The short answer is: not necessarily. Ethnicity and language are closely related, but there are other factors that must be considered. It’s important to recognize that speaking Russian as one’s native language does not automatically equate to being ethnically or culturally Russian. In many cases, the prevalence of Russian as a native language in countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union can be attributed to the historical practice of Russification, where the Russian language was imposed on the local population through various means. Some individuals may have migrated to these territories during the Soviet occupation, making their ethnic backgrounds more diverse and multifaceted.
The oversimplification that “speaking Russian equals being Russian” has been exploited by Russian propaganda to advance a particular narrative, often referred to as the “Russian World” or “Russkii Mir” ideology. This narrative asserts that wherever Russian-speaking populations reside, the land is considered Russian, and Russia has a duty to protect and influence those regions. This ideology has been used to justify Russian interventions in neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians or Russian speakers.
This narrative oversimplifies complex ethnic, cultural, and political realities in these regions, where linguistic identity does not necessarily equate to national identity. Many Russian speakers in these areas may identify with the culture and history of the country in which they reside rather than with Russia. The promotion of such an ideology can contribute to tensions and conflicts in regions with diverse populations, as it can be used to justify territorial claims and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.
The Russian language is within the concept of “Russki Mir” (Russian World) as a tool of cultural and political assimilation. It reflects the historical practices employed by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in their efforts to consolidate control over diverse populations.
The use of the Russian language as the dominant means of communication in Russki Mir and the stigmatization of other languages as a mark of being a second-class citizen underscores the power dynamics at play. In many instances, individuals and communities were pressured or forced to abandon their native languages, cultures, traditions, and faith in favor of the Russian language, culture, and the Russian Orthodox faith.
The Ukrainian language was hit the most by the Russification. Russification policy was more intense in Ukraine than in other parts of the Soviet Union, and the country now contains the largest group of Russian speakers who are not ethnically Russian: as of 2009, there were about 5.5 million Ukrainians whose first language was Russian. In Ukraine, under Russian Empire rule, Ukrainian was banned in print from 1876.
In the early 1930s, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, adopted a highly radical and repressive policy towards the Ukrainian language and culture. This period of intense repression and discrimination against Ukrainian speakers had significant and devastating consequences for Ukraine and its people. The Soviet government’s policies in the 1930s aimed at imposing Russian as the dominant language and erasing Ukrainian identity. This included a systematic effort to switch newspapers, books, and education from Ukrainian to Russian. These measures were part of a broader campaign to homogenize the Soviet Union by promoting Russian culture and suppressing the cultures and languages of other ethnic groups within the country. The cultural repression in Ukraine during this period was particularly severe compared to other regions of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian intellectuals, writers, and artists were often targeted, and many faced imprisonment, execution, or exile. The government also imposed strict censorship on Ukrainian literature, music, and art, making it challenging for Ukrainian cultural expressions to flourish. Additionally, the famine genocide of 1932-1933, known as the Holodomor, further exacerbated the suffering of the Ukrainian people. This man-made famine, which resulted from forced collectivization and grain requisition policies, led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and is widely regarded as one of the most tragic episodes in Ukrainian history.
The repression of the Ukrainian language and culture in the early 1930s was part of a broader pattern of Soviet policies that sought to suppress regional identities and promote a monolithic Soviet identity centred around Russian culture and the Russian language. This policy had long-lasting effects on Ukraine’s cultural and linguistic landscape, and its legacy continues to influence Ukrainian-Russian relations to this day.
Russia’s move to deploy teachers to occupied regions of Ukraine in order to promote a “corrected” education aligned with Russia’s perspective on Ukraine’s history is a concerning development. This effort appears to be part of a broader campaign of Russification in these occupied areas, with the goal of erasing Ukrainians’ sense of history, nationhood, and even their language. By targeting the education of children, Moscow is employing a deliberate strategy to reshape the collective memory and identity of the local population. Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov’s statement that Ukrainian education “must be corrected” underscores the intention to impose a foreign narrative on the people of Ukraine. This tactic echoes historical practices of cultural and linguistic suppression, such as those witnessed during the Soviet era.
The perpetuation of the “myth of two Ukraines” in media and academia has been a disservice to understanding the complexities of Ukraine’s national identity and regional dynamics. This false narrative has often reduced Ukraine’s diversity and complexity to a simplistic and misleading binary division.
The idea that Ukraine is fundamentally divided into a Western part populated by Ukrainian-speaking ultranationalists and an Eastern part dominated by Russian-speaking individuals who prefer alignment with Russia oversimplifies the rich tapestry of Ukraine’s cultural and political landscape. While regional variations in language and cultural traditions do exist, they do not neatly align with political preferences or nationalistic tendencies. Furthermore, characterizing Ukrainians from different regions in such polarized terms only serves to reinforce cultural stereotypes and ideological prejudices. It can also be exploited for political purposes, as seen in Russian propaganda efforts aimed at delegitimizing Ukraine as a nation.
Emperor Alexander III’s mandate in 1819 to teach the Russian language in schools in the Baltic provinces was part of a broader Russian imperial policy to promote Russian culture and influence in the region. This policy aimed to strengthen Russian identity among the local population. The official correspondence in Russian established by Emperor Nicholas I in 1850 further solidified the use of the Russian language in administrative and bureaucratic functions, which had a lasting impact on the linguistic landscape of Estonia.
The measures adopted by the Estonian Communist Party in 1978, which promoted the use of the Russian language and limited the public use of Estonian, are reflective of the Soviet Union’s efforts to assimilate and Russify the non-Russian republics within its borders. These policies often created tensions between the dominant Russian-speaking population and the local ethnic communities. As a result of the Soviet occupation, the Russian-speaking population in Estonia grew from about 93,000 people in 1945 to 475,000 in 1991.
The presence of Russian-language content on television in Estonia, with a limited amount of programming in Estonian, is indicative of the broader Russification efforts during the Soviet period, where the Russian language was promoted as the dominant lingua franca at the expense of the local languages and cultures. By 1988, in Estonia, there was a significant presence of Russian language content on television, with only 10.5 hours of daily programming in Estonia out of approximately 50 hours. Even dissertations in fields related to the Estonian language and literature had to be submitted in Russian. Russian language education began in kindergarten, and Russian language teachers received higher salaries than Estonian language teachers. As a result, Russians in Estonia could function without knowing the Estonian language.
Speaking Russian as one’s mother tongue does not inherently mean that an individual supports Russian imperialism. Language and political beliefs are separate aspects of a person’s identity, and it is essential not to make broad assumptions about someone’s political stance solely based on their language. Russia has historically used the Russian language as a means of influence in occupied territories, and individuals who speak Russian can have a range of perspectives on this issue. People who speak Russian may include ethnically Russian individuals with diverse political beliefs, as well as russified representatives of other ethnicities who may hold varying opinions on Russia’s actions.
However, when an individual actively promotes the Russian language as the primary or second state language in territories that were historically occupied by Russia or the Soviet Union, regardless of their stance on Putin, it can be seen as aligning with the concept of “Russkii Mir” (Russian World), which often involves promoting Russian cultural and linguistic influence in those regions. This alignment with “Russkii Mir” can be viewed as supporting a particular political and cultural agenda associated with Russia.
The images used are screenshots from the referenced pages.