Just how ‘pro-Russian’ is the youth of Eastern Ukraine?

By Victoria Hudson

Media outlets have often presented Ukraine as a fractured country, even before the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of the country. Such reporting has frequently contrasted a pro-European, Ukrainian-speaking population in the West with a diametrically opposed Russian-speaking, Sovietised community in the East, with both sides locked in a struggle for their country’s geopolitical future. This simplification of Ukraine’s historical, cultural and linguistic diversity has been presented as a gentle introduction for readers and viewers with little prior knowledge of this large, strategically significant country on the eastern border of Europe.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, particularly when it comes to the population of the East, even the more in-depth coverage frequently presents a rather monolithic view of the people there, as if the regions bordering Russia are still churning out a generation formed in the collectivistic, authoritarian Soviet mould, unthinkingly longing for reunification with the motherland.

It is widely accepted that Russia strives to influence public opinion and promote an attractive image of itself in Ukraine through a variety of media and public organisations. Yet audience reception research undertaken in autumn 2011 amongst higher education students revealed that Russia’s attempts at cultural attraction have not been an unqualified success, even in the supposedly pro-Russian heartland of the East.[1] While survey respondents in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk generally did have more sympathy for Russian perspectives than their counterparts in western L’viv and the capital Kyiv – 65% and 82% received Russian narratives positively in the former, compared with 34% and 59% in the latter – the focus group participants by no means took an uncritical view or endorsed Russian engagement in Ukraine.

The degree of affinity with Russian culture varied a lot across the country, as one might expect given that Russians are but a small minority in the western nationalist heartland. In contrast, in the east Russians make up around 30% of the population and live in proximity to the rather permeable border. Nevertheless, only one single study participant from the East considered himself Russian, whereas the majority identified with Ukraine, regardless of ethnicity and despite their often limited Ukrainian language skills. How they

students_meeting_in_kiev_4-12-2013
Students’ meeting in Kiev, Ukraine (via Wikicommons)

understood ‘Ukraine’ varied, however: those buying into the folkish nationalist narrative assumed that it encompassed all Ukrainians, while participants in Kharkiv and Donetsk often perceived themselves as different, as more indigenous to Eastern Ukraine.

In focus group discussions, many participants indicated that they found the socially conservative perspective articulated by the Russian Orthodox Church on value issues to be ‘objective’, indicating that it corresponded with their own common sense understanding of social norms. In fact, questionnaire returns found that there was no statistically significant difference in the acceptance of these ideas across the cities surveyed, suggesting that, despite the political divisions, the nation does possess elements of a common social value basis, albeit one that shares much with Russia.

When it came to Russia’s foreign policy, the students were more sceptical across the board, although 77% in Donetsk and 50% in Kharkiv still reacted positively to Moscow’s stance. Insofar as the discussion stayed clear of Moscow’s Ukraine policy, even in Kyiv and L’viv students favourably acknowledged Vladimir Putin’s defence of Russian interests against ‘American unilateralism’.

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Vladimir Putin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It must be noted that, as a method of data collection, focus groups inevitably tend to attract a more engaged kind of participant, and thus the picture that emerged from the group discussions was generally more critical than the surveys of the broader student population, including in the Eastern cities.

Strikingly, criticism of Russian ‘soft power’ overtures was framed almost identically across the whole country: propaganda was described as attempted ‘brainwashing’ and ‘zombification’. There was a mostly unspoken assumption of a political subtext, which when teased out, inevitably meant a Kremlin desire to reunite with Ukraine. Seen from this critical lens, public diplomacy was often cast as a chauvinistic attempt to foist Russian friendship upon Ukraine. Aspersions were cast on the character of Russia’s cultural, religious and political representatives, seen as self-interested hypocrites and puppets of a political project.

The presence of so many common themes in perceptions of Russian soft power initiatives suggests that for all the differences in cultural identity, the highly educated youth of Ukraine participates in a common national information space. For this cohort, this increasingly means the internet; they  claim little time for TV, where coverage is often more pro-Russian in tone. At least for the well-educated youth represented in this sample, the attraction of Russian culture, ideas and values by no means indicates unqualified support for the Russian Federation’s policies.

Recent Russian interventions in the Donbas and in Crimea may well have confirmed the suspicions articulated in the discussions, and might serve to further unite the young leaders of the future -wherever they might hail from in Ukraine. The challenge facing this new generation remains the need to reconcile the whole nation – and not just a privileged few – to the reality of Ukraine’s diverse identities and find a way to cohabit with their significant neighbour.

Dr. Victoria Hudson is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow within King College London’s Department of War Studies. She completed her thesis on the civilisational aspects of soft power in contemporary Ukraine at the University of Birmingham in 2014, and has since published her work in the journal Politics. Her latest article, entitled ‘”Forced to Friendship”? Russian (Mis-)Understandings of Soft Power and the Implications for Audience Attraction in Ukraine’, can be found here.

[1] Victoria Hudson, ‘A study of the civilisational aspects of Russian soft power in contemporary Ukraine’, Ph.D. thesis, (University of Birmingham, 2014).

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