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Exploring the Contradiction: Russian-Speaking Ukrainian Nationalists

Dariya Akhova



In 2013-4 Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution was triggered when then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a long-awaited economic association agreement with the European Union (EU). This regressive step was also a step towards the East, as Yanukovych replaced discussions of EU association with Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) membership – furthering Ukraine’s integration with Russia. As a result, months of protests broke out for government reforms and to resume EU integration, also known as the Euromaidan Movement. The streets of major cities were flooded with Ukrainian flags and echoes of “Glory to Ukraine” and “Ukraine is Europe” rebounded nationwide. One need​​ look no further than the ​​Winter on Fire documentary to understand, qualitatively, what Ukrainian identity scholar Ksenia ​​Maksimovtsova calls an “increased self-awareness as Ukrainian citizens” during the Euromaidan Revolution (2019, 377). Yet, the documentary also demonstrates that many of the revolutionaries were Russian speakers and, in fact, Maksimovtsova’s quote goes on to say that Ukrainian consciousness “does not mean the neglect of the Russian language” (2019, 377). In the long term, Euromaidan had little impact on the status of the Russian language, as it continues to be widely spoken (Kulyk 2016, 97).

This discrepancy between nationhood and language contradicts the dominant understanding of nationalism in social science. Notably, the nation-state is considered a forced political reflection of the linguistically homogeneous nation (Anderson 1991). Albeit, linguistic nationalism can hardly account for empirical observations of the Russian language’s prevalence during Ukrainian nationalist movements such as Euromaidan, nor can it explain the stark numerical findings that 88% of bilingual Ukrainian and Russian speakers self-identify as Ukrainian (Bureiko and Moga 2019, 151). In this way, studies conducted by eminent scholars such as Benedict Anderson (1991) and Ernest Gellner (1983) pertaining to normative assumptions of what nationalism ought to be cannot address the simple question of why a Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizen can identify as a Ukrainian nationalist. In response, this paper’s thesis is that the Ukrainian language occupies a distinctly symbolic place in Ukrainian nationalism while the Russian language is subordinated to a practical function. Hence, speaking Russian does not interfere with the suppositional language or other components of Ukrainian national identity.

To demonstrate this argument, my research will first illustrate how the linguistic nationalism touted by theories of comparative politics does indeed exist in Ukrainian nationalist rhetoric as a construct made by politicians and the media for political gain. In reality, as this paper will subsequently argue, the Ukrainian language holds a symbolic status, exacerbated by Euromaidan, and its heightened value allows for Russian to simultaneously remain a non-threatening language of colloquial use. After establishing the concurrent existence of both languages — which does not impede on Ukrainian nationalism — the other factors of nationality will be explained in the third and fourth sections of this paper. Admittedly, in situ interpretivist research, including field work and interviews, is the ideal research method to study how Ukrainians understand their own national identity. Due to the lack of this type of research on Ukrainian nationalism, Rogers Brubaker’s theoretical approach will offer a deductive mechanism of inferring national identity. To conclude, I will describe this paper’s research limitations and how they can be filled by interpretivist studies as advocated for by Brubaker. 

The Political Construction of Linguistic Nationalism

Historically, language was the unique measure of national identity in censuses in Eastern European countries. That being said, this initial section will demonstrate that there is nothing natural about the language-nationality relationship — linguistic nationality is politically constructed by high-ranking Soviet officials in USSR countries. At the International Statistical Congress of 1872, language was determined as the “indirect and objective” way to inquire about respondents’ national identity (Arel 2002, 95). The three following options are employed to capture language through censuses: asking respondents about the language they first learnt, the language they most commonly use, or their knowledge of the official language (ibid., 97). Censuses in Imperial Russia and eventually the Soviet Union asked for “mother tongue”, a category lobbied for by Ukrainian elite at the 1926 All-Union Statistical Conference (ibid., 104). This backwards-looking conception of nationality would always reflect Ukrainian heritage since many respondents perceived “mother tongue” to mean the language their parents spoke or the language they first learnt (ibid., 103). Furthermore, Lenin approved of the “mother tongue” measure because touting nationalism remedied chauvinism. The census would appeal to, in this case, Ukrainian nationalists since Ukrainian would appear to be widely spoken on paper, hiding the increasing use of the Russian language, as well as how respondents “felt about his or her attachment to a nationality” (ibid., 103). Therefore, linguistic nationality was imposed through the census, irrespective of how respondents cogitate their own national identity beyond the confines of ‘mother tongue’.  

