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Russian Orthodox Patriarch Hews to Kremlin Propaganda Line on Ukraine Identity

People wearing the traditional Ukrainian garment known as the vyshyvanka at a gathering in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
People wearing the traditional Ukrainian garment known as the vyshyvanka at a gathering in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
Patriarch Kirill

Patriarch Kirill

Head of the Russian Orthodox Church

“This is one nation that came out of the Kyiv Baptismal font, but a very large nation.”


On January 7, the top leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, said on state TV that Russians and Ukrainians are a single people, suggesting there is no separate Ukrainian national identity:

"This is one nation that came out of the Kyiv Baptismal font, but it is a very big nation. From the White to the Black Sea. And this vastness – it has always caused fears, envy among others, and therefore, since ancient times, external forces have been working to divide, pull apart this nation, or even push one part against another."

Kirill is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who to justify his war of aggression on Ukraine has falsely claimed that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” Prior to the war, Putin published a disputed 5,000-word essay, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

In fact, the historical relationship of Russia and Ukraine is complex, and while there are cultural and ethnic commonalities and periods of shared governance, there is a broad consensus that Ukraine has been a separate nation state since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Most Ukrainians take pride in their independence and democracy. In the face of Russia’s invasion and brutal attacks on civilian targets, they have been willing to sacrifice their lives for Ukraine.

Putin has repeatedly turned to historical myth and distortion to justify his invasion, as and others have reported.

Going back to the Soviet era, on August 24, 1991, the Supreme Soviet (main legislative institution) of the then-Soviet Ukrainian Republic adopted an Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine.

On December 1, 1991, a referendum was held on the act in which 84% of Ukrainian voters took part. An overwhelming majority of those voting, 90%, approved of independence from the U.S.S.R. Support surpassed 80 percent even in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk that Russia has attempted to annex, and 54 percent in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula which Russia illegally occupied in 2014.

Ukraine was quickly recognized as an independent state by more than 40 countries worldwide. Russia itself officially recognized the independence of Ukraine on December 5, 1991.

Are Ukrainians and Russians ethnically the same people? There are similarities – but also many differences that separate them. Rhetoric like Kirill’s glosses over the latter and ignores how Ukrainians see themselves, a defining element of ethnicity.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ethnicity is “a large group of people with a shared culture, language, history, set of traditions, etc., or the fact of belonging to one of these groups.”

The International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences states:

“Ethnic identity is shaped by both ethnic affiliation and ethnic attribution. Ethnic affiliation refers to individuals' own sense of group membership and the characteristics of the group as defined by its members.”

What about language? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Ukrainian language is about 700 years old. “Ukrainian is a lineal descendant of the colloquial language used in Kievan Rus (10th–13th century),” which in the 14th century split into early forms of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian.

Russian imperial and then Soviet authorities pursued a policy of Russification of Ukraine from 1654 to 1991, interrupted only briefly in the 1920s. After Ukraine gained independence, the new government aimed to reduce use of the Russian language and encourage Ukrainian.

The name “Ukraine” is more than 800 years old.

“It first appears in the Kievan Chronicle under 1187,” the Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak said in an interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza, based in Latvia. "Then it disappears, then it is used again, but it has been in constant use since the Cossack times, that is, from the 16th-17th centuries."

Responding to Putin’s “one people” claim in March 2022, University of Rochester historian Matthew Lenoe said that both Russians and Ukrainians have made mythical claims about their past. But Lenoe noted that Ukraine’s emergence as a nation remains a fact, even if recent:

“Mass Ukrainian nationalism emerged out of the traumas of the 20th century. Like Ukraine, there are plenty of states in Europe now that don’t have a long tradition of statehood. Putin claims that there’s not a Ukrainian history separate from Russian. But that’s not true. Among the speakers of Ukrainian and in the lands now comprising Ukraine, there were many different experiences. They belonged at times to different states and realms. But there was interaction between Ukrainian speakers throughout much of this history, and they developed a common identity, especially after the mid-19th century.” [Emphasis added.]

Now, genetics also appear to undercut Kirill and Putin.

On January 13, 2021, the largest study of the genetic code of Ukrainians, conducted by an international project that brought together scientists from Ukraine, United States and China, was published in the open source scientific journal GigaScience.

According to this study, Ukrainians are a separate people whose genetics are different from Russians. Ukrainians are closer to the Slavs of central and southern Europe than to Russians:

“Ukrainian genomes from this as well as other studies form a single cluster positioned between the Northern (Russians, Estonians) on one side, and Western European populations on the other (CEU (Utah residents), French, British, and Germans). There was a significant overlap with the other Central and Eastern European populations, such as Czechs, Polish, and the people from the Balkans (Croats, Greeks, and Moldovans).”

Earlier studies also have found genetic differences from Russian populations.

Surveys show that most Ukrainians self-identify as such, though with generational differences.

In November 2016, the Sociological Service of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank, polled 2,015 residents of Ukraine. Most ethnic Ukrainians (67%) considered Russians and Ukrainians as separate peoples. Among all respondents of different ethnic backgrounds, 63% answered that Ukrainians and Russians are different peoples.

Young respondents who have lived all their lives in independent Ukraine were most likely to agree that Ukrainians are separate:

“The older the respondents, the more often they share the ideology that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation (the share of Russians is growing from 19% in the age group of 18-29 years to 35% among those who are 60 and over, although they are in all age groups constitute a minority).”

From July 29 to August 4, 2021, the Razumkov Center asked ethnic Ukrainians the same question. In this survey, 72.5% said they do not consider Ukrainians to be one people with Russians, with only 11% saying the opposite.

The all-out Russian invasion launched in February 2022 has sharpened Ukrainians’ conviction of independence.

The Rating Group, a Kyiv-based independent research organization, conducted three separate national surveys among Ukrainians of different ethnic origins about whether Ukrainians are one people with Russians: in July 2021, March 2022 and April 2022.

“The vast majority (91%) of the respondents (in April 2022) do not support the statement that ‘Russians and Ukrainians are one people’. Today, only 8% have such an opinion (the share of such respondents was 41% in August 2021 and 21% in March 2022). This idea is still supported by 23% of the residents of the East of Ukraine and by 13% of the older respondents. In contrast, in other macro regions and age groups, the support for this statement is almost non-existent.”