Alternative names: Little or Lesser Russians (to 1917): Ruthenians (historical): Cossacks (historical): khokhols (slang)
Location: Ukraine (south-west USSR), other parts of USSR, Eastern Europe, North America, Western Europe, South America, Australia
Population: 42.3 million (USSR census 1979), 44 million (est. 1989), 3 million abroad
% of population: 16.2% (1979), 15.3% (est. 1989)
Religion: Christianity (Orthodox and “Uniate” Catholic)
Language: Ukrainian, Russian

The Ukrainians constitute the second largest nation in the USSR after the 145 million Russians (known prior to 1917 as the Great or Greater Russians). As such they are the largest national minority in Europe and, arguably, the world. Occupying a land the size of France with a population greater than that of Poland, the Ukrainians have failed in recent history to achieve genuine and lasting independent statehood. For more than 300 years they have been dominated by their fellow Eastern Slavs and, for the most part, co-religionists — the Russians. Indeed, the very name Ukraine means “at the border” in Russian.

History and background

The Ukrainians, in common with the Byelorussians and Russians, trace their ancestry to the unified state of Kievan Rus, which flourished from the ninth to twelfth centuries and was destroyed by the Mongol-Tatar invasion in the thirteenth century. Thus, the adoption of Orthodox Christianity in 988, the use of Old Church Slavonic and its Cyrillic script were common to all three East Slavic nations. However, the disintegration of Kiev Rus led to a separate development for the Ukraine until its controversial union with Russia in 1654. In this intervening period the main Western influences came from Poland and Lithuania, culminating in 1596 with a part of the Ukrainian Orthodox clergy acknowledging the primacy of Rome while retaining the Eastern Rite, thus forming the “Uniate” Church. At the same time many Orthodox Ukrainians fled to the no man’s land of the South Ukrainian steppes where they set up the semi-autonomous Cossack communities that were to dominate Ukrainian political life until their suppression in the eighteenth century (and final destruction in the 1930s).

The autocratic nature of the Russian Empire precluded lasting manifestations of Ukrainian self-determination and the process of Russification proceeded apace, particularly in the rapidly-growing industrial centres. Thus, the nineteenth century Ukrainian writer, Nikolai Gogol, achieved fame by writing in Russian rather than his native Ukrainian, whereas his compatriot, the poet Taras Shevchenko, provoked hostile reaction from the Tsarist authorities with the nationalist sentiments of his work. When the Empire finally broke up in 1917 there were short-lived attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian state but, by 1920, Soviet power had been established throughout the Ukraine (although Western Ukraine was ceded to Poland until 1939). Stalin’s policies (collectivization leading to the famine of 1933, the purges etc.) hit the Ukrainians with particular ferocity and doubts over their loyalty in World War II — in which it is estimated the Ukraine lost 5.5 million people, including nearly one million Jews — increased pressure on so-called Ukrainian “bourgeois nationalism”.

The post-Stalinist “thaw” in the 1950s to 1960s and the current era of glasnost have seen revivals of Ukrainian national consciousness. Of particular note in the earlier period were the accounts of Ukrainian dissident trials compiled by Vyacheslav Chornovil and the critique “Internationalism or Russification” by the literary critic Ivan Dzyuba. Despite harassment and repression in the 1970s, particularly after the relatively tolerant Ukrainian Communist Party leader, Shelest, was replaced in 1972 by Shcherbitsky, Ukrainians continued to play a key role in dissident political, literary and religious activities.

Constitution and law

In theory the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (population 51.7 million in 1989) is a sovereign state and has full membership of the United Nations. In reality the Ukraine has hitherto been little more than a constituent part of the USSR, which controls its foreign affairs, economic, military and commercial relations in a highly centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 provides for the Ukraine to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court), power resides effectively in the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union through its Republican branch in the Ukraine.

Ukrainian SSR

However, the forthcoming elections to the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet promise to end this monopoly. As part of the USSR, the Ukraine also elects 11 Deputies to the Council of Nationalities and 52 to the Council of the Union in the 542-member Supreme Soviet of the USSR (every five years).

The Constitution also allows each Union Republic to secede from the USSR but the primacy of All-Union legislation over that of a constituent Republic effectively invalidates this.

Similarly, the constitutional assertion that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights has been severely compromised by the domination in the USSR of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, cultural and economic norms.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Even in the current unprecedented wave of national unrest in the USSR, the Ukrainians hitherto have remained relatively quiet. To some extent this is due to the special relationship between the Ukrainians and Russians, a relationship which until very recently was pivotal in ensuring harmonious national policies in the USSR. However, the rapid growth of the Soviet Muslim population has brought to the forefront long-standing and deep-seated contradictions between the Eastern Slavs and Turkic peoples of the USSR. In this fundamental ethnic divide the Ukrainians and Byelorussians tend to identify — and be identified — with the Russians. In practical terms this means that a Ukrainian who accepts the pre-eminence of Russian culture will suffer little real discrimination and may reach the very highest position in the political, state and military hierarchies (for example, Nikolai Podgorny became President of the USSR). Those Ukrainians who actively resist assimilation may not expect to be rewarded with similar tolerance or upward mobility.

The impact of Russification is more apparent among Ukrainians living outside of their native Republic, there being no Ukrainian-language schools or periodicals for the 5.8 million Ukrainians in other Republics. They, naturally, tend to share the facilities accorded to the Russians, who are very well provided for in this respect. As a result, only 69% of Ukrainians living outside their Republic considered Ukrainian their native language compared with 89% in the Ukraine (1979). Even within the Ukraine, however, the language is sometimes overshadowed by Russian, Ukrainians enjoying on average only 2.2 books per capita per annum in their native language compared with a USSR average of 6.8 (1982).

