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Ethnicity does not determine political allegiance: Breaking through the stereotypes about Ukraine

Indifference is a crime. Let's build a new Ukraine together

March 18, 2014

By Laada Bilaniuk

“Russians don’t surrender.” These were the words of Ukrainian Navy Captain Maxim Emelianenko, in response to the demands for surrender made by Russian Federation Black Sea Fleet Vice-Admiral Alexander Vitko. Vitko then asked Emelianenko if he is Russian. Emelianenko confirmed that he is, even though his last name sounds typically Ukrainian. He added that many of his crewmembers are also ethnic Russians. Emelianenko explained that he has sworn allegiance to the people of Ukraine, and he has no intention of breaking his oath. Reportedly the Russian vice-admiral told his own crew to take this as an example and “learn — that is how one should serve with honor and conscience.”

In Kherson oblast, close to Crimea but technically already in mainland Ukraine, Russian troops have set up new border posts and put in a minefield. Several kilometers north, the Ukrainian army is setting up its defenses. When a journalist asked Major Yaroslav Kalashnikov of the Ukrainian Army whether he is Russian, Kalashnikov acknowledged he has “Russian blood,” but explained it is irrelevant. “It doesn’t make a difference to us. Our enemy doesn’t have an ethnicity. He’s our enemy. If you see a killer or a thief, you don’t say, ‘Oh, you’re Russian so I’ll let you off.’ If you’re an invader, we will fend off your invasion. It doesn’t matter who it is.”

Commentators so often refer to Ukraine as divided between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, or between speakers of Ukrainian and speakers of Russian. While these labels are easy to use for simplistic explanations, they obscure a very important fact: There are many ethnic Russians in Ukraine who support Ukraine’s territorial unity and sovereignty, and have no desire for Russia to take over their country.

The above incidents are not isolated cases. During seven months of field research in Ukraine in 2009, I often encountered ethnic Russians who were patriots of Ukraine. Many more were half ethnic Russian, or native Russian speakers of various ethnic backgrounds. The first few times I’ll admit I was surprised. I was specifically interviewing people who were activists for Ukrainian language and culture. I did not expect to find that among the people most actively engaged in supporting Ukrainian language and culture there would be native Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians. But this phenomenon — ethnic Russian and Russophone Ukrainian patriots — turned out to be commonplace.

Now, especially after the events of late 2013-early 2014, many people call themselves “Russian-speaking Ukrainian Nationalists.” After 22 years of independence, people whose ethnic heritage is not Ukrainian have embraced “Ukrainian” as a civic identity. Russia’s recent military invasion of Ukraine has sharpened this sense of civic identity. In response to Putin’s declarations that he will protect Russians and Russians speakers outside of Russia, there have been petitions by ethnic Russians and Russian speakers of Ukraine telling Putin they do not want his help.

One Facebook post, written in Russian, states: “Thank you to Putin. Thanks to him, for the first time in 40 years I realized that I love my country; I love it so much that it hurts. Thanks to him, for the first time in my conscious life, I will tell anyone anywhere in the world, with huge pride, that I am a Ukrainian! Thanks for the fact that I saw what wonderful and brave people live alongside me. Thanks that I realized the meaning of the words ‘freedom’ and ‘independence.’ Thanks to him, I can now explain this to my children.”

This statement was posted on Facebook on March 12, and three days later it had been shared 11,565 times. Some protesters have turned the mirror back onto Russia, as in signs declaring, “In Ukraine, Russians have more rights than in Russia,” and “In Ukraine, you have the right to speak in Russian; in Russia, you have the right to be silent in Russian.” There are many such examples circulating on the Internet these days.

People are declaring their Ukrainian patriotism, in some cases highlighting that the diversity of their ethnic backgrounds does not get in the way of being Ukrainians. A nice example is a group of people who perform an English translation of the Ukrainian anthem, interspersed with comments on their multiethnic heritage. The fact that this is an English translation shows that it is directed to an international audience, who may not understand the realities of Ukrainian identity. The ethnic diversity of Ukraine’s population is nothing new, but is has become an important aspect of post-Soviet Ukraine’s nation building.

There have been media campaigns emphasizing Ukraine’s diversity, such as the series of vignettes in honor of the 20th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence on the Ukrainian Inter TV channel. This series includes performances by 14 ethnic groups whose members live in Ukraine, including Russians, Roma, Gagauz, Georgians, Poles, and others, singing the Ukrainian anthem in their own languages. The group that performs the anthem in the original Ukrainian consists of eleven people, several of whom are visible minorities.

Text on this video states, “Ukraine is the homeland of 46 million citizens of various nations and faiths,” and “We are diverse, but we are united.” While these videos from 2002 can be considered promotional, and not necessarily representing popular views, the current crisis in Ukraine has changed this. Now many people assert their patriotism along with their non-Ukrainian ethnic background, and embrace Ukraine’s ethnic diversity.

The Russian government’s aggression is not the only factor that has led to a greater awareness of the positive aspects of ethnic diversity of Ukraine. As the conflict with President Yanukovych’s government came to a head, the first protester to die at the barricade was an ethnic Armenian. The second was a Belorusian. Later those killed on the Maidan by government forces included ethnic Russians, Poles, and Jews, as well as Ukrainians. Today the name of a Crimean Tatar who was found tortured to death has been added to the “Heaven’s Hundred,” (the popular name for the fallen heroes of the Maidan movement). While the Euromaidan involved a broad and diverse swath of society, Russia’s key propaganda point to discredit the movement was the involvement of Ukrainian far-right groups. They are present, but supported by only 2 to 3 percent of the population, according to a March 6 poll. Similarly, the violent activities of Russian far-right extremists in eastern Ukraine and Crimea should not overshadow the positive contributions of ethnic Russians.

The sacrifice of Ukrainians from different ethnic backgrounds symbolizes the spiritual unity of the country in fighting corruption and building a more just country, transcending ethnic divisions. While this sounds idealistic, that is the point. The events of the last few months in Ukraine were a revolution against cynicism and complacency, driven by a belief that the ideals of democracy and human rights are worth fighting for. Ukrainians have a long, hard road ahead of them, and idealism will be much needed to persevere.

Laada Bilaniuk is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. She is author of the 2005 book Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine.

Works Cited:

Командир ВМС Украины поверг в ступор вице-адмирала ЧФ РФ: ‘Русские не сдаются!’” Obozrevatel, March 4, 2014.

[1] Bender, Jeremy. “I’ll Shoot To Kill!”: Vice Reporter Near Crimea Threatened By Pro-Russian Ukrainian Riot Police.” Business Insider. March 12, 2014.

Ostrovsky, Simon. Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine (Dispatch Six). Vice News. March 6, 2014.