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Ivanna Machitidze

Popular Imagery, Competing Narratives and Pan-Slavism: the Case of Ukraine’s Break-away Regions

(2020 Special Issue)
Open Access


Throughout the last four years, since the Euromaidan Rev-olution, Europe has been undergoing especially turbu-lent times, with usual images about belonging, security and borders being challenged. Furthermore, the issues of identity and spatial imagery have been raised, touching upon sensitivity of emotional linkages among the peoples. In this sense, especially relevant to the scholarly discussion in the post-Soviet space is the return of the ideas of Pan-Slavism. The present research aims at exploring whether the above-mentioned concept, despite combining increasingly diverse ideas, has indeed received its powerful comeback through the breakaway regions of Ukraine, namely, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics (DPR and LPR).

1In August 2012, the flags of the so-called “Donetsk Republic” were posted up in the premises of the Donetsk National University1, where the round table discussion on the regional re-integration was held (Panorama, 2012). At the meeting the newly-issued passports of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR) were demonstrated by its participants, Andrei Purgin, Tatyana Dvoryadkina (co-founders of the Donetsk Republic Organization) and Alexander Khriakov (The Head of the “Committee of Electors of Donbas”). No reaction or sanctions followed, neither on behalf of the University, nor of the regional or state authorities. As Khriakov argued in an interview after the discussion, the topic of regional integration of Donetsk and Luhansk regions is more than relevant – first of all, due to common cultural values. “There is the demand for the unified people through enhancing cultural, historical and national ties, originating from inside the two regions” (Panorama, 2012). As Andrei Purgin, the convener of the Round Table, emphasized, “we are developing the common line which is acceptable for the public movements of the three regions, Donetsk, Lugansk and Rostov regions”, “this is the pure initiative, not soiled by some political dividends” (Ibid.). The search for the innovative forms of cooperation was continuing not the first year, as the Assistant to the MP of the State Duma believes, “the initiative for cooperation should be flowing from the grassroots, through common cultural and national projects etc. Therefore, we (the social movements) would like to offer this project to the Russian and Ukrainian authorities” (Ibid.).

2Hence, the events evolving since 2014 should not have come as surprise, as its foundation was being laid throughout at least last twenty years. Activities of various movements propagating independence of Donetsk and Lugansk through the unity of Slavic peoples were especially catalyzed after the Orange Revolution and failure of the November 2004 Convention in Severodonetsk, attempting to proclaim the South-Eastern Autonomous Republic (Bessonova, 2015). In April 2014, first administrative buildings have been occupied by the home-grown and imported-from-Russia separatists in Slovyans’k, having resulted in the chain of takeovers all over the Donbass region. The initial lack of decisiveness and ability to effectively and operatively address separatism in Donbass was visible - Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government was initially weakened by the turmoil caused by the turbulent development of clashes in Kyiv and other parts of the country. The establishment of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics provides an interesting laboratory for analyzing the manner in which the idea of brotherhood between the people of the two self-proclaimed republics and Russia has been gradually spread into masses.

3In November 2017, at the opening of the Monument to Tsar Alexander III in Crimea, Vladimir Putin sent the clear message of drawing paral-lels between the Russia of 2000-2017 under his own leadership and the Russian Empire under Alexander III’s ruling, which was marked by the absence of major wars with Russia’s involvement.

Contemporaries called him the Tsar Peacekeeper, Alexander III achieved 13 years of peace not through concessions, but unshakable firmness. He defended the interests of his country directly and openly. Tsar’s policies were aimed at ensuring the increase in Russia’s influence and prominence in the world2.

4Alexander III believed that liberal reforms introduced by his father, Alexander II, were harmful for preserving Russian identity, therefore, having become the Tsar, Alexander III opted for highly conservative, autocratic, nationalist policies with a strong emphasis on the role of the Orthodox religion in raising the disciplined and ordered society. From now on, the Monument in Crimea will eloquently symbolize the continuity between Alexander III and Vladimir Putin, whose coming to power marked the end in unsuccessful attempts to introduce Russia to liberal reforms and enhance its pro-Western orientation. In the light of the Anti-Terrorist Operation3 having involved the Ukrainian government in a protracted and costly conflict, Kremlin aims at diffusing the breakaway regions’ Eastern border on Russia through investing into the narratives of common belonging between the inhabitants of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ republics as well as Russia. The narratives are distinguished with emphasis upon common cultural roots, language, religion and what is most significant, common destiny.

Russians and Ukrainians belong to one nation, one ethnicity, in any case, each with its own specifics, but with a common history, culture, common spiritual roots. And whatever happens, Russia and Ukraine in that manner or another, are eventually condemned for the common future4.

… soon 5 years would pass since Donbas holding arms was made to de-fend its right for statehood and self-determination. Today Ukraine puts it-self into the dead-end by introducing the blockade and persecuting the inhabitants of Donbass. Which all means that we have no other way than to join forces for the sake of integrating Donbass with its co-thinkers, great Motherland. And this integration is inevitable (V Donetske Nachal Rabotu Mezhdunarodnyi Forum, 2018).

5In this respect, especially relevant to the scholarly discussion on the ideological landscape of contemporary Russia is the re-emergence of the ideas of Pan-Slavism (Suslov, 2013). The capacity for the latter to turn into the dominant geopolitical thinking in comparison with Eurasianism is curious for assessing. Hence, this paper seeks to explore whether pan-Slavism serves as the prevailing narrative to establish the common imaginary between the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics and Russia. The assumption made is that the collective memory on the common past of the inhabitants of DPR and LPR serves as the powerful tool to invoke the sense of unity and brotherhood within the republics as well as with Russia. With the view to explore the question asked, the author analyzes the realm of popular culture in both DPR/LPR and the manner, in which the past is reintroduced into present through the representation of the narratives in printed media and TV programs.

