National Geographic News
A photo of Pro-Russia activists burning the Ukrainian coat of arms.

Pro-Russia separatists burn the Ukrainian coat of arms outside the state prosecutor's office in the city of Donets'k on May 1, 2014.


Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published May 2, 2014

"Novorossiya" or "New Russia": Putin only briefly mentioned that term during a five-hour, televised question-and-answer session this month. But his revival of that geographic title for southern and eastern Ukraine—territory won from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great—is resonating among Russians today.

"I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days," said Putin, listing what are now the Ukrainian regions of Kharkiv, Luhans'k, Donets'k, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Odesa—"were not part of Ukraine back then." He added, "Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained."

Those former swaths of the Ottoman Empire, called New Russia or Novorossiya when they were conquered some two centuries ago, comprise what is now much of present-day Ukraine's southern agricultural and eastern industrial heartland, where Russian is still widely spoken.

Putin's interest in Russians in the near abroad isn't new. In 2005, he described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as "a major geopolitical disaster of the century" with a particularly disturbing result: "Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory."

Nearly a decade later he now appears eager to reverse what he considers the geographical missteps of his predecessors, as he most notably did recently in Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954, when it was handed over to Ukraine—arbitrarily, in the view of many Russians.

The ever-shifting borders of the Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union and then the chaotic dissolution of the USSR, has made Russian identity a murky concept. The growing acceptance of intermarriage between ethnic groups, especially with the greater secularism that came after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, further complicated the question of who was and was not a Russian. But that hasn't stopped Putin and many other Russian politicians from making their treatment a hot domestic issue and vowing to protect them at all costs.

A photo of Pro-Russia activists standing guard at the entrance of the Prosecutor's Office.
Wearing riot police helmets and shields, pro-Russia separatists stand guard at the entrance of the prosecutor's office in Donets'k on May 1, 2014.

Who Are the Ethnic Russians?

Estimates vary on the number of what Putin calls "co-citizens and compatriots" in the far reaches of the former Soviet empire in part because of disparate views on what qualifies someone to be called ethnic Russian.

"First of all, what constitutes 'ethnic Russians' in Ukraine?" asks Stephen Blank, a senior fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council. "The Russians have played fast and loose with this: Sometimes they mean Russian speakers. Or there is also the new Russian citizenship law that says if your grandparents lived in Russia and Russian is your native language, you can be a Russian citizen."

Adds Blank with acerbic humor: "This would make me a Russian citizen—they can invade Brighton Beach to rescue the Russian Jews who are oppressed by the city government of New York."

However you define a Russian "compatriot," their numbers seem poised to grow. The new citizenship law Blank was referring to, a fast track to Russian citizenship, came into effect just last week, along with a new law requiring people to prove they can speak Russian to acquire residency.

And with last month's annexation of Crimea, ethnic Russians there—a majority of the peninsula's population after the wholesale deportation of the region's Crimean Tatars in 1944 by Stalin—are already back in the Russian fold. (Related: "How Should Crimea Be Shown on National Geographic Maps?")

A map of the ethnic Russian population.

Russian Ties

In so-called New Russia, the ties to Russian leadership in the north also run deep.

In the late 18th century, when Empress Catherine the Great won New Russia from the Tatar Khanate and the Ottoman Empire, she swiftly made it as Russian as possible through fostering the use of the Russian language and encouraging settlement. (Related: "Behind the Headlines: Who Are the Crimean Tatars?")

Alexei Miller, a Moscow-based historian and author of The Ukrainian Question: Russian Nationalism in the 19th Century, says that in the late 18th century, southern Ukraine "was more or less empty because it was contested borderland between different empires—there were raids, nomads, slave taking, and so on. So not many people lived there. After it was annexed to the Russian Empire, they made the region the main target for agricultural migrations."

