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Eastern European Identities: Picking up the Pieces of a Broken Union

The scene opens with the Gosudarstvenny Gimn Rossiyskoy Federatsiithe Russian national anthem—blaring over a city landscape. Below, the citizens mill around as old friends and strangers converse in Russian. The aroma of borscht and pirozhki fills the air as the winter wind bites. The camera pans to a nearby sign which states in dramatic bold letters: “Welcome to Eastern Europe.”

Cue the dramatic music and flashing lights as the studio audience gasps in horror and surprise. The crowd applauds, thanking the creators for showing them the truth about Russia and its influence in Eastern Europe. In audience members’ minds, the region becomes homogeneous again—a callback to the days of the Soviet Union. The cast and crew enact a customary bow. A well-dressed presenter brings out the Oscar. The audience leaves feeling enlightened with this supposed truth. Alas, this imagined scene is but a caricature.

When the Soviet Union shattered and collapsed in 1991, new nations emerged from the tatters of that bright red flag that so many had feared. It is unlikely that the decades-old roots of a union that stood for nearly half a century could be so easily disregarded. Possible Russian connections could affect perceptions of the U.S., making the revelations on this matter much more significant. The threads of the larger Russian cultural web in former Soviet state nations’ identities become more apparent.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the U.S.S.R., lasted for nearly a century between the country’s inception after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1922 to its collapse in 1991. This former world power grew to encompass much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia at its height, where it was made up of fifteen republics. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, when these republics subsequently became independent states, the region underwent radical changes as each state sought to define itself.

For Aliaksandra Tucha ‘21 and Nikita Klimenka ‘21, two Belarusian Yale undergraduate students, the relationship between the Belarusian identity and Russian culture is multifaceted and complicated. Klimenka defined the country as a post-Soviet space, stating that the Belarusian identity is still very much in construction. Tucha agreed, noting that Belarus is a very young country and was under the influence of many nations in the past, making it difficult for young people to understand what being Belarusian means. But both Tucha and Klimenka outlined how modern Belarusian identity differs from the generation immediately after the U.S.S.R’s dissolution, delineating Belarusian culture into a “post-Soviet” timeframe and a “Belarusian” timeframe.

“Young people [are] trying to show that they’re no longer conforming to the Soviet standard. They want to be distinct, to be different in the first place,” Tucha said in an interview with The Politic. “Our parents’ generation was very much [about] trying to be similar and trying not to stand out whereas I think our generation has a very strong sense of identity,” she continued.

For Tucha and Klimenka, this shift has demonstrated itself in fashion. Notably, both discussed a surge in wearing clothing with embroidery of cultural or national symbols. Tucha specifically described the prominence of clothing with a red and white color schemethe colors of several different Belarusian nationalist movements at various points during the twentieth century.

“Maybe ten years ago, you wouldn’t try to wear something that would identify you as coming from Belarus, but it recently became a trend to actually identify like this,” Klimenka said alongside Tucha.

This phenomenon seems to be limited mostly to the younger generations. Among older generations, Tucha believes there is reasoning behind their relative lack of a Belarusian identity. Tucha called it a “traumatic generation,” stating how the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and subsequent financial instability significantly damaged the psyche of her predecessors.

“Our grandparents and our parents’ generations are very cautious,” explained Tucha. She lamented the censorship that existed in the Soviet Union and the rampant prosecution. Tucha continued, saying, “it’s very hard for them to have a strong sense of identity. You couldn’t have one, you were always dictated on what to do.”

Nowhere does the line between Russian culture and Belarusian culture distinguish itself more than in language and media. A diaspora of around twenty-five million ethnic Russians live in post-Soviet states with around 780,000 living in Belarus—which is 8.3% of the population. However, when viewing the percentage of Russophones in Belarus, where Russian is a co-official language with Belarusian, 70.2% of the population primarily speak Russian at home while only 23.4% primarily speak Belarusian, according to the 2009 census.

Both Tucha and Klimenka believed strongly that attempts to develop a Belarusian identity have been hindered by the ruling government, which has been led by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Elections in the country have been broadly criticized, with many Western media sites like the Washington Post or the New York Times deeming the nation “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Furthermore, a 2016 report by the Electoral Integrity Project deemed Belarus as “failing to meet international standards of electoral integrity.” Tucha believes that the current Belarusian government does little to promote identity, claiming the fact that  many parts of daily life are conducted in Russian as an example.

“It’s easier to see what isn’t Belarusian,” Klimenka said. “It’s not about coping with Russian influence, it’s about the question of whether or not we can restore the Belarusian identity that we have hopefully [only] partially lost.”