Pan-Slavism: The Historical Background and Academic Debate

6Although the origins and characteristics of the separatist movements have obtained attention in the scholarly literature (Matveeva, 2016; Katchanovsky, 2017), the manner in which popular culture offers the realm for constructing a spatial imagery among the population of the breakaway regions lacks research. As DPR and LPR are still lacking formal diplomatic recognition on behalf of Russia, unlike other breakaway republics as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, cultural and economic integration is viewed by Kremlin as the foundation for the future unity. The narrative of the Slavic Unity led by Russia is reaffirmed by Sergei Glaziev, President’s Advisor on the Issues of Regional Economic Integration.

I recall numerous meetings taking place in Kiev between Yanukovych and the public. We held the events of the Union of Slavic Peoples in Kiev. Yanukovych delivered the speech, stating his willingness to implement the agreement on the common economic area, which Ukraine has ratified, and today we should have been living under the framework of the unified economic realm without borders (Glaziev, 2017).

7Prior to analyzing whether the Pan-Slavist narrative plays the prevailing role in the popular culture realm of DPR-LPR, the review of the role of Pan-Slavism in shaping Russia’s identity is necessary. Pan-Slavism takes its origins in Central Europe, among Poles and Czechs, being formulated by the representative of Croat pan-Slavic movement Juraj Krizanic. However, the development of the movement did not deserve proper attention on behalf of public intellectuals till the XIX century (Kohn, 1961, pp. 323-324). Russians also found attractive the notion of Pan-Slavism having added to it the ideas of superiority of the Russian language and Orthodox religion. Due to the diversity of visions produced by attempts to lead the Pan-Slavic movement by each of the nations, the notion of Pan-Slavism as an umbrella movement able to unite various movements originating in Russia, Central Europe, and the Balkans is challenged. Instead, it would be rather appropriate to speak of separate movements, as pan-Serbianism in the Balkans, pan-Russianism in what is now known as the former-Soviet Space (Kohn, 1961).

8For the Russian-inspired Pan-Slavism, the nineteenth century could be portrayed as the Golden Age of the movement with numerous studies researching the Pan-Slavic narrative in Russia’s efforts to find its own identity. Especially strong boost to the idea was provided by the Spring of Peoples (Christoff, 2014). Pan-Slavism also served as the crucial idea for aligning the Slavs scattered all over Europe under the domination of powerful Empires and managed to turn as an effective glue for translating their demands into eventual independence throughout the century after the WWI. Therefore, the idea that “the Government of Russia is supposed to have been consciously inspired all these years by the vision of a great state in which all the Slavic peoples would be nestled under the wide wings of her double eagle” seems to be relevant for the contemporary Russia’s vision of its near neighbouhood to say the least (Levine, 1914, p. 664). In the mind of Fyodor Tyutchev, Russian poet and the prominent ideologue of Pan-Slavism and Russia’s civilizational mission, Russia is destined to “absorb Austria and return Constantinople” (Yanov, 2013). Another intellectual actively elaborating the ideas of Pan-Slavism was Mikhail Pogodin. In his words, “Russia has to become the Leader of the Slavic Union. According to the principles of philology, the Russian lan-guage will turn into the standard language for all Slavic tribes… consid-ering the Russian emperor as the Head of the World, i.e. the Father of the Slavic tribe... And let us see whether we will fear the Old West with its logic, diplomacy and treachery” (Suslov, 2014, p. 577).

9In the same manner, other Russian intellectuals as writer Fyodor Dostoevskiy, sociologist Nikolay Danilevsky and historian Vladimir Lamanskiy, the leaders of Pan-Slavism in Russia of the 19th century, contributed greatly to developing the body of Pan-Slavist ideas in that period. “Russia cannot be considered the constituent part of Europe neither by origin, nor by adoption; she is destined to only two paths: either establish a separate cultural unit together with other Slavs or become left of any cultural and historical significance – being nothing” (Danilevskiĭ, Woodburn, 2013). While at the end of the 19th century pan-Slavism’s monopolistic stance offered the vision of Russia’s place in Europe, Asia and the world, it was challenged by the idea of Eurasianism, viewing Russia as the bridge linking Europe and Asia (McClellan, MacKenzie, 1968). Despite Pan-Slavism serving as inspiration for Russia while designating its own mission in the world, a critical stance towards the romantic nature of Pan-Slavism could be traced in writings by Leontiev, who argued that “the establishment of one single and all-Slavic state would be the end of the Russian tsardom” (Vovchenko, 2016).

10The strong association between the Tsar and Pan-Slavism left it unwel-comed by those in roots of the October Revolution till the victory in the WWII. Indeed, memory and mythology of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) is an important source of pan-Slavic enthusiasm (Weiskopf, 1944). After Stalin and Josif Broz Tito made an effort to build closer cooperation on the basis of series of all-Slavic committees, Pan-Slavism’s fate turned pray to the personal conflict of two leaders (Suslov, 2014, p. 581). Having been archived throughout the Soviet Union period, the Pan-Slavic ideas were restored in another attempt to formulate its identity from the clean slate after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was perceived as the largest tragedy in history of Russia. Prescribing Russia with the notion of a special path it is destined to follow has not being the inalienable feature of its intellectual circles in the post-Soviet period. In the first decade after the collapse the ideas of the End of History and belief that Russia would successfully cope with the transition towards democracy through adher-ence to liberal pro-Western ideas, was fading away in the beginning of the 2000s and its failure was officially visible in Putin’s seminal Munich speech of 2007 (Verkhovskiy, Pain, 2015, pp. 6-7).

