Regional Differences in Ethnicity and Language in Ukraine

Note: I now have a new post on Ukrainian political geography complete with an interactive graphic.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Ukraine is experiencing mass protests and civic unrest. The situation seems to be coming to a head today, with riot police threatening to break up demonstrations in Kyiv and President Viktor Yanukovych talking about meeting with opposition leaders. The protests were triggered when Yanukovych backed out of signing an agreement with the European Union that would increase trade and political cooperation. Things got worse when police beat some unarmed protesters last week. Ukrainians are generally fed up by lack of economic opportunity as well as pervasive corruption, and many seem happy to take to the streets.

Why would Yanukovych refuse to sign the EU agreement after previously promoting it, knowing that it would make a lot of Ukrainians unhappy? Well, the standard answer is that Russia put enormous pressure on Ukraine, including threatening economic retribution. And that’s true. But to grasp why Yakukovych felt comfortable making this decision, and why Russia has such an outsized influence on the country, you have to understand how Ukraine is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically divided  by geography.


The map above shows the percent of ethnic Russians in each of Ukraine’s oblasts (regional administrative units. About 17 percent of Ukrainians identify as ethnic Russian (2001 census), but they are clustered in the east and south of the country. There is a very sharp drop off in the number of Russians to the north and west of this dividing line, for example from 25.6%  in Kharkov Oblast to 7.2% in Poltava Oblast. There are many historic reasons for this ethnic divide, including migration from Russia in Soviet times to industrial regions in eastern Ukraine, but we won’t get into that now.


Percent of Ukrainians by Oblast whose native language is Russian. About 30 percent of Ukrainians identified as native Russian speakers.

But ethnicity is really only a minor part of the story. The map above shows the percentages of Ukrainians whose native language is Russian. Again you can see the stark divide separating south and east from the rest of the country. Comparing with the ethnicity map you can also see that many Ukrainians who are not ethnic Russians speak Russian as their native language.

Dominant language at the raion (sub-regional) level in Ukraine. Blue is Ukrainian. Red is Russian.

When you look closer, at the sub-regional level, you can actually see that Russian language is concentrated in Crimea and in the large cities and industrial areas of the south and east. Rural areas in the east are predominately Ukrainian speaking. This reminds me of election maps in the United States where Democratic votes are concentrated in dense urban areas, meaning that the map might be awash in a sea of Republican red even if the Democrats won.


Percent of the vote by region captured by Viktor Yanukovich in the 2010 presidential election.

This ethnic and linguistic divide coincides with a cultural and political divide. The map above shows how much of the vote Yanukovich got in each region in 2010. Even though the election was decided by only about 3.5%, Yanukovych didn’t even get 10% in some areas of western Ukraine while he carried over 90% in Donestk Oblast (where he is from) in the east. That’s a geographically divided electorate!

Eastern and southern Ukraine, especially urban areas, are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally closer to Russia than the other parts of the country. This divide is stark. In my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer working in all-Ukraine summer camps, it was not uncommon for many of the young people to have never met someone from the “other” region. Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have their power base in the east and south, and their supporters are much less likely to be upset at forgoing closer relations with the EU, and much more likely to favor closer relations with Russia. Moreover, the economic threats allegedly made by Putin would have affected the pro-Yanukovich regions more because they are industrial areas that sell lot of goods to Russia.

What next?

So Yanukovych choose a course of action that paralleled the wishes of his power base and his geographic region of support. It remains to be seen whether this was a wise political decision for him, but at this point it does not look good.

Perhaps Yanukovych overestimated the cultural and linguistic divisions in Ukraine, and did not account for the fact  people all over the country are unhappy with the regime, generally perceived as corrupt and ineffectual, and with the economic situation in the country as a whole.

Update: Just an couple hours after I posted this, the Washington Post WorldViews blog published this article. It makes many of the same points regarding the ethnic and liguistic divides in Ukraine and includes some interesting recent polling on the EU integration agreement.


6 thoughts on “Regional Differences in Ethnicity and Language in Ukraine

  1. But, like USA Republicans, he is forced to appeal to his base despite the risks and perhaps in spite of a brighter future for Ukraine. One hopes the present situation does not deteriorate to violence.

  2. Nice overview of the linguistic and cultural issues. I’d be interested to know how generational divides (mostly as a proxy for internet connectedness) plays into this as well. There is some Pew survey research done in Russia that suggests, controlling for variables such as age, geographic region, religion, etc., internet use is the most significant determinant for pro-democratic attitudes among Russians (although age and internet use are probably strongly correlated).

    While the current demonstrations are multi-generational, I believe this university-aged internet generation has provided the foundation – and this is a different crop from the orange revolution youth when we were there (yes, we are getting old). Hard to believe, but back then Twitter and Vkontakte didn’t yet exist, and I believe Facebook was still limited to people with a .edu email account. I know I was still using a dial-up internet connection from my apartment in Kyiv, and none of us could even dream of iPhones.

    All this is to say, perhaps language and ethnic identity will be less of a political predictor in the future as a new generation is exposed to more and different views via the internet. Maybe we can expect a younger, more connected generation of ethnic Russian, Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the south and east to have more pro-European views than in previous generations, eroding the base of support for Yanukovich and his party. While I’m not sure what will happen in the short term with regard to the partnership agreement or Yanukovich’s political prospects, knowing how the younger generation is seeing these events might suggest how bright Ukraine’s prospects are in the medium to long term.

    On the other hand, the cold reality of economic reliance on Russia that you pointed out, especially in the eastern industrial heart of Ukraine, might be a more powerful influence than the internet. Time will tell…

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re right. It would be very interesting to look beyond the crude geographic and language predictors and see what other characteristics are associated with support for more western-looking outlooks among Ukrainians. I bet internet connectedness would correlate well. In my own experience (and probably yours as well) I’ve met many Ukrainians who live in the east and south and/or speak primarily Russian, who are progressive and “pro-west”. Almost all of them are young and internet-savvy.

      It’s also very interesting to think back to the Orange Revolution and realize that few, if any, social media tools existed, as you pointed out. Will that change the trajectory of the current protests?

  3. “There are many historic reasons for this ethnic divide, including migration from Russia in Soviet times to industrial regions in eastern Ukraine, but we won’t get into that now.” But you should, at least a bit. Industrial migration during Soviet times, and the migration of Russians into the empty dead villages of central and eastern Ukraine after the Holodomor – Genocide by famine of 1932-33. Who were these Russians faithful to? Add to that the constant Russian attitude that Ukrainian is somehow a “peasant” language, to be demeaned (when, in fact, it is so much more beautiful sounding than Russian, and is one of the most melodic of languages). And — have you seen the number of Russian-language signs on the Maidan? Pro-Maidan! Maybe language isn’t the factor any more. Seriously lacking is the RESPECT towards the history, culture, and language of an independent country by some of the non-Russians living in Ukraine. Others support Ukraine. But the vocal ones are in the Party of Regions or the Communists, who still long for Homo Sovieticus. Give Ukraine a chance to be a nation. She has been fighting for this for centuries.

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