The empress famously invited European foreigners to settle in New Russia, and ensured that land was made available to Russian nobles to establish serfdoms. Millions arrived from all over the Russian Empire in the years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

"After the revolution, you have further industrialization of these regions and influx of some Russian workers. You also have, after the famine of 1932 and 1933, some—but not very big—import of Russians as kolkhoz [collective farm] workers," adds Miller. The man-made famine, called the Holodomor, was orchestrated by Stalin to force Ukrainian peasants into collective farms, and was a key moment in history that embittered Ukrainians against Moscow. (Related: "Is Putin Reassembling Soviet Union? Q&A With Nina Kruscheva, Nikita Kruschev's Granddaughter.")

While the south was more agricultural, eastern Ukraine was more industrial. "Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, the Donbass area, started arriving at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when coal and iron were discovered there," says Miller. Workers, many of them Russian, flooded what became "a huge industrial base."

But a few short years after the Bolshevik Revolution ended the reign of the tsars, the land that had been known as Novorossiya was folded into the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, part of a nascent entity that would be called the Soviet Union. Putin recently expressed dismay over the Soviet leadership's decision to give New Russia to Ukraine. "Why? Let God judge them."'

A photo of protestors attacking the prosecutor's building.
After storming government buildings in Donets'k, pro-Russia separatists took over the prosecutor's office on May 1, 2014.

Shifting Borders

Once again, the region and its people appear to be up for grabs. Complicating the matter is the fact that Ukraine's population has "always been mixed," says M. Steven Fish, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in post-communist countries.

"Ukraine, as we know it today, as an independent state shaped the way it is now, is pretty much a post-Soviet phenomenon, and that's true for all countries of the former Soviet Union. These countries were all parts of larger empires over different centuries," Fish says.

Because of these shifting empires and borders, large Russian populations can be found not just in Ukraine, but also in many former republics. It's a result of a range of factors, from the 18th-century doctrine of developing areas by settling them, to a 19th- and 20th-century world of "industrial development, gulags, those fleeing World War II, and Stalin's deportations," says Blank. "There have been all sorts of mass movements over hundreds of years."

In countries like Kazakhstan, large Russian populations are living relatively harmoniously, whereas the Russian speakers of Latvia (who make up 26 percent of the population) have struggled to find their financial and professional footing since the Soviet breakup. Latvian officials last week said Russian "provocateurs" are attempting to foment unrest as they have in Ukraine, and NATO officials say Russian troops are well placed to move into Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria region (also part of New Russia), whose ethnic Russian majority is allied with Moscow. (Related: "Is Past Russian Meddling in Former Soviet Bloc an Omen for Crimea?")

A photo of a Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint near Slaviansk.
A Ukrainian soldier looks on at a Ukrainian checkpoint near the city of Slov''yans'k on May 2, 2014. In a sharp escalation of the conflict, Ukrainian forces attacked the pro-Russia forces in Slov''yans'k before dawn on Friday, and the pro-Russia separatists reportedly shot down a Ukrainian attack helicopter, killing a pilot.

A Difficult Breakup

It's been more than 20 years since the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., but the effect of that breakup on its people remains a daily reality for many. Almost overnight, some 25 million ethnic Russians became a diaspora. By 2003, about eight million of them were reabsorbed by Russia. About half of that number came from Central Asia, where relations between Russians and the indigenous Turkic nationalities were often strained.

Relations have also been fraught with difficulty in the Baltic countries where ethnic Russians have been particularly vocal about feeling disenfranchised after independence. About one-third of ethnic Russians living in Latvia are considered "non-citizens" and not allowed certain rights, including the right to vote or hold office. The country has been reprimanded by the UN for failing to encourage integration, yet, at the same time, intermarriage between ethnic Latvians and Russians has increased after independence despite official tensions. Intermarriage has long been common between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians as well—yet another factor that could complicate identity issues as parts of Ukraine vote on whether to secede.

Are there other post-Soviet countries with large Russian populations that could soon face the kind of upheaval that Crimea and eastern Ukraine are experiencing? Historian Miller says the answer doesn't just lie in where you can find ethnic Russians on a map—but also on whether the Kremlin might benefit from becoming entangled in yet another crisis.