11Even throughout 1990s, when Russia was attempting for a liberal U-turn, the common Slavic heritage served as the common ground for the strategic partnership between Russia and Serbia, while the former has been demonstrating its support for the latter throughout the 1994 NATO bombings of Gorazde. Common Eastern Orthodox legacy, emphasis on the affinity to common ethnic links reassumed itself after the collapse of political systems propagating “Godless” communism, gave hope for Russia being able to utilize them as an influential tool in elaborating the February 1994 peace plan for Sarajevo (Cohen, p. 818). Important development, which signified the post-Soviet Russia’s relations with pan-Slavism, was its core role in geopolitical paradigms arguing on the idea of Russia’s unchangeable prominence for international relations as far as undisputed right for control of the post-Soviet space at the least. Along with Serbia, Russia has been putting itself into the center of Pan-Slavic project viewing Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova as its essential part (Suslov, 2012, p. 580). Throughout the past 10 years, especially after the Orange Revolution and Ukraine’s orientation towards pro-Western pro-European path, Ukraine has made a surprising come back in terms of its significance for the mental maps of Russians. Furthermore, the role of the Patriarch Kirill in promoting the idea of unity of Russia and Ukraine on the basis of the Orthodox religion at its core, reaffirmed the continued importance of pan-Slavist ideas for legitimizing Russia’s Messianic role in the post-Soviet space to say the least (Gvozdev, 2000).

12One of the original perspectives employing the critical geopolitics approach and conceptual history approaches is presented in Mikhail Suslov’s research on the concept of Novorossiya as a popular brand, taking its origins in elites’ minds but capable of getting the attention of population of Donbass. (Suslov, 2013). Mixed background and thin line between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers in the region seemed to initially offer the solid foundation for implementing the project of Novorossiya, especially after the events of November 2013. The project of “Novorossiya” was mentioned by Putin in 2014 but was then abandoned and stayed largely in minds of pro-Kremlin intellectuals as well as in Donbas. On 18 May 2015 Oleg Tsarev, speaker of the so-called Parliament of Novorossiya, proclaimed that the project failed due to its absence in the Minsk agreements. Since then, Novorossiya was not a component of the discourse of the breakaway republics themselves as well as Russian elites (Suslov, 2017).

13While there is a solid body of research reviewing various aspects of the conflict in Donbass and Russia’s interest in it (Bukvoll, 2016), the man-ner in which Russia’s aggression in Donbass challenges the European security architecture (Averre, 2016), the discussion on the type of the conflict developing in Donbass (Kudelia, 2016; Davies, 2016), the lack of research is visible while discussing the way how the identity of the so-called Donbass nation has been constructed by Russia through the project of DPR and LPR. So far, only Laruelle’s research on the project of Novorossiya and the manner in which it became the product of conserv-ative nationalism in Russia would touch upon certain aspects of the issue (Laruelle, 2016).


14The DPR-LPR being the laboratory for implementation of this spatial project, investigating the manner in which notions of unity with Russia are being imprinted into the minds of population through massive cultural integration between Russian and the breakaway republics, would be of core interest. Hence, the author traces the prevailing themes on the Donbass identity and belonging expressed through the popular culture. The latter has been the focal point of integration with Russia, distinguished by intensive integration. Therefore, this realm allows us to grasp the major messages transmitted to the population of both LPR and DPR.

15The present research sheds light on the way how popular culture is as-signed the core role in promoting the narrative of unity between the peo-ple of Donbass (DPR-LPR) and Russia. The author investigates the idea of spatial imagery of Donbass as the project on the border between Russia and Ukraine, the latter being recognized as the lost part of Russia’s World as a result of drifting away from it to “Europe” and “the West”. This drift, however, is viewed by Vladimir Putin as a temporary phenomenon, as Ukraine is destined to return to the family of common nation, with com-mon roots (RIA Novosti, 2018).

16The relations between the self-proclaimed republics and Kremlin have been gradually deepening its scope and format, from cooperation to inte-gration in the cultural and educational matters inaugurated by the Inter-national Integration Forum “Russkiy Mir and Donbass” and establishment of the Russkiy Center DNR (Donetskiy Nacionalnyi Universitet, 2018). The other dimension of the relations are the humanitarian and political matters’ discussion by the representatives of the breakaway republics and the Russian authorities. Consultations take place between the President’s Advisor Vladislav Surkov and the Heads of the self-proclaimed republics. The immediate coordinator of the political and humanitarian cooperation between the breakaway republics and Russia is the high-ranking member of the President’s Department for Border Cooperation Aleksei Filatov. Pri-or to the appointment, Filatov was responsible for the relations with South Ossetia (Korrespondent, 2019).

17The other dimension of intensive cooperation between the breakaway republics and Russia are the security issues on the advent of the Presidential elections in Ukraine (31.03.2019), where Vladislav Surkov pledged to cooperate with the authorities of the self-proclaimed entities (, 2019).

18While researching the role of popular culture in introducing the narra-tive of the brotherhood under Russia’s leadership, it is essential to con-ceptualize the meaning of popular culture for the current research. The latter is understood as “the beliefs and practices, and the objects through which they are organized, that are widely shared among a population” (Margolis, 1995, p. 30). As for the link between national identity and popular culture, Tim Edensor offers a valuable theoretical perspective (Edensor, 2002). Hence, applying this approach to the case of DPR-LPR sheds light on the manner in which Donbass identity is being constructed on the intersection between the idea of Donbass nation and its destiny as being inalienable part of the common people, common brotherhood under the guidance of Russia. While the image of spatial and cultural links between the nations is discussed, Larry Wolf’s seminal work on the construction of Eastern Europe (1994) would be of value, while analyzing the Other’s (in this case Ukraine) influence on the narrative of a unique Donbass identity.

