After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the post-Soviet space faced both a political and an identity vacuum. While several of the newly independent states sought to redefine their foreign policies and forge new relations with the West, Russia struggled to redefine its identity as the successor of the Soviet Union. The new Russian Federation was simultaneously tasked with addressing geopolitical concerns of Western influence in the region as well as tackling Soviet nostalgia within its identity formulation. In fact, this Soviet nostalgia, coupled with the threat of Western interference, led Russia to adopt a strategy of maintaining deliberate control over the post-Soviet states. Ukraine, having both geographical as well as cultural significance for Russia, became crucial for the articulation of a post-Soviet Russian identity. Russia has, thus, adopted a two-pronged approach to its involvement in Ukraine: thwarting Western influence in the region and advocating an Eastern Slavic identity that premises a union between Ukrainians and Russians.
Remnants of Kievan Rus’: Competing Russian and Ukrainian identities
With the collapse of the USSR, different perceptions of a post-Soviet Russian identity have emerged amongst scholarly and political discourse, the most prominent being the ‘Russian language identity’ and an ‘Eastern Slav identity’. Ukraine is not only Russia’s close neighbour but a significant section of its population identities itself as Russian. According to a report by the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research, 8.3 million Ukrainian citizens identified themselves as Russian and 26.6 percent of the population indicated that Russian was their native language. This demographic has been politicized by Russia when formulating its foreign policy in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s significance for Russia, however, goes beyond mere concerns for the Russophone population living in the country. It is widely believed that the ancient Eastern Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ gave birth to the three modern states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Kievan Rus’ dates back to approximately the ninth century when Kyiv was established as the capital of the united Slav tribes in 882 AD. Kievan Rus’, hence, characterizes unity between the culture, the language, and the history of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
This creates a common Eastern Slavic identity for the three states justified by their historical roots. While the history of Kievan Rus’ is complex, the way in which it has been used to create a Russian ethnonationalist identity is important in understanding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The conception of Kievan Rus’ is used as a political tool to romanticize the Eastern Slavic past and instil a sense of nostalgia for a common ethnic identity. This telling of history has become a cause of contention between Russia and Ukraine. While Russian historians see the Kievan Rus’ as an early stage in the formation of the modern Russian state, Ukrainians view their national history as a series of struggles against Russia’s imperialist presence in the region.
For Russia, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan protests a decade later have shown that Ukraine is moving away from its common Eastern Slavic identity ties with Russia to an independent, civic identity. Ukraine had sought to fill the ideological vacuum of the Soviet Union through developing an inclusive civic identity for itself. This meant that the Ukrainian identity was not limited to a particular ethnic or Ukrainian-speaking group but rather extended to include all those who were citizens of the country.
Different minority groups, including those who identified as Russians, were able to keep their affiliations to their cultural identities while simultaneously being loyal to the Ukrainian state. Although this civic identity was relatively unproblematic, it was the deepening of a pro-Western sentiment in Ukraine that threatened not only Russian geopolitical interests in the region, but also its ethnonationalist identity tied to the Eastern Slavic state of Kievan Rus’. This ethnonationalist identity effectively clashed with the civic identity that Ukraine is trying to forge for itself.
The modern imperial identity: the case of the annexation of Crimea
The annexation of Crimea has meant different things for Russia and Ukraine. The word ‘annexation’ is, in itself, disputed within this context. As evident from Putin’s succinct remark in his speech on the 18th of March, 2014:
“The referendum was fair and transparent, and the people of Crimea clearly and convincingly expressed their will and stated that they want to be with Russia”,
Russia sees Crimea’s union with the state as wilfully carried out through a referendum. Ukraine, on the hand, asserts that Crimea has been annexed by Russia as an attempt to involve itself in domestic Ukrainian politics.
Russia’s history can be conceptualized as a series of different statehoods beginning from the ancient Eastern Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ to the union of multiple nations within the USSR and now, to the modern Russian Federation. These stages in Russia’s history have not only shaped Russia’s perceptions of its identity but have also affected Russia’s relations with its neighbours. Conversely, since independence from the USSR, Ukraine has attempted to build a civic identity for itself which is distinct from the ethnonationalist project undertaken by Russia. Owing to this ethnonationalist perception of a post-Soviet identity, Russia has been unable to let go of its imperialist mentality attached to its privileged position in the former Soviet space.
By Paakhi Bhatnagar
Paakhi is a final year International Relations student and the co-Head Editor of King’s Think Tank. Her works have previously been published on the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Agora Think Tank, Strife blog, etc. You can find her on Twitter: @paakhibhatnagar.
The featured image (top) is by Jordan Busson on Flickr and is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
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