Staunton, January 29 – Vladimir Putin’s statement on January 25 that the early Soviet state handed over Russian territories to Ukraine is both incorrect as a matter of history and the latest example of the Kremlin leader’s inability or unwillingness to get his facts right about the ethnic situation in eastern Ukraine, according to Andrey Illarionov.
In Bucharest in April 2008, Putin said that a third of the population of Ukraine consisted of ethnic Russians and thus Moscow had a continuing interest in their fate; but in making that remark, the Russian leader confused things completely: There were not 17 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine as he said but rather ethnic Russians there formed 17 percent of the population for a total of 8.3 million (echo.msk.ru/blog/aillar/1702772-echo/).
In April 2014, Putin said that the portions of Ukraine he was then calling “Novorossiya” had never been part of Ukraine in tsarist times and were only transferred from Russia to Ukraine by the Soviets in the 1920s. That statement is also wrong, Illarionov says. None of these regions was ever transferred from Russia to Ukraine by any government.
And at the Valdai Club meeting in October 2014, the Moscow economist points out, Putin repeated this error, asserting that the Bolsheviks had taken this step in order to increase the share of urban workers in the Ukrainian population, a goal that resulted in the transfer of Russian territories to Ukraine.
After a detailed examination of both tsarist and Soviet censuses and the administrative reforms undertaken by the Soviet government in the 1920s, Illarionov describes what he says is “the ethnic history of the Donbas as a whole over the last 250 years,” a history that at no point supports Putin’s contentions.
“After the inclusion of this region in the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century,” he writes, “its population included Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Tatars, Armenians, Germans, Jews, and representatives of many other nationalities.” All except the extreme east, the current Shakhty district of Rostov Oblast were dominated by Ukrainians.
After the collapse of the Russian Empire, Illarionov continues, “the initial inter-governmental border between Ukraine nad Russia reproduced the administrative border between Yekaterinoslav gubernia and the Oblast of the Don Host. During the administrative-territorial delimitation between the UkSSR and the RSFSR in 1920-1925,” that changed.
Some Ukrainian majority districts were in fact transferred to the territory of the Donetsk gubernia in Ukraine, but “part of the Taganrog district with an overwhelmingly Ukrainian population and also the Shakhty-Donetsk district with an overwhelmingly Russian population were transferred to the North Caucasus Kray of the RSFSR.”
Over the next 60 years of Soviet power, “as a result of mass in-migration into the territory of the Ukrainian Donbas,” the share of ethnic Ukrainians there fell from approximately 65 percent to 51 percent, and the share of ethnic Russians increased by slightly less than twice from approximately 25 percent to almost 44 percent.”
“This trend toward russification of Ukraine’s Donbas was reversed only after Ukraine achieved independence,” Illarionov points out. “In the course of the aggression of 2014-2016, under the control of the so-called DNR and LNR fell significant portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblast of Ukraine,” including both parts that had been transferred from Ukraine to Russia and that had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine at the dawn of the Soviet era.
Thus one can say, Illarionov concludes, that no one handed over the Donbas to Ukraine. “On the contrary, a significant portion of the Ukrainian Donbas was occupied and taken from its legal owners, the Ukrainian people and the state of Ukraine.”
All of Illarionov’s points are important and well-taken, but two additional aspects of the situation at the start of the Soviet period should be mentioned in order to put his comments in context and to avoid some of the errors that commentators and officials routinely make about ethnic borders and their transformation.
On the one hand, in the early 1920s, there were no such places as Ukraine or Russia; there were places where Ukrainians live and Russians lived. But these were not states in the sense that they subsequently became. Indeed, the borders that were drawn then were the first modern borders in many cases.
And on the other – and this is the more important point – there were no censuses in this region before 1926 where people were asked their ethnic or ethno-national identity. Instead, they were asked their language and religion. Often those identifications are used as the basis for generating numbers about ethnic identifications.
That is not unreasonable, but it sometimes leads to false conclusions, especially in cases like those involving Russians and Ukrainians where the languages are related and religion often the same. In such cases, language and ethnic identity are related in more complicated ways, with some Russian speakers identifying as Ukrainians ethnically although likely few Ukrainian speakers doing the reverse.