19Edensor’s perspective helps investigating how the identity of DPR and LPR people has been constructed through the literary publications, the newspapers being issued on the territory of the breakaway republics, TV programs, etc. I will analyse the language and the manner in which it car-ries the signal to the public through using specific words, connotations, narratives that direct the public opinion to believe that Donbass is des-tined to be an inalienable part of the Slavic World under the Unity with Russia. The core significance here is that the cultural realm in DPR and LPR emphasizes the significance of popular culture, through the literature on the everyday life of the ordinary people of DPR and LPR, the mass media portraying the day-to-day reality, which the people of Donbass are experiencing.

20With the view to approach the framing of the prevailing narrative, one of the leading newspapers of both breakaway republics, “Novorossiya” has been analyzed. Furthermore, the civilian poets’ compilations on the reality of living in DPR-LPR as well as the stories published by DPR’s popular authors on their vision of Donetsk people, their past and future, images of Ukraine and Russia as the manifestations of Self and Other, was thoroughly investigated. The TV Programs on the channels “Union” and “Oplot”, such as “Parallels”, “Panorama”, “One Nation. One History” have been selected for further analysis, allowing to comprehend the exist-ing discourses, ideas and narratives relating to the concept of Pan-Slavism and unity of Slavic Peoples under Russia’s leadership.

21The “Novorossiya” newspaper is issued once per week, making up four issues per month, the author has selected the period of May 2014, when the first issue of the paper was published (21.05.2014) till November 2017, finalizing with issue published 24.01.2019. One issue from every month has been analyzed with the view to carry out the research for the keywords that would specify the mood and the core message of the article. It is worth mentioning that from May 2014 till August 2014 two issues per month were published, whereas only one issue was published in September 2014, after which the newspaper acquired a relatively reg-ular character, being issued on a weekly basis together making 216 is-sues, based on this fact, every third issue was selected for the discourse analysis.

22Altogether there were numerous information outlets issued on the territory of the breakaway regions, including the newspaper Novorossiya, “The Voice of Republic”, newspaper “Donetskoe Vremya (the Donetsk Time)”, and the “Donetsk republic”. The latter three newspapers are controlled and published by the so-called Ministry of Information of DPR, whereas the Novorossiya newspaper is issued by the First Municipal Publishing House, controlled by Pavel Gubarev, the leader of the “Novorossiya movement”.

23The limitations of the present study could be presented in the follow-ing manner. First of all, the selection was based on the printed additions available through the internet, as the author does not have access to the printed editions. Secondly, no information is available on the number of issued copies of each newspaper, therefore, hindering the process of estimating its potential influence on the formation of public opinion among the people of DPR and LPR. Furthermore, the research focuses on the issue of literature (prose and poetry), TV programs, whereas popular culture contains a variety of various cultural practices, which could be further researched to present the full body of popular culture in the so-called republics.

Public Opinion in Russia

24In discussion of prevailing narratives on the identity of DPR-LPR as well as Russia’s elites contribution, it is important to investigate not only the latter, but also, the attitudes of the Russian population towards the issue. In order to attain the most effective outcome of their policies with long-term consequences, the Russian political elites should take into account intellectual circles’ opinion as well as public opinion. Hence, analysis of the public opinion surveys on the issues of relevance for the subject matter of the present research is significant.

25Public opinion poll on most memorable events for Russia carried out by the Russian Analytical Center “Levada” exhibits the stable presence of the events linked to Ukraine among the most memorable events for respondents (incidents in Kerch, the Ukraine’s Orthodox Church’s autocephaly, opening of the bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula) (, 2019). In October 2016 among the people over 18 years old in Russia’s 48 regions, demonstrated that out of 19 events explicitly mentioned by respondents (events were not provided to respondents, they had to recall them themselves), armed conflict in Donbas, Killing of Donetsk People’s Republic anti-tank battalion commander Arseny Pavlov (“Motorola”) and Normandy Four Meeting in Berlin were among the top events, with only conflict in Syria having the same rate of significance among respondents (, 2017A). These findings demonstrate that foreign policy events occupy an extremely significant place in terms of public conscience. This is especially interesting if to analyze the place of foreign policy for other countries.

26While being asked about the Euromaidan and events that ensued in 2013, the questionnaire carried out in March 2017 demonstrated that 82% of respondents, who have been following the events, consider them as coup d’état, while only 7% consider it as peaceful protests (Levada Center, 2017) (, 2017B). At the same time, 64% of respondents agree that there is no war between Ukraine and Russia and consider that overall situation will remain the same or become worse (72% in sum) as of February 2017. As for the main reason of the protests to begin, 48% respondents named efforts by the West to draw Ukraine into its sphere of influence and nationalist sentiments, which proves that issues of identity are remarkably deep and significant for the conscience of Russian people in general.

27Furthermore, when asked about their attitudes towards the US and EU, majority of respondents emphasized mostly negative or negative attitude, the same concerns Ukraine – with 45% of respondents evaluating their attitudes as mostly negative. In the year 2016, Ukraine occupied second place after the US in terms of top five hostile countries to Russia together with Turkey, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania (Levada Center, 2016). While have been asked about following the events in Ukraine, in 2016 the ma-jority of respondents marked the “not very closely” option.

28The majority of people consider that the country is moving in a right direction, with the highest rate of approval since 1999 being in 2014 (64%). Among the politicians named to be trusted the most, were Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shoygu, Sergey Lavrov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitri Medvedev. Among the approval of the actions of Duma Government and President, the unprecedented approval rate possesses the latter (over 80%), while the Russian Parliament (Duma) has been assessed most negatively among the three branches (, 2017C). Among the most alarming problems for the Russian population in September 2017 were predominantly the issues of socio-economic character, whereas the only issue mentioned in terms of foreign policy domain was the war in Eastern Ukraine.

