Similar but not equal: the image of Ukraine on Russian news websites

Ukraine and Russia are more than just neighbours. The history of these two countries, for instance, are closely connected. But since 2013-2014, Ukraine and Russia are at odds with each other. But from a historical perspective, and contrary to what one might expect, the recent Ukrainian crisis has not fundamentally changed the ways in which Russia represents Ukraine, writes Boris Duregger. His summary of his master's thesis for Leiden University.

by Boris Duregger 

Ukraine and Russia are more than just neighbours. The history of these two countries, for instance, are closely connected. Many Ukrainians lived under Russian rule for centuries; first in the Russian Empire, and later in the Russia-dominated Soviet Union. Also, Ukraine and Russia are entangled by the common Orthodox religion and by a partially shared East-Slavic culture.

But, perhaps more importantly, it is apparent that Ukraine and Russia are at odds with each other at this present time. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, a war broke out in Donbass in eastern Ukraine. The current Ukrainian-Russian crisis is still developing at the time of writing. This brings tension to the subject of this article, i.e., the image of Ukraine in Russia. From a historical perspective, and contrary to what one might expect, the Ukrainian crisis has not fundamentally changed the ways in which Russia represents Ukraine.

Thus, this article presents a case study of Russia’s view of Ukrainians and their nation. What are the prevailing Russian stereotypes about Ukrainians? In order to answer this question, the key focus is on four different media sources: the electronic versions of two Russian state newspapers – Komsomol'skaya Pravda ( and Izvestiya ( – and two Russian news websites: and

The choice for Komsomol’skaya Pravda is justified, because it is Russia’s most popular newspaper. In 2014 the newspaper had a daily circulation of approximately 650,000 copies. and Izvestiya are relevant sources for this article, since they are both partially owned by Aram Gabrelyanov who is notoriously loyal to Putin and the Kremlin. Consequently, and Izvestiya are representative sources, in the sense that they are likely to represent the Kremlin’s line. Moreover, Gabrelyanov has been referred to as “the tabloid king who shapes how Russians see the world”. Arguably, thus, and Izvestiya are also representative sources because the messages of their news releases resonate with the Russian audience. Finally, the choice for the fourth source of this study, online newspaper, is justified because it is one of Russia’s most popular online resources; as of 2012 four million “unique users” visited the news website every month.

In terms of time frame, I examined reporting between December 2013 – when the Russia-Ukraine relations deteriorated due to the Euromaidan and the current crisis began –  and June 2017; the moment I concluded this research. But before I present the results of my own empirical research, I will shortly discuss how Russia has represented Ukrainians in earlier times.

Short historical overview of Russian images of Ukraine

Throughout the nineteenth century, a general trend can be observed in which the Ukrainians, or Little Russians as they were called at the time, are perceived as part of the Russian people, both by the authorities and by most educated Russians. By the late nineteenth century, history was used to prove that Ukraine was Russian: when interpreting the early modern period, Russians highlighted those aspects that Ukrainians held in common with Russia. It is also in this period of time that Russians would write about Ukrainian elements without specifying that they referred to something Ukrainian. This thus clearly shows that ‘Ukraine’ was naturally perceived as ‘Russia’.

Also in the arts, Ukraine and Russia were often tarred with the same brush. In The Cherry Orchard (1903), for example, Chekhov lets his heroine Lyuba Ranevskaya say: “God, how I love my own country!”. The action is taking place near Kharkiv in Ukraine, but in spite of that, it is obvious that the country Chekhov has in mind is not Ukraine but Russia.

It was also in the nineteenth century, though, that Russians started to perceive Ukraine as a laughable place and the Little Russians as burlesque, or even a parody of Russians. Also in Russian literature of the time, Ukrainians were presented as friendly but not-too-smart and clownish characters. Aleksandr Pushkin, for instance, described Ukrainians as “the singing and dancing tribe” (but in fact he was quoting Catherine the Great). Furthermore, in the course of the nineteenth century the Russians started to perceive the majority of the Ukrainian people as khokhly (or khokhol in singular form): prototypes of uncivilized peasants.

