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How Russia conducted a centuries-long destruction of the Ukrainian identity in the Ukraine’s eastern regions

How Russia conducted a centuries-long destruction of the Ukrainian identity in the Ukraine’s eastern regions

One of the most beloved narratives of Russian propaganda is the use of a historically incorrect thesis about the alleged belonging of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Russia. Despite its fictious nature, this sentiment is frequently cited by Russian propagandists in the media and Russian politicians alike as a means of justification for military aggression.

Despite what the fabricated narratives posit, Luhansk and Donetsk regions are Ukrainian regions – their real history serves as evidence.

For centuries Russia has been Russifying the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine and suppressing any expression of a Ukrainian identity in every possible way. What methods Russia used for this and what it led to — read in our special publication.

Destruction of language

One of the main arguments of Russian propaganda regarding the alleged belonging of Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Russia is the use of the Russian language by the regions’ local residents. While the language is indeed commonly used – albeit the frequency of its use rapidly decreasing today in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine – Russian propagandists fail to  mention what exactly led to the spread of the Russian language in these regions.

If we look back at history, the situation was different in the past. According to the census of the Russian Empire in 1897, more than 58% of people named the Ukrainian language as their mother tongue in the Bakhmut district of the Donetsk region. In the Mariupol district of the Donetsk region, this number was 46%. Conversely, the number of those who considered the Russian language as their native language in the same districts was recorded as much lower at that time with 31% in the Bakhmut district and 14% in the Mariupol district.

Centuries of severe oppression and prohibitions faced by the Ukrainian language and the Ukrainian identity at large, first under the Russian Empire and later under the Soviet Union, contributed to the reversal of these statistics. 

Long-term aggressive Russification policy had led to the gradual elimination of the Ukrainian language from official use and to its entrenchment as an inferior, secondary language. The Russian language was institutionalised as the sole dominant language.

Hunger as a weapon

In 1932-33, Ukraine experienced one of the biggest tragedies in its history —  Holodomor, otherwise known as the Great Famine. As a result of man-made famine, orchestrated by the Soviet regime, an estimated 3 to 8 million Ukrainians were starved to death. 

The Donetsk region is among the ten regions most affected by the Great Famine and the repressions of the Great Terror. According to the Ukrainian Institute of Demography, 230,000 people were victims of famine in the Donetsk region and 31,560 people became victims of mass starvation in the Luhansk region. Workers of the local factories received meager portions of food and were subject to starvation. As strikes began, the manufacturers were brutally suppressed.

“There were seven of us in the family — father, mother, three brothers, me, and my elder sister. It was a terrible time, there was nothing to eat, and all food was taken away. We ate grass and leaves. My little brother began to swell up from hunger,” recalls Palaрhia Sokha from the village of Trembachevo in the Luhansk region, in her interview with Suspilne national broadcaster. She was 9 years old during the Holodomor.

Purposeful demographic change

After the famine killed thousands in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the Soviet authorities took to resettling Russian families into areas previously populated by Ukrainian peasants. The Soviet authorities allocated 15 million rubles for their resettlement.

According to KGB archives, Russian collective farmers were resettled to the Donetsk, Lugansk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv regions. Upon settling in Ukraine, Russian farmers were provided with significant benefits.

According to the Holodomor National Museum, 21,000 families of Russian collective farmers were resettled in Ukraine from the second half of 1933 to 1934.

However, Ukrainian historians recognise that artificial assimilation of Russian farmers in the eastern regions of Ukraine had a limited impact if considered as a standalone factor. 

Political repression

Another Russian means of erasing the Ukrainian nation were political repressions. From first attempt to establish Soviet power in 1918 to  the second half of the 1980s, the terror was purposeful and organized, and where there was an absence of terror, paranoia and fear prevailed. 

One of the crime scenes of the Soviet regime in the Donetsk region is the Rutchenkove field. During excavations in the spring of 1989, remains of men with bullet holes in their skulls were discovered. The dead turned out to be victims of the repressions of the 1930s-1940s. 

Creation of the myth about separatism

After repressing, starving, killing and forcibly Russifying thousands in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions for decades, Russia did not let go of its attempts to erase the Ukrainian identity of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. These attempts reached their peak in 2013-2014 when Russia forcibly introduced a narrative that the majority of the inhabitants of the regions supported separatism and the idea of “joining” Russia.

According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation conducted in February 2014, 33% of the residents of the Donetsk region and 24% of the population of the Lugansk region were in favor of joining Russia. In the same survey, 79.7% of the Donetsk region respondents and 72.7% of the Luhansk region respondents were in favour of Ukraine and Russia remaining as two independent states.

The lack of a majority support did not prevent Russia from invading an independent state and occupying parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The consequences of the Russian occupation were horrific for these territories — from economic recession to bans on the learning of the Ukrainian language to political repressions.

In 2022, Russia continued further by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As a result of Russian mass shelling, many cities and villages in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were simply wiped off the face of the earth.

Prepared by Diana Matviiv 

Designed by Vladyslav Rybalko


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