29This data is especially curious to analyse as it provides us with under-standing of the perception by Russian population of institutional trust, core concerns, relations with the outside world and their perceptions of Russia’s mission in the world and the near neighbourhood.

30Another center of sociological research “Fond Obschestvennoe Mneniye” has carried out the opinion poll among the Russian population, where the 93% of the population confirmed their knowledge of the fact that Russia send humanitarian assistance to Donbass (DPR and LPR), and 71% considers this actions correct. In terms of the reasons why humanitarian assistance is sent, 25% mentioned the obligation to help and 20% - obligation to help brother nation, the majority of respondents consider that adequate amount of money is spent on the humanitarian assistance and they do not consider it necessary that these funds should be redirected to Kaliningrad or Crimea. 30% of respondents believe that Russian-Ukrainian relations will improve, whereas 29% find it difficult to answer the question and 27% consider that no changes happen (Fom. ru, 2017).

3140% of respondents in 2015 were supporting the independence as the outcome of the military action in the South-East, over 50% consider that Ukraine will not be able its pre-conflict boundaries. Current leaders of DPR and LPR undertake enough actions for preserving peace in Donbas (FOM, 2015). Another trend which is of significance for the present research is that in 1990s around 67% of respondents argued that “foreign” experience does not suit us because “Russia has its own special path”. By the early 2000s, support for the idea of the “special path” had become almost total, with the proportion of respondents in agreement with it reaching 78% (Verhovskiy and Pain, 2015, p. 3).

32The public opinion poll outcomes demonstrate the overall inclination of Russian population to support the realignment with the self-proclaimed republics of DPR and LPR. Furthermore, as Ukraine has been viewed mostly in negative terms, the emergence DPR-LPR is evaluated positively by the majority of respondents. This finding is significant, for the population that demonstrates increased belief in its country’s special path, as well as negatively views, US, EU as well as Ukraine as well as approves assistance to the self-proclaimed republics, would also approve any deeper integration of Russia and the latter. Hence, Pan-Slavism which is based on similar notions of mutual unity, assistance and compassion for the unified people would also find extensive support among the Russian population.

Popular Culture and Prevailing Narratives: Constructing the Identities

Introducing the “Unity”

33This section aims at grasping the narratives on the Donbass Nation and its identity as well as the manner in which it is linked to the idea of the Unity with Russia based on common culture, history, traumas experi-enced (Great Patriotic War), which is destined to save the young Donbass nation from Ukraine “that has not invented anything better than to burn its own home (‘khatu’)” (“Novorossiya”, August 1, 2014). As mentioned above, the realm of cultural cooperation is the most institutionalized and integrated by Kremlin through the Russkiy Mir and Russkiy Centers over-seen by the representatives of Russian political and intellectual circles, being in charge of promoting the idea of cultural integration between Donbass and Russia. Hence, DPR and LPR are entrusted with the mission of curing the lost spirit of People in Ukraine and other nations that are lost and must be returned to their origins.

Yes, our Great Country and Great People still experience problems. How-ever, if we recall that we are Russians, everything will change and forever! And Everyone is afraid of that! (“Novorossiya”, 16 of September 2014).

34The major difference in Russia’s approach towards other breakaway regions as, for instance, South Ossetia and Abkhazia is that up until now Russia has not officially recognized the DPR and LPR as sovereign republics. Moreover, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergei Lavrov openly declared that recognition of the Breakaway Republics would mean losing Ukraine to Russia (, 17th of December 2018). In the 10th of January 2019 issue of “Novorossiya”, a scenario for painless and internationally legitimate integration with Russia was suggested, namely, the one similar to the pattern of Belarus and Russia to be integrated into a single Union State on the basis of the Customs Union cooperation. The parallels are drawn between the economic integration of DPR-LPR with Russia and perspectives of the breakaway republics for joining Russia.

35A separate attention deserves the change in the manner how the project of Novorossiya is being depicted: while in the year 2014 Novorossiya was based on the idea of the Eurasian cooperation as well as “Eurasian supranational structures”, the recent approaches towards the project Novorossiya has been distinguished as sharing common historical memory with Russia, without stressing upon the Eurasian component. (“Novorossiya”, 21 May 2014; 20 September 2018).

36With the view to celebrate the restoration of unity among the people of Donbass and Russia, the 4th of November is designated as the Day of Unity, which is a national holiday in both DPR-LPR as well as Russia (Donetskoe Agenstvo Novostei, 2018).

The Inhabitants of Donbass were and are still among those, who experi-ences pride in the most sensitive manner. They are those who were feeling themselves the people of Russia more than anyone else (“Novorossiya”, 28th February, 2019).

37Another observation visible upon the analysis of the speeches of the leaders of self-proclaimed republics, is that identity of DPR and LPR lies on the intersection of two core ideas: “brother Russia” serving as the role model contrasting to the aggressive Ukraine; notions of brotherhood be-tween the nations of DPR and LPR as well as Russia and other breakaway entities in the former Soviet space. For instance, in the official greeting speech by the Head of the so-called Ministry of Foreign Affairs of DPR Natalia Nikonorova on the occasion of the day of National Unity, empha-sis has been put on the narratives of “the brother nation”, “unity”, “mu-tual support” and building peace on the basis of mutual understanding, introduction of peace, principles of humanism and common values of the mankind-freedom, brotherhood and justice” (, 2017a).

38“The Declaration on the state sovereignty of Russia is the holiday when everything that stands behind the word Russia is being glorified: pride, strength, unity and the unbreakable spirit of the Russian people” (, 2017c). Russia which has been “hard, sophisticated, confident and decisive” in defending the state interests at the international arena, therefore, serving as the role model for the newly established states of DPR and LPR (, 2017c). At the same time, Ukraine has been associated with “conflict”, “conflict protraction”, “delaying peace initiatives”, “ignoring its obligations under the framework of the Minsk agreements”, “avoiding dialogue” and “making choice in favor of the confrontational scenario” (, 2017d).

