“And thus was the first census taken….” The Birth of Modern Ukraine

Flag of Carpathian-Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1945.

For today’s blogpost, I have something more serious, analytical, historical in nature.    The author is Dmitry Gubin, from Kharkov, Ukraine; and the title is “About the 1926 census, or the day when the ethnonym ‘Ukrainian’ was born”.

According to Gubin, December 17 1926 is the day when modern “Ukraine” was born.  This was the day of the first full census taken of the population of the USSR.  This was the first time that the ethnic category “Ukrainian” was introduced into passports.

The concept of the “census of peoples” has a notorious history.  Who can forget that famous passage in the New Testament Luke 2:2:  “αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου. ”  (“This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”)

The leaders or any nation, especially an Empire, have a need to know exactly how many people they are ruling, and of what type are those people.  In terms of religion, language, ethnicity, etc.  And not always for nefarious reasons.

Gubin discusses examples of historical censi, such as that taken by William the Conqueror, who needed to know exactly how many taxpayers he had in the realm, what they owned, and how much he could milk from them.

Battle Reenactment of medieval Kievan Rus.

Turning to Russia, the first known census occurred in 1245.  The Grand Princes Yaroslav Vsevolodovich and Danila Romanovich had to figure out how much property accrued to them, and how much to the Khan.  The only way to figure it out, was to count the people.

During the time of Peter the Great, the census was called “revizia” or “audit”.  The superiority of the Russian census over the current (for example, American) ones, from a sociological point of view, is that the demographic questionnaire included economic class.  A downside of the Petrine census is that people had to continue paying taxes on dead people up until the next census.  Hence, the plot device of Gogol’s famous novel “Dead Souls”.

It goes without saying that no country and no people at any point in time have ever enjoyed or approved of, being counted in this manner; and Gubin cites several examples of popular resistance.  In Russia, unruly peasants had a frontier they could flee to, to get away from census-takers and tax-assessors:  Siberia, the Caucasus, the “Wild Fields” of Novorossiya.  Unfortunately, the soldiers, bureaucrats, and assessors, were never far behind.  Resistance was Futile.

Catherine the Great empathized with the peasantry.

When informed, how her officers and officials were tormenting the peasantry with their violent census, Catherine the Great was said to have responded:  “I would flee too, in their place.”

Census of 1886

After the Serfdom Reforms under Tsar Alexander II, census started to be taken locally, on a gubernia-by-gubernia basis.  The 1886 census for Kharkov showed the following numbers for language:  60.3% spoke Russian as their mother tongue; 29.2% “Little Russian” [what we now call “Ukrainian” or possibly Surzhyk dialect; 1% Belorussian dialect; 1.4% Polish; 5.2% Yiddish.  There were also a lot of Germans living there.  The majority of the peasant class spoke “Ukrainian” as their mother tongue.

World World I

When the Germans ruled the Kharkov region in 1918, then known as the Ukrainian “Hetmanate”, they undertook the first major attempt at “Ukrainization” of this area.  The German goal was the same then, as it always has been, and even now, to this day:  To separate Ukraine from Russia, build a new country from scratch, with its own language and its own religion, separate from those of Russia.

To this end, the Germans conducted a sociological survey in the summer of 1918, to assess the sentiments of the population.  The survey sample was 505 respondents.  Asked to choose between separating from Russia, staying with Russia, establishing independent Ukraine, etc., most respondents indicated that they did NOT want to separate from Russia.  80% of the respondents from the Kharkov area indicated that they were opposed to Ukrainization (i.e., replacing Russian state language with the local dialect).  The respondents also expressed against the Ukrainization of religion (i.e, establishing a church separate from official Russian Orthodox structures).

Ukrainization Under the Bolsheviks

In Kharkov, Ukrainian nationalists topple the country’s largest Lenin statue.

[yalensis commentary:  Where the Germans failed in their efforts at Ukrainization, the Bolsheviks succeeded.  Bolshevik nationalities policy dictated a de rigueur national self-determination for every national minority, whether the locals wanted it or not.  Before the war and Revolution, Lenin had been an ardent supporter of Ukrainian national self-determination, even independence.  This fit in with Lenin’s anti-Russian and pro-German slant when it came to strategic geo-politics; but also stemmed from Socialist doctrine, reinforced later by the horrors of World War I.  Socialists of that era believed that destructive nationalism would tear the world apart; and that the only cure was to guarantee the ethnic and national rights of nations, especially minorities and small nations.  From this it flowed logically, that the Bolsheviks did everything possible to ensure the status and rights of the Ukrainian ethnos, as they saw it.  I make this commentary only to point out the irony of Ukrainian nationalists tearing down the statue of the one man who did more for their cause than anyone else in the world.  And yet, this irony also proves that the CLASS issue always trumps the ETHNIC issue, just like Marx always said.  Namely, to put it crudely:  The Banderites hate Lenin because he was a commie, never mind all the good things he did to build Ukrainian statehood.]

Returning to Gubin’s piece:  Gubin notes that the 1926 census was the first all-Union census conducted in the USSR since its founding.  The census takers were given the following instructions:  “About Question #4.  The respondent is asked to indicate his nationality.  If he is having trouble answering this question, then one should give the preference to the nationality of the mother.”  It was also noted that the answer to Question #4 might be at odds with the answer to Question #5 (native language).

[yalensis again:  This reminds me a bit of the omnipresent demographic questionnaires in the U.S., it seems everywhere you go, you have to fill out some form, and there are questions about “race”, “ethnicty”, “Hispanicity”, and so on.  And lengthy explanations as to who is or is not Hispanic, and the difference between race, which includes such categories as “Hawaiian Islander”, and ethnicity, which is mainly, in American context, Hispanic or Spanish-speaking, and so on.  And non-Spanish-speaking people of European heritage are supposed to check off “Caucasian”, which is kind of funny.  I am not opposed to any of this, by the way, I totally see the need to categorize people, it’s just that reality can be quite complex.  But I digress…]

So, anyhow, to conclude Gubin’s piece:

He goes on to show, how, under Bolshevik census, there was a push to define the three different “peoples” (Great Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian), which was something of a stretch, and maybe make distinctions that the people themselves were not aware of, all for the purpose of Bolshevik nationalities ideology.

At any rate, the results of the census for Kharkov itself were as follows:

160K Ukrainians (38.4%),  154K Great Russians (37.81%), 81K Jews (19.4%), 21K “others” (5.2%).

Gubin goes on to express his skepticism with modern Ukraine’s language policy, and exagerrated claims of how many native Ukrainian speakers there actually are; and he concludes with the following paragraph:

“The issue is not even with one’s ethnicity, since there are many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine who are nowadays the most virulent Russophobes; and conversely there are ethnic Ukrainians who don’t share that same level of hatred for the ‘Ivanovs’ and ‘Petrovs’.  The issue is in the loss of that all-Russian sense of community which, like the base of a cupola, supported the peaceful co-existence of many nationalities and peoples, of a much wider assortment than just ‘Little Russians’ and ‘Great Russians’.”

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2 Responses to “And thus was the first census taken….” The Birth of Modern Ukraine

  1. bolasete says:

    this is merely a placeholder. far too busy to play in the afterlife of the innernet, but reading this led me to think i may have something that could be worth expressing. on the other hand i may decide it’s just the raving of a trite dunderhead. please hold the table for a day. i promise, really i do, to cover the prix fixe this weekend!


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