Discrimination and repression against Russians in Ukraine before the beginning of Special Military Operation (SMO)

Kirill V. Cherkashin

Candidate of Political Sciences, senior lecturer,

Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science of

Donetsk National University (Donetsk, DPR)

Русская версия

Version française

Great Russians in Ukraine. According to the results of the last Ukrainian national census of 2001, ethnic Russians («Great Russians») made up 17.3% of the population of Ukraine or 8 million 334 thousand people [1]. This is the largest representation of Great Russians outside the Russian Federation, or about 6% of their total number in the world. In 36 of the 668 administrative-territorial units (ATU) of Ukraine, Russians/Great Russians made up the majority: primarily in the Crimea and large cities of Donbass. At least some part of the territory of the former Ukraine certainly belongs to the zone of ethnogenesis of the Great Russians (formation of the Great Russians as a (sub)ethnos): parts of the L-DPR that previously belonged to the lands of the Don Army, Severshchina (Goryun subethnos), Slobozhanshchina, and most importantly, the regions of Novorossiya (South-East of the former Ukraine), the former sparsely populated «Wild Field», in the XVIII-XX centuries, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were inhabited by residents of both Little Russian and Great Russian regions. During the period of the Empire in Novorossiya, and to a large extent throughout the whole territory of Ukraine, the Great Russians made up the majority or a significant part of the population in at least large cities. Thus, the Russians / Great Russians in Ukraine are autochthonous peoples, these territories were developed by them as well, and belong to the zone of their formation as a (sub)ethnos.

Russians and Great Russians. After the October Revolution both the concepts were equalized, even though prior to that the term Russian was used to describe Great Russians, Little Russians/Ukrainians, and Belarusians (the concept of the triune Russian people). During the USSR period, the concept of «friendship of peoples» and three fraternal (but separate) East Slavic peoples was embodied as an official state doctrine. This vision of the Bolsheviks was due to a number of ideological reasons:

1) emphasizing the democratic nature of the movement that meets the interests of various ethnic groups;

2) counting on the world revolution and the accession to Soviet Russia and other national entities (in addition to Soviet Ukraine and Belarus – Soviet Poland, Hungary, Germany, and so on);

3) opposition to the concept of «united and indivisible Russia» supported by the White Movement.

As a result, in Ukraine (and not only) there was a certain confusion of these two concepts. The Great Russians were called Russians, but people who grew up in numerous «international» East Slavic families often considered themselves Russians as well. That is, a Russian is either a Great Russian or a supporter/representative of Slavic unity.

A significant part of people, at least starting from the Middle Soviet period until the early 2000s, thought little about their ethnicity, many considered themselves Ukrainians as well as representatives of the fraternal Russian (Great Russians) people. Russian population gradually grew in the Republic during the Soviet period and the share of Ukrainians decreased somewhat; since 1991, the share of Ukrainians has been growing and the share of Russians has been decreasing (partly due to migration and change of identity, and mostly due to the younger generation, who were taught that if you were born in Ukraine, then you are Ukrainian). At the same time, for the majority of residents until 2004, and especially until 2014, the question of ethnicity was not of importance or high-priority. This tendency is clearly visible in the language issue. For example, according to the results of the last census of 2001, 67.5% of the country’s residents called Ukrainian their native language. (Although a significant part of the residents, in fact, understood by Ukrainian various variants of «surzhik»: a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian languages). At the same time, according to the results of a survey by the authoritative Gallup Institute in 2006-2007, 83% of respondents in Ukraine preferred to be interviewed in Russian [2]. Even in 2019, the ratio of query languages in the Google search engine from the territory of Ukraine was as follows: 86% — Russian, 10% — Ukrainian; 4% — English [3]. That is, the vast majority of Ukrainian residents prefer to communicate in Russian. At the same time, a significant part of the population calls Ukrainian native, but does not communicate in it.

Thus, Russians in Ukraine can be understood as: 1) Great Russians; 2) supporters of the trinity of the East Slavic «peoples» (both Great Russians, and Little Russians / Ukrainians, and Belarusians, who recognize that together they are one people). In the article, we will try to separate these two concepts, but we will consider repressive and discriminatory measures against both of these groups.