And then there is the third Russian image of Ukrainians, an image of disloyal separatists. This viewpoint was bolstered when the Hetman (leader) of Ukraine, Ivan Mazepa, turned against the Russians at the beginning of the eighteenth century. From then on, Mazepa was represented in Russia as a prototypical traitor; as a result, a part of the Ukrainians were seen by the imperial center as disloyal separatists or Mazepists (Mazepintsy).

It was also during Soviet times that the Ukrainians held an ambivalent status. Under Stalin, it was the Ukrainian proximity to Russia that prompted very sensitive reactions against suspected disloyalty and nationalism; also in the seventies Soviet policy was repressive toward Ukraine. This was due to the fact that the image of Ukrainians as Mazepintsy revived, but this time in the form of Banderovtsy. The term is derived from the name of Stepan Bandera; an Ukrainian nationalist leader who for a certain period collaborated with Nazi Germany.

It was exactly this Nazi aspect that was deployed as an effective tool by Soviet propaganda. Nevertheless, Soviet propaganda propagated a very distorted image with the aim of tackling the “Ukrainian fascists” of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in Western Ukraine, a struggle that began in 1944. During the following decades it became a struggle against Ukrainian nationalism in general. Thus, the Soviet discourse was not intended to provide historical understanding; it was employed to counteract the Ukrainian attempts to gain independence.

What now follows is my own empirical research into contemporary Russian representations of Ukraine on Russian news websites.

One people: Ukrainians and Russians as part of the same family

Given the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, one might expect that Ukrainians are not presented as Slavic Brothers anymore, or as “the same as we are,” as Boris Yeltsin once put it. However, it is an unshakable narrative; Ukrainians are still perceived this way today. A widely used wording to describe the relation between Russians and Ukrainians is that they are “один народ” (one people).

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said unambiguously: “Russians and Ukrainians are one people”; former head of the FSB Nikolay Patrushev declared that Ukraine and Russia may be divided at the present moment – the inhabitants of the two countries are still one people. Also, Deputy of the State Duma Natal’ya Poklonskaya states: “Decent, honest, sincere and religious people understand that the conflict is artificial, and that the conflict is created in order to divide the people of Ukraine and Russia. But we are one people”. Furthermore, to make her argument more convincing, Poklonskaya points at their shared history: Vladimir the Great, she says, baptized “us” in the same baptismal font.

The Rostov-on-Don edition of the Komsomol'skaya Pravda also publishes an article full with “fraternal” comments on the Ukrainians. This picture for instance, at the top of the article, is significant. 

Protesters carry a banner reading, “Odessa (mother), Rostov (father). We are with you.”

The text on the banner says: “Odessa (mother), Rostov (father). We are with you.” Thus, this is a clear-cut example of over-‘intimatizing’ the relations with Ukraine, using metaphors of brotherhood and family. Moreover, in the upper-left corner of this picture, one sees another banner that states, “Russia does not abandon its own” (italics mine). This statement is fully in line with what may be called the ‘family narrative’: it declares that Russia views Ukrainians as “свои” (its own/its own people); in other words, Ukrainians are presented as very much part of the Russian identity.

Also Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox church, points out the similarities between Russians and Ukrainians. He states: “Russians and Ukrainians were one people, who by force of circumstances were separated into different houses. We are still people who are united by a single faith, a single history and common values”. Thus, history often appears to be used as an argument for the similarity between Ukraine and Russia.

By the same token, the old idea of Kiev as ‘the mother of all Russian cities’ is still evoked today. President Putin proclaims: “We are one with the Ukrainian people. Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities. We cannot be without each other”. This is yet another example of  over-‘intimatizing’ the relations with Ukraine. Putin’s statement – we cannot be without each other – is obviously not a neutral way of speaking for a politician. Rather, it is an utterance that two lovers would make about each other.

