Ethnicity and Language in Ukraine

In justifying military intervention in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has expressed determination to ‘defend’ those he considers as ‘Russians’ throughout the former Soviet Union.  But the definition of who is a Russian varies, and is particularly opaque in Ukraine’s case.

By Janet Gunn

The question of ethnicity and language in Ukraine – as in many countries – is complex. A very simple version is that in the west and centre of Ukraine the people speak Ukrainian and identify themselves as Ukrainians and, and in the east and south most people speak Russian and identify themselves variously as Ukrainian or as Russian.  But it is much more complex than this, and across the whole of Ukraine the majority of the population define themselves as Ukrainian, because they live in Ukraine and hold Ukrainian citizenship. The numbers of those who identify themselves as Russian is relatively small. Language is not always a reliable guide to ethnicity (ask German-speaking residents of Vienna or Zurich whether they are Germans and you might get a dusty answer!).

While most of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, western and south-western Ukraine was part of Poland or Romania prior to 1945, and earlier still, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The region’s economy is based on light industry, and it is known mainly for its universities, agriculture and tourism. So the Ukrainian language, culture and identity thrived there. In the farthest western corner there is a minority called the Ruthenians, also present in Hungary and east Slovakia, who speak Ruthenian, as well as smaller Hungarian and Romanian minorities.  

Eastern Ukraine was in some ways more deeply integrated into Soviet life because of its heavy industry, which produced armaments, ships, aircraft, missiles, machinery and chemicals, much of it jointly with factories in Russia. Migrant workers, some of them convicts, were brought from Russia to the Donbas coal mining area (around Donetsk) in the 1930s, as well as in the Nineteenth century; the Ukrainian peasants preferred to work the land.

So in the east, the language of commercial and administrative discourse was Russian, most of all in the Donbas and the iron and steel factories of Dnipropetrovsk. These strong links with Russia and the geographical and historical disconnect from western Ukraine have left their mark. Nevertheless, in the villages of eastern Ukraine Ukrainian was spoken and taught, while it has been in the cities and large towns that Russian has been dominant. An ethnic map of the eastern Ukrainian Kharkiv oblast (see below), for example, shows that in the main cities, Russian is mostly spoken, but in the small towns and villages, most people are Ukrainian-speaking.

It is also important to note that throughout its twenty-three  years of independence, nation-building in Ukraine has been a work in progress. Presidents Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko all contributed to the development of Ukraine’s national identity, and a whole generation has grown up during this period. In the east, there has been some resentment at the requirement for all children to learn Ukrainian, while in the south of Ukraine, where Russian was traditionally the main language, young people are now fluent in Ukrainian, even if they still speak Russian among themselves.

Blurred Concepts of National Identity

Statistics are problematic, because the last census in Ukraine was in 2001, and the nation-building project is likely to have moved on further still by now. The trends shown in language and ethnicity in 2001, compared with the previous census in 1989, are likely to have continued in the period since 2001, which is of about the same length. For example, in 1989 72.7 % of the population said they were Ukrainians – and in 2001 the figure was 77.8%. The numbers saying they were Russian were respectively 22.1% and 17.3%. (In 2001, 15% of those defining themselves as Ukrainians said their mother tongue was Russian, 85% said it was Ukrainian.)

Crimea is somewhat different, having been transferred from the Russian Republic to Ukraine in administrative terms only in 1954, and throughout Tsarist and Soviet times, it was a place of recreation for people from all over the country, as well as a major military base. Thus its cities have had a stronger Soviet and Russian identity than in the rest of Ukraine. It also differs in having a third distinctive ethnic/linguistic group, the Crimean Tatars, who speak a Turkic language.

In the second half of the 1980s the Tatars, deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944, began to return to their homeland, and since Ukrainian independence have identified most closely with the Ukrainian population of Crimea, rather than with Russia. Since independence many of the Slavic population of Crimea have had their jobs and livelihoods provided by the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and the Russian Federation began some years ago to offer them Russian passports.

Thus, in Crimea there are considerable numbers of people who are Russian citizens, as well as speaking Russian, while in eastern Ukraine there are people who might call themselves ethnic Russian and speak Russian, but are nonetheless Ukrainian citizens. These somewhat blurred concepts of national identity hark back in some ways to Soviet times, when Soviet ‘passports’ (identity documents) had a space which showed a person’s citizenship (Soviet), and another which showed their ‘ethnicity’, and citizens could choose how to define themselves ethnically.

Janet Gunn, independent international relations analyst, former research analyst, Foreign and Commonwealth Office


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