The state of affairs from 1991 to 2014. Ukraine in this period of time was a very peculiar state. Perhaps it can be compared with Belgium, in which there are two influential and approximately equal communities in quantitative terms: Flemings close to the Dutch and Walloons close to the French. Similarly, the western regions of Ukraine constantly supported pro-Western/anti-Russian political forces, while the eastern regions voted for pro-Russian ones. This feature manifested itself already in 1991: in referendums on the preservation of the USSR and on the independence of Ukraine, as well as in the presidential elections of that year. Then the division into «West» and «East» manifested itself in almost every important vote, and the country was alternately ruled by pro-Western and «pro-Russian» political forces until 2014. It is difficult to call such a system democratic, because it was connected with democracy only by the relative transparency of the majority of votes and the periodic change of power groups in the country’s leadership. However, it lacked an important component, the possibility of at least some serious monitoring of compliance with election promises. For example, the «pro-Russian» President Kuchma was elected in 1994 under the promises of rapprochement with the Russian Federation, granting the Russian language official status and greater rights to the regions. But two years later, with his active participation, a new constitution is adopted, in which unitarity and only one state language are prescribed, with the actual impossibility of changing this provision, even with the help of a referendum. And the «pro-Russian» Yanukovych, who also promised state status to the Russian language, federalization and friendship with Russia during the election campaign, quickly forgot most of his promises after coming to power. And, in particular, he himself led to the possibility of signing an association agreement with the EU, which became the main reason for the coup in 2014.

Already during this period, first of all, under pro-Western presidents (but not only), the following clear signs of discrimination against Russians (both in the narrow and broad meaning of this ethnonym) began to appear in Ukraine:

1. Forced (linguistic) Ukrainization. The Russian language, native even for many ethnic Ukrainians according to official statistics, has been pushed out of the informational, educational and other spaces in every possible way. The document flow was almost completely Ukrainized. Quotas were introduced for the mandatory representation (and often dominance) of the Ukrainian language in television and radio, book printing, film dubbing and many other areas. For example, the proportion of students studying in Russian decreased as follows:

Table. 1. The share of Ukrainian schoolchildren, who had education with Russian as their language of instruction (%) [4, 5]

% schoolchildren5439,236,534,431,828,926,625,323,97

In February 2012, the so-called «Law on Regional languages» (the law «On the Basics of State Language Policy») was adopted, which granted the Russian language the status of a regional language in certain territories. However, in Ukraine, with its highly centralized system of public administration, even this law provided few opportunities at the regional level. Nevertheless, the law on regional languages was the first to be abolished by the parliament under the influence of the Maidan in February 2014.

2. Through the media, the education system and state propaganda, the ideas that Russia and the Russians are the main enemies of Ukraine were introduced with more or less intensity. Inclusion in the Russian state in the past and the proximity of the Russian Federation at the moment were cited as the reasons for the problems and backwardness of the state. One of the important elements of this myth is the «Holodomor», presented as a genocide of Ukrainians by the Russians. Historical subjects were modified to fit into the myth of Ukraine as a former colony, constantly fighting for independence.

3. In general, the ideas of integration with the Russian Federation or within the CIS were considered as an attempt on state sovereignty, unlike, for example, integration with the EU and NATO (after all, states allegedly do not lose sovereignty within the latter). The idea of equality of the pro-Russian geopolitical vector and anti-state activity was introduced into the public consciousness.

4. A number of official and unofficial organizations were actively active, promoting Russophobic ideas and ethnic hostility towards Russians and Russia. The most radical of them are: IO «Svoboda» (since 2012 — a faction in parliament), UNA-UNSO, Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, «Patriot of Ukraine», «Trizub», «Bratstvo», «Sovereign Independence of Ukraine». All extremist slogans against the Russian population arose and sounded on the streets of cities and villages of Ukraine long before 2014. Attempts to conduct a dialogue on the issue of taking into account the rights of Russians often encountered even greater escalation and new anti-Russian slogans. 

The situation after 2014. All the processes and phenomena described above have moved to a new stage in qualitative and quantitative terms after 2014. Violent actions have become more frequent in relation to Russians (and political opponents in general). Moreover, individual murders took place even before the secession of Crimea — during the events of «Euromaidan» in early 2014 (the murders of law enforcement officers and «anti-Maidan» or those who were considered them).

Repression during this period came from both official state structures (for example, the SBU) and formally independent «activists» («hundreds of Maidan», official and unofficial organizations), who often acted under the leadership or cover of the state or oligarchic groups. The main repressive and discriminatory manifestations during this period were as follows:

1. Repression against activists of the «Russian Spring» and any pro-Russian elements. They began in 2014 and were justified by fears for the territorial integrity of Ukraine after the separation of Crimea. At first it was arrests and intimidation, then it turned to murders, including mass ones. The most famous such case is the murder in the Odessa House of Trade Unions on May 2, 2014. According to official data, more than 40 people died there; according to unofficial data it was several hundreds. It is noteworthy that in the official list of the dead, both Russian and Ukrainian surnames are represented more or less equally, i.e. the confrontation in Ukraine was and still is not of a purely ethnic nature, but rather a political and ideological one. Intimidation, arrests and imprisonment, expulsions from the territory of Ukraine and murder: these are the main methods used against activists advocating integration with Russia. Often they were ethnic Russians (Great Russians), but not always. One of the most famous political murders is of the writer Olesya Buzina, which no one has been prosecuted for so far. It is difficult to determine the total number of activists or those who were deemed to have been subjected to such repression at the moment, but at least several thousand people were imprisoned or killed (some of them are still in prison).

