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Home » Cultural Geography, Editorial, Ethnicity, Geopolitics, Linguistic Geography, Myth of the Nation-State, Nationalism, Regionalism

My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions

Submitted by on October 15, 2014 – 2:06 pm 13 Comments |  
Ukraine Political Regions 1Several months ago, I posted an article and a map on GeoCurrents in which I divided Ukraine into a “nationalist” region and a “Russian-oriented” region. In retrospect, it seems that most of the area that I had designated as “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” does not actually fit that category. Despite the fact that a few pro-Russian demonstrations have occurred in a number of cities in this region, the bulk of it has remained calm and shows no signs of giving substantial to support pro-Russian separatists. A recent Harvard study indicates as much:

A new study conducted at Harvard University suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians may be significantly more supportive of Kyiv’s standoff against Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists than has previously been reported. …

What was surprising, “very surprising” [Bruce] Etling said, was the portion of Russian-language content coming specifically from within Ukraine that was backing the Euromaidan protests. “In Ukraine, among Russian-speakers, 74 percent were supportive of the protests, and only a quarter were opposed,” he said.

Ukraine 2004 election mapI had based my idea of a “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” not so much on linguistic geography as on electoral geography. The area that I had so designated had consistently supported candidates oriented more to Russia than to Europe and more in favor of decentralization than of a strong, unitary state. But evidently it was one thing to vote for a Ukrainian party that leaned toward Moscow and eschewed strong Ukrainian nationalism and quite another to want to see the break-up Ukraine Political Regions 2of Ukraine and the establishment of pro-Russian “statelets”. As a consequence, I have redrafted the map. In its new form, only Lugansk and Donetsk—much of whose territories now form two unrecognized, pro-Moscow “People’s Republics”—are deemed “Russian-Oriented.” (Crimea is still designated as “Russian-Occupied.”) The rest of southeastern Ukraine has been relabeled as “ambivalent,” which is probably not the best term.

New Novorossiya mapI am hardly the only one to have made this error. Many Russian nationalists, for example, openly refer to the entire expanse of southeastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” (As this term Novorossiya Map 2dates back to the conquest of this region from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1700s, “Novorossiya” now seems to connote to such people something on the order of “New Old New Russia.”)

Major threats to Ukraine’s national integrity, of course, still exist—and not just in the far east and Crimea. Last night’s ultranationalist protests in Kiev (Kyiv) were discussed in a blog-post today by Walter Russell Mead under the heading “Prelude to Dismemberment?” Such an assessment, however, seems rather extreme to me.

Ukraine Language MapLanguage maps showing the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country are themselves fascinating, as they tend to vary greatly in their depictions. I have posted here two extremes. The first is a recent Wikipedia map, derived from 2001 census data, that shows almost the entire country as strongly Ukrainian-speaking. The second, which also relies on information from the 2001 census (albeit aggregated in a different manner), shows the Ukrainian language as limited Ukraine Language Map 2to the far west; it also indicates that the entire southeast, and much more of the country as well, is actually Russian speaking. Most intriguingly, it depicts the core north-central region of the country as “Surzhyk speaking,” Surzhyk being an informal Russian-Ukrainian hybrid, described by the Wikipedia as:

a range of mixed (macaronic) sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine and adjacent lands. There is no unifying set of characteristics; the term is used for ‘norm-breaking, non-obedience to or nonawareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages.’


The linguistic situation here is obviously highly complex. Rather than wade into these murky waters myself, I would refer readers to an excellent recent post on this issue by Asya Pereltsvaig in her website Language of the World.



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  • Randy McDonald

    As I’ve stated elsewhere, especially if you drill down below the oblast
    level, it looks very much like pro-Russian sentiment is concentrated
    among ethnic Russians specifically, not Russophones generally. In
    Donetsk and Luhansk, the pseudo-republics are located in apparently
    Russian-majority urban areas, while their hinterlands remain under
    Ukrainian government control. This demonstrates that Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians are as real a thing as English-speaking ethnic Irish.

