I is me is you: Identity and war in Ukraine 

William Echols

Identity is a tricky thing. It is both organically developed and imagined, conceived and defined from without and within. This ceaseless interplay between different forces, of how we are seen, how others see us, and how we react to how others see us, (in turn changing how we see ourselves and them), is a seemingly fractal process.

It goes without saying that identity, in both its realist and most imagined sense, has been at the heart of the Ukrainian civil war.

If there were some sort of pecking order regarding the atrocities that have been committed over the last year, I am not in any position to suss it out. But something LA Times photojournalist Sergei Loiko said during an interview back in November has always stuck with me:

“This war is different because there were no reasons for it. They are all fictional. They are built on lies, spread by Russian television. There was no reason for people to kill each other. It is a theatre of the absurd. This is now one of the most epic wars for me.”

Battle for the Donetsk Airport taken by the LA Times Sergei Loiko.

Battle for the Donetsk Airport taken by the LA Times Sergei Loiko.

For a war fought in “fictitious times” for “fictitious reasons”, the bitter existential pill that it is all a lie makes the death and destruction that much more horrifying. Human beings can almost endure anything if it is meaningful, or if we can manage to weave meaning out of it. This conflict, by any stretch of the imagination, is meaningless, if one were to assume that meaning were generated by any actual need to fight, defensively or otherwise. Without a doubt, meaning has been created by the very real and tragic consequences the bloodletting has entailed. But this qlipothic tree planted in the heart of Ukraine has fake plastic roots. The “flywheel” behind this needless war has already admitted as much.

So what does all of this have to do with identity? Well, one of the most glaring aspects of Loiko’s theatre of the absurd is that myths regarding the binary east-west divide in Ukraine have been taken on by Ukrainians themselves (at least some of them.) Which is to say, one of the many fictions used to incite this conflict became a reality. Identity reimagined itself via the force of directed imagination.

Over the past year, a culture caste from varied but mostly riveted links was smelted with white hot hatred and further alloyed with fear and loathing. But unlike with actual metals, this purified base is much weaker than the ore from which it came, while the metaphorical slag heaps from that artificial decoupling are even more ugly than the actual ones littering the Donets Basin.

A recent conversation with a close friend and journalist who is ethnically Russian but Ukrainian-born brought all of these issues to the foray for me. And to look at issues of identity in 2015 Ukraine, one must also confront a war ostensibly being fought to protect one group of people from another.

Born in the historical region of Podolia in west-central Ukraine, she described a world in which she was unaware of being bilingual until she relocated to Moscow as a teen. It was not that she didn’t recognize there were two different languages, countries, cultures, or identities. It was merely never something she thought about. The mixture of languages and identities seemed natural; it was natural – it was home, a painfully uneventful one at that.

It was only in leaving Ukraine that her identity, not as a Russian (though she is unequivocally that), but as a Ukrainian-born Ukrainian speaking Russian, became something she was made aware of.

I do not want to take too much from one anecdotal experience. But one reality that has widely been written about remains true: prior to the civil war, any attempts to split the country down the middle, calling the western sphere “Ukrainian” and the eastern sphere “Russian” was an overt simplification at best. Not entirely untruthful mind you, but a simplification.

Ukrainian-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev tackled this very issue in a deeply illuminating piece entitled ‘Do you speak Surzhyk?’


In a folksy but poetic manner typical of the region, “surzhyk” was initially a Ukrainian word used to designate bread or flour that was made from mixed grains.

Linguistically, it is sometimes (but not always) defined as any combination (and I mean any combination) of speech using Russian and Ukrainian. There are no hard and fast rules, no sense of dilution from one side or the other, and no requisite grammar or semantic base that needs to be followed. Whatever which way you splice it up, you are speaking Surzhyk.

A 2003 study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that anywhere between 11-18 percent of Ukrainians communicated in Surzhyk. As for those in the now worn-torn east, 9.6 percent of the population spoke the sociolect at the time of the study.

A breakdown of the percentage of Surzhyk speakers by region.

A breakdown of the percentage of Surzhyk speakers by region.

The fascinating part, however, is that few people were aware that they were in fact mixing (but not confusing) the two languages.

