Ethicity in the former USSR: How are Russians and Ukrainians different?

I am afraid this probably sounds ignorant, but I am trying to understand exactly how Russians and Ukrainians differ from each other (as ethnic groups, not as citizens of different countries.) I had kind of a vague notion that the dividing line was linguistic. However, apparently it is not that simple because there is Russian speaking Ukrainians, and they are distinct from ethnic Russian Ukrainians. So, is it mainly a cultural (though not necessarily linguistic) distinction? Or is it perceived in racial terms? Can a Ukrainian become a Russian by becoming “culturally Russian?” Is it a bright line or more of a Continuum? Published population statistics in former Soviet states seem to indicate that there is a sharp distinction between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. OTOH, according to Wikipedia, Leonev Brezhnev identified as either Russian or Ukrainian at different periods of his life, and former Russian president Megledev is of partly Ukrainian ancestry, so apparently the line is at least somewhat porous. So, how exactly do Russians and Ukrainians perceive their differences?

It’s the same as any other ethnicity. Ukrainians are people who view themselves as Ukrainian, and Russians are people who view themselves as Russian.

That’s not really helpful for someone who is confused about the situation. Let me elaborate. They are two closely related ethnicities. Identification with one or the other is situational, and decided in part by:

  • nationality (citizenship), in Russia or in the Ukraine
  • language, Russian or Ukrainian (which are close but not quite mutually intelligible)
  • geography, in a historically Russian or Ukrainian area (which may or may not overlap with nationality)
  • heritage (not a big factor in Europe, but much bigger in North America)
  • social prestige (peer opinions of the various groups)
  • history (largely shared through big chunks of history, but not entirely)
  • politics—the Crimeans might be Ukrainian or Russian, depending on which way the winds are blowing
  • various subcultural practices that get identified with one group or the other.

Any given individual might be Russian, Ukrainian, neither, or both, but is usually only one at a time, depending on the context. Right now, I’d suggest that politics is a larger factor than normal, when language is more of a factor. I’m not an expert in either group, though, so I’m prepared to be wrong.

For most large groups of people and people who span borders, ethnicity is really complicated. I would say that Russian and Ukrainian are to modern ethnicities than began diverging in the Middle Ages and haven’t completely split yet, making it more of a porous border than between, say, either and a Navajo.

Ukrainian food is a lot better. I’ve eaten at a Ukrainian restaurant and love borshch (a soup) and pierogies. Those dumplings, OMG they are good.

Also, Ukrainian women tend to be hotter.

Brezhnev emphasized his Russianness for political reasons. But overall, continuum sounds like a good term. There may be no possible way to tell X and Y apart, but due to culture, religion, history they are separate.

It’s pretty easy to tell them apart. In the Russian system of government, Man oppresses Man, while in the Ukrainian system it’s the other way around.

I have older linguistics books that refer to the Russian and Ukrainian languages as “Great Russian” and “Little Russian.”

Can you tell a Canadian from an American before he speaks? A Frenchman from a German, or a Tutsi from a Hutu? No - As said, It is just a matter of where you come from and where you see as ‘home’.

Before the Mongol conquest, Kiev was the political capital and cultural center of the Slavs in the region (known as “Kievan Rus”).

During Mongol rule, the languages and cultures started diverging. The three main branches are “great Russia” (centered on Moscow), “little Russia” (Ukraine, centered on Kiev), and “white Russia” (Belarus, centered on Minsk). Whether these are three separate languages, or one language with three dialects, is a matter of much debate.

When the Mongol empire declined, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine achieved independence at different times, and under different leaders. Each country still considered itself Russian, but each thought itself to be the true heir to the Kievan tradition, and the other two to be the slightly disreputable cousins.

The Muscovite state became the largest and strongest of the three (hence, they called themselves “Great Russia”). The Muscovite rulers expanded and conquered their neighbors. Russians call this “the gathering of the Russias”, and consider it to be a good thing. Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalists call it a foreign invasion, and consider it a bad thing.

Another bone of contention: The Muscovite rulers embraced Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and used it to promote unity within their realm. Roman Catholicism remained influential in Ukraine, and Moscow was never quite able to stamp it out.

The Great Russians always maintained the dominance of Moscow, but they maintained the existence of Belarus and Ukraine as administrative subdivisions withing their empire. To the tsars, the existence of three Russias allowed them to claim three grandiose titles instead of one. To the Soviets, it allowed them to get three votes in the UN instead of one. So the nationalists were able to maintain an identity separate from Moscow.

Russian nationalists often view Belarussians and Ukrainians as just Russians with odd accents. They view Slavic unity as desirable, even necessary in the face of US and Chinese hegemony, and Muslim terrorism. It mystifies them that Belarussians and Ukrainians might view them as just one more set of foreigners.

My understanding is that the Soviet Union asked for separate representation for each of its soviet socialist republics on the theory that they were federated sovereign states. The United States then countered for 48 seats under the same theory. The compromise was that each could designate two constituent states for extra representation, but the United States never bothered to follow through because of the political difficulty of choosing two of the states to be given special status on the international stage.

I don’t think they are racially or really that ethnically different. More a national pride different.

Think Texas vs. Oklahoma.


I believe if you went to Ukraine and said that, you’re liable to get punched in the nose.

If you speak a different language then you belong to a different ethnic group. It is possible for different ethnic groups to speak the same language (cf Serbs-Croats, English-Irish) but that only means that the Russians and Ukrainians are further apart than the minimum it takes to constitute ethnic separation.

Thank you everyone for the interesting and informative responses. I must admit that as an American I often find ethinc politics in the former Soviet Union confusing.

Maybe they would be more understanding if they had ever been to the Cotton Bowl on the second Saturday in October. :slight_smile:

Seriously, the analogy I’ve heard is that they are like Americans and Canadians. Thing is that I would consider a generic English speaking Canadian to be of a different nationality than me, but not a different ethnicity.

Well, I would say that in Canada and the United States, there are many ethnicities. Canada and the United States, unlike many of the countries of Europe, are not ethnicity-based entities.

And even those countries that are ethnicity based, they also include minority ethnicities. For example, “French” is a nationality and an ethnicity, but “Breton” and “Basque” are only ethnicities (at the moment, anyway).

What if your heritage was from Mexico and his was from Scotland?

But Ukrainians and Russians speak *different languages. *

True, except that some Ukranians speak Russian.

Well, my heritage is not from Mexico, but I see your point. As someone else mentioned Canada and the US aren’t ethnic entities. We both have racial/ethnic groups who are usually marked by their language or race or both. And then we have (for lack of a better term), generic white people, who come from a lot of different ethnicities, but have blended together so much that they kind of just get lumped together.