‘The Most Ukrainian Russians’ Are in Western Ukraine

By Paul Goble
Ethnic Russians form 15 percent of the population of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, but they are quite different from their counterparts in eastern Ukraine. Almost unanimously, they speak both Ukrainian and Russian, and believe that anyone living in Ukraine should speak the state language. And, according to Igor Rotar, a Russian émigré journalist who visited the city last month, the Russians of Lviv support Kyiv in the country’s fight with Russia, just as much as the city’s ethnic Ukrainians (Rosbalt.ru, April 9).
The picture Rotar has drawn of the ethnic Russians of Lviv differs tremendously from the one painted by the Moscow media; According to Russia, western Ukrainians are portrayed as “Banderites” (referring to the controversial World War II–era nationalist partisan leader Stepan Bandera) and even Nazi fanatics, who are intent on driving out or killing all the ethnic Russians that they can. Rotar’s observations are an indication that ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine can a common ground with ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers—something that would be virtually impossible for the latter in the Russian Federation.
Upon learning that the journalist was from Russia, Rotar’s Ukrainian taxi driver told him not to believe what Moscow media are saying about Ukraine in general and western Ukraine in particular: “You will not have any problems speaking Russian here.” Rotar says his own experience convinced him that the driver was right. A few Ukrainians did refuse to speak Russian with him until they found out that he was not a Ukrainian citizen. Then, they spoke Russian freely because, as a foreigner, “you are not obligated to know Ukrainian!” But even those who took that “nationalistic” position were a clear minority.
According to Rotar, Russian parents who want their children to study Russian have no problem in that regard either. Five schools in Lviv feature Russian as the language of instruction, and all others teach Russian as a subject. After initially turning away from Russian, some Lvivans are now using it again because it gives them a competitive advantage in the workplace. This is especially true among tour guides, seeing as, until the war, Lviv was one of the top ten destinations for Russian tourists.
Both ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians stressed that Lviv is “not eastern Ukraine.” “The local Russians here are entirely different. The majority of us,” said one Russian, “support the idea of independence [of Ukraine from Russia]!” Even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is “infected” with Ukrainian nationalism; its priests collect aid for Ukrainians fighting in the east. Admittedly, that church is tiny: only 80 of the 2,000 parishes in the oblast are under its jurisdiction. The rest are subordinate to the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.

Some anti-Russian feeling can be found, to be sure, says Rotar. And anti-Moscow graffiti has been appearing occasionally on Russian churches and other facilities. Some streets are also being renamed in ways Russians would not appreciate. For example, Lermontov Street (named after Russian 19th-century writer Mikhail Lermentov) is now Dzhokhar Dudayev Street (the first president of the post-Soviet Chechen Republic of Ichkeria). But the Russian Center, which is headed by a monarchist-imperialist, is still able to do its work without any interference. That would not be true of a Ukrainian organization trying to operate within the Russian Federation, Rotar concludes.