"What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not caused by the wish to save Russians but by geo-strategic motives," Miller says, adding that Russia's motivations may be much like those of the U.S. when it says it is fighting for democracy—in countries that happen to have oil riches. The question other former republics must ask, he says, is, "Do we really treat Russians fairly enough, and does Putin have enough important strategic interests in our country to use discrimination of Russians as an instrument of his involvement?"

Oleksiy Kachmar
Oleksiy Kachmar

Dear Eve (the author), did you try to estimate how many ethnic Russians in Ukraine dislike Putin's regime and actively fight on Ukrainian side? Did you try to contact at least someone in Ukraine to have another point of view and get more balanced? How many times did you, at least, visit Ukraine to write about it now, while leaving very close, in Russia, for 8 years? And the last one - how many times did you hear about Novorosiya before March 2014? It's just a newly restored concept that has its political implication for Kremlin, and you are helping to spread their narrative. 

Matt Marriott
Matt Marriott


Ukraine History, Break-up of Russia for dummies

Kathy Quinn
Kathy Quinn

So, now that we know all about Russians, tell us what makes Ukrainians different. Or is it all about a 'state of mind'?

Konstantin Knigochey
Konstantin Knigochey

Supporters of federalization of Ukraine, against which Kyiv conducted a military operation, enjoy substantial support of the local population in the South-East of the country. It is ready to recognize themselves Kyiv authorities, in particular, the acting President Alexander Turchinov."Let's honestly speaking, the inhabitants of these regions support" supporters of federalization that considerably complicates carrying out of" military operations, he said, once again called representatives of self-defense "separatists

About the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada stated on the air of "the Fifth channel", once again called supporters of federalization in Donetsk and Lugansk groups of separatists. According to Turchynov, the law enforcement bodies there are also sympathetic to the protesters. In particular, he argued, some former employees of special division "Berkut", remaining in service of the Ukrainian interior Ministry, now do not perform the task, quotes the words of the acting President of ITAR-TASS.
Turchynov said that the main unit, which takes part in operations against the forces of self-defense in Eastern Ukraine, it is the national guard. "Another question that we can't people who are not trained with weapons to throw on operations is unsafe: it is Necessary to prepare, train and only then to give weapons," said Turchynov. He reminded that currently are special battalions of the Ministry of interior, and at present, there are already seven battalions.
On Sunday, may 4, the national guard of Ukraine tried to shatter the self-defense forces of Slavyansk. The battle lasted several hours, and the self-defence forces of the city pushed units attackers. Supporters of federalization conducted a sweep operation in the surrounding forests, where they hid netguarder and militants "Right sector". Data on the number of wounded and dead yet

Konstantin Knigochey
Konstantin Knigochey

Events in Odessa

1. Peaceful demonstrators (consisting of football ultras and fighters fascist government organization “Right branch” ) walking down the street, to support the Ukrainian government

2. They were attacked ( apparently suicidal, who else can attack such 1500 demonstrators), and they indignation went to smash the tent camp of the opponents of the government. There were about 300 people (including older people and women) they began to bring up sticks. 200 people hid in a large building. Then peaceful demonstrators pelted them with bottles with gasoline
3. Those who fled, in the courtyards caught a peaceful, pleasant guys defenders of democracy
4. In the house of trade unions of the 200+ people, about 40 were killed. Now, what was left of them
5. Such peaceful demonstrations held throughout Ukraine. Where there is no local fascists, come from the Western regions. Do not come only in those regions, where the people took up arms. If not Russia, in Crimea it would be the same. And believe me, who would not held a referendum, and who would votes are not counted, the result would not have changed. Those who were in the Crimea will understand. Who was not, look just on YouTube, as all the people from small to large celebrated joining Russia...
Think for yourself. Throughout the South and East of heroine suddenly appeared thousands!!! Saboteurs. So many of them that they can not cope army. They are from Russia??? How much time did not kill and caught one. All words and evidence was found or empty, or outright fraud (false). Is that possible??? The answer lies on the surface. The Kiev government is fighting against its own people. Which refer to Russian terrorists, then you don't have to be ashamed of in the media.
When whole cities and regions neither the population nor the army nor the police do not support and do not recognize the authority (which no one was elected again), and the authorities have to send more police and troops, and hard to take so there was no people who were born in these areas. When in the peaceful city riding tanks and thousands of people without weapons on all roads go, and ready to go to them under the wheels. When dissidents are beaten, put in prison, and now burned alive. This occupation????
There is no fascism? I'll find an hour tens and hundreds of videos on YouTube, and the fascists them and put. They go with swastikas, threatening to kill the Russians and the Jews, and even do not hide it. In the government the entire power unit belongs to the national socialist party of Ukraine, which had only recently been perimenopause in Freedom, and removed the swastika (the essence of these people itself has not changed) Right-hand side, which is now in a hurry record in the National guard, to be legalized, from swastika even refused. By the way, in Odessa together with the football ultras people were beaten to death and burned alive people who are officially power (just the same national guard, dressed in civilian clothes.)

