16 August 2014

Ethnicity in Donbass

War in Ukraine is inter-regional, not inter-ethnic

Since the onset of the war in Donbass in April the western media has been in pains as how to describe the anti-government side. The rebels have sometimes been referred to as "separatist rebels", which is not necessarily accurate, and at other times as "pro-Russian rebels", which is accurate but is not saying much. Lately some commentators have settled on designating the rebels the "ethnic Russian rebels". This designation seems convenient and doubtlessly gives the outsiders a sense of clarity and certainty, but while it is not entirely inaccurate, it can be extraordinarily misleading.

Indeed, looking at the official population census one will found that Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine are home to 2.8 million Russians who constitute 40% of the population of the area. This gives the western observers unable to describe what the conflict is about something to fall back on. The rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk are Russians and they are fighting because they are Russians. The story becomes a familiar one of ethnic differences.

Trouble is Donetsk and Lugansk regions are also home to other 4.2 million people who declare their nationality on official population censuses to be Ukrainian. Despite this the Ukrainian government troops have not found themselves welcome by populaces of towns they have re-captured as it would be expected if this was really a fight of Russian against Ukrainian.

Unlike in some of the other inter-ethnic wars we have witnessed, nobody in Donbass, whether the anti-government rebels, nor the Ukrainian military is going house to house demanding to know if the residents inside are Russian or Ukrainian. It would be pointless to do so, because there is no indication that there is any visible difference in the political attitudes of census Russians and census Ukrainians in Donbass. They are either both equally supportive of the anti-government rebels, or else equally ambivalent about them. Instead, the Ukrainian military is happy to shell towns and cities on its path killing its nominally ethnic Russian and Ukrainian citizens alike, and the rebel militias (like the Ukrainian army itself) is composed of both census Russians and Ukrainians.

The truth of the matter is that while there is a difference between Russian and Ukrainian that furthermore, can be very significant in a given context, this simply is not the case in Donbass. Due to a number of social, geographic and historical reasons Donbass is a region with a character that is at once Russian and Ukrainian and where forcing a choice between just one of the two does not come naturally.

Like much of what is now southern Ukraine and southern Russia this is land that was colonized under the Russian Empire, when it drew settlers from both Russia and Ukraine proper. As elsewhere in the Black Sea region Russian settlers were more likely to be drawn to towns, whereas Ukrainian colonists were initially more likely to take up farming. Nonetheless, despite this social difference between Russians and Ukrainians-Rusyns, due to a common faith and similar spoken tongues, there was never any communal parochialism. Other than a difference in class or wealth in Donbass there had never been an obstacle to Russian and Ukrainian-Rusyn associating or marrying. Unlike, for example, in the Balkans, which is also home to numerous ethnically-mixed regions, in Donbass Russians and Ukrainians did not merely live side by side, they lived together forming a single community. This became all the more pronounced when in the 19th century the region became a rapidly urbanizing industrial powerhouse giving rise to a new class of predominantly Ukrainian, but Russophone, urban workers.

The census data shows that Donetsk and Lugansk regions are 60% Ukrainian and 40% Russian, but this should be qualified. The census allows each individual to pick only one answer which is pre-packaged as either Ukrainian or Russian. However, in reality the Ukrainians and Russians in Donbass are intertwined beyond any clear distinction. After two centuries of intermarriage most everyone in Donbass has varying degrees of both Ukrainian and Russian ancestry. Even those who do not, often have relatives who are of the other ethnicity, or are themselves in an inter-ethnic marriage. For many in Donbass the census choice between Russian and Ukrainian is therefore somewhat arbitrary and forced. It feels like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Many in Donbass are comfortable identifying as both Ukrainian and Russian at the same time, and furthermore do not believe there is, or should be, any great difference between the two.

In the context of Donbass the sharp Ukrainian-Russian dichotomy makes as much sense as would forcing the Protestant community of Northern Ireland to declare itself either English or Scottish. Clearly it is the most comfortable identifying as both at the same time, which is to say as British. Because it can not pick on this overlap to take into account Russians-Ukrainians and Ukrainians-Russians the census considerably underestimates the proportion of people in Donbass who are at least somewhat comfortable thinking of themselves as Ukrainian, just as it considerably underestimates the proportion who are at least somewhat comfortable thinking of themselves as Russian.

It is the case that the canon of Ukrainian nationalism comes with a sense of historic victimization of Ukrainians at the hands of the Russians in the Russian and Soviet empires. However, this variant of Ukrainian nationalism grew out of centers of Ukrainian intellectual life much further west, and never had much sway in Ukraine's easternmost region. Rather than dwell on grievances against the Russians, the Ukrainians of Donbass are much more likely to point out their shared East Slav ancestry, the common heritage of Kievan Rus' and the history of common struggles such as the Great Patriotic War.

The fight in Ukraine is not between Russian and Ukrainian. Naturally, Donbass is Ukraine's most Russian region, but that does not make it any less Ukrainian. The anti-government rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk are as Ukrainian as the army and the militias arrayed against them. Only, they are a variant of Ukrainian as can be found in Donbass, rather than in Kyiv, Odessa or Lviv.

The conflict is regional rather than ethnic. It is a war of the rest of Ukraine against Donbass. It is the attempt by the Ukrainian state to quell the rebellion of Donbass against Kyiv, which since the overturn of February 22nd has been dominated by Western Ukrainian attitudes which are foreign and distasteful to the Ukrainian-Russian sensibilities of Donbass. It is a war to decide whether Donbass can remain Ukrainian in its own way, the way that is comfortable with Soviet and even Imperial Russian imagery, or whether it must experience its Ukrainian-ness the same way it is experienced on the Maidan in Kyiv.

Conceivably, if the war in Donetsk and Lugansk regions drags on, some in Donbass may yet decide they would rather not be Ukrainian in any sense, which may indeed give rise to a conflict between Russian and Ukrainian, but that would be something different and distinct from the Ukrainian inter-regional war that we are witnessing now.

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