“We’ve never been brothers”: Trauma and border fixing in Eastern Ukraine during the war

Published 25 March 2022 / By Anna Balazs

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The Maidan revolution and the outbreak of the Donbas war in 2014 has triggered consequential changes in the way Ukrainian citizens position themselves in a contested web of national, ethnic and political identifications. Studies from the early post-Maidan years identify a general tendency of growing identification with Ukraine as a civic nation among residents in all regions (Pop-Eleches and Robertson 2018), and a “bottom-up de-Russification”, especially in the Southern and Eastern regions with a historically high proportion of Russian-speaking population (Kulyk 2018). Doing my fieldwork in the years 2017-2018 in Mariupol, the city that is currently suffering the most devastating attacks from the Russian military, I saw such tendencies reaffirmed by the everyday practices of locals. Mariupol became a centre of military action in the spring of 2014, when the city was occupied by the Russian-backed separatist militia for two months, then taken back by the Ukrainian army. The temporary occupation presented a turning point for the city and the citizens as well. As the largest urban centre in the conflict zone that remained under Ukrainian control, Mariupol became a symbol of a Ukrainian Donbas, attracting attention and investment from the rest of Ukraine and abroad. As a result, facilitated by international development money and a new urban administration invested in the revitalization of the city, Mariupol has become an object of a comprehensive urban transformation which affected its public space, urban infrastructures, administrative services and cultural life. My research was looking at how Mariupol residents, influenced by the geopolitical restructuring in the region and the immediate experience of military violence, re-evaluate their relationship to the Soviet past and its urban legacy.

One of my observations concerned the crystallization of subjective boundaries with Russia among my interlocutors as a result of the conflict. Before 2014, the East Ukrainian region was an example of a post-Soviet borderland where newly created state borders did not correspond to previous social geographies of the place, therefore, locals usually did not attribute these borders with any major significance. The events of 2014 caused the previously irrelevant border to quickly materialize both in state legislation and ground level practices. In 2015, the Ukrainian government introduced a set of “decommunization laws” that included a ban on Soviet symbolism in public space, reconfiguring the toponymic and monumental landscape of the country and signalling a further distancing from the Soviet cultural heritage. In 2018, the new language law designated Ukrainian as the only state language of the country, reinforcing the symbolic boundaries with Russia in another sphere of public life. Facilitated in part by these top-down measures, cultural practices had shown gradual changes in the years following the start of war. Between 2015 and 2018 when I spent the most time in East Ukraine, more and more people who were raised as Russian-speakers switched to Ukrainian, at least in public settings like events or social media. Even in official contexts like the monthly public session of the city council, participants were following an official schedule written in mandatory Ukrainian, while freely switching between Russian and Ukrainian according to preference of each speaker. There were other, more subtle changes, like the shift in the practice of celebrating New Year’s Eve twice, first Moscow time, then one hour later Kyiv time. Several people told me that they stopped this dual tradition after 2014 and celebrated only Ukrainian New Year. But these changes were far from universal. What seemed to be much more significant was a shift in ethnonational identifications, influenced much less by legislative measures than a first-hand experience of the “Russian world” (Russky mir) during the time of the occupation. As a local activist told me in 2018:

We saw what the alternative could be. I saw the criminals without teeth, with prison tattoos who occupied the city hall. When we understood that we could lose our country, we started to identify more with it. And that was the beginning for us, when we started to think we are Ukrainians, and this is our country.

By using the term ethnonational identification, I recall Volodymyr Kulik who argued that the increasing identification with Ukraine entailed a change in what it means to be Ukrainian: in addition to ethnic dimensions, Ukrainian nationality obtained strong civic associations among the citizens. This was true in the case of my interlocutors too: a primarily negative identity aimed to distinguish themselves from the Russian other, being Ukrainian also represented an open-ended vision of the future, a freedom to experiment with new trajectories that they saw impossible within the rigid and authoritarian frameworks of citizenship presented by Putin’s Russia. Like several other aspects of social life in the period, subjective boundaries of nationality and belonging were in a constant state of flux, offering countless possible directions. Today, while we are facing just as many uncertainties regarding the future of Ukraine, only amongst much darker settings, the question of ethnonational identifications seems to be taking a far more definite shape. If there was any debate or room for manoeuvre regarding the role of Soviet and Russian connections in contemporary Ukraine, many of these conversations reached a cardinal resolution in the last few weeks. For example, despite the growing use of Ukrainian among my interlocutors, Russian language was a practical and negotiable aspect of everyday life in Mariupol and elsewhere, often independent of political identifications. Since the start of the war, I rarely saw any Russian-language posts on the social media of my Ukrainian friends. Even those who had always spoken Russian in the previous years, consciously switched to Ukrainian now, some of them explicitly mentioning that Russian is their mother tongue, but they are not able to use it anymore as it is “too triggering” for them after the events[1]. The same thing happened to kinship ties: many of my interlocutors have relatives in Russia, and they used to tell me about political disagreements in the past, but these disagreements were never heated enough to reach a breaking point. Now the same friends talk about shouting with their relatives on the phone, one of them publicly disowned a Russian aunt in a Facebook post, and many of them reiterated, “We are not brothers, we have never been.” The attitudes expressed towards the idea of Ukraine and its national community also became much more unambiguous and passionate compared to the previous years, a phenomenon often associated with wartime.

The intensification of everyday bordering practices suggests that the new, full-scale attack of Russia on Ukraine is finalizing some of the transformation processes that were initiated by the previous chapter of military invasion in the Donbas war. As the above examples show, all of these processes have been taking place in the last eight years, but only gradually and leaving plenty of space for negotiation. It is exactly the space of negotiation that seems to be annihilated by the war: the experience of violence is so dramatic that it does not leave much room for manoeuvre, nuance, or politeness. In many areas of everyday life and relationships, previously complex or indeterminate meanings are being replaced by fully traumatic associations. From the present moment of shock and a rapidly changing situation, a few questions emerge regarding the longer term horizons: how are the meanings associated with being Ukrainian going to change, once the extraordinary times of war give way to some form of post-war resolution? How, in any outcome of the war, will (less visible in the last years, nevertheless existing) pro-Russian sentiments evolve among the population who experienced the Russian military invasion? And finally, when Ukrainian people have time again to think about questions of art and urban heritage, will their current decolonizing narratives be as definite and irreversible as in the case of other connections with Russia?


About the author: Anna Balazs a Hungarian social anthropologist, currently a research associate at the University of Sheffield. Her PhD studied urban transformation and changing evaluations of the Soviet past in Eastern Ukraine during the Donbas war.

This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine



[1] This is surely not a universal phenomenon among all segments of the population, but very frequent among the young, socially active Ukrainians all over the country.