It’s hard to tell Donetsk from, say, Novosibirsk, and it’s really only the soft pronunciation of g’s that tips you off that you’re in Ukraine, not Russia. Donetsk has the same wide, gray avenues peppered with gaudy new construction; the same shabby Soviet five-story building blocks; the same language; and the same gruffness you’d find farther north. It wouldn’t stretch one’s imagination too much to picture this Ukrainian city spinning in Moscow’s, rather than Kiev’s, orbit.
Late last month, just two days after protesters in Kiev ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, I traveled to Donetsk to see what his hometown made of the revolution. It was a strange time to be there: Donetsk wasn’t thrilled, but it was calm. “If they send new people in to replace us, we won’t hold on,” one high-ranking functionary from Yanukovych’s party had told me. “We’ll go peacefully.” Only a few days later, Vladimir Putin catapulted the region into conflict.
“Personally, I see what happened as a government coup,” Kirill Cherkashin told me. He is a political scientist here, and I visited him at his office at the Donetsk National University, a brute box of a building that doesn’t seem to have gotten much custodial attention since it was built in the 1960s. Cherkashin, a wiry, jittery man in his early thirties, is also an activist in a local group pushing for regional integration with Russia. Waiting for us in his office were four young women, all around 20, well-dressed, with notebooks in their laps. “My most promising students,” he explained, bowing in their direction as he ushered me in to the bare room.
As his students listened, I asked Cherkashin about the Russian-Ukrainian tension that was said to be on the verge of tearing the country apart. “Let’s start with the fact that the Ukrainian and Russian populations here in the south of Ukraine are basically one and the same,” he said. “We don’t have such a clear-cut division here.”
What of the endless tug-of-war over Ukraine between Russia and Europe? And of Putin’s reported quip to George W. Bush, back in 2008, that Ukraine wasn’t a real country? Cherkashin admitted that this was not a totally alien point of view to many in Donetsk. “I agree with it,” he added. “That is, formally, even if you don’t consider the current political moment, Ukraine is not an independent government. That—”
The girls burst into a shocked, embarrassed giggle.
“What, you want to say that it’s independent?” he shot back, politely. “It’s dependent on Russia and on the U.S. and on the Europeans. You name it.”
“But we’re a young country,” one of the students interjected. Cherkashin barreled over her: “I think that Ukraine, as an independent state, has no future.”
In the last tense months, the conflict in Ukraine has been described as a fight over Ukrainian identity—in terms of language, territory, and great-power influence. Maps on television and in newspapers show a country conveniently cleaved in half between Ukrainian speakers in the pro-Yulia Tymoshenko west and Russian speakers in the Yanukovych east. The former love Europe; the latter love Russia. The former have been oppressed for centuries by the latter, who want to see a return to the days of the USSR.
But Cherkashin’s informal office lecture demonstrated that the truth is more complicated, as it always is. The real split is generational. Unlike Cherkashin, his students were all born after 1991, in an independent Ukraine, and they see their country’s close relationship with Russia very differently than their older professor. In fact, Cherkashin’s own research confirms this division. The younger a citizen of Donetsk, the more likely she is to view herself as Ukrainian. The older she is, the more likely she is to identify as Russian. And this is the crux of it all: What we are seeing today is the reverberation of what happened more than 20 years ago. This is still the long post-Soviet transition. And this is what it’s like to wander in the desert, waiting for the old generation to die off.
Ukraine the country has existed for only brief spurts. In the nineteenth century, as nationalism spread through Europe, Ukrainian language and culture—as well as the new idea of independence—became fashionable in Ukrainian cities. Before that, the area was a fluid mix of languages and ethnicities. The Ukrainians, southwestern Slavs who escaped Tatar rule in the Middle Ages, developed independently of the Russians. (Their language, for instance, was heavily influenced by Polish, and their religious affiliation was, for a long time, partly Catholic.) Then it was absorbed into the creeping sprawl of the Russian empire.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, though, Ukrainian speakers were mixed throughout the country, and the language divide was more socioeconomic than geographic. For the most part, the Ukrainian speakers were the peasants, and the Russian speakers were the city dwellers, a blend of Russians, Tatars, and Jews. When industrialization came to the region, those who worked in the new factories were also mostly Russian.
