Sunday 11 May 2014

A Potted History of Ukraine's Russian-speaking Minority

As part of Is the BBC biased?'s mission to inform, educate and entertain I thought I might transcribe the contribution of Anna Reid, ex-Economist writer and author of 'Borderland', to this morning's edition of Broadcasting House. 

Why? Because I found it very interesting and illuminating. (She didn't hide her own biases either, which is good.)

Ethnic Russians make up 8 million thereabouts out of Ukraine's total population of 46 million and they are concentrated in three areas - Donetsk in the east, next door to Russia; Crimea, down in the south; and Odessa to the west, next to the border with Romania - and all three regions were once part of something called the Black Sea Steppe, which was a great sweep of empty prairie which was fought over by all the neighbouring powers until Catherine the Great finally managed to prize it away from the Ottomans and called it 'New Russia'.
It is Crimea that identifies itself far the most closely with Russia. It's the only place with a clear majority of ethnic Russians. It's home to the Black Sea Fleet is Sevastopol. The Tsarist aristocracy built themselves summer palaces here and in Soviet days it was where every Stakhanovite worker and party apparatchik dreamed of retiring, and it's this patriotic Soviet elite and their descendants who still make up quite a big proportion of the population; hence it wasn't a great surprise when Putin was able to annex the peninsula almost unopposed.
Donetsk is completely different. It's a depressed industrial area and the provincial capital was founded in the 1870s by a Merthyr Tydfil ironmaster called John Hughes who sank the first mines o the invitation of the Tsar, and until the Russian Revolution the city was actually called Yuzovka after him. And when you drive through the countryside round about it looks a bit like you imagine 19th Century Wales looked - one minute you're passing slagheaps and pitheads and the next it's wooden cottages and plump ladies selling tomatoes from the side of the road. And the towns where the fighting is going on at the moment, like Sloviansk, have hardly moved on since the economic collapse of the '90s. And I got to a place called Yenakiieve just as a shift was ending at the local steel mill and it was like stepping into a Lowry painting. At the end of the main street these great brick chimneys loomed up and out of the main gates, which were still emblazoned with the hammers and sickles, this crowd of men was streaming in their filthy boiler suits with blackened faces and red eyes. And Yenakiieve's lucky because the mill is still open and the towns where the local factories closed are called 'dead towns'.
The split between Donetsk and Kiev isn't just about nationality. It's also about the new middle class - there are people who are are taking holidays abroad, using the internet - and the old left-behind working class. A third of all Ukrainians have never left their home province, and in the Donetsk region that's nearer a half. So for them Western Ukraine really does feel like a foreign country and it's not so surprising that Putin's utterly grotesque propaganda about Western Ukrainians all being a bunch of bloodthirsty fascists has traction.
Odessa is a port city. It's multi-ethnic. It was settled by a whole raft of different nationalities in the late 1700s and then it boomed all through the 19th Century, exporting grain to the Mediterranean and beyond. So Odessans see themselves as business-minded and as not being interested in politics and, hence, the dreadful shock at those deaths in the trades union building. When I got to that building a couple of days later the public was just being allowed to wander around freely and people were laying flowers here and there among the debris. One British journalist had stones thrown at him, but a man just said to me, sadly, "This is stupidity. Look, this is not Odessa".
Will Donetsk and Odessa go the same way as Crimea? That depends on Putin but I think, if left to themselves, not. First, neither Donetsk nor Odessa has a Russian majority, an ethnic Russian majority, and polls show a large majority of Russian speakers overall in Ukraine wanting the country to stay united, and a recent one by the Pew Research Center shows only 27% wanting regions to be allowed to break away. And this referendum, this pseudo-referendum, today will doubtless try to show that Russian support is much larger but from what I've seen what Ukraine's Russians want is not a change of passport but better government, a better standard of living, and even when you speak to the small minority of extremists - the guys with the baseball bats in the balaclavas - what they harangue you about, first and foremost, are the same things that all Ukrainians, and for that matter all Russians, complain about - unemployment, corruption, wretched pay and pensions, useless politicians - and it's these, not the language issues, not the nationality issues, that Ukraine has to fix if it's going to hang together. Will Putin give it time to do that? We don't know. 

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