A man visits the so-called 'Alley of Heroes' at the Lisove cemetery in Kyiv, Ukraine, 23 April 2023.
© EPA-EFE/OLEG PETRASYUK   |   A man visits the so-called 'Alley of Heroes' at the Lisove cemetery in Kyiv, Ukraine, 23 April 2023.

Russia speaks openly about the eradication of the Ukrainian nation

Susține jurnalismul independent

The concept of “deukrainization” has been increasingly used to replaced “denazification”, one of the original objectives at the start of the war, and is virtually tantamount to the eradication of Ukrainian identity

The Ukrainian language, seen as a threat to Russia in “post-Ukraine”

No one knows if Russia will succeed in occupying the whole of Ukraine or just parts of it, columnist Rotislav Ishchenko writes for Ukraina.ru, a publication owned by the government-owned Russia Today media outlet. Ishchenko suggests the Kremlin should launch a deukrainization of each occupied region, one at a time. The article clearly states that the Ukrainian languages poses a threat to maintaining Russia’s influence in Ukraine. All Ukrainian language speakers are considered potential extremists and terrorists. The Russian journalist writes that Ukraine must be broken down into separate regions and gradually integrated into Russia. If any Ukrainian region is allowed to preserve its autonomy, it will start asking for Ukrainian-language schools, something which must never be allowed.

“If Ukraine endures as a separate political entity (albeit as an autonomous region of Russia), it will pass unitary linguistic regulations, which means Ukrainian speakers will be needed in this autonomous region. As a result, new generations of writers, poets, nationalist activists and artists will appear, which will lay the foundations for a Banderovist revival. This is actually what happened in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine”, Rotislav Ishchenko writes. The Russian author basically endorses a thesis we have actually seen in other articles carried by Russian media, according to which “deukrainization” must be seen as a process of forced Russification and eradication of the Ukrainian language.

It’s worth noting that starting this summer, Russian publications started using a number of new propaganda phrases, such as “post-Ukraine” or “the remnants of Ukraine”. The dismemberment of Ukraine or the elimination of the Ukrainian language from the public sphere must be carried out in “post-Ukraine”, namely in the period after the war, seen as a time when Russia basks in the glory of having prevailed over the Western-backed Ukrainian “Nazism”. The plan envisaged by Russian propagandists is the following: Russia will do everything in its power to do away with Ukraine’s “Nazi” political leaders, manipulated and encouraged by the West, then it will come to the aid of Ukrainian citizens abandoned by these leaders! The period following the disappearance of the Ukrainian state is called post-Ukraine and will be marked by systematic deukrainization. In the meantime, this process will unfold separately, in each annexed region. In fact, the articles focus on the need to deport Ukrainian children, ban Ukrainian-language teaching in schools and organize actions to undermine the Ukrainian people’s resistance against the Russian occupation.

“Deukrainization” – a new term for “denazification”

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 had two main objectives: removing an alleged NATO threat outside Russia’s borders and the “denazification” of Ukraine. The narrative about Ukraine being controlled by Nazis / fascists did not appear around the 2022 invasion, but had been used as early as the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas in 2014, when the Russian Federation resorted to the so-called “little green men”. Even before this first invasion, the Russian media referred to Ukrainian fascism in connection to the Euromaidan protests, which ousted Putin’s ally in Kyiv, Viktor Yanukovych.

On April 4, 2022, RIA Novosti for the first time wrote that the denazification of Ukraine cannot be achieved without its deukrainization, a process seen as the rejection of the population’s “artificial” ethnic identity in the “historical territories of Little Russia and Novorossiya”. This ethnic and linguistic identity had been allegedly encouraged in the Soviet period, Ria Novosti further writes – a false argument that disregards the great persecution that the Ukrainian people and other nations of the former USSR (Chechens, Tatars, Romanians, etc.) endured. This persecution escalated into genocide during the Holodomor. Moreover, the policies promoting an artificial Ukrainian identity have in the last decades been financed by the West, the author further claims. The press article, which has been widely promoted since spring of last year, suggests that pro-Kremlin propaganda sees Ukrainization as tantamount to Nazification, whereas denazification is tantamount to deukrainization. The Ukrainian language is considered a threat to Russia’s efforts to keep Ukraine in its sphere of geopolitical influence. Whatever goes against Moscow’s plans in Ukraine or any other state from the former Soviet Empire is considered Nazi and extremely dangerous.

