Language and ethnicity in Ukraine

Claims about language and ethnicity in Ukraine, including confusions between the two — for instance, that parts or all of eastern Ukraine are “majority Russian” — still appear in western media reports. Now that Vladimir Putin has proclaimed all of eastern and southern Ukraine “Novorossiya” (New Russia) — that is, “really” part of Russia and not part of Ukraine — these facts become all the more important to understand.

Here are a few maps to help with that.

The map below shows the majority “native language by city, town, and village according to the 2001 census, which is the latest censes carried out in Ukraine. Darker colors (such as dark blue for Ukrainian, dark red for Russian) indicate 80% or more majorities; lighter colors indicate a simple plurality. As can be seen, “majority Russian language” appears mostly (aside from Crimea) in urbanized pockets of far eastern Ukraine.



This clearly shows that Putin’s newly announced policy of considering all of eastern and southern Ukraine as “Novorossiya” (New Russia) is not based in contemporary linguistic reality. The language patterns are largely a product of settlement patterns in the Soviet period (which saw ethnic Russians encouraged to move to these parts of Ukraine) and Russian domination from the Russian empire onward.

The following map shows the percentage of ethnic Russians by province, according to the same census. Note that the only province in which there is an actual majority (darkest blue) of ethnic Russians is Crimea, which has now been de facto returned to Russia. The others all have Ukrainian ethnic majorities.


The only variable in contemporary language use that could provide any support for the “Novorossiya” claim is that of everyday language use (as opposed to native language claimed). Since the majority of Ukrainians are bilingual, having inherited their language practice from Soviet times when Russian language predominated in official culture (and Ukrainian language was often denigrated), there are many ethnic Ukrainians who speak “mostly” or “predominantly” Russian. This map shown an overlay of majority (plurality) ethnicity — ethnic Ukrainians are red and yellow, ethnic Russians are brown — with language use:


The trouble with the above map is that it doesn’t show any of the predominant shades of everyday bilingualism nor the amount of surzhyk — that is, mixed Russian-Ukrainian — spoken in many Ukrainians’ everyday lives. For that, we need more nuanced and qualitative analyses (like this one and this one).

It shouldn’t need mentioning that language use ought not dictate the country a region belongs to. Such a claim harkens back to colonial or imperial times, with former colonies being ripe for colonial or imperial reclamation (for instance, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United States by Britain, Austria and part of Switzerland by Germany, part of Belgium by France, much of South America by Spain or Portugal, and so on). Such a claim would be absurd in the twenty-first century.

This Washington Post article provides a lucid overview of the reasons why Ukraine’s ethnic and territorial integrity should take precedence over claims that parts of it are “really Russian.”


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