Russo-Ukrainian War - Nationalism in the Cradle of Slavism: from Ashes to Clashes

  Focus - Allegati
  24 novembre 2022
  22 minuti, 54 secondi

Russo-Ukrainian War - Nationalism in the Cradle of Slavism: from Ashes to Clashes


We continue our cycle of publications on the Russian-Ukrainian War by providing a cultural picture of the Ukrainian and Russian societies since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We continue the publications in this paper: the aim is to explain the correlations between present-day Russia and Ukraine, particularly in their social, cultural and linguistic areas and to analyze nationalism of both countries.

Firstly, the social and demographic pre- and post-war situations of recent times are analysed as well as the cultural ones and the linguistic connections, which represent a point of departure from the ideological union of the two nations. Secondly, nationalism in Russia is analyzed and its implications on Ukraine. Thirdly, nationalism in Ukraine is assessed as well as its development.

Can we say that Russia and Ukraine have the same roots and what about the future?


Giulia Tessadri - Head Researcher, Mondo Internazionale G.E.O Politics

Chiara Merlin - Junior Researcher, Mondo Internazionale G.E.O Politics

Nicholas Sartori - Junior Researcher, Mondo Internazionale G.E.O Culture and Society

1. Correlations between Russia and Ukraine's Culture, Language and Society

1.1 Society

In order to understand the differences and commonalities between Russian and Ukrainian culture, societies and languages, we could start with a historical background, which is discussed in detail in the first part of this series. Russia has always been known as 'The Russia of Kiev' and already from this assumption we can derive a lot of information: Russia was formed right where today's Ukraine lies. This inevitably leads to the consequence that Russian and Ukrainian culture have the same roots and appendages, which have been articulated through the passing of time and historical events. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence, becoming a world detached, at least territorially, from Russia.

To analyse the society and the situation it is currently in, let us start with some empirical data that help us to understand it better: first of all, both Russian and Ukrainian societies are multi-ethnic societies, which are made up of different cultures and ethnic groups that have created the nest in which Russia and Ukraine later developed since the whole area was united.

Both in Russia and Ukraine there is a great diversity in the composition of its population, Russia has minority groups within it: the Indo-Europeans, those bordering Europe; the Altaic group, who live in the southern part of Russia, the Uralic group, who live in the tundra and more rural areas; and finally the multiple ethnicities living in the north Caucasus regions of Russia. Ukraine has a mixed composition of its society: a good percentage of Ukrainians, and the rest in percentage order, Russians, Moldovans, Poles and other mixed ethnic groups. To emphasise is that Ukrainians emigrated to Russia and vice versa: we can see that in fact 17.3 % of the Ukrainian population is Russian, and that in Russian society 1.1 % of its population is Ukrainian (O.E. Zasenko, 2022).

Our goal is to analyse migration in Russia and Ukraine from 2014 to nowadays: from the data obtained from Macrotrends, we see that the Ukrainian population since 1991 has always been in decline. In the years from 1991 to 2022, we see how this last year has had a clear impact on the population, recording -8.80% of population growth (UNHCR data, 2022). Ukrainians emigrated not only because of the current war situation, but also on other occasions, such as the annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014 and the economic depression of 1990, the Ukrainian population has emigrated to different parts of the world: according to UNHCR data, it is mainly concentrated in Germany and Poland, with more than one million refugees (UNHCR, 2022).

Russia, too, has suffered a major population loss in recent years: the UN World Population Prospect shows a population decline of -0.27%, with an even worse forecast for the future, with an almost certain decrease (UN world Population Prospect 2014-2022). In fact, Russian society is defined by Professor Emile Paine, as a society in stagnation, i.e. that "the ruling elite does not want to adopt a new way of life, while the opposition does not know how or is unable to do so" and this certainly does not create a win-win situation for the younger Russian generations (E.Paine 2008). This is due to the type of political regime in Russia, which over the years has implemented anti-migration policies towards countries of the former USSR.