The title of this article is telling: “Russia and Ukraine will become a great holy Rus’ once again”. Thus, the title of this article suggests that Ukraine and Russia should become part of an entity in which the two countries exist next to each other as part of a larger whole. A Komsomol’skaya Pravda article even asserts that Russians and Ukrainians have the same DNA. The article presents the results of an allegedly serious research and draws the conclusion that when it comes to DNA, “there are no distinctions between us and the Ukrainians. We are genetically one people”. This statement fits perfectly in what I called the family narrative; Russia and Ukraine, just like twins, share the same DNA.

Ukraine, the lesser nation: weak, insane, and backward

Another very common narrative about Ukraine is that Ukraine is a backward country; Ukraine and the Ukrainians are ridiculed in every possible way., for instance, devotes an article to a Ukrainian tourist that tried to steal as much as possible from his Egyptian hotel: soap, shampoo, “a mountain of dishes”, several bags of food and the bidet faucet. The stolen goods are called “souvenirs,” and the Ukrainian is described with the adjective хозяйственный (economic).

An article on Komsomol'skaya Pravda’s website is full of sarcasm and Ukraine is constantly being mocked. The article starts with stating that currently in Ukraine – or the most “free” country in the world, as the author sarcastically calls Ukraine (inverted commas not mine) – teachers are being arrested for secretly supporting Russia. As stated in the article, teachers are also accused for having sympathy for the USSR and for publishing caricatures of Poroshenko. Thus, by pointing at how limited freedom of thought is, Ukraine is portrayed as a backward country. Subsequently, the Komsomol'skaya Pravda article predicts the future of Ukraine: “Nezalezhnaya set off to a bright European future along the lines of “purges” and “mass denunciations”. Нezalezhnaya, as Ukraine is called here, is derived from the Ukrainian word for independent. Russian media frequently use the word Нezalezhnaya to make a mockery of Ukrainian independence.

The word нezalezhnaya often refers to the problems Ukraine has as an independent state. Another Komsomol'skaya Pravda article, for instance, headlines with “What awaits нezalezhnaya in the year 2017,” followed by a picture of a tramp, begging in the snow for money. The message should be clear; there is only doom and gloom in the offing. The article furthermore declares that “in the 25 years of its independent existence, Ukraine managed to lose and, in fact, destroy its industrial base, and also proved unable to become an agrarian power”. Ukraine as an independent country is presented as a hopeless case. The suggestion is raised, I argue, that this level of hardship in Ukraine is the consequence of its divorce from Russia, or, rather, the independence of Ukraine reveals the country’s backwardness.

Komsomol'skaya Pravda’s picture of Ukraine in 2017

Ukrainians are also ridiculed by presenting them as mentally disturbed. In a column for Izvestiya, Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin speaks of a “semi-delirium” (полубред) in which the Ukrainians have contemplated how Russia has appropriated Ukrainian statehood and culture in the past. In addition, at another point in the text, Prilepin argues that the mass behaviour of the Ukrainians could be described “in medical terms” – subsequently, he describes a person who is unstoppable for a while, due to exceptional rage.

On, Ukrainians are represented in a similar vein. A Life author claims that, due to the Ukrainian crisis, Ukrainians are joining sects en masse. A picture of people – half in trance, eyes and hands lifted upwards – is placed at the top of the article. According to the author, the number of sects is growing every day, and “millions of Ukrainians have already turned to another faith.”

A statement by actor and artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre Oleg Tabakov summarizes this narrative that depicts Ukraine as ‘the lesser nation’: “They [the Ukrainians] are not very enlightened.”

Ukraine as a nazi, fascist, or Banderovskiy state

Russian media tend to represent Ukrainians as fascists; it is another rather prevalent Russian narrative of Ukraine. I already paraphrased former head of the FSB Nikolay Patrushev, who stated that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. Patrushev declares, nonetheless, as it is written in the same article, that in Ukraine an extreme right-wing nationalist ideology is gaining strength, “as once in fascist Germany.”