The legacy of such a narrow conception of nationalism in the Soviet Union continues to exist today in Ukraine, especially within the context of Euromaidan. For example, scholars such as Taras Kuzio explain the revolution as the mobilization of the opposition between Ukrainian speakers who defend the ethno-cultural Ukraine and Russian speakers who support the Russian state (2015, 158). Here, Kuzio delineates nationhood by language, ignoring the fact that advocates for Ukrainian nationalism can speak Russian. In fact, Bureiko and Moga’s 2015 surveys revealed that 90.8% of Ukrainian citizens felt Ukrainian regardless of their language — further disproving Kuzio’s convenient outlining of Ukrainian nationalism, which must include more than language (2019, 144).  

Despite the empirical facts of bilingual nationalism, politicians and mass media alike exaggerate the role of language in Ukrainian nationality. Namely, these actors continue to play on the historically limited conception of nationality when they represent Euromaidan as a linguistic conflict. Regarding political parties, Charnysh argues that far-right parties resort to the use of stereotypes that exploit historical differences between the Russian- and the Ukrainian-speaking regions as an electoral strategy (2013, 7). Easily instrumentalizing centuries of forced Russification, these right-wing parties capitalize on the popularity of Russian and paint the language as an evasive challenge to the Ukrainian national agenda (ibid., 3). Once again, this contemporary political use of linguistic nationalism is juxtaposed with findings that reveal that irrespective of language, the majority of Ukrainians are in favour of Ukrainian national values, notably independence (ibid., 10). Another example advanced by Maksimovtsova is official bilingualism — Ukrainian politicians and media reinforce the linguistic cleavage and portray official bilingualism as Russian rapprochement (2019, 395). In sum, language becomes highly politicized, and academics, politicians and the media continue to construct Ukrainian-Russian tensions as a conflict between linguistic groups, disregarding the fact that many Russian speakers are proponents of Ukrainian nationalism.

The Reality of Language and National Identity since Euromaidan

To further argue the construction of linguistic nationalism, this section will draw on empirical studies to illustrate that speaking Russian is not necessarily related to an anti-Ukrainian political ideology. Euromaidan clearly elevated Ukrainian to the language that symbolizes Ukrainian nationalism. Specifically, 2012 and 2015 surveys from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) show an increase from 20 to 27% in respondents agreeing that Ukrainian is the “language which constitutes the foundation of Ukraine’s independence”, as well as an increase from 14 to 23% of participants who claim that the Ukrainian language “unites Ukrainian society” (Kulyk 2016, 96). Remarkably, this improving esteem for the Ukrainian language holds true for Russian speakers as well. In studying Russian-language media in Ukraine, Maksimovtsova identified an increase in discourse advocating for Ukrainian as the sole state language in order to protect it from its historic subordination to the prestige of the Russian language in literature, culture and politics (2019, 384). As a result, the Ukrainian language becomes the language of the nation and Russian takes on a uniquely practical function. Indeed, Kulyk’s study found that among Ukrainian respondents, the Russian language is primarily conceived of as the language of communication within Ukraine and among post-Soviet countries (2016, 97). Furthermore, numerous studies capture the Russian language’s exclusive pragmatic function because if it occupied an esteemed and symbolic place in the Ukrainian national identity, a nationalist movement such as Euromaidan would surely decrease its usage. For example, Pop-Eleches and Robertson conducted semi-structured interviews and surveys of 1,800 respondents in Ukraine in 2012, and then interviewed 62% of the participants again in 2015 (2018, 109). Their study found that the language respondents used at home did not change because of Euromaidan, nor had the participants’ ethno-national identity (ibid., 112). Likewise, KIIS’s numerical findings, as cited by Kulyk, also reveal an unchanged opinion on the Russian language between 2012 and 2014 (2016, 97). Evidently the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution did not impact the Russian language because many Ukrainians considered the Russian language banal, instead of a symbol of the political enemy. 