South of Belarus lies another hotspot when dealing with culturally-stratified issues: Ukraine. Following the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, when the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted and dissent in the east led to the Crimean annexation by Russia, Ukrainian culture has never been so disjointed. Mykola Sapronov ‘22, a Yale undergraduate student from Ukraine, and Olena Lennon, a Ukrainian-born Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of New Haven, both described this dramatic change over the last four years. Sapronov pointed out how Ukrainians now actively attempt to remember their traditions: Lennon believes that this drastic shift is more than just coincidence. She detailed how the change is a combination of natural progression and intentional actions that Ukrainians are undergoing to dissociate themselves from Russia. Similarly, Sapronov attributed this development to Ukrainians’ growing understanding of the degree of influence Russia had on their culture and the subsequent negative consequences.

In Ukraine, 67.5% of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian while a sizeable 29.6% of Ukrainians speak Russian, according to the 2001 census. Remarkably, according to the same census, only 17.2% of the population in Ukraine is ethnically Russian. Interestingly, Lennon detailed how after the 2014 revolution, President Petro Poroshenko’s administration imposed restrictions on Russian media, establishing Ukrainian language requirements on many broadcasts. This act has created tensions in the nation, with the situation being further complicated by the fact that being a Russophone is not necessarily linked to being pro-Russia.

“With my parents, I speak Russian, and with my grandparents I speak Ukrainian,” Sapronov said in an interview with The Politic. “People use both languages freely. I think that the mere fact that people speak Russian isn’t saying that they are pro-Russian, it’s just a consequence of historical events.”

Opinions on Russia are generally nuanced in the Ukrainian community. Lennon explained how regional differences play a significant role in how Ukrainians view Russians, noting how there is a spectrum of Russian favorability from the east—where support is generally higher—to the west—where support is generally low. Regardless, Lennon stated that there is an overall decrease in favorability in all regions’ opinions on Russia.

“[Before] the war in Donbas, over eighty percent of Ukrainians reported having a favorable view of Russia. Now, close to 40% of Ukrainians on average have a very negative view of Russia,” Lennon said in an interview with The Politic. “[Ukrainians’] eyes have been opened to this flawed perception that Russia is a brotherly nation. [They’ve] learned it the hard way.”

Lennon described how the process to define Ukraine continues to progress. Lennon was especially optimistic in the interview about what she sees as a historic transformation that has occurred in the minds of Ukrainians.

“I think there’s a deeper sense of individual responsibility. [Young Ukrainians] are now saying: ‘we have to take it into our own hands and make this country what we want it to be,’” Lennon said.

However, with all of these cultural developments, opinions on the U.S. differ across Belarus and Ukraine. For Belarus, the answer is not easily defined: Tucha described how there is a sense of unfamiliarity with the U.S., making opinions rather indifferent while Klimenka noted that Belarusian opinions are just like any other nation’s, containing both fans and critics of the U.S.. As for the Ukrainian perspective, Lennon detailed how in the past, most Ukrainians had favorable views of both Russia and the U.S. for clear geopolitical purposes, pushing for positive relations with all of its powerful neighbors. Lennon then stated how, after the 2014 revolution, sentiments have shifted.

“Ukraine has [now] taken a much more pronounced pro-America orientation, not just as a way of offsetting or unbalancing Russia’s influence,” Lennon said. “The U.S., in many people’s perception, stands for the rule of law, democracy, the freedom of speech. Those are exactly the values of the Maidan revolution.”

But even this relatively positive view of the U.S. and the West has its own nuances. In eastern Ukraine, Lennon stated that there is still a negative narrative surrounding Russian propaganda and its promotion of the idea of U.S. funding of the Euromaidan Revolution to topple the pro-Russian Yanukovych administration. Even in the more pro-West parts of Ukraine, there also exist negative views on the other side of the spectrum.

“Many people actually think that America didn’t do enough, that America should’ve helped the revolution more,” Lennon said. “Ukrainians were critical of Obama’s administration for not supporting Ukrainians enough militarily because Obama had been hesitant to provide lethal weapons [to Ukraine] and limited assistance to non-lethal weapons.”

While Ukrainians may have been critical of former President Barack Obama’s policies, Lennon stated that after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, this issue has drastically changed by virtue of comparison. Lennon detailed how the Trump administration authorized shipments of lethal weapons to Ukraine, creating an uptick in approval by Ukrainians, who initially had reservations about an administration they had viewed as pro-Russia. Lennon distinguished that these policy changes have been attributed mostly to the U.S. Congress, as Ukrainians see them as consistent partners with their sanctioning of Russia, condemnation of the Crimean annexation, and other Ukrainian-supported actions.

From afar, it’s easy for those unfamiliar with the region to paint Eastern Europe as a monolithic entity. For these former Soviet states, redefining and rediscovering past cultures has been difficult, especially with the shadow of Russia still looming large. But regardless of the hurdles, these nations are moving forward, fusing their old traditions with modernity in order to forge new identities in this globalized world.