, which Putin declared a historical heritage site common to the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians and the place where his namesake, Prince Vladimir (Ukr. Volodymyr) of Kyiv, had been baptized. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea made this allegedly common site an exclusively Russian possession.

The view of Ukrainians as constituents of the Russian nation goes back to the founding myth of modern Russia as a nation conceived and born in Kyiv (Kiev) in the tenth and eleventh centuries during the times of St. Vladimir. It was first widely disseminated in Russia by the Synopsis of 1674, the first printed “textbook” of Russian history, compiled by Kyivan monks seeking the protection of the Muscovite tsars.

Throughout most of the imperial period, Ukrainians were regarded as Little Russians—a vision that allowed for the existence of Ukrainian folk culture and spoken vernacular but not a high culture or a modern literature. That vision was challenged in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1917, when the Ukrainians were recognized as a distinct nation in cultural but not political terms.

The leaders of the Soviet Union recognised the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians to be separate nations, but on the eve of the Soviet collapse, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had insisted that Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Kazakhstan should merge with Russia. This vision did not materialize after the fall of the USSR, but neither had it disappeared entirely.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian nationalist project has embraced the idea of the unification of the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture. This vision of Greater Russia found a lot of government support and was backed by the Russian Orthodox Church through the “Russian World Foundation,” which has been tasked with the promotion of Russian language and culture abroad and the “formation of the Russian World as a global project.” Ukraine has become the first testing ground for the promotion of the new model of Russian identity outside the Russian Federation. The chances are it will not be the last. The revival of imperial-era Russian nationalism threatens not only the sovereign East Slavic states of Ukraine and Belarus but also other post-Soviet republics with significant East Slavic and Russian-speaking populations—Estonia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan.

So what about Russians in Ukraine?

The Russian annexation of the Crimea and the propaganda intended to justify Russian intervention in the Donbas have proceeded under the slogan of defending the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in general. The equation of the Russian language not only with Russian culture but also with Russian nationality has been an important aspect of the world view of many Russian volunteers who have come to Donbas. One problem with that interpretation of Russianness is that while ethnic Russians are indeed a majority of the population in the Crimea and make up large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While Russian and separatist propaganda has had an appeal for many ethnic Ukrainians, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or with Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language. That was one of the main reasons for the failure of the creation of a buffer state of New Russia by extending the rebel holdings in Donbas to Odesa and Kharkiv in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Basic Books

The expansionist model of Russian identity, which stresses the indivisibility of the Russian nation, closely associated with the Russian language and culture, presented a fundamental challenge to the Ukrainian nation-building project. From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, that project placed the Ukrainian language and culture at its center, but from the outset it also allowed for the use of other languages and cultures, as attested, for example, by the Russian-language writings of Taras Shevchenko, whom many regard as the spiritual founder of the Ukrainian nation. Bilingualism and multiculturalism have become a norm in post-Soviet Ukraine, extending membership in the Ukrainian nation to people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. This has had a direct impact on the course of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations, Russia-sponsored “hybrid war” failed to mobilize the support of ethnic Russians outside the areas either directly controlled by the Russian army, as has been the case in the Crimea, or those parts of the Donbas seized by Russian mercenaries and Russia-backed insurgents. According to data provided in the middle of the crisis by the respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, with Russians constituting 17 percent of the Ukrainian population, only 5 percent of those polled considered themselves exclusively Russian: the rest gave their identity as both Russian and Ukrainian. Even those who considered themselves exclusively Russian often opposed Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs, refusing to associate themselves with Putin’s regime. “Ukraine is my Homeland. Russian is my native language. And I would like to be saved by Pushkin. And delivered from sorrow and unrest, also by Pushkin. Pushkin, not Putin,” wrote one of Kyiv’s ethnic Russians in her Facebook account.

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict brought to the fore important issues with historical roots and ramifications—the unfinished process of building not only a Ukrainian but also Russian modern nation. The Russian nationalist ideology harks back to the imperialism of prerevolutionary Russia, when Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians were viewed by the tsarist government as parts of one Russian nation. Because a modern, post-imperial Russian nation has not taken shape, there remains a strong constituency for the idea of a big Russian nation and the program of “reuniting” the lesser Little and White Russian branches—the Ukrainian and Belarusian nations—with the Great Russian trunk. The adoption of this vision attests to the inability of present-day Russian leadership to abandon the imperial way of thinking and accept the existence of other East Slavic nations. Russia today faces the difficult task of throwing off the historical legacy of empire, which prevents it from becoming a modern nation. The solution to the Russian Question lies not in the territorial expansion but in the formation of a law-based democratic society capable of living in harmony with its neighbors and playing a positive role in the modern world.

Serhii Plokhy is the professor of history at Harvard and the author, most recently, of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine