Following parts I and II, I repeat parts of Putin’s “true history of Ukraine“:

Perhaps you are not aware that in 1922, part of the land that you just named, land that historically always bore the name of Novorossiya… Why this name? This was because there was essentially a single region with its centre at Novorossiisk, and that was how it came to be called Novorossiya.

See part I on what’s wrong with the last sentence above.

This land included Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Nikolayev, Kherson and Odessa Region.

See part II on why Kharkov and parts of Lugansk do not belong in this group.

More of Putin’s historical musings:

In 1921-22, when the Soviet Union was formed, this territory was transferred from Russia to Ukraine. The communists had a simple logic: their goal was to increase the share of proletariat in Ukraine so as to ensure they had more support in various political processes, because in the communists’ view, the peasantry was a petty bourgeois group that was hostile to their aims, and so they needed to create a bigger proletariat. That is my first point.

Second, what also happened I think is that during the Civil War, nationalist groups in Ukraine tried to seize these regions but didn’t succeed, and the Bolsheviks told their supporters in Ukraine: Look what you can show the Ukrainian people. The nationalists didn’t manage to get hold of this territory, but you have succeeded. But it was all one country at the time and so this was not considered any great loss for Russia when it was all part of the same country anyway.

As an aside, however the Bolsheviks drew the borders in 1922 or 1954 cannot justify Russia invading Ukraine in 2014. But I’ve been trying to understand where Putin got these ideas from and to disentangle bits of truth from this mess of distorted history.

In this post, I am mostly going to show that the areas that, according to Putin, were wrongly “transferred” to Ukraine, were majority populated by native speakers of Ukrainian and that the partitioning could be justified on Wilsonian grounds.

The starting points will be this map and this database. The map compares the borders of Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine with the borders of Imperial governorates. Broadly speaking, Ukraine’s present-day territory includes nine governorates (gubernias), central and southeastern Galicia, northern Bukovina, Transcarpatia and the Budzhak. Were these provinces majority Ukrainian in 1920? Let us check with the most helpful Demoskop for 1897 census data sorted by mother tongue. It does not matter whether the “Minor Russian” of the census is closer to modern literary Ukrainian, Southern Russian dialects or the derided surzhik. I hope it is fair to say that respondents who self-identified as native speakers of “Minor Russian” thereby self-identified as Ukrainians.

According to the 1897 census, the three governorates that Putin is so concerned about – Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav and Kherson – had Ukrainian majorities of 81%, 69%, and 53%. Moreover – unless I made a calculation error – all the districts of these governorates (as well as the two non-Crimean districts of the Tavria governorate) also had Ukrainian majorities, except Odessa and Tiraspol, the latter now in Moldova, mostly in Transnistria.

True, in all the 100k+ cities in the three governorates – Odessa, Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav – native Russian speakers were either the absolute majority (Kharkov) or the largest linguistic group, with Yiddish speakers the second-largest group in Odessa and Yekaterinoslav. Among the three 50k-100k towns, Nikolaev (Mykolaiv) was predominantly Russian-speaking; about half the Kherson residents spoke Russian natively and about a quarter, Yiddish; Yelisavetgrad (now Kirovohrad) had more native Yiddish than Russian speakers, the two groups making up three-quarters of the total.

But this picture is no different from the whole of the nine Ukrainian governorates (less Crimea) with their eleven 50k+ towns and cities. Native Ukrainian speakers were the largest group exactly in one of them: Poltava, the city at the heart of Gogol’s Ukraine, the area whose dialects gave rise to standard Ukrainian. But in Kremenchug (Kremenchuk), 100 km SW of Poltava, 47% residents were native Yiddish speakers. In Berdichev (Berdychev) on the right bank, this number was 77% out of 53 thousand – that stereotypically provincial town was about as large as Tver and Poltava, both governorate centers. In 1941, Nazis killed most of Berdichev’s Jews as described in Vasily Grossman’s The Murder of Jews in Berdichev. “A large town in the Pale of Settlement”, writes Keith Gessen of Grossman’s birthplace; “a small town not far from Kiev,” Foreign Affairs calls it.

It’s true that, Russian- and Yiddish-speaking, most of Ukraine’s cities were not linguistically Ukrainian – but they were also small islands amid the Ukrainian-speaking countryside. Odessa, the fast-growing Black Sea port, was an exception, as the empire’s fourth-largest city after St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw. Thanks to Odessa, 28% the Kherson governorate were urban residents, way above the 13% average in the empire’s European areas (excluding Poland) but way below the 40% share in the US in 1900. Yet in the Kharkov and the supposedly industrialized Yekaterinoslav governorates the shares of urban residents were 11% and 15%.

Looking specifically at the border with Russia, one finds that four districts (uezds) of the Chernigov (Chernihiv) governorate and a small bit of Donbass in the Yekaterinoslav governorate were cut off and transferred to Russia. On the other hand, one district of the Kursk governorate and two patches of the Don Cossack Region were appended to Ukraine, most notably a strip of land east of the river Kalmius, the old eastern border of Zaporozhye. Ukraine also added small chips off Orel and Voronezh.

By Soviet standards, the border revisions were minor. Moreover, they were broadly in line with the demographic data from the turn of the 20th century, that is, the native language of the majority population.

It turns out that three of the Chernigov districts annexed to Russia were dominated by Russian (“Greater Russian”) speakers and the fourth, by Belarusians. I have no idea why all four went to Russia but Ukraine’s claim on these was tenuous. To the east of Mariupol, the Taganrog district (okrug) of the Don Cossack Region was its only district with a Ukrainian majority, 61% in 1897 and 69% with Taganrog excluded. (So Chekhov grew up in a bustling Russophone town with a strong Greek, Armenian and Jewish presence surrounded by villages of recent Ukrainian settlers.) This seems to be a workable reason why Ukraine appended the strip between the rivers Kalmius and Mius. Also, the Putivl district of Kursk (yes, the Putivl from the Tale of Igor’s Campaign) had a small Ukrainian majority, justifying its inclusion in Ukraine.

The same could be said about the Novy Oskol district of Kursk but somehow it remained with Russia. So did the overwhelmingly Ukrainian-speaking Ostrogozh and Boguchar districts and the majority Ukrainian Biryuch district of Voronezh with a total of 640,000 native “minor Russian” speakers. Either of the Ostrogozh and Boguchar districts had about a quarter million native Ukrainian speakers, almost all of them rural, equal to the total population of Kiev in 1897. This should not be surprising since the three districts were settled by Ukrainian Cossacks from the Ostrogozh regiment and were part of the Sloboda Ukraine.


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