Therefore, we could say that Russian and Ukraine society are not at their demographic peak, and recent events have not helped the situation

According to data from the United Nations, from 2014 until 2021, Russia counted more displacements to foreign countries than Ukraine, which, on the contrary, gained demographic percentages precisely because of these displacements. The cause is to be found, as above mentioned, in the political regime established over time in Ukraine. If, on the other hand, we look at the Ukrainian percentages and data, we can see that migration from this country increased sharply with the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and instead decreased drastically in Russia.

1.2 Culture

Turning to the cultural side, as above mentioned, having sprung from the same nest, Russia and Ukraine share historical bases in their culture; both can be traced back to Byzantine culture born in 395 and in force until 1453, which provided the basis and subsequent development of culture. After the separation of Ukraine and Russia, different traditions and cultural heritage were carried on. Vladimir Putin pointed out their peculiarities in an article written for the Kremlin in recent times. Not only affirms their distinctiveness, but above all their complete union and coincidence in cultures, making only one culture exist (Putin, 2021). But this is soon disproved by trying to reconstruct the history of Ukrainian culture: a history created by the bonding of several cultures with varied population substrata and diverse cultural traditions.

As early as 2014 with the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Donbass region was called “Novorossiya: new Russia” by Putin himself , when its past was nonetheless of European origin (Vladimir Putin, 2013). What most characterises the two cultures are the practical applications of it.

In fact, under the Soviet Union cultures were subject to political restrictions to shed more light on Russian culture, that have been loosened with the Gorbachev regime, who breathed new life into Sovietic traditions buried in the memory of its inhabitants. This culture has been changing over time and adapting to the new generations, who bring with them many values handed down from previous generations: the typical Russian boasts of his nation and its strength, work is seen as a source of pride and a way of life,

On the contrary, Ukrainian culture sees contaminations of Russian culture in its veins, due to the high percentage of Russian population within its society. One of the empirical evidence of this contamination is certainly the use of the Russian language, widely common in the streets, and also within institutions, which is certainly not the case in Russia. In fact, even since the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian has been suppressed from the Russian language.

The conclusions we can draw from this cultural analysis are surely that both true Russian and Ukrainian cultures have been preserved in the countries, developed from the same branch and then diverged over time, creating differentiation between the two cultures.

1.3 Languages

Contrary to what many may think, Ukrainian and Russian are not the same language. But they are siblings: the same alphabet, the same pronunciation of certain letters and the same linguistic family, Slavic.They are, however, two quite distinct languages, and Bulgarian, Czech and Polish also being part of the family.

We can start, as with any analysis, from a historical antecedent: initially, when the Russian territory was unified into a single empire, Russian was differentiated and stratified within the social classes. After the fall of Kievan Rus', two languages gradually began to be distinguished.Ukrainian tends to incorporate many features of the Polish language and part of its linguistic heritage is also due to the influence of European states throughout its history. While from the outside they may seem virtually identical, Russian and Ukrainian share 55% of the language, the same relationship as English and German. According to some sources, Russian and Ukrainian are so close that in some parts a third language, a mix between the two, called Surzhyk, spoken by about 12.4% of the population, has been created (Diana Lăpușneanu, 2022). Even the name 'Kyiv' itself has over the years been claimed by Ukrainian nationalism as the true name of 'Kiev', a name used mainly in Soviet times and by the Tsarist empire. The bond between the two languages is very important to emphasise: in fact, Russian is spoken very frequently in Ukraine, particularly in the regions bordering Russia itself.

