Aimar Ventsel: Ukrainians aren't Russians

Aimar Ventsel.
Aimar Ventsel. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

For Estonians, one criterion of ethnic identity is native language — if you speak Estonian, you're Estonian; if you speak Russian, you're Russian. This formula does not apply to Ukraine and Ukrainians, however, writes anthropologist and ethnologist Aimar Ventsel.

I believe it can be stated that the war refugees from Ukraine descended on us here in Estonia out of the blue. Very few people would have guessed that war breaking out would open the floodgates to such a large and intense flow of refugees. People have fled very far from Ukraine; by now, war refugees have ended up everywhere from Canada to Kazakhstan, and as we know, the Republic of Estonia has not remained untouched.

In connection with this, a great many misconceptions are making the rounds regarding what kinds of people do in fact live in Ukraine. As Ukrainians are currently the third biggest ethnic group in Estonia in number (and probably were previously as well, the increase has just been tangible right now), it's high time to correct some stereotypes regarding Ukraine and Ukrainians.

People, as a rule, are afraid of the "unknown," and that includes people from an unknown culture. Inherently false rumors are making the rounds among Estonians, the spread of which is all too often contributed to by unknown trolls.

This is very easy to track on social media. As soon as the topic of Ukrainian war refugees is brought up, sooner or later, commenters aggressively laying into Ukrainians get involved in the conversation.

If you look at these bashers' accounts, then as a rule, they're fake accounts, with six or seven people on their friends list and two or three cat pictures. As a rule, such trolls are people who write in Estonian like Estonians, although sometimes you'll come across people with an obvious Russian background. This is the hole from which rumors about violent, criminal or ungrateful Ukrainians appear.

One way to stoke fears in Estonians is to play the ethnic card, which is something that someone or another does, both online and off. This ethnic card often tends to be — surprise, surprise! — the "Russian card."

At the end of March, MEP Yana Toom (Center) said on Postimees TV, "It is Russian-language cities that are being bombed. Chernihiv, Kharkiv — those are Russians! They have Ukrainian passports, but for the most part they are Russians."

Others have called Ukrainians Russians as well. Leaving aside the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), which is using Ukrainians to scare Estonians about an invasion of Russians (nevermind the fact that they themselves are angling for Russian voters' votes in Estonia). Even a high-ranking Estonian military officer, who you'd expect should know better and feel sympathy for Ukrainians, called Ukrainians Russians.

Such perceptions are apparently based on Estonians' understanding of ethnic identity. For Estonians, one criterion for ethnic identity is — or, considering younger people, I guess you can conditionally say "was" — native language. If you speak Estonian, you're Estonian; if you speak Russian, you're Russian. The thing is, however, that this formula does not apply to Ukraine and Ukrainians.

I'm not going to start getting into the history of the development of the Ukrainian ethnic identity here, but the matter of criteria for ethnic identity is not the same for all ethnicities. If we're going to look at it this way, then things in Ukraine are quite different.

X different peoples live in Ukraine, but three groups dominate: Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians,and Russians. For Estonians and many others, however, the issue is that the line between these three groups is blurry and constantly changing.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the attitude toward their own state has been different in Ukraine than it has in Estonia. Many residents of Ukraine did not consider the state "ours." Ties with the state nonetheless began growing stronger, which manifested in the events of 2014, known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity, or the Maidan Revolution.

A lot of people unexpectedly cared about the state at one point, and they were prepared to fight for their state as well. On that note, the will to fight wasn't connected to one's native or first language. Thus it was Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine who were in the majority among Ukrainian volunteers fighting in Donbas. The now world-famous Azov Battalion was also founded by Russian-language Ukrainians.

Why some Ukrainians speak Russian as their native language is currently irrelevant. It just has to be noted that this involves the Soviet Union's policy of Russification. Ironically, Ukrainians aren't the exception here; rather, of the peoples of the former Soviet Union, it it is Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians who are the exception — among whom, unlike many other peoples of the "Great Homeland," there was no massive conversion to the Russian language while retaining an ethnic identity distinct from the Russians.

As an ethnologist, I'd say that the language situation in Ukraine is very interesting. The entire country's population is essentially passively bilingual. And so it isn't even remotely surprising to come across a group of people in Ukraine who code-switch between Ukrainian and Russian. And one is speaking in Ukrainian and another in Russian.

And this is where the slippery intermediate step comes into play. If you look, you'll see that people from Ukraine who previously considered themselves Russian are increasingly considering themselves Ukrainian. People who have grown up speaking Russian are increasingly switching over to Ukrainian. Kyiv was a Russian-speaking city in 2015; by now, it's half Ukrainian-speaking.

And so language and identity aren't as stuck together in Ukraine as we believe. People are arriving in Estonia who consider Russian to be their native language, but who are speaking with their children in Ukrainian. In short, calling a war refugee from Ukraine who has arrived in Estonia a Russian is insulting them.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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