Around the same period, pro-Russian media in Crimea, as well as the TASS news agency in Moscow, wrote that the term ‘Ukraine’ will be banned in the future, because it is a symbol of Nazism and radicalism. Besides, this name is allegedly “an invention of the Polish secret services” with the purpose of dividing the Russian world. Most anti-Ukrainian narratives disseminated in the first phase of the invasion were targeted against the Ukrainian identity, culture and language as well as any other nationalist expressions of the Ukrainian people in the context of the Russian military invasion.

As Russia’s regular troops were withdrawing from the Kyiv region in spring last year, the narrative about the deukrainization of Ukraine was discarded for a while.

“Deukrainization” and Putin’s fear of a European Ukraine

In general terms, deukrainization theses echo the ideological guidelines drawn out by Vladimir Putin in his article, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published in the spring of 2021 on the Kremlin’s website. To Vladimir Putin, a European Ukraine is an “anti-Russia” which must be fought. Putin challenged the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, calling the Ukrainian people “Little Russians” that don’t have a historical claim to a country other than Russia. Also in this article, the Russian president wrote that present-day Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era, having been created on the backbone of historical Russia.

Putin accused the West of allegedly turning Ukraine into an “anti-Russia”, fueling an atmosphere of terror and endorsing “an aggressive neo-Nazi rhetoric”.

In fact, Ukraine is not a Soviet invention, as Putin claims. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was forced into creating a Socialist Republic for the Ukrainian people, which provided them with a guarantee that the social and economic transformations would allow them to preserve their linguistic identity. The Bolsheviks feared the power of various nationalist ideologies in the USSR after the civil war, so in 1923 they passed the doctrine of the “indigenization” of power in the newly created republics, whereby the latter were provided with cultural autonomy in addition to complete control over their political ideology. The doctrine was however abandoned once the nationalists were appeased, and what followed were decades of Russification and persecution of the USSR’s national minorities, including the Ukrainian people.

The targets of “deukrainization”: children, toponyms and political symbols

One of the deukrainization methods used in the context of the war was the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russian territory with the goal of educating them in the spirit of the Russian World. In early May 2023, the OSCE published a report according to which a large number of Ukrainian children were deported to Russia. The OSCE said Russia violated the rights of Ukrainian children who were illegally transported to Russian territories, adding that this type of action can be labeled a war crime. 45 OSCE Member States called for an investigation into Ukrainian children deportations. One Moscow official claimed 700,000 Ukrainian children were now in Russia, a number significantly higher than the estimates of Ukrainian authorities, who believed a maximum of 30,000 children had been taken to Russia. According to Grigory Karasin, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, these children sought refuge from the explosions and shelling in conflict areas in Ukraine.

Once in Russia, children are deukrainized in summer schools, in schools or by being integrated into Russian families. According to investigations conducted by Kyiv journalists, Russian authorities tell these children their parents have abandoned them or are no longer alive. They are denied access to phones or information. Teenagers are told  Ukraine no longer exists as a state and that Russian will be the language spoken everywhere in the world in the future.

In Russian-held territories of Ukraine, occupation authorities have started to re-educate Ukrainian children by sacking teachers who refuse to teach the Russian curricula. “In time, education according to the Russian curricula and values turns pupils into victims of Kremlin propaganda”, Oksana Zabolotna, the president of the Ukrainian Association of Education Researchers said.

In most regions occupied by Russia, the Soviet names of streets have been restored. A series of toponyms were changed to reflect Russian historiography. For instance, in the city of Mariupol, the names of the Central and Southern districts were changed to October and Illichivsk, in memory of events in the communist period. Furthermore, the fact that Moscow propaganda accuses the Bolsheviks of inventing Ukraine does not prevent the Russians to actually raise statues to honor the former Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.

Denazification and deukrainization as instruments of Russian expansion

Russian propaganda described denationalization and the crimes committed against Ukrainian citizens as victories of denazification. The invasion of a sovereign state, the deportation of minors and the widespread destruction are presented as acts of deukrainization, all necessary to save Russia. In fact, what Russia does, from its efforts to eradicate the Ukrainian identity, fostering extremist rhetoric to abducting children in order to Russify them, falls within the category of actions linked to genocide, according to international conventions.

Denazification seen as synonymous to deukrainization proves once again that the understanding of this concept is fundamentally different in Russia compared to what combating Nazism stands for in the West. Right now, deukrainization seems to be just one of the many possible denazification methods used by the Kremlin. Deukrainization is adapted to the changing realities in Ukraine, although it can equally be applied in other countries. Under the guise of denazification, Russia can undertake any criminal actions, military campaigns, propaganda and blackmail, whereas Moscow uses vague and ambiguous terms in order to justify its policies (and to conceal its war crimes), both in the eyes of the public at home, as well as before its external supporters.

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