    • Excellent points. It is important, as you say, to “drill down below the oblast level.” And once again, we are reminded that language does not necessarily indicate ethnicity.

  • A similar phenomenon exists here in Taiwan: about half of the population votes for “China-friendly” parties and even for candidates who are probably privately unificationists, but a vast majority still considers Taiwan to be de facto independent and strongly rejects even eventual “reunification” with China.

    • Great point. Perhaps this same phenomenon can be found elsewhere as well.

  • As for language in Ukraine, most maps suffer from a binary depiction of only the majority language in each administrative division, regardless of how narrow that majority may be. As in the Wikipedia map, the effect becomes extreme when drilling down the raion level, where densely-populated urban neighborhoods, which might have higher proportions of Russian-speakers, appear equal to sparsely populated rural areas.

    Back in March I did a direct mapping of the census data by oblast, using smooth color gradients to show the relative proportions of Russian and Ukrainian speakers in each region. You can see from it that most oblasts in “ambivalent Ukraine” are heavily mixed linguistically (second map in the article, below the election map):

    • Excellent points and great maps. I would like to learn more about one of the most heavily mixed areas, Budjak or Budzhak ,in southwestern corner. Here we have many Ukrainians and Russians, but also many Bulgarians, Moldovans, and Gagauz.

      • Thanks, and agreed. Would be interesting to know more about the less-talked-about but more linguistically diverse areas.

  • A.F

    As regards Ukrainian and Russian languages, it is interesting to note that some of the people fighting on the separatist side speak in mixed Ukraino-Russian to the interviewers of the separatist TV journalists.
    It seems to me that most people in the Novorossiyan area have at least a passive knowledge of (basic) Ukrainian.
    Besides, the Ukrainian forces are shelling villages in the separatist area, and destroying houses that belong to ethnic Ukrainians who were peacefully living in this area. Never forget a war crime is going on, committed by Kyev in the first place.

    • Mixed Ukrainian-Russian (Surzhyk) does seem to very common everywhere but the far west. Considering how closely related the two languages are, that is really no surprise.

  • Fwenchfwies

    I’m disappointed in your new posts, so slap-dash, careless, shallow. Over the past 12 months, I had come to expect much more of you.

  • WSmith

    I wouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss the level of support the Russians have. It looks as if many people are keeping their heads low. Places like Mariupol, Sloviansk and Kramatosk rebelled by themselves early in the spring. They only came back to Ukrainian control when the army was sent in. After that not a peep was heard. I guess the sight of guys with guns is keeping them quite and nobody wants artillery or shells flying around.

    What is interesting however is the election result in October. If you look at the wikipedia map it clearly shows that Russian speaking areas outside of the warzone had a dreadfully low turnout.Odessa for example had a turnout of just under 40%. Even with that low turnout people still voted in the remnant of Yanukovych’s party.

  • LT PZ

    1) Wikipedia is NOT always the truth or fact, especially when Moscow has interest in the topic…
    2) If one learns the true history of Ukraine and its people, then one automatically knows and understands that just it was witnessed on the Maidan… Ukrainians are people who are not only peace-loving by nature, but even under Russian occupation, have always had a 99% “Ukrainian” literacy rate! Ukrainians are quick to organize for a cause to protect their heritage!
    But most of all, due to a horrifying history of everything from persecution to country-wide famine, that killed almost 10 million, Ukrainians are very cautious of who they trust with personal information… and speaking Ukrainian is a dear and personal thing to Ukrainians. So with years of living under a corrupt, Russian financed government, do you honestly think that any data is the truth when it’s from sources that are not secure?
    Thriving Ukrainian communities exist on every continent! In Canada, it is one of the three “official” languages in that country! As in any diaspora country where Ukrainians reside, this was possible only because Moscow could not undermine the forward progress of these Ukrainians, like Moscow continues to do in Ukraine to this day!
    Learn the history, learn the truth… and NOT from Wikipedia!

    • Both sides spam the media and the web with their propaganda, and sometimes both sides lie about the same thing.