Ukraine’s Ethnolinguistic Landscape—and Changing Attitudes towards Russia and the Russian Language

Apr 22, 2015 by

On April 20, 2015, I gave a lecture on the ethnolinguistic aspects of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

After reviewing the events since the late fall of 2013 and the current humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine, I turned to the question of whether Ukraine is indeed divided into two halves—the nationalistic, pro-Europe western Ukraine and the pro-Russian eastern Ukraine—as portrayed in the Russian state-run propaganda and much of the Western media (see, for example, articles in The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Guardian). Undoubtedly, the issue of language and ethnic identity in Ukraine is an emotionally-charged one, as evidenced by the brawl that broke out in Ukraine’s national parliament, Verkhovna Rada, in May 2012, when the then-governing pro-Russian Party of the Regions proposed a new law regarding the status of Russian as an official language. Political leanings, as indicated by the voting patterns, replicated in every legislative and presidential election since the legislative election of 2002, support the virtual divide into “two Ukraines”: the pro-Russian East-and-South and the (moderately) nationalistic West-and-North.

Yet, the ethnolinguistic landscape of Ukraine (including Crimea) is far more complex than a simple opposition of the Russian-speaking, ethnically-Russian East and Ukrainian-speaking, ethnically-Ukrainian West, as depicted in Max Fisher’s map in The Washington Post. Here, I agree with Martin Lewis’ break-down of Ukraine into six zones, as discussed in his GeoCurrents post: the “nationalist” half of Ukraine being divided into chiefly Rusyn-speaking Transcarpathia, the “Far West” (the area where the Svoboda party gains most support), and “Core Ukraine”, while the East-and-South is split into the most Russian-oriented Donbass region, Crimea, and the “ambivalent” South. (Martin Lewis’ map can be seen here.)

Moreover, the separation between the Russian(-speaking) and Ukrainian(-speaking) halves is not as rigid as most media reports depicts it. As the two languages are closely related and share many common traits (words and grammatical structures), mutual comprehensibility is relatively high. Moreover, inhabitants of Ukraine, whether native speakers of Russian or Ukrainian, have a lot of exposure to both languages regardless of their own mother tongue, which further eases mutual comprehension; individual bilingualism in Russian and Ukrainian is widespread. As evidenced by the film The Orange Sky, a Romeo-and-Juliette story taking place during the 2004 Orange Revolution (released in 2006), the use of language in any given situation is more a matter of contextual choice and of expressing one’s identity than simply of “what language one speaks”. In the film, the male protagonist (a son of the head of the pro-Russian secret services) speaks Russian, while the female protagonist (a student from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv) speaks Ukrainian. Entire dialogs, including the culmination love scene, are conducted in two languages. Moreover, the film is not dubbed or subtitled, indicating that viewers in Ukraine are expected to understand casual conversations in both languages.

In addition to the complexities in the ethnolinguistic landscape in Ukraine at the beginning of the current crisis, it has to be stressed that people’s identities and attitudes towards the other ethnic group and language have changed in the course of the crisis and as a direct result of it. This has been shown quite clearly by the recent surveys conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in February-April 2015. Three key conclusions can be drawn from these surveys:

  • attitudes towards Russia and the Russian language are worsening across Ukraine,
  • such attitudes differ by region (mostly supporting Martin Lewis’ division, although Transcarpathia is typically grouped with the “Far West”, which also includes the Volynia region to the north), and
  • even in the far-eastern part of Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the attitudes are not as heavily pro-Russian as most media reports and Martin Lewis’ label “Russian-oriented Ukraine” seem to indicate.

Future_UkraineThe first study, conducted in February 2015, considered people’s opinions on the political future of Ukraine. Across the nation, two thirds of the respondents said that they would like to see Ukraine remain one nation, governed as it is now; 22% want to give more autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Only 7% want the far-eastern Ukraine to secede and either become independent (4%) or to be annexed by Russia (3%). Crucially, even in the far-eastern Ukraine (“Donbass Rebel Head”), opinions are split almost evenly: 51% want Ukraine to remain united (with or without additional autonomy for the Donbass area), while 42% want Donbass to secede. Note that only about a quarter of respondents in Donbass want it to be annexed by Russia.

Russia can interveneAnother question in the same survey asked if Russia has “a right to intervene to protect Russian citizens and Russian speakers”. The response across the nation is overwhelmingly “no”, with only 5% giving Russia such a right; even in the most Russian-oriented Donbass area (i.e. Donetsk and Luhansk regions), the opinion is split 50/50.