Where this becomes important for the country today is that at the time of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, these recently distilled identities which were poured red hot into artificial casts are far more fluid than many would have us believe.

Pomerantsev expressed this fluidity by the highly variable nature of the individuals and groups who ended up falling on either side of the Ukrainian revolution.

“The closest thing Madan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s,” he wrote in January 2014, over a month before the former Ukrainian president fled the country and all hell broke loose.

“Its first martyrs include an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual,” he continued.

Pomerantsev touched on a reality that everyone who has traveled to Kiev quickly realizes; despite it’s status as a “Ukrainian speaking” city, 60 percent of the capital is in fact Russian speaking when it comes to everyday life. For Kiev and many of the urban centers in the country’s center, Russian can rightfully be called “the language of the street.”

That Kiev was the epicenter for the revolution had little relation to the socio-linguistic dynamic in the city, despite propaganda from its aggressive northern neighbor speaking of a fascist coup targeting ethnic Russians. The ideals represented by Maidan, in fact, were not related to the Russian-Ukrainian question as it relates to national identity, at least for the majority who came out to protest. Rather, it was an issue of what modern day Russia represents as a political entity (and how connections to this political entity boded for Ukraine’s future), that sparked the westward shift.

As for the imperial-era territory of “Novorossiya”, which Putin bemoaned for being handed over to Ukraine, Pomerantsev noted an 1897 census, which found that 62.5 percent of the population of the Donbass (which Novorossiya partially encompassed) was in fact “little Russian”, or what we would call Ukrainian, at the time.

In light of present day events, the history of the region is somewhat ironic. A slice of land seized from the Ottoman Empire which was majority Ukrainian during czarist times would only become majority Russian after it was handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922.


And yet, that Soviet-era Russian identity embraced by the majority was not enough to determine political allegiances in any blanket sense. As Pomerantsev points out, Russian-speaking footfall fans (with all the far right tendencies and proclivities for violence that entails) in the region actually threw their support behind the Maidan revolution, and not Yanukovich. And following the opening shots of the Russian-generated civil war, despite their (often legitimate) misgivings about the new government in Kiev, 70 percent of those in the East wanted Ukraine to stay a united country, according to a Pew Research Poll released on May 8, 2014.

Dynamo Kiev ultras at a league tie with bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011; the fans have since put their differences aside. Esquire.

Dynamo Kiev ultras at a league tie with bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011; the fans have since put their differences aside. Esquire.

Meanwhile, the most European part of Ukraine, Transcarpathia in the south-west, “with its cross-Schengen trade and communities of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks”, threw their support behind Yanukovich during the 2010 election. Clearly, nothing is clearcut at all.

It could, however, be argued that all of these minor points are used to obfuscate a simple fact that, by and large, the West is Ukrainian-speaking and the East Russian-speaking. There are minor points of difference, but by and large, one half of the country leans towards Europe, and the towards Russia. That portrayal is not by an stretch of the imagination false. It does, however, miss the bigger picture. Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians have lived side by side for centuries, and conflict was rarely organic, but rather the direct result of political meddling. In fact, there were even times in history when Russian peasants who did not identify themselves as Russians and Ukrainian peasants who did not identify themselves as Ukrainians coexisted via a common cultural line that both diverged and intermingled. Some forms of Surzhyk are a manifestation of that very interplay.

And yet czarist-era attacks on Ukrainian cultural expressions, which saw the Ukrainian language suppressed or banned numerous times, was often a means of consolidating power and creating an artificial, standardized identity.

The justifications for this process are also telling. A secret decree issued by the the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire, for example, which essentially banned the printing of the Ukrainian language in 1863, said that “no separate Little Russian [Ukrainian] language ever existed, doesn’t exist, and couldn’t exist.” In effect, the document claimed the Ukrainian language was nothing more than Russian corrupted by Polish influence.

Sadly, this is a mistaken belief that is widely held throughout Russia today, and not just among the country’s right-wing nationalists, but well-educated and well-traveled urbanites as well.