Alexander Palukhin
Alexander Palukhin

It is interesting for me. Is the Western media work exclusively uneducated and unparsed in the topic about they write? 

Who are Russian ? Answer to this question is much easier to answer who are the Americans . Americans are the Indians . 

And as usual talking about the invasions , you forget about the invasion of Grenada under the pretext of protecting Americans. You do not remember about Iraq where invaded with lies . When one clown shaked an empty tube . You do not remember about Libya. You do not remember about Yugoslavia , which scenario you want to repeat in Ukraine. 

You talk about the seizure of the Crimea . How many people died in the Crimea? Russia has to kill 500 thousands of women , children and old people like in Iraq? Then it would enough democratic and fair? How  the Crimea was join? Perfidiously! Referendum is illegal and undemocratic, right? We must allow Kiev junta burn people out there today in Odessa? 

You remember Georgia. The world community has recognized Georgia's aggression , but you still manipulate and present this as a Russian aggression . Russia has always been the aggressor . Russia is guilty , that dares to contradict the idea of ​​U.S. world domination and its colonies in Europe . Germany returned to the path of fascism, supporting Kiev junta that came to power by force . West believes it is democratic. A referendum is not considered democratic. What you have to be a moron not to see these double standards ? What you have to be a moron to believe such articles as this one? People are now getting journalists to lie? 

Obama with his servants can only destroy. He is unable to engage in dialogue. They can only impose sanctions , which is nothing  in Russia but laughter . I wish you to your countries the same thing that happened in the Ukraine. This is correct according to U.S. and European policy makers. So it is appropriate in these countries. Good luck to you . I wish each of you have your own fascist in your home, because it is so democratic.

Nils von Rechendorff
Nils von Rechendorff

Well the pretext that Russia will invade to protect ethnic Russians is at least viable and has a ring of some legitimacy as opposed to invading Iraq because of WMD than Saddam's support of  Al Qaeda, than to bring Democracy; All of which were false.

My belief is Putin decided that he did not wish to have Russia completely surrounded by NATO on its boarders and Bush Jr.'s goal was to have a large military presence next to Iran.

There is the argument for one's national interest and one for moral and ethical interests but unfortunately they are sometimes mutually exclusive. Let us hope common sense will prevail by all parties involved. The stakes are just to high not to find a peaceful solution.

Michael Zalar
Michael Zalar

The one thing I have not heard much of is whether the Russians in Ukraine have a right to be concerned about the western Ukrainians?  The overthrow of the previous government in Kiev could be characterized as being by an anti-Russian movement.  I understand that one of the first things that happened in the new government was a move to undercut the use of the Russian language in Ukraine. 
Are they (or could they legitimately percieve) that they might be "Latvianized" as a group? Is there a real fear there among the people that the coup would lead to them being second class citizens?
I keep looking for a good article about this point, as it is the moral crux of the matter, but don't see much.  This is about the closest analysis to that that I have seen.

