The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even Russian-speaking Ukrainians don’t want to be evacuated to Russia or Belarus

The research shows that Russian speakers across much of Ukraine identify as Ukrainian

A woman and her child wait to get on a bus after crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland at the Medyka border crossing on Monday. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russia announced six new evacuation routes — allowing Ukrainians to flee the conflict by heading to Russia or Belarus. The Ukrainian government decried the suggestion, demanding safe routes to allow Ukrainians to flee to Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

This news is the latest example of Russia’s faulty assumptions about Ukraine and expectations of an easy victory. As Russian troops entered the country just two weeks ago, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations declared, “the people of Ukraine will be happy when they are liberated from the regime that occupied them.”

To justify the invasion and previous occupation of the Donbas region, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have repeatedly argued that Ukrainians in the eastern parts of the country are ethnic Russians living under Ukrainian occupation.

“People who identify as Russians and want to preserve their identity, language and culture are getting the signal that they are not wanted in Ukraine,” Putin said in a recent address to Russian citizens. Russians seem to believe him, as does Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser to former president Donald Trump, who wrote about “legitimate ethnic problems” in Ukraine.

Research in political psychology shows that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population does not require rescue by Russia — or even want it. Here’s what we know.

Most Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel Ukrainian

In Ukraine, the language people speak cannot be equated with ethnic identity. A large representative study from 2013 examining the identity of Ukrainians living in various regions of the country found that the vast majority consider their ethnic identity as Ukrainian — the lone exception was in Crimea. More than 90 percent of people living in western and central Ukraine call themselves Ukrainian. But strong Ukrainian identification can be found also in predominantly Russian-speaking parts such as southern, eastern Ukraine and even Donbas — where 70 percent or more identify as Ukrainian.

The study’s authors, Maria Lewicka and Bartłomiej Iwańczak, looked also at other identities: people’s attachment to their place of residence, city, Europe; as well as to their professions and religion. They found two general clusters of identification: one of them is prevalent in places such as Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, where national or ethnic identities do not play a crucial role; the other, in which national Ukrainian identity dominates, is visible in Lviv, Kyiv and Rivne, but also in mainly Russian-speaking cities such as Cherkasy, Dnipro or Kharkiv. In other words, Ukrainian civic identity is strong even in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking areas.

When Ukrainian political psychologist Vadym Vasiutynskyi asked more than 1,300 Russian-speaking inhabitants of Kyiv, Luhansk, Odessa and Simferopol to choose among several different ways of describing themselves, 37 percent chose “Ukrainian citizen,” while another 34 percent of respondents chose “Russian-speaking citizen of Ukraine.” Only 18 percent declared “Russian” as their main identity.

The identification of Russian-speaking Ukrainians with Ukraine is not unique. There are many countries where two or more languages are commonly used, for example Switzerland or Canada. There are also countries such as Ireland where the Indigenous and official national language became a minority language. Although language is an important transmitter of cultural values and ethnic identity, no one would negate the right of an English-speaking Dubliner to define herself as Irish.

We studied how Russian-speaking refugees identified themselves

This strong commitment to Ukraine among Russian-speaking immigrants is visible also among those who emigrated from the country before the conflict. In a study of two linguistic communities of Ukrainian immigrants in Poland, we found that although people whose native language was Ukrainian expressed stronger Ukrainian identification than Russian-speakers, those who said their native language was Russian also expressed very positive emotions about being Ukrainian, and strong ties to other Ukrainians.

In less than two weeks, since the Russian invasion began, an estimated 1.7 million Ukrainian civilians have fled their country. More than 1 million Ukrainians have recently crossed the border into Poland, while smaller numbers headed to safety in Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia.

Our studies of past waves of Ukrainian immigration to Poland, including after the 2014 war in the Donbas, found that strong national ties among the arriving Ukrainians have a positive impact on their well-being and psychological adaptation. The Russian-speaking immigrants and refugees who were more proud of their Ukrainian identity, and had stronger ties to Ukraine, expressed lower acculturation stress — they had fewer integration problems based on value incompatibility or discrimination. Acculturation stress can amplify PTSD and cause depression, so this Ukrainian identity probably became a buffer against mental health problems among Russian-speaking immigrants.

Ukraine’s Russian speakers are defending Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a native Russian speaker. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a prominent leader of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, was also raised speaking Russian. Both Zelensky and Tymoshenko received enormous electoral support in the Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country. And Russian-speaking Ukrainians are fighting for their country, defending Kharkiv and other cities against the invading Russian army.

Although Ukraine’s constitution identifies the Ukrainian language as the sole national language — and further legislation has made Ukrainian the dominant language in education, law and media — these language policies have not caused Russian-speakers to give up their Ukrainian identity. Ukrainian volunteer battalions during the long-standing separatist war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, for instance, included a large proportion of Russian speakers.

Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians readily switch between Russian and Ukrainian, speaking Russian at home and Ukrainian in public. In a 2021 nationwide survey by the Ilko Kucheriv Foundation, 22 percent of Ukrainians declared Russian as their native language — but 36 percent said that they speak Russian at home.

The fact that many Ukrainians speak Russian at home reflects the dramatic history of eastern Ukraine, including a genocidal famine of the 1930s — and decades of the Soviet Union’s efforts to “russify” the region with the large-scale resettlement of ethnic Russians to eastern Ukraine’s large industrial centers.

In February, the Russian government claimed a need to “evacuate” this region to protect Russians from ethnic violence. But the long history of Soviet-imposed discrimination has made the Russian-speaking population even more Ukrainian, following a well-studied pattern. Today’s Russian-speaking Ukrainians have developed a strong national commitment to Ukraine. This is why the only “liberation” they are asking for today is an end to the Russian violence.

Michał Bilewicz is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw, where he chairs the Center for Research on Prejudice. In 2021, he received the Nevitt Sanford Award for Outstanding Professional Contributions to Political Psychology. Currently he focuses on the linguistic aspects of Ukrainian immigrants’ well-being as part of LCure project of the Foundation for Polish Science (co-led by Justyna Olko).