5 facts about “Novorossiya” you won’t learn in a Russian history class

A map of Ukraine circa 1918-1928 with Ukrainian People’s Republic’s claims in pink and the border of Soviet Ukraine in 1928 in red. Notice the correspondence with the 1897 Ukrainian population map above. 

Featured, Op-ed

Article by: Kirill Mikhailov

This being said, history presents a few problems with this Novorossiya narrative that has already cost thousands of Ukrainian and an untold number of Russian lives.

1. Ukrainians colonized Novorossiya long before Russia

According to likbez.org.ua (a joint project of scholars from the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory and the National Academy of Science, along with the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, which, according to Ukraine Today, seeks to disprove myths about Ukrainian history spread by Russian propaganda), Slavic colonization of the territories of the modern Ukrainian South-East started back in the 16th century when Ukrainian Kozak strongholds and villages emerged in the Lower Dnipro region. Then Crimean Tatar territories became a refuge after failed Ukrainian rebellions against Polish and later Russian administration. Ukrainians also fled south from the Russian-aligned Hetmanate to escape the fate of serfdom, where they were joined by Christian migrants from the Ottoman Empire and German colonists. The original Novorossiya Governorship was made by the Russian Empire’s administration on the basis of Kozak territories in 1764, before the Russo-Turkish wars that established Russian control over the rest of the region. Ukrainian Black Sea Cossacks played a crucial part in these Russian wars, their numbers being as large as 42 thousand men. These newly established colonial cities of a “New Russia,” including the booming port of Odesa, were built by Ukrainian hands.

2. Novorossiya’s population has always been mostly Ukrainian-speaking

Disproving the myth of a ‘Russian-speaking southeast’ requires perhaps only one picture, illustrating the results of the Russian Empire’s 1897 census. This census did not take into account ethnicity, but rather language. According to the then-dominant theory by Russian elites, the Russian people were divided into Velikorossy (“Great Russians”, now known as simply Russians), Belorussy (“White Russians”, now Belarusians) and Malorossy (“Little Russians”, now Ukrainians). The census results indicated that the Ukrainian language was dominant in the territories of roughly modern Ukraine, including Novorossiya, Russian being a minority in the region:


Distribution of main peoples of European Russia 1 – Russians in general, 2 – Velikorossy, 3- Malorossy, 4 – Belorussy

According to the census, Ukrainians formed as much as 66% of the Southeast’s ethnic composition, while Russians comprised only 20%. Various Soviet censuses mirror these numbers (although based on ethnicity, not language); the latest 2001 census in independent Ukraine yielded a figure of 67.8%, with Russians accounting for 26.8%.

It should be noted, however, that in 1897 major cities in “New Russia” held a significant Russian majority, which is attributed to the Russian Empire’s policies of Russification through urbanization and education, as well as colonial migration which did not extend to the rural countryside where the majority of the population resided. This disturbing trend continues to this day, with primary schools in Crimea banning Ukrainian-language curriculum.

3. During the Civil War of 1917-1922, all Ukrainian governments viewed Novorossiya as part of Ukraine

The Russian Empire had no ethnic administrative subdivisions (as opposed to the USSR’s constituent national republics), so as national movements arose after the toppling of the Tsar in 1917, drawing the borders of emerging autonomies/independent states became tricky. This has led “Novorossiya” revisionists to declare that Bolsheviks had ‘arbitrarily drawn Ukraine’s south-eastern border to include the allegedly Russian regions.’ However, in reality, despite a multitude of short-lived “republics” springing up on Ukrainian territory in the chaos of the civil war (most notably in Donbas and Odesa), both the freshly-formed Ukrainian National Republic and the Bolshevik-run state drew Ukrainian borders on ethnic boundaries, disagreeing mostly in who and how should govern this overlapping, mutually claimed territory.

A map of Ukraine circa 1918-1928 with Ukrainian People’s Republic’s claims in pink and the border of Soviet Ukraine in 1928 in red. Notice the correspondence with the 1897 Ukrainian population map above.

A map of Ukraine circa 1918-1928 with Ukrainian People’s Republic’s claims in pink and the border of Soviet Ukraine in 1928 in red. Notice the correspondence with the 1897 Ukrainian population map above.

The Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic which claimed parts of Novorossiya including modern Donbas distinguished itself from Ukraine on ideological rather than ethnic principles, and, unlike the modern “republics” of Eastern Ukraine, was never supported by the Kremlin and promptly integrated into Soviet Ukraine. While Lenin did want Ukraine under Bolshevik control (which led to numerous Soviet atrocities in Ukraine throughout the years, hence the current toppling of Lenin’s statues), he never disputed the fact that Novorossiya was Ukrainian territory.

4. The South-East overwhelmingly voted for Ukraine’s Independence from the Soviet Union

In 1991, 70 years after the Civil War, prompted by a failed coup in Moscow aimed at restoring the Communist Party’s control over the collapsing USSR, Ukraine’s government issued a declaration of independence on August 24 – a day now widely celebrated as Ukraine’s Independence Day. On December 1 of the same year this declaration was supported at a referendum by an overwhelming majority of 92% (with a turnout of 84%). Unlike many other divided Ukrainian elections, however, the majority held throughout the country’s regions, with Luhansk and Donetsk giving 83% in favor of independence (the lowest in continental Ukraine). Even in the Russian-majority Crimea independence won, if only by a margin of several percent (and with a turnout of mere 60%).