That the Russian language is commonplace is rendered more obvious by studies that reveal that it does not affect Ukrainian nationalist views. Pop-Eleches and Robertson asked Ukrainian and Russian-speaking respondents about their affinity with Ukraine as their “homeland.” In 2012, more than half of self-identifying ethnic Russians and nearly 66% of Russian-speakers selected Ukraine as their homeland (Pop-Eleches and Robertson 2018, 111). In 2015, the former group increased to 74% and the latter to 83% (ibid., 111). Additionally, Pop-Eleches and Robertson measured how the group of self-identifying ethnic and linguistic Russians considered EU and EAEU integration. In 2012, approval for joining both bodies was on par. After Euromaidan, those in favour of EU integration outnumbered supporters of the EAEU three to one (ibid., 112). Lastly, at the apex of the Kremlin propaganda campaign in Russian media during Euromaidan, KIIS findings demonstrate that in Ukraine — and transcending linguistic preferences — support for Russian President Vladimir Putin decreased from 70% to single digits between 2013 and 2015 (Riabchuk 2015, 149). Essentially, “an increased respect for the Ukrainian language co-exists with the widespread use of Russian in daily life” because the two languages serve vastly different functions for Ukrainian nationalists (Maksimovtsova 2019, 377). Given the Russian language’s role as a mere practical language, it does not impede on Ukrainian nationalist opinions, nor does it need to be further minimized within the Ukrainian national project. 

Finally, the Russian language is not necessarily a symbol of Russian political aggression because the language has, in fact, played a minor role in uniting Ukraine against Russian aggression. Nedashkivska undertook a discourse analysis of video and media texts belonging to the “Ukraine is United” campaign from February to March of 2014 (2015, 299). Nedashkivska asserts that linguistic diversity does not only exist, but it can also strengthen national identity (2015). To illustrate this argument, Nedashkivska depicts three multilingual events during “Ukraine is United” that aimed to create solidarity among the nation. First, flash mobs and “language days” arose throughout the country (ibid., 305). During these events, Russian language banners and activities were held in Western and predominantly Ukrainian-speaking cities such as L’viv, while Russian-speaking cities like Donetsk were flooded with posters and mass gatherings in Ukrainian (ibid., 305). Another event that took place in Donetsk was an organized demonstration with the slogan “Donetsk is Ukraine” written in Russian — indicating that the will to remain in a unified Ukraine transcends language (ibid., 307). As well, students from the Chernivtsi National University in Western Ukraine produced a video destined for the Tavria National University in Crimea, in which the slogan “Remember that Ukraine is a country with national unity” was elaborated in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and Tatar (ibid., 307). In short, these instances during Euromaidan suggest that linguistic and ethnic diversity can promote and potentially unite the Ukrainian national identity. Thus, while the Russian language is dissociated from both the Russian state and Ukrainian nationalism — and it instead serves a purely communicative function — the language’s extensive use can also be a vehicle for encouraging Ukrainian nationalism. 

