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Russia in the Ukraine: Since when? Empire and Holodomor: A Genocide

The large majority of the Russians living throughout modern Ukraine, especially in Eastern Ukraine, have been there for at least a few generations. In addition, a large percentage of Ukrainians don't speak Ukrainian in their houses. Why is this?

Percentage of Ethnic Russians in Ukraine (2001)
From Wikipedia

For years - no, for centuries, actually, Russian has been the most prestigious language in Ukraine. Stemming from the Russian liberation of Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia quickly became the dominant partner over Ukraine. When Russia was transformed from a Tsardom to an Empire, Russia began arguing that Ukrainian - was just a Russian dialect.


The name 'Russia' stems from Kievan Rus' (or Kyivan Rus', depending on if you ask a Russian or Ukrainian). The capital was at Kyiv, and the whole nation was prosperous and large. But there was one problem - the whole nation (or most of it, anyways) depended on trade with the Byzantine Empire just to the south of the Black Sea. Just in case you're confused, here's the difference between Kiev and Kyiv - Kiev is the Russian way to spell it. I'm sticking with the Ukrainian way to spell the Ukrainian capital - makes sense, right?


Well, when Constantinople declined under the weight of the Fourth Crusade, which sacked and destroyed it, it makes sense that Kyiv also declined. Without the trade routes fueling widespread prosperity, there was only one place for Kyiv to go - down.


Kyiv was still the center and most prosperous city throughout all of the Rus'. That changed, however, when Kyiv was sacked and destroyed by the Mongol hordes, whom rampaged across the nation. With all of the south (Ukraine) destroyed, Poland and Lithuania found it easy to take over large swathes of land from an impoverished Ukraine. The two nations had not suffered from the Mongols and had been lucky that they did not die under the huge hordes.


Yuriy Danilovich, Prince of Moscow and Grand Prince of Vladimir, had annexed large parts of Ryazan and formed an alliance with Novgorod against Tver. These are, by the way, modern Russian cities (most of them, anyways). In 1315, Yuriy went to the Golden Horde, a leftover horde that had emerged after the Mongol Empire split up, and he became allied to Uzbeg Khan. When Yuriy married Konchaka, the khan's sister, but he still lose against his enemy, Tver. When Konchaka died while being held hostage in Tver, Yuriy claimed it was because Tver had poisoned her. The khan had the leader of Tver, Mikhail, executed. Yuriy was also later executed by the khan.


Ivan I got the approval of Khan Muhammad Ozbeg to become the Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1328, three years after becoming the Prince of Moscow. He also got the right to tax all Russian lands to give tribute to the Golden Horde. Russian historian Kluchevsky explains why Moscow became the center or Russia instead of Ryazan or Tver. First, Moscow was less devastated from the Mongols. Second, it was safe, and Russians who were scared of the Mongols fled there. Finally, it was in the middle of a trade route from Novgorod to the Volga River.


Ivan made Moscow wealthy by remaining loyal to the Golden Horde. Using the money he got, he gave loans to Russian principalities around him, and they went into huge debts. Ivan and his successors then annexed these lands. In addition, he convinced the Khan to let his son, Simeon, become the next Grand Prince of Vladimir - from then on, it was almost exclusively given to the rule of Moscow. The Head of the Russian Church also moved from Vladimir to Moscow.


Over time, Moscow gained power and lands by being loyal to the Golden Horde, unlike the other Russian principalities. Eventually, Dmitry became the Prince of Moscow after 1359. He defeated the Tatars in the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, taking place on the Don River. At long last, the Tatars were defeated, but at what cost? Moscow became the capital of the future Russian nation.


Ivan III finally got rid of the Tatar presence in Russia and conquered most of the other Russian states. His son, Vasili, took over the rest of the small independent states in the 1520s. Finally, Ivan the Terrible became the Tsar of all the Russias.


After the Russian Time of Troubles, Michael I, from the House of Romanov, became the new Russian Tsar. Around three generations later, Peter the Great rose to power. Eventually, after the Partitions of Poland (of which both Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus were a part), Ukraine found itself split between the Austrians and the Russians.


Russians trickled into Ukraine, which was famously known as the 'Bread basket of the Russian Empire'. Indeed, Ukraine was one of the most fertile lands throughout the whole empire. The empire itself fell later, becoming first the Provisional Republic and then the Soviet Union - something almost all Ukrainians hate for one big reason.

People walking by a dead corpse during
the Holodomor

Josef Stalin and the Holodomor. The Holodomor creepily sounds a lot like the Holocaust, both because of their shared 'Holo' in the name and the facts.


What do most historians say about the Holodomor? Well, many scholars agree that the Holodomor was a purposeful genocide Stalin used to try to kill off the Ukrainian independence movement. It killed between 2.5-7.5 million Ukrainians and potentially millions more people in demographic estimates.


Stalin said that most of the people starving to death were 'counterrevolutionaries', 'idlers', or 'thieves' who deserved to die. In addition, the Soviets continued to export 1.8 million tonnes of grain during the mass starvation (enough to feed more than five million people for one whole year). To ignore the deaths of millions in your own country (which was, by the way, recorded by the Soviet bureaucracy) and continue to sell food abroad is a crime.
Countries recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide.

An analogy would be the United States forcing all fifty states (including California) to sell water abroad to countries like China or Japan - even though California is suffering from a drought.

That doesn't answer our question, though.

Why is Russian so prestigious in Ukraine?

Back in 2009, if you were to visit Kyiv, you would see Ukrainian on street signs and on packages of food in grocery stores, as required by law. But on the street, you might hear more Russian.

Luba Vasyl explains:
"Large Ukrainian cities with large Russian speaking populations. City dwellers - artists, scientific and cultural elites always preferred Russian due to the simple fact that it was the language of science and culture in the USSR, the Big Russian Brother's language. Russian has an established scientific vocabulary for instance. Ukrainian does too, but not to the extent of Russian.
"But we, country bumpkins, have always spoken Ukrainian. School instruction in villages has always been in Ukrainian. It's just when some of us moved to the city we switched to Russian so as not to be perceived as..well..country bumpkins (which, basically, was the pervasive attitude in cities)."  
In other words, Luba says that it's because Russian was the language of science and culture in the USSR. Ukraine has long been a bilingual nation, with Ukrainian and Russian being co-official (and mixed in Central Ukraine, too).

In 2005, 42 percent of Ukrainians claimed that they spoke mostly Ukrainian at home. By 2011, 53 percent said they spoke it in their everyday lives. Since most of them are perfectly fluent in Russian as well, the 11 percent upsurge, representing at least 5 million people, reflects the share of Ukrainian society that has switched from Russian to Ukrainian. The Euromaidan revolution and conflict with Russia accelerated that trend: a poll conducted in May 2015 shows that almost 60 percent of the population prefer to use Ukrainian in everyday communication.


Ukrainian is finally winning one of its first victories over Russian. Only time will tell when the next victory comes.

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