Recent events are focusing attention on Russia's Belgorod oblast, a region with a strong connection to Ukraine that I visited for doctoral dissertation research in 2005 and 2006. A few thoughts on Belgorod and another Russian region with links to Ukraine, Krasnodarskii Krai. 1/
Belgorod has an interesting past on the margins between the Muscovite state and historically Ukrainian regions. Its population has a mixed Russian and Ukrainian background. When I visited, I met a few people from rural backgrounds who spoke a Ukrainian dialect. 2/
I don't know how many people there are now; presumably many fewer than in the past. Belgorod was nearly included in modern Ukraine but was ultimately assigned to the Russian Federation, where (at least after the 1920s) Ukrainian was not taught in schools and was stigmatized. 3/
My research concerned the region's role in modern migration, rather than its Ukrainian past. Belgorod has a successful agricultural economy and relatively mild climate and has attracted people from all over Russia in the post-Soviet period. 4/
In retrospect, although I didn't reflect on this at the time, it's noteworthy how little discussion there seemed to be of this Ukrainian connection. Belgorod's Russian affiliation was treated as obvious and not a matter of investigation or inquiry. 5/
A somewhat similar pattern prevails in Krasnodarskii Krai, with the significant difference that the region's original inhabitants, the Circassian people, were largely massacred and ethnically cleansed during Russian imperial conquest in the 19th century. 6/
Most 19th-century settlers in Krasnodar came from what is now Ukraine. The region went through a similar process of attachment to Russia and linguistic Russification. Still, when I visited in the early 2000s, some people spoke a local dialect which I believe to be Ukrainian. 7/
Krasnodar is also a fertile agricultural region and contains major resort areas, including the famous Sochi. During my research, it was known for the chauvinistic policies of its regional government, directed against migrants of different backgrounds as well as Circassians. 8/
Recalling my visits to these two regions against the backdrop of the current invasion, a few thoughts occur to me. An obvious point is that the Ukrainian state has never made an issue of their Ukrainian connections and has no irredentist ambitions in relation to them. 9/
Nor has Ukraine demanded Russia reverse its official linguistic intolerance toward Ukrainian, or allow Ukraine a role in determining official language policy in these regions, or otherwise promote Ukrainian language culture in them. Ukraine has respected Russia's sovereignty. 10/
Ukraine has not called its border with Russia artificial, fake, or a historical mistake needing correction, although like all boundaries, it's ultimately political in origin. Indeed, these two regions could easily have been included in Soviet and then independent Ukraine. 11/
Given Ukraine's restraint and pragmatism about the loss of these regions to Russia, it's a shame much of the world accepts Russia's demands to participate in Ukraine's nation-building and laps up Kremlin narratives about the Russian language and Russian heritage in Ukraine. 12/
There seems to be a tacit assumption that the Ukrainian state is fragmented and problematic, whereas Russia is normal and presumably solid. In fact, of course, all political identities are fluid, evolving, and subject to the effects of official policies. 13/
This obvious point is actually much more recognized in Ukraine's messy but vibrant political pluralism than in Russia's insecure autocracy. One need only compare the bilingualism of Ukrainian society with Russia's suppression of Ukrainian identity in these two border regions. 14/
Anyone preparing to pontificate about Ukraine's regional or linguistic squabbles should really reflect that in fact they represent the results of freedom (even if it's inevitably imperfect) to disagree and be different. 15/
I actually entered Ukraine for the first time from Belgorod, visiting Kharkiv; I happened to arrive during an election campaign. Even then, I was amazed by the contrast between Kharkiv's boisterous disagreement and neighbouring Belgorod's buttoned-up political conformity. 16/
I have a lot of good memories of people I met in Belgorod and Krasnodar who were kind to me as a visiting graduate student. In a fictional democratic Russia, they would be free to explore the complex Ukrainian, Circassian, and Russian heritage of their respective regions. 17/
That's obviously not the reality we inhabit. But it would still be nice if western journalists and officials could pause from opining on how to manage Ukraine's alleged fragility and acknowledge that Russia is also a patchwork, only one held together by force and fear. 18/18
And PS:

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