Michael Rozza
Michael Rozza

Why am I reminded of the fate of "ethnic Germans" in Czechoslovakia in 1939? We all know how that one turned out!

June Edgar Asok
June Edgar Asok

all this russian thing are just so confusing, at the end of the day, it all boils down to geo-politics

Stephen Dunchouk
Stephen Dunchouk

I am amazed at National Geographic and it's poor expose on the history and ethnic background of the area. There has been a lot of manipulation of the facts across the net sites and it appears the writer of this article used much of this information,coupled with some deep seated prejudice against Ukraine to write the article. I have read NG since my high school days back in the 60's but now I will have to review my continued support as it is obvious the editors and some of the journalists are no longer just reporting facts but wish to rewrite history in their own image.  

Snejana Coles
Snejana Coles

the whole thing is steeped in various factors going back in time and if history has taught us anything statehood, as formed pre- and -post WW2, a country's sovereignty such as Ukraine';s is, is evidently violated here by Putin's aspirations to rebuild his "empire" which makes him no different to any other dictator annexing other countries chunks of territories for whatever excuses he may muster. It is irrelevant here what side in the war the Ukrainians took... As the professor says: ..."Ukraine, as we know it today, as an independent state shaped the way it is now, is pretty much a post-Soviet phenomenon, and that's true for all countries of the former Soviet Union. These countries were all parts of larger empires over different centuries," Fish says. Clearly this is a complicated issue which affects all kinds of people of Europe who have independent states; furthermore it is delicate if one considers the supply of gas that russians control. Regardless of his motives for "protecting" his ethnic russians, it is more than apparently and abundantly clear that he is doing it for his own purposes, his interests, playing with fire and provoking the West, the USA, whom he and all Russians hate so much to justify his open aggression over the territory of another country. Putin must be stopped before this thing escalates further, preferably not by military intervention, but sometimes diplomatic talks just dont seem to do it, lives will be lost on both sides.......

Justin Houser
Justin Houser

I found this article markedly deficient in its analysis of the former Russian Imperial territory of "Novorossiya."  If one wanted to do an appropriate historical analysis of Novorossiya, the 1897 Russian Empire Census would have been a good place to start.  This census, which should have been mentioned in this article, shows that the former "Novorossiya" had a Ukrainian majority population and a rich cultural tapestry of minorities including Russians, Jews, Greeks, Tatars, Romanians/Moldovans, and others.  Secondly, taking Putin's allegations that "only God knows" why this territory was added to the Ukrainian SSR in 1922 shows a lack of investigation.  The reason that it was added was because at that time the USSR had adopted a policy of "korenization," which meant building up nations and ethnicities in the USSR.  The territory was made part of Ukraine at that time because it was recognized by the Soviet authorities that it was a territory populated with a majority of ethnic Ukrainians.  This remained true even after Stalin reversed korenization when he came to power in the 1930s by implementing dekulakization, the Holodomor (famine), and the Great Purge in these areas, which resulted in the deaths of millions.  Even today, while the population is Russian-speaking in the cities, in the rural areas Ukrainian predominates, and ethnic Ukrainians comprise an overwhelming majority on the territory that was called "Novorossiya."  I encourage you to look at Professor Patricia Herlihy's excellent article in the Los Angeles Times yesterday on "Novorossiya" for a better background understanding of this region.

Santiago Rodríguez
Santiago Rodríguez

@Kathy Quinn  was this "What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not caused by the wish to save Russians but by geo-strategic motives," Miller says, adding that Russia's motivations may be much like those of the U.S. when it says it is fighting for democracy—in countries that happen to have oil riches. The question other former republics must ask, he says, is, "Do we really treat Russians fairly enough, and does Putin have enough important strategic interests in our country to use discrimination of Russians as an instrument of his involvement?" 

where you were going? because... its kind of the article's conclussion

Kathy Quinn
Kathy Quinn

@Snejana Coles  How can anything be described as post-soviet when more than 80 percent of the population were,  just more than a decade ago, soviet citizens?

Try telling Boston Irish they're not.


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