2. Indiscriminate shelling and other war crimes on the territory of Donbass. Ukrainian armed formations with the help of artillery, and at the initial stage (while it was safe) with the help of aviation, carried out deliberate terrorist shelling of residential neighborhoods. One of the goals of these actions in 2014 was to expel as many residents from the cities as possible before storming. In addition to the shelling of the population of Donbass, which the new Ukrainian regime considered disloyal, a variety of crimes were carried out. A significant part of such actions is reflected in the «White Book of Crimes» published by the RF IC, but it is not yet possible to accurately estimate the number [6]. According to official UN statistics, about 13.5 thousand people died as a result of the conflict in Donbass until February 2022, a little more than four thousand of representatives of the armed formations of Ukraine (AFU), and respectively about 10 000 civilians and militia of Donbass. According to unofficial statistics, the number of victims of the conflict was about 50 000 people. Probably, the number of victims was higher than the official one, at least due to the fact that millions of refugees from Donbass left for Ukraine and the Russian Federation, and a significant part of people went missing. According to official Ukrainian data, the number of internally displaced persons in the country amounted to almost 1.5 million people. The number of refugees in the Russian Federation is estimated at about the same number. Almost 4 million people in the territories controlled by the L-DPR were subjected to periodic shelling from the AFU, and were also in an economic blockade. Up to 3.5 million people in the territories of Donbass controlled by Ukraine were in actual occupation.

3. Harassment on political and ethno-cultural grounds. In several stages, the activities of all political forces that advocated integration with the Russian Federation were banned. In accordance with the new language and educational laws, the use of the Russian language was punishable by fines from employers even in the non-governmental sphere (service sector, any public events, etc.), and education was almost completely translated into Ukrainian. The law on indigenous peoples was adopted, according to which only Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars were recognized as such. The laws on decommunization banned almost everything Soviet, including those related to the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. The policy of de-Russification, forced Ukrainization and assimilation was actively pursued in the country. 

Conclusions. A conscious policy of discrimination and assimilation was carried out against Russians (both as an ethnic group of Great Russians, and as supporters of the trinity of Great Russians, Little Russians and Belarusians), gradually it turned into mass repression, including murder. Moreover, these repressions were, first of all, not even ethnic, but political in nature. A Great Russian who renounced his identity or opposed Russia, as a rule, is not persecuted: individual ethnic Russians serve in Ukrainian national debates, and individual Russians, supporters of neo-Nazism, can also be found there. All this suggests that discrimination and repression in Ukraine are directed primarily against the political opposition, supporters of the ideas of all-Russian unity and subjectivity of Russia. Such a split has obvious features of a civil conflict (a civil war involving not only the territory of Ukraine, but also most of the post-Soviet space). The suppression of the political opposition has been carried out all these years with the tacit approval of the collective West, which uses the narrative of democracy selectively in its own geopolitical interests.

References and sources

1. Ukrainian National Population Census 2001 // URL: http://2001.ukrcensus.gov.ua/rus (accessed: 29.05.2022).

2. Russian Language Enjoying a Boost in Post-Soviet States // URL: http://www.gallup.com/poll/109228/Russian-Language-Enjoying-Boost-PostSoviet-States.aspx ?version=print (accessed: 29.05.2022).

3. Google vs. Ukraine // URL: https://colonelcassad.livejournal.com/5598213.html (accessed: 29.05.2022).

4. International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies // URL: http://www.igpi.ru/info/people/malink/1111152776.html (accessed: 05/29/2022).

5. From East to West: Where in Ukrainian schools they teach in Russian // Donetsk news, 24.01.18 // URL: https://dnews.dn.ua/news/664298 (accessed: 29.05.2022).

6. The tragedy of the south-east of Ukraine. The White Book of Crimes / Ed. by D. yurid. n. A.I. Bastrykin. 2nd ed., additional M., 2015. – 368 p. // URL: https://sledcom.ru/upload/site1/document_file/BELAYa_KNIGA_russkaya.pdf (accessed: 05/29/2022).