How to Depart from Linguistic Nationalism

Another question remains: what additional factors does Ukrainian national identity encompass if language is not its sole constituent? Naturally, to study how Ukrainians themselves interpret their national identity, in situ qualitative interviews and field work are in order. Since this type of research is lacking in the field of Ukrainian identity studies, this section will suggest another theoretical approach to capture Ukrainian national identity. Primarily, the over simplistic binding of national identity and language that has been popularized by academics, politicians, and media alike is what Rogers Brubaker calls “ethnic common sense” (2002, 165). Essentially, this is the slippery slope of research that assumes “deeply constituted, quasi-natural intrinsic kinds” within the social world (ibid., 165). In other words, ethnicity, along with race and nationhood, is often a taken-for-granted analytical frame, instead of the object of study. Thus, to move beyond studying Ukrainian national tensions as linguistic, Brubaker suggests that social phenomena such as nationhood ought to be studied as categories (ibid., 186). Categories are “relational, processual, [and] dynamic” (ibid., 167). In this case, the Ukrainian nationality is not contingent on the Ukrainian language group existing. Instead, this national-linguistic group was created by the census of past centuries, and academic, political and media actors continue to deem the group socially salient, while disregarding other elements of Ukrainian nationality. In reality, categories are subject to constant change, as demonstrated in the previous section which demonstrated that identifiers of Ukrainian nationalism are in flux. Indeed, the dynamic nature of nationality must be under continuous evaluation and linguistic nationalism cannot be the fixed analytical frame. In addition to the dynamic nature of nationality, Brubaker stipulates that another reason nationhood cannot be understood as an imposed group is because it exists exclusively within people’s cognition (ibid., 174). As a matter of fact, people perceive nationality through frames and cues (ibid., 175). In other words, nationality can be understood through an analysis of how a Ukrainian recognizes a compatriot versus a Russian national. These types of investigations ought to be taken, instead of assuming who is Ukrainian or Russian because of their spoken language.

Ideally, studying national identity as categories would entail in situ observations to study the “categorically organized common-sense knowledge” a Ukrainian holds about their nationality (Brubaker 2002, 184). Nonetheless, Brubaker also suggests that nationalism can be deduced by analyzing what people do with the nationhood category (ibid., 183). Because nationality is primarily cognitive, it guides both a person’s perception and their resulting actions. Consequently, voting patterns and influential factors in voting for nationalist parties will be analyzed in the following section. In this way, the reasons why someone would vote for a pro-Ukrainian party can be inferred as elements of their national identity. That being said, factors of voting behaviour are not synonymous with factors of national identity, hence this paper’s conclusion will further illustrate the need for interpretivist interviews when assessing Ukrainian national identity. 

Electoral Preferences and Ukrainian National Identity

Two essential elements to Ukrainian electoral behaviour, from which we can ultimately deduce national identity, are regionalism and historic Russian assimilation. First, regionalism composed of economic and geopolitical factors plays a prominent role in voting patterns. Furthermore, Brubaker’s theory that political actions can be traced back to national identity is confirmed by the importance of regionalism to Ukrainian identity. The second voting pattern is more evident: Ukrainians who vote for pro-Russian parties historically experienced more Russian assimilation. In this way, people are more likely to identify as Ukrainian nationalists if they are historically more accustomed to do so. Notably, both components also transcend linguistic divides.  

In 2004, Barrington and Herron studied whether Ukrainian political beliefs ought to be divided between the pro-Russia, Russian-speaking East and the pro-Ukraine, Ukrainian-speaking West. Drawing from academic literature, as well as primary and secondary surveys conducted by KIIS, the authors posit that in dividing Ukraine into eight regions, political ideology becomes more contingent on the specific region than on the predominant language of Eastern and Western Ukraine (Barrington and Herron, 2004). Admittedly, regionalism is often conflated with language since Russian speakers are concentrated in the regions of Eastern Ukraine, whereas Western Ukraine is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking (Charnysh 2013, 3). However, language in and of itself is not a paramount factor in voting for nationalist parties. As a matter of fact, Barrington and Herron demonstrate that the regions that are more industrial and proximate to Russia are more likely to vote for parties on the left, because they promote state involvement in the economy and favourable relations with their powerful neighbour (2004, 71). On the other hand, agricultural regions that have historic ties with Europe — which happen to be in Western Ukraine are more likely to vote for right and center-right parties that enhance trade with European countries (ibid., 71). Therefore, Barrington and Herron demonstrate that voting patterns cannot be attributed simply to linguistic groups and their respective national parties. In other words, voting for a pro-Russian party is an indicator of economic and international relation preferences influenced by the voter’s region, not by their spoken language.

