Since the beginning of the Russian aggression, many Ukrainians have severed relations with their Russian relatives - some of these stories have become so well known and common among foreign friends and acquaintances that it seems that almost every Ukrainian has relatives in Russia. Is this true, and why does this myth exist in the first place? Let's find out in this post.
Who lives in Ukraine?
The majority of the population in Ukraine is ethnic Ukrainians — over 70%. But there are also more than 100 national minorities living here, and the most numerous among them are Russians. According to the 2001 census, more than 8.3 million ethnic Russians lived in Ukraine, which was 17.3% of the total population.
Why did the number of Russians in Ukraine increase over time?
The borders of Ukraine and Russia have been the main reason for Ukrainians to migrate to Russia and vice versa throughout history. In certain historical periods, these processes were particularly active.
According to the last census in 2001, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, ethnic Ukrainians accounted for only 46% of the population, while ethnic Russians made up 48%. In Crimea, 58% of the population was Russian, 24% Ukrainian, and 12% Crimean Tatar. Mainly, the number of ethnic Russians, particularly in the above-mentioned regions of Ukraine, increased due to the forced relocation and deportation that were the policy of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union, which also fueled the propaganda narrative of the "unity of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.”
What is the basis of the myth that Ukrainians and Russians are "brotherly peoples"?
The origins of the Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, and, to a large extent, Lithuanian peoples can be traced back to medieval Rus. It is this fact that Russians often use to justify not only the myth of "one people" they spread but also their crimes, including the current armed aggression against Ukraine.
In reality, in the 9th century, a medieval state centered in Kyiv, Rus, was created. Over the next few centuries, the borders of Rus were broadly defined as territories where the authority of the Kyivan princes was recognized. Moscow did not yet exist, and the lands in the northeast, where the Moscow principality and the Russian people later emerged, were then called Zalissia.
In general, Ukrainians and Russians developed separately, in different historical conditions and fundamentally different systems of governance and values — you can read more about this in our previous post, "Why Ukraine is not Russia.”
Russians began to settle in the Ukrainian lands as early as the 15th century
From the end of the 18th century, Ukrainian territories came under the rule of the Russian Empire, which immediately set about transforming Ukraine into its imperial province. As part of this policy, the goal was to "dissolve" Ukrainians into the Russian people. Thus, the Russian Empire carried out consistent Russification, banned the Ukrainian language and customs, and introduced Russian rules, including stricter judicial norms. The tsarist government interfered in all spheres of Ukrainian life. Belonging to the Russian people and using the Russian language provided privileges in education, higher positions, etc. Thus, some Ukrainians were forced to renounce their Ukrainian roots.
In addition, before 1917, the current northern and eastern regions of Ukraine were part of provinces that included Russian territories, so the population of these regions mixed more significantly.
Deportations of Ukrainians in the USSR
At the beginning of 1917, the ruling dynasty of the Russian Empire fell, the last tsar, Nicholas II, abdicated, and revolutions swept across Russia, Ukraine, and other neighboring countries. At that time, Ukrainians tried to establish the independence of their own state, but a few years later, the Bolsheviks seized power and forcibly annexed Ukrainian lands to the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
In order to suppress revolutionary aspirations and swiftly mold various peoples into the utopian community of the Soviet world, the communist government used all means possible: "soft" power (steady Russification, imposing an inferiority complex on non-Russian peoples) as well as large-scale crime and genocide (deportation, persecution, repression, execution, dekulakization, man-made famine, etc.)
For example, in the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet authorities massively relocated people, including those accused by the totalitarian regime of potential "unreliability" or anti-Soviet activities. The primary goal was to eliminate the growing threat of an uprising by "unreliable elements from the border areas." As a result, a part of the population — both Ukrainians and representatives of other ethnic groups — was deported from the border area of Ukraine to the remote regions of Russia.
According to various sources, about 6 million people suffered from the policy of forced resettlement in the USSR, of whom 1 to 1.5 million died.
The Russian-made famines in Ukraine
In the 20th century, the Soviet regime orchestrated three famines on Ukrainian lands. The largest of them, in 1932-1933, was aimed at destroying the integrity of the Ukrainian nation, eliminating the potential for rebellion against Soviet rule and Ukraine's secession from the USSR. As a result of this man-made famine, according to various estimates, approximately 4.5 million people died in Ukraine.
Ethnic Russians were then relocated to the villages and towns devastated by famine and were granted significant benefits for the move. In particular, Russians were massively resettled in the eastern and southern Ukrainian regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Kherson oblasts).
