A New “Russian” Internationalism: a (very) early hypothesis

Last week Z Geography examined the interim Ukrainian government’s and Russian government’s narratives of the ongoing conflict over eastern Ukraine (here). In that post, I recounted Russia’s stated objective of protecting the interests of “Russian-speakers” in Ukraine. In this post, I hypothesize that Russia may be adjusting its definition of Russian to include eastern Slavic languages – including Ukrainian.

This presupposes though that Russian is all that different from Ukrainian. It is apparently not, sifting through the sources in the all-popular Wikipedia, we find three academic sources (see note classification 8 on the Ukrainian language page). The first states that among the Slavonic languages (to include Russian and Ukrainian)  “[The] distinction between dialect and language being blurred, there can be no unanimity on this issue in all instances…” And the distinction is very blurry, consider the second definition of dialect from the Random House dictionary: “a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, especially when considered as substandard.” Language, as some sociologists might argue, may be socially, culturally, and politically appointed. Take the dominance of French in France – as captured nicely in The Discovery of France (Graham Robb). We often take French as the principal language of that political construct called France, but it wasn’t until long after the French Revolution (and the patois are making a comeback).

But I digress. Ukrainian and Russian “have very high rates of mutual intelligibility…The separation of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian as distinct languages is relatively recent…Many Ukrainians in fact speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, finding it difficult to keep the two languages apart…”, according to a source in 1981. As the Wikipedia article notes of a Ukrainian-language source comparing lexicons, Ukrainian is closest to Belarusian (84%), Polish (70%), Serbo-Croatian (68%), Slovak (66%), and Russian (62%). In 1977, a peer-reviewed study asserted that “In terms of immediate mutual intelligibility, the East Slavic zone is a single language.”

Percent of Ukrainian speakers (Purple) and Russian speakers (Blue) in 1989 (lighter) and 2001 (darker) by province

This mutual intelligibility, however, was not sufficient to prevent Russian elites within the Soviet Union from suppressing the language, because it could have become a rallying point for Ukrainian nationalism. A renewed Ukrainian national identity would have been a significant divergence from, and a threat to, the Soviet Union’s internationalist communist/Stalinist identity.

So here’s the hypothesis, could Putin’s (Russia’s) expansionism be fit under the rubric of a more inclusive, internationalist “Russian” (Slavic) identity. The test for this hypothesis will be the remaining years (decades) of President Putin’s rein – will Russia content itself with Crimea and a limited “Russian-speakers only” vision, or will it seek to unite other Eastern Slavic speakers under an enlarging “Russia”? To the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, this identity shift (to pan-”Russian”) would imply that not only could Ukraine’s east be absorbed, but the entire country. If this hypothesis is true, the conflict may resemble the wars of unification in the 1860s (Germany) and 1880s (Italy).

The German case is particularly instructive. Prussia in establishing the Second Reich ignored the German-speaking (at least the elites) of Austria in order to maintain Prussian supremacy in the German empire. Today this curious quirk of political geography is linguistically explained by the existence of “varieties of German.” Consider the map below, how nice that German-German and Austrian-German end at a political boundary! In the current Ukraine-Russia crisis, Russia could leave the west of Ukraine as a rump state.

“Varieties” of German (via Wikipedia)

Competing Narratives in Ukraine

The conflict narratives prevailing in eastern Ukraine obscure the likely “ground truth” at the center of the conflict. Russia’s and Ukraine’s press releases and official commentary are political statements; statements that contain elements of truth bent towards justifying (or legitimizing) certain political actions. Geographically, these narratives center on eastern Ukraine and its people. With the start of Ukrainian military action in the east, the critical factor is which identity the eastern Ukrainians emphasize – are they primarily cultural Ukrainians? Or Russian speakers? The answer to this question will have repercussions for the rest of Ukraine.

note: this post draws on information from a useful BBC report (here).

For Russia the conflict is about protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, specifically eastern Ukraine at the moment. As the BBC observes, most of these Russian-speakers are “ethnic Ukrainians”. This unhelpful phrase is probably meant to convey that these communities of individuals are “culturally Ukrainian”. Ethnic groups, like nations, are an imagined community; a community often based on: 1) culture, 2) language, 3) religion, et cetera. This seemingly minor details carries important weight – first, a person’s identity has multiple faces. An individual living in Donetsk is probably, at once a Russian-speaker who consider herself Ukrainian. Perhaps next door neighbor, similar in all respects, considers themselves Russian. In the Russian narrative, Putin aims to protect both groups, Russian-speaking cultural Russians and Russian-speaking cultural Ukrainians from Ukrainian-speaking government oppressing this group from Kiev.

