There are two competing stories about what’s happening in Ukraine. They’re both right.

February 21

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protesters near Dynamo Stadium on Jan. 25 in Kiev. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

You may have noticed that there are two distinct ways that people tend to mostly talk and write about the three-month crisis in Ukraine. Experts and observers and journalists typically settle on one of those two narratives, use it to explain what's happening and then go on to talk about how the other version of events must therefore be wrong.

The two Ukraine storylines are indeed very different, they cast what's happening in very different lights, and people often argue about which one is right. But here's the thing: They can both be simultaneously true, and in fact there's a strong case to be made that they are. Here are those two narratives, how they explain events, who favors them and why they can both be true.

The human story: Angry citizens and a strongman president


Protesters hold shields as they clash with riot police during ongoing anti-government protests in downtown Kiev. (EPA)

This is probably the version you're more familiar with. It portrays the crisis as pro-democracy, pro-European protesters challenging an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian government. This story is much easier to understand (that doesn't make it wrong, of course), particularly if you don't happen to have a lot of background knowledge about Ukraine, which most people don't. It conveys the crisis in human, relatable terms. This narrative is most favored by activists, both within Ukraine and abroad, and by Western conflict journalists covering the protests.

The story goes like this: In 2004, a Ukrainian politician named Viktor Yanukovych ran for president and "won" amid allegations of fraud, sparking international pressure to re-do the vote and wide protests – which became known as the "Orange Revolution." Yanukovych lost in the second round of voting. But he ran again in 2010, won, and has been increasingly seen as corrupt and with worrying authoritarian tendencies.

In November, Yanukovych surprised the world by rejecting a deal for greater integration with the European Union, instead accepting a $15 billion "bailout" from Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Yanukovych is quite friendly. Lots of Ukrainians in the west of the country, where he has less support, already saw him as corrupt and autocratic. They believed Yanukovych  had sold out their country to the Kremlin with the Russia deal, so they started protesting.

In mid-January, as demonstrations swelled, Yanukovych signed a set of "anti-protest" laws that severely restricted everything from free speech to the media. Activists called them "dictatorship laws," and not without reason. Protests grew again, including in the more pro-Russian east, and persisted even after the laws were mostly repealed.

Police crackdowns started getting really violent this week. Yanukovych, his popularity declining rapidly, looked more and more like an authoritarian mini-Putin, to Ukrainians and to the Western world. Members of his own party started bailing on him, with parliament voting to end the crackdown, which had clearly gone too far. He's on the brink of being brought down by his own abuses of power and by courageous Ukrainian protesters who have braved state violence and the threat of death.

It's an inspiring story, truly. And there is a great deal of truth to it. But there is also truth to the other predominant narrative.

The structural story: Demographics and an identity crisis


Ukraine's language divide. Data source: 2001 national census. (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

This version of events is less exciting and more complicated, but it takes a much wider and more systematic view, which is probably why it's most often expressed by political scientists and analysts. Here's the idea: Ukraine has been divided by a national identity crisis since its 1991 independence. Partly this divide is demographic (see the map above), but it has much more to do with figuring out what kind of country Ukraine wants to be. Ukrainians themselves disagree on this; that disagreement has shaped their politics, up to and including this current crisis.

The story of Ukraine's national identity crisis has its roots in Russian conquests about 250 years ago. Russian rulers from Catherine the Great to Joseph Stalin wanted to "Russify" the eastern half of Ukraine, which is rich in natural resources and fertile farmland, by shipping in lots of ethnic Russians and passing laws to encourage people there to speak Russian  rather than Ukrainian.

The effect of all that Russifying is that lots of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, particularly in the country's east, where people also tend to have fonder feelings for their historical and cultural links to Russia. In the mostly Ukrainian-speaking west, though, lots of people remember the brutality of Russian rule and they would much rather their country identify with Europe than with Russia. So the division is about much more than language.

This divide plays out in Ukrainian politics all the time. Every presidential election splits the country between a pro-Russian candidate, who wins lots of support in the east, and a pro-European candidate, who wins support in the west. Of course, the elections are about much more than this, and domestic issues play the biggest role. But the effect of the national-identity-crisis division is to divide elections along the same lines. You can see that in these maps:


Top left: Ukraine's Russian-speakers in blue. (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post) Top right: Major ethnic and linguistic groups. Bottom left: 2004 presidential election results. Bottom right: 2010 presidential results. (Remaining maps courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Yanukovych is from the east; Russian is his native language. When he was elected in 2010, it was largely by people in the more Russian-speaking, Russia-leaning east of the country. That divide came out again in November, when the current crisis began with Yanukovych rejecting the E.U. deal and instead taking Moscow's bailout. You may be surprised to learn that only about 43 percent of Ukrainians wanted the E.U. deal, according to opinion polls, which show 30 percent support for joining the Russian-led trade union instead.

So Yanukovych's decision against the E.U. deal did have a base of popular support, almost entirely among eastern Ukrainians who had voted him into office. In a way, it was a democratic decision, even if it was poorly executed. But it badly exacerbated that national identity crisis. It infuriated Ukrainians in the pro-European west of the country, who hadn't voted for Yanukovych in the first place. They weren't just protesting the president or his decision, though; they were protesting the Russia-leaning direction that he and his millions of Ukrainian  supporters wanted to take the country. (And yes, they were definitely protesting his well-earned record for corruption and strong-hand tactics as well.)

If and when the current crisis ends, it will not have actually resolved the deeper issue: a national identity crisis about whether Ukraine considers itself part of Europe or linked to Russia. This problem predated Yanukovych and his crackdown and it will still be there when he leaves, something that only Ukrainians can resolve as a nation.

These stories can both be true

People like clean, clear narratives, but the world is a messy and complicated place. No single theory or storyline is likely to explain something as big as a mass protest movement and political crisis.

The structural storyline, of an identity crisis fueled by history and demographics, appeals for its neatness and its comprehensive breadth. But it tends to rankle people, and not without reason, who see it as explaining away the bravery and idealism of the protesters, or forgiving the very real abuses of Yanukovych.

The more human narrative, of regular Ukrainians pushed to the breaking point by an abusive government they can no longer tolerate, is much more emotionally satisfying. Anyone can relate to it. It appeals especially to Americans, who feel an immediate affection for any pro-democracy movement, particularly one that expresses a desire to reject Russia and embrace the West. Still, this story ignores the 30 percent of Ukrainians who wanted to reject the E.U. deal for a Russia-led trade union, and it ignores the pro-Russia attitudes in the eastern half of the country. It almost seems to tell pro-Russia Ukrainians that they don't count, which can feel a bit Russophobic.

It's the relative weaknesses of the two narratives that make them so nicely complementary. One picks up where the other leaves off; one is compelling where the other is unpersuasive. When it comes to understanding something as complicated as Ukraine's political crisis, sometimes you need to be able to hold two competing ideas in your head at the same time to make sense of things.


Some home news: Today is my last day at The Washington Post, and this is likely my final post. I've had a blast launching and running WorldViews, which now transitions to the capable hands of Adam Taylor and which you should keep reading. You can continue following me on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

I'll leave you with one last music break: the overture to Taras Bulba, an 1835 opera by the Ukrainian nationalist composer Mykola Lysenko. His life and work are wonderful metaphors for Ukraine's crisis, for reasons you can read about here, and this overture is appropriately triumphant given today's positive developments out of Kiev. Enjoy!

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Adam Taylor | February 21