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, had the Soviet Union consisted only of Eastern Slavs, the long-advocated “drawing together” of peoples to form a single Soviet people might, in time, have occurred. However, it is precisely the policies of assimilation that have been applied by the Russians to their junior partners — the Ukrainians and Byelorussians — that have aroused such resentment and opposition when directed at non-Slavic minorities. Thus, although the movement for complete independence is not as strong as in the Baltic republics, Ukrainians are also demanding economic and cultural autonomy and genuinely equal rights in language, education, religion etc.

The Chernobyl nuclear accident on Ukrainian soil in April 1986 was a major turning point in national relations in the USSR, focusing attention on dissatisfaction with economic, social and environmental policies, while at the same time imbuing the policy of glasnost with important new content. As a result, many of the Ukrainians’ longstanding grievances have recently resurfaced. These include the status of the Uniate Church, the future of the Ukrainian language, the anti-Ukrainian excesses of Stalin and the popular demand for genuine civil liberties. Thus the legality of the notorious Synod of Lvov, which in 1946 abolished the Uniate Church, has been challenged, Uniate bishops have commenced to preach more openly (most notably at the public mass in the summer of 1988 held to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Russia), Pope John Paul II has agreed to serve as Chairman of the Synod of Uniate Bishops and there have been sharp exchanges in the Soviet press between representatives of the Orthodox Church, who still strongly oppose reconstituting the Uniate Church, and journalists claiming that there are four million Uniate Catholics in the Ukraine. On the other hand, the defiant visionary Josyf Terelya (now in exile in Canada) has been replaced as Chairman of the Central Committee of Ukrainian Uniate Catholics by the more conciliatory Ivan Gell.

Among the popular organizations that have emerged recently are an environmental movement — Green World — formed in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster by writer Oles Honchar; a Popular Movement for Perestroika (Narodni Ruch) which, since November 1988, has drawn members mainly from the cultural and technical intelligentsia and skilled workers in mass campaigns for economic autonomy and political pluralism (and was particularly effective in the March 1989 elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies in stopping the election of several leading Party and state officials who stood unopposed); the Ukrainian Language Society active since January 1989 under the leadership of writer Dmitry Pavlichko; and the anti-Stalinist Memorial Association formed early in 1989 in protest at what is perceived as the continuing cover-up of Stalin’s crimes in the Ukraine. A particular bone of contention is the monument in Bikovnya Forest, near Kiev, which the Soviet authorities recognize as a site of Nazi atrocities but which Memorial claims was a place where Stalin’s secret police — the NKVD – executed up to 150,000 Ukrainians.

Repeatedly in 1989 these organizations were able to engender mass demonstrations in the Ukraine against the inflexible attitude of the Shcherbitsky leadership. However, it was the strike of the Donbas coalminers, in the Ukraine’s industrial heartland, that posed the strongest challenge to the regime in July 1989. That strike was called off after the personal intervention of President Gorbachev who would appear to have retained the support of many of the protesters. This raises the question as to whether most Ukrainians would be satisfied with merely a return to the relatively relaxed era of Ukrainization in 1920-1930 prior to Stalin’s reversal of that policy or whether they would like to follow the path of Poland towards a pluralistic democratic state. To some extent there exists a geographical divide, with the West Ukrainians (who were under Polish rule from 1921-1939) tending to be the more radical. However, the Soviet authorities too appear split — between the “conservatives” in Kiev and the “reformers” in Moscow, the latter being aware that, however the situation develops with smaller nationalities in the USSR, the future of the federation depends to a great extent on the Ukrainians.

Migration and diaspora

Apart from the estimated three million Ukrainians living abroad who maintain their native cultural, religious and linguistic traditions, there are large concentrations of Ukrainians in most Soviet republics. Indeed in Moldavia (1979) the 561,000 Ukrainians (14.2%) outnumber the 506,000 Russians (12.8%). However, the largest concentrations are in the RSFSR (3.66 million or 8.6% of all Soviet Ukrainians) and Kazakhstan (898,000 or 2.1%). Only the 36.5 million Ukrainians (1979) living in their native Republic, where they constitute 73.6% of the population, have access to Ukrainian schools (although it is claimed that only 16% of schools in the Republic teach in Ukrainian).

Significantly, Ukrainians account for 16% (2.8 million 1982) of all members of the CPSU (i.e. roughly on a par with their proportion of the Soviet population).

Minorities in the Ukraine

The Ukraine has no autonomous national formations within its borders but there are about 80 nationalities living in the Republic. Moveover, until 1940 the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was part of the Ukraine as, since 1954, has been the Crimea (formerly the territory of the Crimean Tatar ASSR until the expulsion to Central Asia of the Tatars in 1944). In addition, semi-autonomous Cossack communities existed along the Don and Dnieper rivers until the collectivization drive of the 1930s (with the subsequent famine of 1933 which decimated the local peasantry). Territorial acquisitions in World War 11 (Western Ukraine, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and Transcarpathia) led to further influxes of other nationalities and continued Russian immigration means that there are now more than 11 million (21%) Russians living in the Ukraine out of a total of 13.5m non-Ukrainians (27%). Should there be any moves to make Ukrainian the official language of the Republic, there is sure to be stiff opposition from the Russian minority who would claim that Russian is the language of the Soviet peoples, not just its largest nationality.

Being part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement from 1815 to 1917, the Ukraine has long had a large Jewish population and, although it had shrunk (by assimilation, emigration and war casualties) to 634,000 by 1979, this represented one third of all Soviet Jews and the third largest national group in the Ukraine. There are long-standing charges of anti-semitism levelled at Ukrainian authorities, culminating in the Khmelnitsky massacres of the mid-seventeenth century and the pogroms of the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that any moves towards Ukrainian self-determination will be accompanied by increased tolerance towards the minorities living within the Republic.