Map of support of Ukrainian independence in the 1991 referendum

This was the historical choice of the so-called “Novorossiya.” But recently it had to make another.

5. The pro-Russian protests in the South-East were nothing like Euromaidan

The Russian (and pro-Russian) media tend to portray pro-Russian protests that swept over south-eastern Ukraine this spring in the wake of the fall of President Yanukovych as mirroring the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv, which they tend to present as an uprising of Western Ukrainian “Nazi” radicals. While the former claim may hold somewhat true in describing the early days of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics (which were restricted to their capitals and whose tire barricades were a form of cargo cult blindly copying Maidan tactics), in other regions claimed to be part of “Novorossiya” the situation was radically different. As Euromaidan Press’s Matthew Babiak pointed out, in no region beyond Donbas did the protests’ turnout rise to 10 000, which is astonishingly low compared to Kyiv, where hundreds of thousands protesters turned up at one point last December. What is even more remarkable, in many regions pro-Ukrainian protests surpassed the pro-Russian ones in number, going over the benchmark 10 000 in cities like Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa. Moreover, at no point did the pro-Russians manage to pull off an occupation on the scale of even Donetsk and Luhansk, where it eventually had to be propped by Russian weapons, mercenaries, and special forces. A recent Russian independent poll has suggested that south-eastern Ukraine is still not eager to join their brethren in Russia – or “New Russia,” for that matter. To 43%, Novorossiya was, at best, an alien concept, while 4% described it as a simply an archaic, historical term.

Probably it would be better for everyone involved if Novorossiya stayed just that.

Edited by: Mat Babiak

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  1. Avatar Michel Cloarec says:

    There is not much in russian history books which has to do with reality.
    Even today, the russians believe that russia did save Europa from Nazism ww2
    That why they think they have right to Europa and make a mess of everything.
    Pity for them to be disapointed but we do not believe in their micmac à la Stalin.

  2. Avatar MyNameIsOne says:

    It has been said that “in Russia not even the past is a sure thing.”

  3. Avatar Dirk Smith says:

    Not much has changed since 1919 in Russia.

  4. Avatar Danny Smith says:

    part of the problem is that stalin and co made such a good job of writing their version of history books and force feeding it to everyone in the schools.. many now do not know better believing all the lies of history written in their school books.

    Even Putin is copying this, having new history books with the “Correct” version of history according to him to be taught in the schools and brain wash their children

    1. Avatar LorCanada says:

      Yes, it is deplorable how manipulating Putin has become. Soon he will have the history books showing him as the great Saviour of the Empire and wearing a jewelled crown of a new “Tsar” chosen by God’s will, no less.

  5. Avatar sandy miller says:

    I’ve had my genetics tested in USA. I know that my Ukrainian roots in eastern Ukraine go back hundreds of years. My great, great grandparents were cossacks. My grandparents had property some of their land etc., taken away from them in 1921 and completely confiscated in 1932 and forced into collectivision. My grandfather was sent to Sibera for three years when he returned in 1932/33 he starved to death. Many in our family died in 1917/21, again in 1932/33 and the rest in 1941/45. I was always told we were Ukrainian and were Ukrainian for hundreds of years.

  6. Avatar Mat says:

    Just words though, Ukraine couldnt even have its own bolshevik/communist party before it was purged and subordinated to Moscow

  7. Avatar Rick says:

    Excellent article Matt, you have done a great job exposing many Putinist-Stalinist lies here. Its interesting that Russia, the largest country in the world with a huge portion of the globe’s resources and arable land, would seek to steal half of a much smaller country like Ukraine. Its because Putin and his cronies are so corrupt and incompetent that they can’t develop their country to first world status, so they resort to imperialism and aggression against the little countries that surround them. Whatever Russia accuses other countries of, like the US and Germany, Russia is is also guilt of, and much more so. Free of Russian domination, Ukraine will end being one of the wealthiest and most successful in Europe.

  8. Avatar Rick says:

    Russia is over 17,000,000 square km, while Ukraine is only about 600,000 sq km! Why does a massive country like Russia need more land, at the expense of a smaller country like Ukraine! If the ethnic Russians of Donbass want to live in a country ruled by Vladimir Putin, all they have to do is immigrate across the border to Russia. They don’t have to steal half of Ukraine.

    1. Avatar Demi Boone says:

      Because the Ukraine Region is Russian. Why does a minority of Nationalists who mainly fought with Hitler have the right to say now that we have all of this land put together by Russia we want to leave. Many strove for Independence but a very few want to steer the Country away from Russia.

    2. Avatar Quartermaster says:

      As pointed out in the article, the Ukrainian people spoke loudly in the independence referendum. even in “New Russia” the vote went overwhelmingly for independence. The rebels in the Donbas would have been crushed if Putin had not ordered the invasion.

  9. Avatar Demi Boone says:

    I believe it is the term ‘Ukraine’ that is archaic, historical term. Looking at an Administrative map of Imperial Russia in 1916 shows the many divisions that existed in the Ukraine REGION other wise known as The Borderlands not only by Russia and Poland but on any map of that period. Lenin et.al. lumped together a Ukraine SSR for the Administrative convenience of the USSR as a whole. Lenin then attached Novoanrussyia to this lump for their Economic benefit. Stalin assigned other areas to it because it was in the vicinity. These areas were never meant to be taken away and the earlier Nationalist movement you refer to was crushed and in effect told that.