The reason, of course, is a lingering imperialist desire to put their own imagined sense of Russianness at the forefront of Eastern Slavic identity. Rather than accepting the fact that ethnic “Russian” people are descended from the same Eastern slavic tribes as Ukrainians, and thus their languages and cultures could have developed on parallel tracks, there has been a concerted effort for centuries to absorb all East Slav history into Russian history for the expediency of elevating “Great” Russia above “Little Russia” and “White Russia”.

That political power would shift following the 13th century siege of Kiev and the subsequent rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 15th century has unsurprisingly resulted in a narrative that puts Russia at the heart of all of eastern Slavic life. In order to maintain this myth, the culture of other Slavic peoples in the area is turned into a bastardization of Russian, a worldview which justifies the banning or subjugation of those peoples’ linguistic and cultural expressions.

As has been seen in recent times, it also justifies cutting up and divvying out the territory of other states, seeing that Moscow has made itself the arbitrator of what Vladimir Putin called a “unique sociocultural civilizational community.”

The usefulness of this imperialist rendering of history can clearly be seen today. When Putin referred to the recently annexed Crimean peninsula as Russia’s Temple Mount, claiming that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized there in 988 (though Vladimir was likely baptized in Kiev), he was actually saying that the history of all East Slavs is the history of Russia, and that the assumption of Slavic Christendom is first and foremost a Russian affair.

In light of this might makes right historical reading, Russian no longer becomes a lineal descendant of the language used in Kevin Rus, but rather is the linguistic terminus of it. Other tongues, in contrast, are treated as muddied deviations – linguistic heretics.

In short, political power has created an artificial, cultural caste system. The term “Little Russia” really says it all.

And what has been seen in Ukraine intermittently since the Soviet collapse is what happens when big country chauvinism is met with a form of small country chauvinism; ugly attempts to suppress the Russian language or drive out Russian influences (even if those Russian influences stem from Russian-speaking Ukrainian natives.)

Activists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party march to mark the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and carry portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera. Reuters

Activists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party march to mark the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and carry portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera. Reuters

But sorting out what is or is not Ukrainian is kind of like getting to the bottom of Surzhyk, and what it says about Ukraine today.

In 2002, Anthropologist Laada Bilaniuk noted that there are 5 distinct languages which can be considered Surzhyk. Sometimes it is viewed as the mere byproduct of Ukrainian peasants attempting to speak the language of Russian administrators, and is thus dismissed as a low class, imperial pidgin.

As Bilaniuk noted, however, this form of Surzhyk includes “mixed” features of village dialects, which she argues predate the standardization of either Russian or Ukrainian.

There is also the Sovietized Surzhyk, in which Ukrainian terms were purged from dictionaries (to what degree remains unclear) and replaced with Russian ones.


This form of the dialect has been targeted by nationalists and linguistic purists, who argue that the entirety of the Ukrainian language as it exists today is nothing but Surzhyk as a result of this imperialist practice. Their goal, of course, it to return Ukrainian to its undiluted roots.

I am by no stretch of the imagination qualified to weigh in on any of those issues. Rather, I am bringing them up for another reason. If not for fear of national disintegration, a fear which is clearly being stoked from without, none of it would really matter.

There is often this false belief put forward by nationalists of every persuasion that there was once a historic golden age which should be viewed as some sort of sociolinguistic and cultural garden of Eden.

It is not just this artificial snapshot of a frozen and imagined history that turns Russian nationalists on their “fraternal brothers,” but it is also the reason why Ukraine runs the risk of cannibalizing its own culture (including the Russian aspects of it) for the sake of an imagined sense of purity.

Ukraine finds itself in a doubly difficult position because unlike the former Baltic states, Moldova, or Central Asia, which were all met with a massive influx of Soviet-era (and ethnically Russian) settlers, its language and culture is intrinsically linked to that of Russia via the Kievan line.

To remove those Russian aspects which are viewed as alien would be like taking a knife to extract bullet fragments scattered around one’s spine. As for Russians in the east, they would rather just amputate their leg and donate it to what they believe is a more suitable body.

But such procedures could prove fatal to what has become a deeply schizophrenic patient. And yet, due to minor but ultimately manageable resentments fanned to an inferno by outside forces, that appears to be exactly what is happening inside of Ukraine today.

People are dying not because of who they are, but who they think they should be. But who they think they should be, in truth, looks nothing like who they really are.