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Ukrainian National Identity: The "Other Ukraine"

Ukrainian national identity can best be understood by looking at Ukrainian society along a variety of different axes, said Andrew Wilson, Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of the University College in London, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 6 December 1999.

Wilson noted that data from the Soviet censuses that divide Ukrainian citizens into fixed ethnic groups overlook an important segment of Ukrainian national identity. He suggested a more complex model of Ukrainian identity--one that includes a substantial middle group between Ukrainians and Russians. It is this middle group, or "other Ukraine," that Wilson feels is the key to any potential majority in Ukrainian society.

He noted that the "other Ukraine" could be better captured by adjusting the census model to include the potential for dual identities or by adding the element of language to that of ethnicity. According to Wilson, surveys that are sensitive to dual identities suggest that some 27 percent of Ukrainian citizens identify themselves as both Ukrainian and Russian. Adding language as an element creates a similar middle area of 30-35 percent who consider themselves ethnically Ukrainian but whose language of preference is Russian.

Wilson went on to distinguish eight possible identities within this middle group. The first is the Soviet identity, to which up to 30 percent of the population identifies (at least in part). Wilson noted that these people regret the passing of the USSR and oppose Ukrainian independence. However, he suggested that "Soviet" may function as shorthand for other sorts of identities, such as Eurasianism or pan- (East) Slavism. Eurasianists see Ukraine as historically part of the Eurasian economic and cultural space. Pan-Slavism goes further, focusing on Ukraine's contribution to Russian culture and disregarding the west Ukrainian experience.

Wilson posited that a form of "Dnieper nationalism" may arise from this position. He described this as nationalism that is Ukrainian but based on Kyivan rather than Galician traditions. People ascribing to this identity are able to at once express the idea of a common east Slavic origin and still maintain their separate existence. This can be distinguished from Kievocentrism, in Wilson's view, in that the latter emphasizes a pan-Slavism centered on Kyiv as the inheritor of Rus' culture.

Wilson said some scholars have argued that Kievocentrism is countered by the "Creole nationalism" of the Russophone population. That is, Russophones as a newly post-colonial population are unsympathetic to Ukrainian culture. Local identities, in Wilson's view, may also be salient in Ukraine. In particular, he points to the Donbas and southern Ukrainian identities as prevalent forces. Finally, Wilson differentiates Galician nationalism, which views Western Ukraine as an agent of national unity and keeper of the true faith of Ukraine.

Wilson then introduced data from a survey conducted in March 1998 that sheds light on issues of national identity and the "other Ukraine." He noted that the surveys revealed little support for an exclusivist model of Ukrainian identity: almost 58 percent of respondents felt that legal citizenship or self-identification was sufficient to be considered Ukrainian.

Wilson also discussed respondents' views on historical events that are controversial to different nationalist mythologies. He showed that support for key elements of the Ukrainian nationalist mythology was nearly always lower than the number of ethnic Ukrainians, and often less than the Ukrainophone Ukrainian segment of the population. For example, Wilson reported that a plurality of respondents fell somewhere between the Ukrainian and Russian nationalist views of Kyivan Rus', noting that there was no clear division amongst the Eastern Slavs at that time.

Pan-Slavist or residual Soviet sentiments were evident in answers regarding Ukrainian independence. Wilson illustrated that more than 30 percent of respondents considered Ukraine's independence "a great misfortune, in so far as it meant the end of the USSR," while an additional 20 percent characterized it as "an unnatural break in the unity of the east Slavic peoples." Only slightly less than 9 percent agreed that Ukraine "won its independence in 1991 as a result of centuries of national-liberation struggle."

According to Wilson, questions on the inclusiveness of the state and on language use showed more moderate views. While 22 percent supported a state built on ethnic principles, 31 percent preferred a civic state, and 37 percent fell between the two extremes. The survey did show a widespread belief that Ukrainians continue to speak Russian because they were forced to do so in the past. However, Wilson noted that this was outnumbered by responses emphasizing voluntary Russian language adoption.

Wilson claimed that according to this analysis, rapid Ukrainization based on the narrow traditions of west Ukraine is unlikely to occur. He emphasized that this broad middle group could be a swing vote in Ukrainian politics. He concluded by outlining three possible scenarios for Ukraine: a Canada-like state with its own Russophone or Ukrainophone Quebec; slow Ukrainization leading to a consolidation around Dnieper nationalism; or a continuation and redefinition of the overlapping identities that currently make up the "other Ukraine."


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Nancy Popson

Senior Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more