39The analysis of the newspapers, TV Programs and literary works demonstrates that the Donbas people have been associated with the special sense of collective identity, based on belonging to economically and socially most prosperous region, industrial culture of coal-and-steel, Donbas people appreciating hard work (Ilchuk, 2017, p. 14). Donetsk has been addressed by the Mayor of Simferopol at signing of the agreement on brotherhood between Donetsk and Sevastopol, as the heroic city, which is assigned the mission of defending the Russian World (News Front, 2017). In this light, the Integration Committee “Russia-Donbass” (the official logo of the Committee represents the territory of the Russian Federation and Donetsk and Luhansk Regions as single space painted in the colors of the Russian state flag (, 2017) fulfills the official role of designing core agendas, which are designated in the following manner: “Culture”, “Education”, “Society”, “Social Sphere”, “Sport”, “Economy”. Under the label of each realm, a detailed information is laid out on the range of events that are being carried out among DPR-LPR and Russia.

40While carrying out the analysis of the TV Programs or newspapers, es-pecially curious for observation is that newspaper “Novorossiya” have being paying rigorous attention to their accessibility through internet. For instance, all issues of the Novorossiya newspaper could be found online in an exquisitely high quality, making it easier for the readers outside of DPR-LPR to find necessary information or comprehend the basic mes-sages of the newspaper. It is worth mentioning that the attributes of the Novorossiya newspaper are the red-blue flag (blue cross on the red back-ground) of Novorossiya and the photo of the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, serving as the background for the darts game field.

41In terms of the language of the paper – “Novorossiya” pursues a highly aggressive rhetoric. In case of Novorossiya newspaper, the titles of the issues analyzed, bearing the crucial thematic weight, contains the mes-sages of the following character:

“100 years of the Popular Idea”, “Liberation of Kiev which Should be Repeated”, “Our Aim is returning Ukraine into a common all-Russian civ-ilizational space and restoration of its territorial integrity” (#167, 16 No-vember 2017).

42The newspaper streams a massive negative propaganda of the Ukrainian state, its society culture, massively introducing the concept of it as the “Other” to its reading audience. The Ukrainian is associated with steal-ing, Nazism/fascism, diseases, depopulation of the Ukrainian nation, etc. The following topics are prominent throughout the various issues of the newspaper: associating Ukraine and Ukrainians with negative phenome-na such as stealing, violence and coercion, collaborationism of Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis, 1st place in terms of psychological diseases, “zrada” (“betrayal”), 4th place in terms of the rate of deaths in the world and only 186th place in terms of birth rate (“Novorossiya”, 2016, 2017).

43In contrast, Russia has been portrayed as the country along with India and China pursuing the policies directed to the future, against the cor-ruption, oligarchism associated with Ukraine and West and finally, the mission to introduce order on the territory of Ukraine.

44“Today as a result of a successful attack in the framework of Carpathian Operation Ukraine was freed of the Nazi Occupants”… in 2014 Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis. When will the time comes when we even-tually read: “Today the territory of Novorossiya and so-called Ukraine was completely freed of Ukranazis, the followers of Bandera and Hitler?” (#164, 2 November, 2017).

The Donbass Identity: the “Self” and the “Other”

45While there is the extensive theoretical discussion on the strategy of the organizations as “Russkiy Mir” on promoting the image of brotherhood between the Slavic Nations in the post-Soviet space, especially those of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (Wawrzonek, 2014; Hudson, 2015; Naydenova, 2016), very limited attention has been paid to the issue of how the breakaway republics build their identity on the intersection with the “Other”, Ukraine, which bears a negative connotation, and “Self” which is produced through the notion of the brotherhood between the people of Russia and Donbass. The present idea is founded on the idea introduced by Larry Wolf in his seminal work on the identity Eastern Europe (1994).

46In this respect, a discussion of the role of popular culture is critical for framing the dominant narratives produced for the population residing on the occupied territories in the ATO area. Ukrainian armed forces partici-pating in the anti-terrorist operation are addressed in literature as well as TV programs as “khunta”5, Nazis (“natsyki”), “banderovtsy”6. The pecu-liar feature of using these words is the disparaging attitude towards the Ukrainian language which is only used through the Russian alphabet, making it sound as the dialect of Russian (“Nezalezhnost’”, “nen’ka”, “ghorilka”, “Hoverla”, “Sche ne Vmerla”)7.

47Ukrainian “Junta” being portrayed as the people who, striving for alcohol, would disclose any state secrets, whereas honesty and high morality of the fighters of DPR Army are portrayed as those conscientiously rejecting luxury, agreeing to live under the harsh everyday conditions of Novorossiya. In the story by Varvara Melekhova “Hope” the everyday life of the old people who stayed to live in the areas of armed conflict, ignoring their children’s’ young generations requests to leave the dangerous zone. Here, the old people’s image is utilized in order to emphasize nostalgia for the past unity with Russia. When the old lady comes to the parade with the “hardly found” piece of the St. George’s Ribbon, which is the symbol of her link with the past,

She was recalling spring. That patriotic resurrection. She could not believe that it came true. Her Russian soul was singing next to the building of the administration together with all other attendees the Russian March, the song, which was sounding there permanently. Not a long time ago, she has recalled this song again, but now these words somehow brought only pain. “Am I wrong? Is there no Russia that does not care about the power of Americas and Europes? Or maybe it does exist?”