The "Great Purge" in the USSR
In 1937-1938, on the orders of the USSR leadership and Joseph Stalin personally, a large-scale campaign of mass repression, the "Great Purge" or the "Great Terror," was carried out to intimidate the population and eliminate actual and potential political opponents of the Soviet regime. People were executed without trial, and their relatives were persecuted and sent to labor camps. In addition, the children of the repressed who were left without parents were placed in special orphanages for children of "enemies of the people" and so-called correctional camps. Thus, during 1937-38, more than 1.5 million people were arrested, and more than 600,000 were executed by firing squads (an average of about 1,000 people were killed daily).
A significant number of the victims of the Great Terror from mid-1937 onward were wealthy farmers called "kulaks" (lit. "fists" in English for a "tight-fisted person") who were "dekulakized" by the Soviet authorities, meaning that their property was seized, they were evicted from their farms, deported, or killed.
It is worth noting that in July 1937, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) issued an order according to which family members of the repressed were to be transferred to camps or labor settlements, mainly in remote depressed areas of Russia, such as Siberia, the Urals, Yakutia, and the Far East. So, as it happens, family members of the repressed were forcibly evicted from large cities such as Kyiv or Tbilisi to other regions. Many people who managed to escape never returned to their native lands.
Crimes of the USSR after World War II
During and after World War II, the Soviet authorities continued deportations, this time on suspicion of espionage, terrorist activity, and accusations of collaboration with the Germans.
For example, in March 1944, the NKVD issued an order to deport fighters and their families from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), two organizations working to establish a Ukrainian unified, independent state. They were deported to Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai, Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Irkutsk regions. So, in five years, by 1949, more than 25,000 families — over 74,000 people — were relocated from the western parts of Ukraine. Most of them ended up in remote settlements and had to live in harsh living conditions.
Also, in April 1944, the USSR issued a decree "On Measures to Clear the Territory of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic from Anti-Soviet Elements," which, according to the Communist Party archives, resulted in the eviction of 194,000 Crimean Tatars from Crimea. The Soviet authorities accused them of collaborating with the Nazis and branded them "traitors" for decades.
How were Ukrainians recorded in legal documentation?
It was only with the founding of the Soviet Union that the concept of a titular nation emerged on the territory of Russia and Ukraine. And only since 1937 had employees of civil registry offices been required to record nationality on birth certificates. A person's ethnicity was then recorded from the person's own words, and Ukrainian surnames could be Russified. It was a person's choice to indicate their nationality as "Ukrainian" or "Russian." Since those who identified themselves as Russians had privileges, many Ukrainians became "Russian.”
Why did Ukrainians move to Russia?
Apart from forced deportation and resettlement, the change in the ethnic composition of Ukraine was influenced by the fact that in the early 20th century, about 2.5 million Ukrainian peasants voluntarily left for the central and eastern lands of Russia in search of work and better economic conditions.
For example, in 1954, the USSR launched a program to develop almost 13 million hectares (later, this figure was increased to 28-30 million hectares) of pristine land in Kazakhstan and Siberia for further cultivation. Ukraine provided a significant part of this project's material and human resources: in 1954-1956 alone, almost 80 thousand people left the Ukrainian SSR on Komsomol (Young Communist Party Member) vouchers to work permanently in the Virgin Lands.
In addition, many young people entered prestigious educational institutions, which the Soviet government established mainly in large Russian cities. After graduation, many remained there to work, build their own families, and, ultimately, settle in Russia.
Why did ethnic Russians move to Ukraine?
Population migration was generally common in the Soviet Union. Hence, ethnic Russians often moved to the Ukrainian SSR, for example, to work at numerous industrial plants, especially in the Donbas, or to get married.
What is the bottom line?
Considering the historical circumstances described above, it is true that many Ukrainians, especially those who live in or come from the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, have relatives in Russia. In addition, many Ukrainian citizens are Russian or half-Russian by ethnicity. However, having Ukrainian citizenship by birth or as a result of a conscious choice, as well as living in a certain cultural context and ideology, determine a person's affiliation with a particular nation more significantly than having "Russian" blood or relatives in Russia.
After the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many Ukrainians cut ties and stopped communicating with their relatives in Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia continues its policy of genocide, deporting indigenous people and people with a pro-Ukrainian position from the temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine to Russia, abducting Ukrainian children and giving them to Russian families for adoption, etc.
Ukrainians and Russians are not "brotherly" peoples because they are ideologically completely different, and this critical difference in value systems has not been erased by centuries of efforts by the aggressor country — neither by "mixing", forced assimilation, nor by intimidation and acts of genocide.
Material is compilated by Mariia Mytsai, Iryna Hadetska, and based on the interview with historian and editor of the documentary department of Post Bellum Ukraine, Olha Symonenko