While this particular voting behaviour is not directly related to national identity, affinity to one’s region is an intrinsic part of Ukrainian identity. When researchers draw a link between voting and regional identity, they can further connect regional identity to national identity. Shortly after Barrington and Herron conducted their study, regional and national identity became recurring themes in Ukrainian identity studies following the 2005 Orange Revolution. Namely, a 2010 study conducted by the Ukrainian Institute of Sociology revealed that since 2005, the top two identifiers of respondents have consistently been Ukrainian and the region they come from (Riabchuk 2015, 145). This first finding is not surprising, since the Orange Revolution was a social demonstration against government corruption and most importantly, its association with Russian rapprochement. What is noteworthy is that in the aftermath of formative events of Ukrainian nationalism the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions regional identity increased along with national consciousness. Kulyk further illustrates this conclusion in their analysis of 2014 surveys from KIIS. During the year of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, these surveys similarly asked respondents to put in order the identifiers which best described them. The top three identifiers were gender, Ukraine and region; this was true for both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking respondents (Kulyk 2016, 94). Therefore, the influence of regional affiliation on voting patterns is an example of how to deduce national identity from people’s actions. Furthermore, regionality is confirmed as an intrinsic factor in Ukrainian national identity, because surveys indicate that regional identity is tethered to the increase of national consciousness following major mobilizations for Ukrainian independence. Most importantly, the cited findings reveal that language plays a minimal role in electoral behaviour and by that measure, Ukrainian identity as well. This means that when a Ukrainian-speaker from the Western L’viv Oblast meets a Russian speaker from the Eastern Kharkiv Oblast, they would recognize one another as compatriots, because they both come from Ukrainian regions, no matter their spoken language. 

A second influential factor in voting and therefore in Ukrainian nationality is the dichotomy between anti-Soviet and neo-Soviet values (Riabchuk 2015, 140). Historically, the Ukrainian nation-building project ploughed the soil for modern Ukrainian nationalism to take root in, albeit not all Ukrainians were equally as implicated in nation-building. In the 19th century, the Ukrainian intelligentsia experienced a renewed interest in its culture, which propelled the archetype of the Ukrainian nationalism that is manifest in the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions (ibid., 141). However, this zenith of Ukrainian nation-building was short-lived as 19th century Russian rule became more apprehensive of local nationalism, hence the consequent Russification halted the Ukrainian nation-building process (ibid., 141). Nonetheless, a small pocket of Ukrainian nationalism prospered in a part of Western Ukraine that was under Habsburg rule (ibid., 141). Later on, when all of Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union, the Western Ukrainians who have been cultivating a nationality for nearly a century could not so easily assimilate to the imperial ruler’s (ibid., 141). On the contrary, Riabchuk argues that Ukrainians who were living in the East, furthest away from the nexus of modern Ukrainian nation-building, could easily internalize the familiar “Little Russian” identity (2015, 141). Today, Ukrainians who may be more favourable to a Russian national identity can be conflated with linguistic or regional groups. Nonetheless, the causal explanation Riabchuk establishes is between Eastern Ukrainians and centuries of forced Pan-Slavic ideology. Consequently, this indoctrination partially determines voting preferences. A Ukrainian citizen who lives in the Eastern Kharkiv Oblast may be more likely to vote for a pro-Russian party because of historical assimilation to Russian and Soviet ideology and identity. 

In sum, regionalism and historic independence from Russia have determined both electoral preferences and identification with the Ukrainian nationality. First, a Ukrainian voter is more likely to vote for a pro-Russian party simply to maintain good trade relations with a country that supports their regional industry. Originating from a Russian-speaking region in and of itself is not an indicator of Russian identity. Ukrainian national identity is the holistic result of its regional components — people from Eastern regions are proud to be both Ukrainian and from their specific region. Admittedly, regional identity can be confused with national identity in light of the second influential factor of voting behaviour — historical exposure to Ukrainian nationalism. Eastern regions have historically been under Russian influence longer than those in the West, and these regions are therefore more favourable to “neo-Soviet” parties. On the other hand, Ukrainian nationalists who are against Russian imperialism are more likely to be found in the West, where a Ukrainian national identity has been actively evolving for the past century. Ultimately, what the presented data does unambiguously prove is that language is not an explicit factor in determining either voting for nationalist parties or Ukrainian national identity. While regions in Eastern Ukraine predominantly speak Russian, ignoring the role of economics, geography and history would conflate correlation with causation. 