48The author under the pseudonym of Yunna Morits, draws parallels be-tween the West (“baryne”), their Russophobe nature and purely economic materialistic considerations of baryne which become alienated from the true people and their country while pursuing their unity with the West distancing from Russia (Moritz, 2017).

49On the presentation of the book “The Time of Bravery” (Civilian Poetry in 2014-2015) at the premises of the Russian Duma organized by the Foundation “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir, established by Vladimir Putin) in 2015 Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Union’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, named the Russian language as one of the first languages, in which the Holy Scripture was brought to the people in the Russian, in other words Slavic language, by Cyril and Methodius.

50While taking part in the “Chekhov Autumn – 2017”, the cultural event in Crimea has gathered writers of Crimea as well as DPR-LPR. The symbol of the Regional Union of the Writers of Crimea is the three-mast crimson-sails ship, embodying three brother nations: Russians, Ukrainians and Belarus people, which are flowing in one direction. While the Crimean ship with crimson sails has finally reached Motherland’s shores and by the will of destiny Russia’s new resurrection has begun. It is argued that while establishing the Writers’ Union of Crimea, famous Soviet writer Anatoliy Ivanovich Dombrovskiy, said: “This is the Crimea that is destined to join the brother nations, this is from here the grace of unity will spread throughout the Slavic land, as the Orthodox religion has spread from here”.

51Since obtaining the so-called independence from Ukraine, the Writers’ Union of LPR has been issuing the publication under the title “Time of Donbass” where the prose, poetry as well as drama has been gathered in one compilation. “The Time of Donbass” addresses the armed conflict in the region with the special contribution of the writers from the Russian Federation for whom the events in Donbass is the subject of “personal spiritual trauma”. As the introductory word by the former leader of LPR Igor Plotnitsky argues,

Here pain and courage, fear and heroism, faith and despair have inter-sected. But the faith in the people of Donbass is way more overwhelming, which means that our historical links with Russia will be strengthened. The book presents prose, poetry and dramaturgy of the writers of Donbass and Russia, all those who have not betrayed their fathers and grandfathers, those who could not stand the rewriting the history of our Fatherland, those openly protested against turning the Orthodox brother Ukraine into the Fascist state. The book confirms that Donbass is the region of creative work and not destroyal. This means, that our Republics have a Great Fu-ture.

52In the poem named “Donbassovets”, Andrey Antonov stresses the conflict between the “new German rifle” implying the ATO fighters and true and honest Stakhanov movement the ideal of hard work of the industry workers. The Scythinas are portrayed as ancestors who rest in the Donbass land and provide energy and power for the fighters against Fascist Ukraine. Denis Balin in the “Russian Field” (“Russkoe Pole”) emphasizes the significance of the Cross and God while imagining home and motherland while the military march is playing along (Vremya Donbassa, 2015).

53Another theme is prominent in the writings of DPR-LPR civilian poets: the divine connection between Donetsk and the symbols attached to it, whether these are steppes, waste banks, mines, or bullets which also became the part of Donbass identity. Anna Revyakina expresses this idea in the poem “Miner’s Daughter” (“Shakhterskaya Doch”):

Suntanned grass of Donetsk Steppes, waste banks, Obelisks to those who have not returned from far away. This world is still obeying the God’s Laws, This World consists of bullets and pair of boots.

54In Nikolay Melnikov’s poetry, there is the vivid parallel emphasizing continuity between the unity between the people of Donbass and Russia as well as between the people and Christ. “Napast’” or “Disease” is asso-ciated with Ukraine and the war in Donbass, where the guilt is put on to the shoulders of the Ukrainian army for not letting the Donbass reunite with its historical and cultural brother.

Do not be embarrassed to cry, do not be embarrassed to fall on your knees Under Christ’s gaze, fall down in from of our ancestors! And pray for one single thing: “Unity we are striving for, Unity!..” Only in this way we will win, only in this way we will overcome the disease! Nikolai Melnikov “Unity” (“Edinstvo”).

55On the territory of DPR and LPR, the Union TV Channel issues the TV Program which is called “One Nation. One History” (Odin Narod. Odna Istoriya). The program represents the 10-11 minutes videos launched since September 2017, stressing the significance of such personalities as Alexander Pushkin, Leonid Bykov, General Vatutin, Konstantin Paustovsky, Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Gogol (Один Народ. Одна История, 2017). Another TV Channel “Oplot” has been issuing the program “Parallels” (“Paralleli”) (1945-2015). The whole idea of the Program is devoted to the memories of the World War II where the parallels are drawn between the World War II and the war taking place since 2014.

56The first program on the interview with Sergey Tarnovsky (born in Odesa), the medal-wearing Veteran recalling the first decades of the Soviet Union and fighting in the World War II. Recalling the memories in the town of Bendery in Moldova, Tarnovsky recalls:

How Ukrainian can kill the Ukrainian. These are the Bandits, Makhnovschina, abandoning wives, children, for whose sake? Our Motherland is our Mother, the place where we were born. For Motherland, for Stalin and despite we are in such difficult conditions, however, our courage that we have committed throughout the WWII will not be forgotten.

57Adelia Litvinenko (born and grown in Kyiv) says in the interview,

We are afraid for our grandchildren and this coup d’état, who needs it? I am recalling the Soviet Union, and despite that they are now saying that we are nostalgic for the sausages costing 2.20 but we had hope, we had some plans, we had some dreams, and often these dreams were coming true.

58Each of the interviews with Veterans under the “Paralleli” project stress-es the idea that Donbas is undergoing the same hardships and “we, as our Veterans, will have to restore it out of War” as the Soviet Union has restored our brother countries from the ruins of Great Patriotic War WWII (Paralleli, 2015). Litvinenko recalls, how in the conditions of food shortage, she and her wartime mate found the can of food produced by Americans and when they have thrown it away, the Germans started to attack them. Here, the “American can” serves as the symbol of insecurity and danger, which led the Veteran’s colleague die.

