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Eleanor Knott


Eleanor Knott recently defended her PhD dissertation (2015) in political science at the Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science. Her thesis explores Romanian and Russian kin-state policies in Moldova and Crimea from a bottom-up perspective, using the approach of everyday nationalism.

London School of Economics, UK



Draft: Not to be Cited Without Permission

Identity in Crimea before Annexation: a Bottom-up Perspective

by ELEANOR KNOTT  London School of Economics, UK

 “Whatever the case, Russia will have to deal with the effects of Crimea being part of an independent Ukraine for 23 years. […] Russia is not the motherland of an entire generation of Russian-speaking youth who are coming of age, but the motherland of their ancestors.”

Andrei Malgin (2014)


“Beyond Perekop, there is no land for us.”

Vasilii Zaytsev (1981)




This article argues for a more nuanced understanding of identity debates in Crimea and thus challenges the dominant framing of Crimea as if it is, or was, a region of strong Russian identification, pro-Russian sentiment and support of separatism. Such a framing would argue that Crimea’s de facto secession from Ukraine, and annexation by Russia, has a simple explanation: a belligerent kin-state (Russia) and a supportive populace (Crimean society), who finally got what they had desired since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a further perspective that the paper seeks to challenge, by arguing the notion of separatism seemed impossible and undesirable in the period before it occurred.


To support this argument, the article first examines briefly how Crimea has been framed elsewhere. Secondly, the article introduces the data analyzed in this paper which I use to problematize a simplistic understanding of identity in Crimea, in particular Russian identity in Crimea.  In particular, the section argues, conceptually and empirically, for a disentangling of the often-elided ideas of identification as Russian (ethnically, i.e. “russkii”) and identification with Russia. To do this, the paper briefly discusses different ways in which I have conceptualized identity in Crimea that shows the multiple ways of identifying as Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean, and with Russia, Ukraine and Crimea.


Thirdly, the paper addresses the lack of support for separatism even among those who were members of organizations (Russkoe Edinstvo/Russian Unity, Russkaia Obschina Kryma/Russian Community of Crimea) that supported, if not facilitated, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The paper argues rather, that the majority of respondents (not aligned to these organizations) saw Crimea as a legitimate part of Ukraine while the minority, even if they questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy, were supportive of a “bad peace” over a “good war”, and thus did not support the kind of bloody conflict they thought secession/annexation could require.



Identity debates in post-Soviet Crimea


This section reviews existing literature considering debates of ethnicity in Crimea, and Ukraine more generally in terms of Crimea’s relationship with Ukraine, in terms of identity. The section reviews several different, if not interwoven, perspectives:


  1. Crimea as demonstrative of an ethnic Russian majority community and ethnic Ukrainian majority community (and significant ethnic Crimean Tatar minority community)

  2. Crimea as different to the rest of Ukraine as the only region with a Russian ethnic, and linguistic, majority

  3. Crimea as necessarily and uncritically Russian, pro-Russian and pro-Russia, with a majority of expressing questionable loyalty towards Ukraine, if not supportive of separatism and pro-Russian irredentism

  4. Russians and Ukrainians as a “single” and “Slavic” actor in Crimea

  5. Russian separatism as over-stated in Crimea with evidence of waning support since apex of support in 1994-1995


These frames suggest opposing perspectives and a gap in understanding bottom-up identity debates in Crimea. As the section argues, Crimea, and the notion of what it means to be Russian in Crimea (pre-2014), is therefore a topic to which the approach of “everyday nationalism” is appropriate, as a way to analyze, and unpack, how being Russian was articulated, experienced, negotiated and subverted (Brubaker et al. 2006; Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008).


Firstly, identity in Crimea has been conceived in mutually exclusive terms at least from a superficial analysis of Crimean census data which shows Crimea (and Sevastopol) to be an ethnic outlier within Ukraine, as the only region where the majority, according to the 2001 census, identified ethnically as Russian (State Statistics Committe of Ukraine 2001). Hence, in Crimea, the otherwise Ukrainian majority are a minority, while the otherwise Russian minority are a majority and the Ukrainian minority overwhelmingly speak Russian as their usual language (Figure 1).[1]


Figure 1 Language and ethnicity in the 2001 Ukrainian census
















Source:  State Statistics Committe of Ukraine 2001

Surveys too, conducted by US NGOs (e.g. International Republican Institute 2014) and respected Kyiv think-tanks (e.g. Razumkov Centre,[2] Kyiv International Institute of Sociology/KIIS) have also adopted a mutually exclusive approach to collecting identity about data. This offers little insight into how and why individuals choose and interpret categories, and experience, negotiate and subvert these categories in their everyday lives. For example, a Razumkov survey asked respondents to choose between different homelands (Ukraine, USSR, Russian, own region) (Pop-Eleches and Robertson 2014), assuming that respondents had mutually exclusive, rather than overlapping, notions of homeland.


In this respect, Crimea appears to be a region that is “hegemonically” an ethnic and linguistic Russian “zone” (Arel 2002a:243). From an analytical perspective, therefore, Crimea appears Other to Ukraine, on the basis of the fact that while ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are present across the rest of Ukraine, in Crimea they hold a majority status against a minority status in other Ukrainian regions, including the Donbas. This demographic status was institutionally buttressed by a (notional) status of autonomy vis-à-vis Kyiv that allowed for regional de facto and de jure rights, supporting Russian language and culture in the peninsula and offered a means to institutionalize, and dissipate, tensions between Kyiv and Crimea after Crimea’s failed secession attempt in 1994 (Sasse 2007).


This sense of being Other to Ukraine was important also for how Crimea was researched, or at least how being Russian was researched in Ukraine and Crimea, where research of identity debates in Ukraine often overlooked Crimea, framing it as unrepresentative of the rest of Ukraine (Fournier 2002). For example, Wilson (2002) conceptualized a “middle ground” in Ukraine comprised by Russian speakers who have a mixed view of their ethnic self-identification, and who prefer to identify with the “Russo-Ukrainian” category than with the mutually exclusive census categories of Russian or Ukrainian, to consider the space between the mutually exclusive census categories of Ukrainian and Russian. However Wilson (2002) studied Ukraine as a whole, ignoring the specificities of Russian identity across a regionally diverse Ukraine (Narvselius 2012). While existing research might consider how Russian identification functions in other regions of Ukraine, such as the Donbas, and how this inter-relates with local/regional economic and social practices (Narvselius 2012; Osipian and Osipian 2012), again this left these debates in Crimea untouched.




[1] Elsewhere, I have also been critical of censuses as a way of “measuring” and conceptualising identity (see Arel 2002a, 2002b; Brubaker 2011), however there is not enough space to elucidate these arguments here.


[2] The Razumkov Centre is a Ukrainian non-governmental think tank which conducts frequent surveys in Crimea.


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