Another longitudinal survey examined the attitudes of Ukrainians and Russians towards each other—and showed that positive attitudes on both sides have taken a plunge since the beginning of the conflict. In November 2013, before the current conflict heated up, 82% of Ukrainians held positive attitudes towards Russians, and 69% of Russians felt the same way about Ukrainians. In December 2014, only a third of Ukrainian respondents had positive attitudes towards Russians, and merely a quarter of Russians felt the same way about Ukrainians. It is also interesting to note that Russians have consistently held less positive attitudes towards Ukrainians than vice-versa, since April 2008 (when the question was first asked). Another curious fact is the dip in positive attitudes of Russians towards Ukrainians in late 2008, in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war—my hunch is that this worsening view of Ukrainians among Russians is due to the Russian propaganda at the time, but I would like to hear from the readers if they have other explanations. Note also that this plunge in positive attitudes towards Ukrainians among Russians in late 2008-early 2009 was not matched by the similar worsening of attitudes on the part of Ukrainians, unlike during the current crisis.

The Kiev International Institute of Sociology has also been tracking public opinion on the future of Ukraine and its ties to either Europe or Russia. Since the beginning of the current crisis, which was jump-started by the demonstrations in favor of closer ties with the European Union, even more Ukrainian citizens want to see increased integration of Ukraine with the EU (up from 41% in the fall of 2013 to 47% in February 2015). Another sharp increase is seen in the number of respondents who want to see no further integration of the country with either the EU or Russia (from 9% to 27%). Conversely, the number of people who want to see closer integration of Ukraine with Russia and its Customs Union (including Belarus and Kazakhstan) has plunged from 35% to 12%. Most of those pro-Russian votes come from Southern and Eastern Ukraine, where 18% and 30% (respectively) want to see more integration with the Russia-led Customs Union. Note, however, that even in those regions “integration with the Customs Union” is not the plurality view; in both zones, the most popular answer is “neither the EU nor the Customs Union”. It is also worth noting that in this survey (and in other surveys reported on below) the proportion of people who responded with “difficult to say” or “no answer” is rather small (less than 10%): it appears that Ukrainian citizens have very clear and strong opinions on the issues of language and their country’s future.

Russian language status

The most recent survey conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in April 2015 probed Ukrainian citizens’ attitudes towards language choices. In answer to the question “What do you think should be the state policy concerning the Russian language in Ukraine?”, over half of the respondents across the country want to see Russian as a second official language only in areas “where most people want it”. This figure shows a statistically significant increase since the last similar survey conducted in 2013. Conversely, the proportion of respondents who want to see Ukrainian as an official language in the whole country has decreased from 27% to 19%. The regional results are mapped in the image on the left. As can be seen from these charts, the view that Russian should be made an official language in Ukraine as a whole is most common in Southern and Eastern Ukraine (37% and 31%, respectively), but it is merely a minority view elsewhere. The north-central regions, and especially the Western Ukraine, are much more inclined towards removing the Russian language from all official communications in Ukraine (24% and 42%, respectively).


Another interesting question that drew my attention concerns a commonplace battleground in the language wars around the world—the schools. The national responses to the question “What do you think should be the state policy on teaching Russian language in Ukrainian schools?” have split almost evenly between the three options: teaching Russian to the same extent as Ukrainian, teaching Russian less than Ukrainian but more than any other foreign language, and teaching Russian to the same extent as any other foreign language (30%, 27%, and 36%, respectively). However, regional results show clear preferences: the South and especially the East want to give the Russian language the same status in the schools as to the Ukrainian language (46% and 62%, respectively), while in the central and western regions the preference is clearly for making Russian just another foreign language (44% and 71%, respectively).

Thus, it appears that the more Russia intervenes in Eastern Ukraine, the more Ukrainians are pushed away from Russia: they do not want Russia to interfere in their country’s internal affairs, nor to see Ukraine with closer political and economic ties to Russia, and their attitudes towards Russians and the Russian language are worsening. Regional divisions—and the west-east continuum of identities, linguistic preferences, and political attitudes—persist, but even in the most Russian-oriented Donbass area, pro-Russian attitudes are not very strong and are apparently weakening. With thousands of people killed, tens of thousands injured, and perhaps a million people or more displaced by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine (though estimates vary), and a pervasive anti-Ukrainian propaganda in the Russian media and blogosphere, such negative attitudes towards all things Russian in Ukraine are all too easy to understand.

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