59Ivan Gomlia (Born in village Maksimil’yanovka, Donetsk region): “If there is peace, if there is order, then let everything stay like this, like now… I do not see anything orderly there, in the top [Ukrainian elites are meant]… and how we are going to live, I do not know… I am now for the Soviet Union, for living better, we need Stalin”.

60Another TV Project at the “Oplot Channel” under the title “We Are Open” shows re-opened or newly opened facilities, stressing the grad-ual return of the Donbass inhabitants to a normal peaceful life. For in-stance, one of the programs sheds light on the opening of the Art Center in Donetsk, where the people with an artistic talent could exhibit their works. It is significant that the majority of exhibitions bear a very symbol-ic underpinning, exposition “Roots and Branches of Donbas” launched on the 7th of November 2017 on the 100-hundred year anniversary of the October Revolution. In the interview the Director of the Center singled out one of the exhibitions depicting the Oriental culture, where the art works were painted by the Graduate of the Lviv Arts Academy, local Donetskian however, who stayed in Donetsk even despite the war. An-other exposition demonstrating the paintings depicting the realities of the Soviet time under the title “Behind the 100 hundred year history bar” (“Za 100-letnei Chertoi Istorii”).

61Due to the uncertain status of the breakaway republics lacking any legal symbols of recognition and statehood, the possession is being claimed over the identity of its inhabitants. The realm of popular culture, with printed and online media outlets, literature, art and theaters being inte-grated into an intensive cooperation and exchange of experience with the Russian counterparts. In manner core messages aim at harvesting a dis-tinct Donbas identity distanced from being a constituent part of Ukraine. The latter is portrayed through the lens of corrupt government having been exploiting the resource rich territories of Donbas since demise of the USSR and dependent on the directives from the West. From the other perspective, the people of Donbas are destined to restore the brotherhood with Russia. The key link in this respect raised throughout is the notion of brotherhood revoked through the Soviet nostalgia.


62While the narrative of Pan-Slavism is claimed to be undergoing a pow-erful comeback in contemporary Russia, the findings of the paper did not demonstrate the prevailing presence of the narrative in the sources ana-lyzed. As was reviewed in the paper, there is a body of research in which the ideas of Slavic unity under Russian leadership has been embedded in political and intellectual circles and served as a foundation for Russia’s policies in its near neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the manner in which the Donbass identity has been constructed in scholarly debates has not been studied in-depth. Furthermore, with the establishment of the cultur-al integration framework between Russia and the Breakaway republics, the realm of the popular culture is of immense importance to be explored.

63The author argues that upon the failure of the project “Novorossiya” in terms of institutionalizing itself into the separate entity, popular culture replaced high politics with the view to keep the flame in the idea of the unity among the people of DPR and LPR, been unfairly divided among various states. DPR and LPR serve as an interesting laboratory for analyz-ing the manner, in which Russia has been laying the ground for establish-ing new spatial imagery. Since the year 2014, the two breakaway regions in the Eastern Ukraine failed to integrate with the Russian Federation. Hence, the core tool in preserving the spatial linkage with DPR/LPR has been utilizing the emotional attachment, feeling of nostalgia and bonds with the “Great Motherland” among their residents. The research demon-strates that vision of Russia as the role model among the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics has been maintained through enhanced cultural exchange with the former, cultivation of the narrative of the Slavic unity through local mass media, music, literature, etc. Fi-nally, the narrative of DPR-LPR’s Eurasian belonging was replaced with the Russian one. At the same time, Othering towards Ukraine, portrayed as weak, failed, betraying state, the one which does not care of its own citizens, was being introduced as another prevailing narrative. The Soviet past serves as the tool for reintroducing collective memory of common coexistence between the people of the Breakaway Republics and Russia.


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1 Donetsk National University was functioning in Donetsk for 75 years. In the year 2014, as a result of an armed conflict, it moved to the city of Vinnytsya and changed its name to the Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University.

2 Opening of the Monument to Alexander III (2017). Kremlin [video], available at: (accessed 19 November 2017).

3 Antiterrorist Operation in the East of Ukraine is the set of measures aimed at fighting illegal Russian and pro-Russian militias in the Eastern part of Ukraine during Russia’s armed aggression starting from 2014.

4 Opening of the Monument to Alexander III (2017). Kremlin [video], available at: (accessed 19 November 2017).

5 Khunta (junta) – the term with a negative connotation used for associating the transitional government and consecutive governments in power after the flee of Yanukovych to Russia in February 2014.

6 Banderovtsy- Colloquial term for members and supporters of the faction of the Or-ganization of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera. This term has been used pejoratively in Soviet propaganda and to denote the Ukrainian underground during and after the Second World War, as well as all Ukrainian nationalists and all those in Ukraine opposed to Soviet nationality policy.

7 “Nezalezhnost’” in the Russian manner and not “Nezalezhnist” (independence) as in Ukrainian emphasizes the disparaging attitude towards the words independence, “nen’ka” (Motherland), “Hoverla” (the name of the highest mountain on the territory of Ukraine), “Sche ne Vmerla” (the opening words for the text to the National Anthem of Ukraine) which carry symbolic significance for the Ukrainian nation and statehood.

To cite this article

Ivanna Machitidze, «Popular Imagery, Competing Narratives and Pan-Slavism: the Case of Ukraine’s Break-away Regions», The Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues/La Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux [En ligne], 2020 Special Issue, 105-130 URL :

About: Ivanna Machitidze

Ivanna Machitidze, Associate Professor, Coordinator of the International Relations BA and MA Programs, School of Politics and Diplomacy, New Vision University (Tbilisi, Georgia).