For Ukraine the conflict is about maintaining territorial cohesion and its cultural identity. The government argues that Russia sparked the unrest in the east, insinuating that these problems occurred at foreign behest; moreover, it has labelled the pro-Russia groups as “terrorists.” Kiev’s argument is that Ukraine is a country for cultural Ukrainians, whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian. Unsurprisingly given this position, it has wholly dismissed the demands of the pro-Russia group, marking them as illegitimate.

Taken together, the conflict is about two competing nation/state narratives – a Russia seeking to assert itself abroad as the protector of Russian-speakers worldwide and a Ukraine seeking to maintain its identity as the abode of cultural Ukrainians. The problem, of course, is what the Ukrainian-passport holders (i.e. the official Ukrainian public) consider themselves. As the BBC article notes, many people in the east are angry with a government in Kiev that see is dominated by politicians from the central and western oblasts. Further, they believe that the interim government has simply appointed oligarchs as governors, similarly corrupt individuals from Yanukovich’s tenure. Besides the international community, the Ukrainian and Russian governments are also attempting to influence these locals – labeling pro-Russia groups as “terrorists” and advocating the defense of “Russian speakers.”

With the Ukrainian military undertaking an “anti-terrorism” operation in the country’s east – the government risks pushing the resident cultural Ukrainians, who have a legitimate gripe with the government – poor representation and corruption, into the waiting arms of Russia. This risk would grow even more likely, and dangerous, should the operation negatively impact local residents. By prompting local Ukrainians to switch allegiance, Kiev would ultimately be challenging its own identity – is Ukraine for cultural Ukrainians, regardless of language or is the vision much more limited a state only for Ukrainian-speaking cultural Ukrainians in the west and central oblasts? If the latter is the case, what happens to the Hungarians, Poles, and Romanian speakers?


The CIA’s World Factbook also illustrates the religious aspect of Ukrainian identity, although it the data is only provided a the countrywide-level.

Of 44.2 million estimated Ukrainian citizens:

  • 67% speak Ukrainian
  • 24% speak Russian
  • 9% speak other languages (including Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian)
  • 50% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate)
  • 26% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate)
  • 8% practice Ukrainian Greek Catholic
  • 7% practice Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox

According to its Wikipedia page, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is primarily located in eastern Ukraine. The other two Ukrainian Orthodox churches are mostly located in the west and center.

Media and the “Nation”: south Korea

How much do cultural icons reflect our “national values”? Actually, we should refer to them as “national ideals”, though this certainly isn’t the space to discuss the difference. For the moment, let us suffice to declare that national ideals are upheld by our popular cultural icons – our actors, our singers, our writers, painters, and artists. Like most people, I don’t ever really pay attention to this link – until I do.

If it please my dear readers – the following link is from Psy (the sensational pop singer from the southern half of the Korean peninsula. This Youtube music video was posted in July 2012 and is entitled “Korea” and is a “cheer song” for the 2012 London Olympics. While in Korean, the video also includes English translation for the lyrics in the bottom left corner. What Z Geography finds interesting is the conception of Korea in Psy’s music. I had assumed that “Korea” would reference both halves of the peninsula, they are after all “one people separated by war” (being the Korean War that is still, technically, going on). While the music video is understandably devoid of any references to the ruling Kim dynasty, most of the clothing (except the shirts with the South Korean flag) also counts as part of the northern state’s heritage. There are taekwon-do martial artists, men and women in hanbok, and more recent symbols of nationalism – Olympic athletes (representing South Korea).

In Psy’s worldview – South Korea is Korea. Is North Korea part of Korea? No. Throughout the song one of the lyrics is “the shouts of 50,000,000 are ringing and spreading”. The estimated population of South Korea in 2012 was 50 million. It is clear that these lyrics and the presence of decidedly South Korean national symbols (the athletes and flags) highlight the underlying notion (at least for Psy, the producers, and others) that South Korea is the descendant of the Choson (Joseon) dynasty. As the wikipedia article summarizes: “the Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon.”

