The scientific case for “No Va Rossiya”

Over the past half-year, Russian propaganda has flooded the international media with hundreds of theses, seeking to cast the break-up of Ukraine as an inevitability. The Kremlin had the biggest problem with the “falsifiable theses” – those that could be verified with actual facts, and proven or disproved by the media.

Unfortunately, even such easily testable theses were often picked up at face value by Western media. One such example was the alleged threat of language discrimination for Russian-speakers, resulting from repeal of the language law hastily voted by the post-Yanukovich parliament on February 23rd. Few media paused to notice that the “new law” simply reversed the legal situation to the one that had existed for over 10 years until mid-2013. (I wrote on this topic in more detail back in March).

Even fewer international media bothered to search for data on whether there had been any evidence of linguistic (or other) discrimination amongst Russian-speakers under the previous legislation, to which Ukraine reverted in February.

And the data had been easily available.  The European Social Survey (a mammoth multinational academic data-gathering project that tracks social perceptions in over 35 European countries since 2002) holds data for, among other things, “perception of discrimination on basis of language”. In all 5 periods in which Ukraine was surveyed since 2004, the percentage of the Russian-speaking minority that reported feeling discriminated against, was remarkably low: never exceeding even 0.4%. For comparison, even in heart-of-Europe Belgium, 1% of French-speakers say they feel discriminated, while even in Russia, ironically, 0.5% of Russian-speakers say they feel discriminated on basis of language.

Russian propaganda quickly realized that it had mis-stepped with the language alarm, as Poroshenko’s government vowed to give even greater language parity to Russian than had been the case under Yanukovich. So the Kremlin needed an even less falsifiable Über-thesis; one that could be neither disproved, nor countered with new initiatives. In walked the “Novorossiya ethnicity” which, allegedly, historically always was part of the Russian socium, and never of the Ukrainian culture. Putin went on a media rampage explaining that half of Ukraine has “always been Novorossiya“, never truly Ukraine. It didn’t matter that the term had never ever been practically used until the spring of 2014.


This thesis worked like a charm. If I could only get a dollar for every time I read – or heard from otherwise bright and educated people – that

“Western Ukrainians are in fact Poles, and Eastern Ukrainians are Russians”.

National identity is a fuzzy concept, and it is prone to easy arguments one way or the other, but the cohesiveness of Switzerland, more recently the Baltic countries, and the continuing-to-surprise-with-its-still-being-whole Belgium, prove that old-lang-syne ethnic and linguistic heritage have relatively little to do with belongingness to nation.

And still, how different are the cultures and value systems of Russian-speakers, versus Ukrainian-speakers, in Ukraine? And is that something that can be summed up with a single number?

Actually, it is. And I set out this weekend to find out that number.

I used a very large database of value- and culture-specific answers from representative samples of 33 European countries (All were part of the 2013 data-set from the European Social Survey). I did not include answers to any questions that relate to lifestyle, attitudes to current governments, and generally anything that might “tie” the respondent to their own country for reasons other than persistent culture or values. Thus, I distilled only 75 questions that are truly value and culture-driven.

The questions ranged from behavioral such as : “How much hours of news do you consume from television daily”, through cultural such as “Do you share your intimate issues with friends outside the family“, through  religious and cosmological, to political (“Do you believe it is the government’s duty to care for the poorest among the population“),  and attitudinal (“Do you approve of marriage or civil union between members of the same sex“).  In short, a cross-section of questions, sufficient to identify value clusters, or national prototypes.

Before producing such national prototypes, however, I had one more job to do. I split up the actual nationality of Ukraine into two virtual “nations”Ukraine the Russian Speaking, and Ukraine the Ukrainian Speaking.  In order to have a benchmark, I did the same with Estonia, and Belgium, both being bi-lingual/bi-ethnic.

The next step was to create the national prototypes for each country, or in the three cases above, the virtual sub-countries. This prototypes were in fact the data-series of the averages of the 75 answers given by thousands of respondents from each (sub)-nation. Such data-series prototype, in fact, can be likened to a cultural-DNA double-helix.

The last step was to compute the Euclidean distances between the prototypes.

The Euclidean distances show how different, as a whole, one data-series (DNA) is from another.  Two countries that have very common cultures, social attitudes and values, would thus have low Euclidean distances, and the other way around.

Here are the result of the Euclidean distance test (click graph to zoom):


While the graph simplifies a 16-dimensional matrix to only 2-dimensions, it shows clearly one thing: Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking Ukrainians are closest to each other, culturally, ideologically, and value-wise.  The opposing hypothesis – that Russian-speaking Ukrainians are somehow culturally closer to Russians, is completely rejected. In absolute numbers, the Euclidean distance between the two linguistic groups in Ukraine is 10.5, a rather low number. Indeed, the ‘proximity’ between French and Dutch speaking Belgians is smaller (7.1), but the number is many times smaller than, say, Estonian and Russian speaking Estonians (22.8). But most importantly – the distance between Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Russians is a whopping 27%, suggesting that they would find it significantly more difficult to “fit at home”, culturally speaking, in Russia, than Russian-speaking Estonians do in Estonia.

Predictably, Ukrainian speakers are somewhat closer to Poles than Russian-speakers, but still within the “different country & culture” range, at a distance of 27 (vs 34 for Russian-speaking Ukrainians).

I did the same test with a different sample, from a different year (2008), and with a larger and very different set of questions, covering areas of agism, welfare attitudes and tolerance of corruption, to name just a few. I also introduced two new virtual countries: “East Germany” and “West Germany”.

Based on the 116 questions, the results were directionally identical for Ukraine – the proximity between the “two Ukraines” was many time closer (only 4.5) than the distance to any other country – let alone from Russia, which was a cosmic 20.3 away. Remarkably: the Euclidean distance between the “two Ukraines” was exactly equal to the distance between the “two Germanies”.


While these findings are not final and warrant further research – in particular identifying which sub-areas of culture and values are responsible for the largest differences, potentially laden with conflict, this initial test confirms beyond any doubt: Ukraine *is* a nation, as its linguistic sub-groups appear to be glued together by much more in common, culturally, than divides them.

And this is not astounding. Even on the assumption that there were tangible cultural differences at the time the Soviet Union fell apart, 25 years of common goals, ambitions and disappointments, appear more than sufficient to whittle such differences away.

The one thing that can unglue a nation faster than anything else, though, is propaganda.


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