Conclusion: Call for Interpretivist Studies 

Ukraine is a rather bilingual state, and this comes as a surprise for two reasons. First of all, the very concept of the nation-state connects a political entity to a linguistic nationality, therefore a bilingual nation yet a unique state is a foundational contradiction. Second of all, since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has experienced two major social movements, the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions, which both had nationalist underpinnings in light of suspected Russian-prompted government corruption. Moreover, in the context of Euromaidan, Russia responded by physically compromising Ukrainian autonomy via its occupation in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. With both of these considerations in mind, this paper asked why Russian speakers can continue to identify as Ukrainian nationalists if their language does not correspond to their state, but rather to their state’s aggressor. Because the Ukrainian language is essential in defining nationalism, its superior symbolic position is unaffected by the Russian language, while also leaving room for other factors to define Ukrainian nationalism. The first half of this paper set out to defend the notion that Ukrainian national identity is not limited to the Ukrainian language while the importance of the Ukrainian language in nationalism is increasing, its role as the unique component of national identity is socially and politically constructed. The latter half of this paper aimed to understand which other factors compose the Ukrainian national identity, working backwards from voting patterns. This theoretical approach put forward by Brubaker however cautions the researcher that what people do with categories and how they interpret them are not necessarily congruent. In other words, Ukraine identity is not necessarily identical to voting patterns. In this way, the components of Ukrainian nationalism detailed in this paper remain speculative. 

As a matter of fact, Brubaker’s own study first and foremostly advocates for interpretivist research. Notably, their research in Cluj, Romania in the late 1990s was very ideational, and consisted of field work and interviews to attempt to understand conflict in terms more nuanced than “Hungarian versus Romanian” (2002, 178). Similarly, an early scholar of Ukrainian national identity, Stephen Shulman, conducted 1,000 interviews in Ukraine in 1998 to study how Russian and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians defined themselves. Shulman found that most Russian-speakers could conceptualize a dual Ukrainian national identity – as one of their respondents stated “I make a double choice. I consider equally native Ukrainian and Russian language, Ukrainian and Russian culture” (Shulman 1998, 621). This type of research should continue to be conducted in post-Euromaidan national identity studies. As well, interpretivist interviews and field work would fill the following gaps presented in this rather positivist research. Firstly, the cues and frames activated within peoples’ cognition when they meet someone of their own nationality could confirm whether or not the Ukrainian national identity is as inclusive as our research thus far suggests. When a Ukrainian speaker from L’viv meets a Russian speaker in Kharkiv who voted for a pro-Ukrainian party and identifies as a Ukrainian nationalist, would the person from L’viv really consider the Russian speaker a compatriot? While the research cited in this paper advances that language in and of itself is not a reason to vote for a pro-Russian party and thereby identify as Russian, can another person not interpret language as a subjective cue of Russian nationalism? Secondly, out of the two factors of Ukrainian national identity established in this paper, does one outweigh the other? “Ukraine” is the primary identifier for people living in Central and Western Ukraine, while it is secondary to regional identity in Eastern and Southern Ukraine (Kulyk 2016, 94). Perhaps Russian and Soviet indoctrination outweigh regionality in determining a sense of Ukrainian national identity. In brief, this paper is a theoretical steppingstone to further research into Ukrainian nationality. Many speculations and conclusions can be drawn from connecting theories and statistical findings, however understanding nationhood as a dynamic and cognitive category requires continuous interpretivist interviews.


Dariya (she/her) naturally veered towards comparative politics during her undergrad in political science and sociology. In reconciling her own Ukrainian-Russian background, Dariya uses her studies to personally and professionally concentrate on language politics and media studies in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, and she plans to further her interest as she starts her MA at Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy."



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