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Ethnic Russians in Ukraine: A look back

Ian Bremmer, Ph.D

Ian Bremmer’s Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here, kicking off another week.

It’s been a month now of a Russian invasion into Ukraine. Things certainly not getting any better on the ground. I could give an update of all of it, but rather than doing that, I wanted to go back to how I started my career as a political scientist, because believe it or not, it was on this issue.

I started my PhD work back in 1989. And as you can imagine, the most interesting thing in the world was that the Wall came down and the Soviet empire was collapsing, and the nationalities of the former Soviet Union were starting to explode. It looked like the whole place was going to come apart. And so that’s of course what I did my research on.

And most specifically I did my research on Russians in Ukraine. That was actually the title of my dissertation in 1994. Can you believe that? “The Politics of Ethnicity: Russians in the New Ukraine”, and it was kind of interesting. Back then, one of the most important theories of international relations, certainly very popular at the time, was this idea that, “Okay, the Cold War is over; the Soviet Union is collapsing, and instead we’re going to have a clash of civilizations.” This was Samuel Huntington, the Harvard don, his big article and book that said the new conflict that we would see now that it wasn’t going to be a Cold War. Was civilizational. Western civilization, Orthodox civilization, Islam, Hindu, Chinese, and along those lines are where the fighting would be.

And I mean, first of all, there’s a big question about whether that’s really true. That sounded like a horrible world to live in. So I hoped it wasn’t true. And there wasn’t a lot of actual research that drove that view in the book. It was just a lot of sort of analysis and implications. So I thought, well, here you have the Soviet Union collapsing, and by ’91 collapsed. And you’ve got a laboratory, a literal laboratory of 15 new countries. And outside of Russia, all of these former Soviet Socialist Republics that were ethnoterritorial administrative divisions. In other words, they were demarcated on the basis of the ethnic identity of the majority population on the ground there. So there was an Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic that became Armenia. There was a Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic that became Georgia. Ukraine as well.

And the interesting thing is that Russians, ethnic Russians, who were the dominant nationality, and in some ways the titular nationality of the Soviet Union, they became suddenly minority populations in all of these new independent states. And with the exception of Armenia where they were only a couple of percent of the population, they were more than 5% of the population in all of these countries. They were a significant minority. So here’s the question: do they or do they not clash on the basis of civilizational divide? And you could go on the ground, as I did, to Kazakhstan and to Ukraine and to Georgia, to these countries, and see to what extent there was conflict on the ground.

And I spent a year in Ukraine back in 1992 and 1993 across the whole country. I went to Kiev, Kyiv now, but Kiev when I was there. I went to Lviv, I went Crimea, I went to Southeast Ukraine, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and did survey research. Actually interviewed all of these people, Russians and Ukrainians and Tatars as well in Crimea, and asking them how they conceived of their role in this new country, with the idea that if there was a civilizational divide, you’d see fundamental conflict in places like Kazakhstan, where it was Islam versus Russian Orthodoxy, where in Ukraine you’d find much less of that. And the reason being is because civilizationally, these people are very, very similar.

I mean, in fact, you go to Crimea and Southeast Ukraine, you get people that they look the same, they have the same accent, they’ve got very similar cultural background, they see each other as very similar from an ethnic perspective. I mean, it’s true that the Ukrainians have borscht and the Russians have shchi, the cabbage soups. The industrious Ukrainians added the beets. Those are very similar thing, right? And they even in Southeast Ukraine had this kind of dialect that was a mix of Russian and Ukrainian language. So again, you’d think, no problem. And yet what I found, specifically in Crimea and Southeast Ukraine, in the part of Ukraine where the Russians were a large percentage of the population, they had lived there for a long time, and historically they viewed it as a part of a greater Russian nation, that they really saw it as Russian. And they saw it as not Ukrainian. And that identity was very strong.

Where in the West of Ukraine, where the Ukrainians were historically dominant, and it was not part of Russia, it was actually… Lviv used to be Lemberg. It was part of Poland. Didn’t have that sort of identification at all. So it seemed fairly clear even back in 1992, ’93, ’94, when I was writing my dissertation, that Crimea was something very different, that the vast majority of people that lived in Crimea wanted either the Soviet Union to come back together or they wanted to be a part of Russia. And indeed Crimea became an Autonomous Republic inside Ukraine with their own parliament. Everybody spoke Russian, and they even had a tricolor, Russian tricolor flag on top of the parliament. It felt very, very different. Southeast Ukraine was in between. Kiev was much more Ukrainian in sensibility, but the divides were still real. And the farther you got to the west, the more that didn’t really matter.

And indeed, if you went to Kazakhstan, it was very similar. It was how long Russians had been there and whether they thought it was their territory that mattered much more than the fact that the Kazakhs were Muslim and the Russians were Orthodox Christian. So in Northern Kazakhstan, there was much more of that identity, and in the south of Kazakhstan where Almaty was, at that point the capital, no such issue. And indeed, in other parts of the former Soviet Union, like in Transnistria on the Southwest Ukrainian border, this part of Moldova that is this breakaway Russian province, very similar for the ethnic Russians that were living there. So the good news is it turns out that there wasn’t a clash of civilizations. It wasn’t about Islam versus Christianity.

And indeed, if you pull forward the clock by some 30 years, it turns out that much of the most violent fighting that we talk about Islam, is really intra-Islamic fighting. It’s Sunni versus Shia. It’s not Muslim versus Christian. And indeed the worst fighting we’re seeing in the former Soviet space is between the Russians and the Ukrainians who are ethnically virtually identical and yet now we’re creating, and Putin is creating, an incredibly strong Ukrainian sense of nation because of the atrocities that are being committed every day on the ground in an independent Ukrainian state.

So, that’s where we are. I thought people would find that kind of interesting. It’s not every day you go back to talk about your PhD from some 30 years ago, but I was a baby when I wrote it. And frankly, I didn’t even make into a book. I was so sick of it at that point. I’m like, “Ah, let’s just move on, do other stuff.”

But happy to talk to you about it. And anyway, we’ll be keeping a close on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine and with the Russians and everything else. We’ll talk to you all real soon.

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