A short ethnic history of Ukraine...
...courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
I was working on something about the muddy and shifting nature of Ukrainian identity through history when I came across a report that the U.S. Bureau of the Census did on the ethnic makeup of Ukraine back in 1997. Actually, the report was focused on what the bureau called Ukraine’s “ethnic reidentification” — changes in how people saw their national and ethnic identity after the end of the Soviet Union.
What was the U.S. Census doing studying Ukraine? I don’t know. But if I had to guess I’d say this is what a meddling empire normally does in our technocratic data-obsessed age: it manically compiles information on everything and everyone, especially on its recently vanquished enemies.
The report’s pretty interesting. These days when people talk about Ukrainian national identity, they treat it as if it’s something set in stone and eternal and pure. But as the report shows, this identity can be and has been very fluid. Indeed, what it actually means to be Ukrainian has never been very clear, as there are many different ethnic groups with different languages and cultures that have lived on the territory for a long time. But the main takeaway from the report is that in the 1990s more and more Ukrainians began switching their self-identification from Russian to Ukrainian. Still, Ukrainian self-identity remained rather weak and in flux in large parts of the country.
The ethnic situation in Ukraine is much more complex than the census figures indicate. Normally, both parents of the self-declared Ukrainians are Ukrainian, but about a half of the self-declared Russians are of Ukrainian-Russian ancestry. During the last several years, some portion of that population has been identifying itself as Ukrainian. The political implication of this trend in the near future is uncertain. There is considerable ambivalence about the Ukrainian state and the relations with Russia, even among Ukrainians. The uncertainty becomes especially strong in the east and the south, and these regions have a large share of Russians and Ukrainians o f mixed ancestry. The territories were settled under the auspices of the Russian state, although Ukrainians comprised a majority by the end of the 19th century. Historical experience cannot be quantified, but the past influences the present. It is easier to accept Russian rule in the area where Russian domination spans generations than in the southwest, where the Russian influence was recent and brief.
It’s funny that twenty-five years later this general principle of a split and schizoid and morphing identity still holds in large parts of Ukraine — although my guess it that Russia’s invasion is speeding up the process of harding people’s positions on who they think they are and to what nation they think they belong.
That was true for a lot of people in eastern Ukraine starting back in 2014, who were bombed and shelled by the Ukrainian army and as a result had their sense of besieged Russianness only confirmed. And that’s even more true now on the other side for people being shelled and missiled every day by the Russian military.
I have no hard data on this but I imagine a lot of people there will have their Ukrainian national identity congeal in a big way, even those who might have been on the fence. I mean, who wants to identify with a country that’s currently bombing you and killing your family and your friends?
With this shitty and horrible war showing no signs of abating, only time will tell how all this national identity business will shake out. Nationalism is a weird ideology. It’s always ill defined and yet has claims to eternal status — as if this identity can be vectored back from today into the mists of history.