The part of today's Ukraine, further west than the former Muscovite Russia, was strongly influenced by the European presence of Poles and Germans and further south, by Turks and the Ottoman Empire. And while Russian always remained in force, without any kind of political interruption, the same cannot be said for Russian's 'rival' language. Before the dissolution of the USSR around the 1930s, Ukrainian was effectively banned as a language in official documents, as teaching in schools, and many intellectuals of the time were even executed under the “Executed Renaissance'' (Kvitka Perehinets). This historical period is crucial to understand how important a distinction between the two languages is nowadays: during those years, writers, literati and cultural scholars were persecuted because of their use of Ukrainian as a native and mother tongue. These poets refused to stand under the command of Stalin's communist dictatorship and the Russification of Ukraine. One of the most popular exponents of Futurist poetry born in the 1920s was Mykhaylo Semenko, who died at Russian hands.After the dissolution of the USSR and the achievement of Ukrainian independence, opposing policies were implemented, aimed at fostering the use of the Ukrainian language.

To sum up, the differences between the languages are not just “linguistic peculiarities” as Putin claims, but represent a difference between the two languages, which are now separate and recognised worldwide.

2. Origins and consequences of Russian Nationalism

It is possible to find Russian Nationalism’s roots back in the 1800s. In this period, Russia, in the same way as other European countries, was dragged in the flood called nationalism. If we talk about nationalism, we have to affirm that it was an ideology quite common during the ‘800 and the ‘900. Related to this fact, it is important to wonder: How has nationalism changed throughout the time?

It is quite obvious that nationalism is still alive – today it is very common to hear words like national parties, nationalism, nationalist, etc - but it is wrong to assume that this term hasn’t changed its meaning in two centuries. In recent years, public opinion has been used to interact with the term “nationalism” and for the Russian case this was related with the geopolitical strategy of the president Vladimir Putin. But what is the real meaning of Russian nationalism nowadays?

Firstly, it is possible to affirm that Putin’s approach to nationalism also includes ethnonationalism and the idea of a larger Russian domain beyond the legal borders. The roots of this idea can be found in 1991 after the fall of the USSR, when a lot of “ethical” Russian lived outside the Russian border. In this sense, Russia has a responsibility for its communities abroad (Neil Melvin, 2022). In fact, in the post-soviet era several Russian citizens had lived outside Russian borders. An example can be found in Kazakhstan (Minority rights group international, 2022).

These facts became clearer in 2014 after the Russian invasion of Crimea. Here, the justification for the intervention in Ukraine was found in the narration for the defence of Russian “ethnical people” which – according with the Russian propaganda – were constantly attacked by Ukrainian government. Furthermore, in his speech, Mr Putin spoke about the unbreakable link between Russia and Crimea in historical, linguistic and ethnic sense (Vladimir Putin, 2014). It is reasonable to affirm that 2014 was the turning point for Russian policy against its neighbours: the ideological background and the pragmatic action converged during the Crimean invasion.

Nowadays, in relation with the recent actions, the Russian approach has not changed: during the actual Russian-Ukrainian conflict the Russian propaganda insists on the common language, religion, history, etc. emphasizing the role of the Ukrainian government in the “genocide” against the Russians living in the Ukrainian territory (Neil Melvin, 2022). Here, the imperial vision of Russia, religion, the ethno-linguistic components and the magnification of a common historical heritage are useful tools to legitimate Russian hegemony in some areas. These visions are widely accepted among the Russian elite and, more in general, Russian nationalism has been rising among Russian public opinion for years (Richard Arnold, 2016).

It is possible to take another step to understand the actual Russian vision in relation to its role in the European area. In this way, it is very helpful to talk about Neo-Eurasianism. Putin’s plan is to create an ideological superstructure capable of an integration between the European area and the Asiatic area but today, according to Nadezhda Arbatova, Eurasianism comes to the surface every time Russia tries to restore its greatness after a “fall”. The recent uprising of Eurasianism follows the same rule: Russian Federation is the consequence of the USSR fall and the ancient glory must be restored and Neo-Eurasianism is the ideology that supports this need. One of the most relevant supporters of Neo-Euranism is the philosopher Alexander Dugin. Neo-Eurasianism includes ideas as: the holy mission of the Russian people to preserve the traditional culture against the “westerners”, the necessity of a multipolar world, the superiority of the community on the individual and a strong support to the Orthodox church. Basically, Neo-Eurasianism is a part of a conservative doctrine that uses ethnic, religious and historical components to support reactionary actions in Russia and to justify others outside the Russian territory. For example, Alexander Dugin gave his own cultural-historical version to justify the annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Arbatova, 2019).