The fascism narrative is once again often propagated by referring to the Ukrainians as Banderovtsy. The contemporary Ukrainian authorities are referred to as Banderovtsy; writes about the “[…] Banderovtsy from the Kiev junta regime” and Ukraine is called a “neo-fascist state”. The author of an Izvestiya column states that neo-Nazis in balaclavas seized power after the Euromaidan, and that in contemporary Ukraine there is a “neobanderovskiy dictatorship in the public consciousness.” The author of another Izvestiya column – dedicated to the outcomes of 25 years of Ukrainian independence – speaks of a “gradual legalization of different forms of radical nationalist ideology, often openly of neo-Nazi and neobanderovskiy stamp.” Furthermore, he states that “Banderovtsy came out of the underground” and have become legal in the political structures of Kiev.

To provide another example, Komsomol'skaya Pravda published a relatively long interview-article with the title “Why are they condoning Bandera in Ukraine?”. The interviewer indirectly states that the Maidan protesters are Banderovtsy – he speaks of “The contemporary Banderovtsy, who are sitting on the Maidan […]” Also, the interviewer asks if Russia has raised the question about the “actual revival of Nazism on the territory of Western Ukraine.” Historian Aleksandr Dyukov, the interviewee of this article, corrects him by saying that it is not correct to speak of a revival of Nazism; rather, Dyokov observes an ideology that relates to fascism. However, he immediately adds to this that the organization World Without Nazism (founded by the Kremlin-connected businessman Boris Spiegel, BD) recently published a thick volume about fascist threats in the world, in which it is stated – quite rightly, according to Dyokov – that Ukraine is exposed to this danger.

Ukraine is similar but not equal to Russia

The current Ukrainian-Russian conflict did not fundamentally alter the Russian representations of Ukrainians. In this article, I have distinguished what I consider to be the three most common contemporary Russian images of Ukraine.

Firstly, nowadays Ukrainians are still portrayed as part of the Russian nation; however, while in the past this perception was often implicit, today it is very explicitly mentioned; presenting the Ukrainians and the Russians as the same people seems an important point one wants to make. Secondly, and paradoxically: Russian online newspapers depict Ukrainians as idiots, as uncivilized and crazy – or even insane – people, which is reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Russian image of Ukrainians as ignorant and clownish characters. Also, Ukraine is portrayed as a weak state that needs support from external factors in order to cope with their problems and difficulties. Thirdly, authors of Russian online media that I have looked at tend to represent Ukraine as a neo-Nazi or fascist state, with Banderovtsy in power. Again, this way of portraying Ukraine is not new; a tradition is reinforced.

I see here an analogy to the Soviet situation in which the image of the Banderovtsy was employed to counteract Ukrainian independence movements; since nowadays a part of Ukraine attempts to move away from the Russian sphere of influence, it may be argued that the image of Banderovtsy is again used in order to stop this development. This fascist narrative, in combination with the family narrative, results in a convincing message: Ukraine belongs to Russia, the more stable ‘big brother’.

Sometimes there exists a thin line between the different images of Ukraine. An author can, as we saw in this article, portray Ukraine as a fascist state and at the same time as a part of the Russian nation. Also the family narrative – that presents Ukraine as part of ‘we’ – and the image of Ukraine as a lesser nation – that presents Ukraine as the Other – are not as opposed as they seem at first glance. The two narratives do not necessarily exclude each other: Ukraine may be presented as Russia’s brother, but it is a less successful little brother, not on an equal level with Russia.

It is the common thread that runs through the history of Russian representations of Ukraine. Admittedly, one may find articles in which one of the three common narratives on Ukraine is explicitly undermined. However, just like in the past, also today the different narratives usually do not exclude each other; the narratives intertwine, or they exist next to each other.

Boris Duregger (1991) studied Slavonic Studies at the University of Amsterdam and finished his studies with this master's thesis for Leiden University. Duregger was trainee at the Wiardi Beckmanstichting, a think-tank linked to the Dutch social-democratic party PvdA. Boris is also professional musician and plays keyboard in the bands De Nachtdienst and Benjamin Fro.

This is a summary. Here the complete thesis of Boris Duregger.