That this message is coming from a cultural icon is also important. While state’s (government’s) often have their own motives for their press release and messages, most often they reflect governmental (or bureaucratic) desires rather than societal (or cultural) beliefs. Psy’s music video, “Korea”, will probably do two things. First, it highlights a cultural view among some South Koreans that they are the real “Korea”. How prevalent is this view in the south is the next logical question. Second, the music video as a cultural production will be used to acculturate younger Koreans. They will grow up understanding themselves as Korean, rather than as strictly “South Korean”. Will these future voters consider the North to be “Korean” as well?

Detractors will point out that this song was produced for the Olympics. While true, Psy’s comments to the Daily Beast in 2013 (referenced in his wikipedia article) are also illuminating, asked about North Korean threats to the south:

“Well, as an entertainer, I don’t want to talk about politics. As a Korean citizen, I want peace. That’s all I can say. I want permanent peace.”

This video and Psy’s comment leaves Z Geography with a final, more troubling thought, is what this means for Korean Reunification. Could it be that some aspect of southern culture is indefinitely postponing the idea of reunifying with the north? After all, there’s no need to reunify the Koreas – if you are the only Korea.

Disenfranchising Minorities via Census: Burma (Myanmar)

In Burma (officially known as Myanmar), the government has begun the first census in three decades (according to the BBC). Of course, the document and census takers (presumably) are refusing to allow any individuals to classify themselves as Rohingya. While the article notes that the UN (which is assisting with the census) asserts that all people should be free to choose their own ethnicity - the Burmese government (not to be confused with Burman) only allows individuals to choose “Bengali” or they would not be registered.

The Rohingya are a dialect of Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims residing primarily in Arakan state, which was formerly its own kingdom until it was conquered by the Burman Empire (and subsequently incorporated into the entity now known as Burma) in the 17th or 18th century. The Rohingya’s language, a dialect of Bengali as I have indicated, is the primary basis for the government’s assertion that they are ethnically “Bengali.” In addition, this linguistic difference coupled with their predominantly Sunni Islamic religious orientation adds some (apparently unwelcome) diversity to the mostly Theravada Buddhist state.

The Burmese government, taking an increasingly Buddhist-nationalist bent (as evidenced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the Rohingya’s situation), has labelled the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” despite the community’s presence in the same area for centuries. Thousands of Rohingya have settled in neighboring Bangladesh (peopled predominantly by Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims) in refugee camps just over the Burma-Bangladesh border. Many were forcibly (through outright violence or intimidation) migrated. As the article notes one recent spate of violence occurred in 2012, reminiscent of the Gujarat pogroms a decade earlier (where now-Prime Ministerial candidate in India Narendra Modi turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the state) the Rakhine violence began with the alleged rape of a Buddhist Rakhine girl by several Muslim Rohingya men. Hundreds died and thousands displaced in the ensuing violence.

That the government is refusing to acknowledge the Rohingya minority is of no surprise. A country’s census (typically) forms the basis for electoral districts, acknowledging (and publishing) the population of Rohingya in Rakhine state would undoubtedly find the Rohingya to be a substantial minority in the state. There is also the “official recognition” factor, acknowledging Rohingya in a Burmese census provides official recognition of their status as Burmese citizens. Herein lies the deviously cunning gem in the government’s plan, allow the Rohingya to either acknowledge they are “Bengalis” and therefore “illegal immigrants” or don’t allow them to register at all and therefore have a basis to deny citizenship (and voting rights).

Even if the United Nations manages to convince the government to back down and allow “Rohingya” to be officially recognized, the government still has options to oppress the minorities. Borrowing a page from North Carolina’s playbook - there is the tried-and-true tactic of gerrymandering electoral districts in Rakhine state to minimize the impact of the Rohingya vote. If that doesn’t work, there is also a myriad ways to keep minorities out of the polls or simply discount their votes.

And there is the potential for violence, while most Rohingya are probably unlikely to undertake violent activity – they are under siege, as evidenced by the forced migrations over several decades, the government’s latest action likely will fuel resentment among the community. A troubling thought is the potential for the census forms to be used to target “Bengali”-Rohingya. Again referencing the Gujarat pogroms, riot leaders had voter lists (otherwise names and addresses) of Muslims throughout the community to focus the killings and looting. Beyond the Rohingya community, other ethnic minorities (such as the Karen and Shan) are also watching the census with anticipation. These larger minority communities are also armed, organized, and concentrated geographically.