Today nationalism in Russia is a mixture of old and new ideas. Those ideas are related to ethnicity, religion and historical heritage. In this sense, contemporary Russian nationalism links some ideas as the restoration of the Russian empire, the defense of the ethnical Russians abroad and some other ideas that try to separate – ideologically - Russia from the “West”, such as the community vs the individual, the tradition vs the modernity or, in certain cases, to give Russia an ideological support to promote more empirical actions as the aggression of neighbouring countries.

3. Ukrainian Nationalism

3.1 Origins

Nationalism in Ukraine has deep roots, strongly linked to history and to the complicated relations first with the Soviet Union and then Russia.

In the nineteenth century Ukraine was divided between the Habsburg Empire and the Russian one. In the first one nationalism was encouraged as a tool to limit polish influence, while in the second nationalism was repressed, hence publications in the Ukrainian language as well as cultural associations were forbidden, thus the farmers being alienated to any form of nationalism whatsoever - nor Russian nor Ukrainian (Zola, 2022).

The disintegration of the Russian empire and the February Revolution opened the path to a Ukrainian State, whose independence was declared in 1917. Even if it did not last long, Ukrainian nationalism was growing more and more. Due to persecution, many nationalists moved abroad and some of them later found allies in Poland and the Third Reich, believing they could help in the creation of an independent Ukraine (Fossati, 2022). It is worth mentioning that Lenin promoted the korenizacija - fostering the national development of many republics and promoting the use of the Ukrainian language in schools, as well as books and dictionaries (Zola, 2022). This policy stopped in 1949 under Stalin, who promoted a forced Russification of the entire Soviet Union and the persecution of non-Russian cultural aspects. Moreover, in the Sixties a new movement named sistdesjatnyky of Ukrainian nationalists was formed. It was composed mainly of people coming from eastern Ukrainian countryside that moved to cities in which the Russian language was widely spoken. The sistdesjatnyky reflected on the use of the Ukrainian language and the center of this not too famous movement, was the city of Donetsk.

The oppression of Ukrainian culture and language slightly decreased due to perestroika and glasnost and claims to an independent Ukraine were increasing. These pushes united both Ukrainians and Russians - mainly workers - because of the exploitation of resources and the disastrous economic situation. Thus, it is possible to notice how Ukrainian nationalism is not strictly related to ethnic aspects.

3.2 Nationalism in the independent Ukraine

After the declaration of independence, Ukrainian citizenship was granted to all people residing in the country, no matter if they were Russian speaking and from there. This choice is clearly the opposite to the one that the Baltic States adopted. As Andrea Graziosi analyzed, there were citizens speaking the Russian language yet with a strong feeling of being Ukrainian (Zola, 2022).

The korenizacija helped to create a division among the population. Indeed, in eastern Ukraine farmers were exposed to the Ukrainian language, while workers moving from Russia and the other Soviet Republics were settling in the cities and speaking Russian. Thus, the division between the countryside and cities in eastern Ukraine. Yet, the biggest division in the country is between east and west along the Dnepr river. Indeed, there is a polarization between the first one, where the population speaks mainly Russian and is historically tied to Moscow, and the second one, where the population speaks mainly Ukrainian, is closer to Europe and there are strong nationalists feelings (Franco, 2022).

In the Maidan Revolution in 2014, extreme rights movements and parties have arisen, such as Svoboda, born as a neo-Nazi party in 1991 slowly decreasing its extremism, yet still proposing ultra nationalist views based on ethnicity. Another example of this is the party Pravyi sektor, responsible for the Odessa massacre in 2014 (Ibidem, 2022).