To this day, language in Ukraine follows these same socioeconomic lines, rather than the east-west axis. A map produced by The New York Times, for instance, represents Ukrainian in orange and Russian in blue, and announces that it depicts a simple split between the speakers of these languages. And yet, the fault line is hard to see: There are heavily orange dapples in the west, and intense blue spots in Crimea and Donetsk, but most of the rest is a brackish mingling of the two. It would take a very talented surgeon to carve the two languages apart—or a charlatan to claim it can be done.
If we set aside Crimea, which was not part of the country until 1954, the much-advertised rift inside Ukraine originates neither in language nor in ethnicity. Rather, it is the bounty of the seed planted in the early 1920s by the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Josef Stalin.
For five years, between the 1917 Revolution and the end of the Civil War, Ukraine had a brief and tumultuous experiment with independence, as did other former Russian colonies and future Soviet republics, like Georgia and Armenia. Those few years of independence gave Ukrainians a taste of national liberation that they would not soon forget and were marked, as now, by lengthy sit-ins in public squares, by rowdy parliamentary debate, and by diverse factions of Ukrainian society jockeying for influence. Then, in 1920, Ukraine—like the republics of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and others—began signing a series of vague military and economic treaties with Moscow that gave shape to what we would come to know as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Very quickly, though, the Union became a distinctly Russian entity. According to Soviet historian Geoffrey Hosking, this was no accident. Stalin “wanted to see a political framework which would give expression to the dominance Russia had assumed in the world revolutionary movement,” in which communist patriotism was sublimated into Russian patriotism. Vladimir Lenin was slightly horrified by all this, seeing it, correctly, as a revanchist moment and a return to the bad old days of imperialism. He even prepared a memorandum in protest and was to deliver it at the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923. He demanded that, in the new Union, some form of autonomy be returned to the various national republics.
But Lenin had his third and final stroke before he could go on record with his protest, and Stalin and Leon Trotsky had the memorandum suppressed. (It came out after Stalin’s death.) As a result, notes Hosking, “the new [Soviet] constitution embodied Stalin’s conceptions rather than Lenin’s.” Moscow and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic got to run the show, not just in terms of military and diplomatic matters, but in pretty much everything else. Ethnic Russians made up nearly three-quarters of the Communist Party, and official business all across the USSR was done in Russian. Which is all to say that, when the older respondents of Cherkashin’s poll in Donetsk say they are Russian, what they mean, mostly, is that they are Soviet.
Vladimir Putin fits Cherkashin’s paradigm nicely, too. Born in 1952, he came of age in an era dominated by Leonid Brezhnev and his neo-Stalinist policies. The policies were a comparatively toothless version of Stalinism, but they were Stalinism nonetheless. Not in the sense of mass repressions and genocide, but in the sense of a unified Soviet space that is, at its core, Russian. So when Putin and his surrogates speak about a larger Russian-speaking universe, they are talking about a Soviet universe.
Only 23 years have passed since this universe was carved up by Boris Yeltsin and regional party chieftains who wanted their own national fiefdoms. In the scheme of things, that’s not a very long time, just one generation.
But notions of linguistic and even ethnic identity are highly malleable, politicized concepts, and they evolve with time. Cherkashin’s four young students, for instance, prefer to speak Russian over Ukrainian, but not one of them agreed with his idea that Ukraine is a fictional country. Their city is economically tied to Russia; they have family there. But it doesn’t mean for them that Ukraine should meld back into a resurgent Soviet Russia. Their generation has a profoundly non-Soviet understanding of nationality, one that is based on citizenship: “I was born in Ukraine, therefore, I am Ukrainian.” For their parents and grandparents, it is defined by language and ethnicity, and so many Russian speakers in Donetsk and the Ukrainian southeast may feel like they are living on islands, far adrift from the motherland. It is why a few dozen pensioners and middle-aged citizens stood guard by the statue of Lenin in the town square, though the irony of it surely escaped them.
If Ukraine survives this crisis intact, it will still have miles to go to a fuller embrace of its own independence. This standoff—with a Moscow that is itself still struggling with its own Soviet legacy—is just a step along the long road out of the Soviet Union. It will take more time still for this newer understanding of citizenship to become as firmly entrenched in eastern Ukraine as the old one was, for the old one to die away, for the Lenin statue to lose its emotional significance, for the old Soviet apartment blocks in Donetsk to crumble and for something newer and more distinctively local to spring up in their place—even if the locals still speak Russian.
Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.