3.3 Civic Nationalism

The Maidan revolution and the Russian aggression in 2014 boosted Ukrainian nationalism, indeed citizens expressed their intention to resist Russia’s influence and increased the willingness to defend the country.

Surveys of the Razumkov Centre show that civic nationalism is getting more and more stronger. To the question: “Which of these definitions of the Ukrainian nation do you find most applicable?”, in 2015 55,7% answered civic nationalism - defined as “The Ukrainian nation includes all citizens of Ukraine, irrespective of their ethnic affiliation, language of communication, and the national traditions they observe and by which they raise their children” - , while 17% answered civic nationalism with an ethnic elements (Minich, 2018). Only 11,2% and 7,7% voted for ethnic nationalism, the latter being less inclusive (Ibidem, 2018). It is possible to notice a great difference compared to the 2007 data, where civic nationalism counted for 38,8%, civic nationalism with an ethnic elements 14,9%, 23,1% and 17,4% for the ethnic nationalism (Ibidem, 2022).

It is possible to notice an increase of civic nationalism, in contrast to the ethnic one, showing that the country is strongly united not due to a common language or ethnicity, yet thanks to the feeling of belonging to the Ukrainian nation. Ukrainian culture and traditions are getting more and more important. This is also clear with Zelensky’s strategy to use both the Ukrainian and Russian language, in opposition to his predecessor - President Poroshenko - who focused on the nationalization of the Ukrainian language (Dietel, 2020). Sociologist Charles Tilly believed that states are consolidated through warfare and this case can be applied to Ukraine too (Aron, 2022). Since the Euromaidan Revolution and the invasion of Crimea, Ukrainians have shown a stronger sense of unified national identity (Ibidem, 2022). The 2022 Russian invasion boosted even more the already strong nationalism, on a basis of resistance to the invader and of protection of the nation and its values.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2021 Putin’s declaration in which he claimed that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people – a single whole”, raised many questions about the truthfulness of these affirmations (Putin, 2021). It is clear the importance of ethno-nationalism in these words, meaning the idea of nationhood and identity based on culture, blood and language (Erlanger, 2022). The President of Russia believes that Ukraine cannot be considered a real State and the population is the same as Russia and Belarus, due to the common Slavic heartland (Ibidem, 2022). Lev Gumilyov promoted the ideology of Eurasianism as a solution to European influence, while Aleksandr Dugin “neo-eurasianism” through ultranationalist views. In particular, in 2014 Dugin affirmed that: “Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Euroasian Union, we can become a credible global player” and considered the Maidan Revolution as “a coup d’état by the United States'' and the goal of the West was to stop “the advance of Russian integration” (Ibidem, 2022). Moreover, since the Nineties Putin has developed the concept of Russkiy Mir - Russian World. This ideology believes that Russkiy Mir is not only composed by Russia, but also by all the Slavic population speaking Russia and it applies to those living abroad, specifically in Ukraine and Belarus (Carboni, 2022). This belief justifies the political actions that Putin took in the past - such as the war with Georgia and the invasion of South Ossetia Abkhazia, as well as the Crimean one - but also the present one, specifically the war in Ukraine. It is clear that the Russian government does not consider Ukraine as an independent nation, but as an important part of the Russkiy Mir that “had gone too far and had to be taken home” (Ibidem, 2022).

Thus, it is clear the difference between Russian nationalism and the Ukrainian one, which is more and more inclusive and can be considered civic. The latter is also growing more and more following the Crimean annexation and the 2022 invasion, with Ukraine looking at the West for help. It is clear that the two countries are growing more and more apart in beliefs and this is set to continue.

In the next publication of this cycle, we will analyze the aspects related to defense and security characterizing the Russo-Ukrainian War.

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