That blonde girl to the left of me? That is my best friend, Anna. We have been best friends ever since she arrived in my third grade class. My teacher had pulled me aside the week before and said, “Abby, we have a new classmate joining us next week, and I want her to sit next to you so that you can show her around and help her feel welcome.” Beaming with pride, of course I accepted, and as soon as little Anna stepped into our classroom, I excitedly patted on the chair of the desk next to mine and called out to her, “Hi! Over here!” Fast forward to over a decade later and even though, as she told me, “I thought you were totally weird at first,” we have been inseparable ever since.
So, what is different about Anna? She is one of seven children, with the oldest four (the fourth being her) having been born in Ukraine. As I grew up with her, I met her heavily accented parents and overheard her speaking to them on the phone multiple times–in Russian. Why not Ukrainian? This was my question to her as well. She explained, “In the part of Ukraine where my family is from, it is more common to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian, and I actually know more Russian because of that.” Wow…I thought. How is it possible and normal to just switch back and forth between the two like that? How do they even specifically know they are Ukrainian other than the fact that they are from Ukraine and not Russia? Being a native born American, I could not fathom how this worked.
Essentially, Anna and her family have a “mixed” identity in that they do not identify as uniquely Ukrainian. Instead, Russian language and culture has been a dominant force in the family’s life for as long as they can remember, and according to Valentina Feklyunina (2015, September 24) and her article regarding “soft power” in the Russia-Ukraine relationship, this is no coincidence. In attempts to solidify a definition of “the Russian world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin and other important political actors have concluded that Russians and Ukrainians have a shared past that unites them culturally, stating that they are joined together by Russian language, Russian culture, and Orthodox Christianity, among other deep-level factors (Feklyunina, 2015, September 24). Putting this into the context of Anna and her family, they speak Russian, practice many facets of Russian culture, and even attend an Orthodox Christian church, where sermons are given in Russian. Big surprise.
On an even deeper level, it is likely that Anna and her family share genetics that are shared across Russia and Ukraine, among other Eastern European countries. Given that Ukraine and Russia are geographic neighbors, it would not be surprising if parts of their DNA could be traced to both countries and others, contributing to the sociobiological nature of culture itself (The Pennsylvania State University, n.d.). This, therefore, lends itself to the evidence of Anna’s family’s blended identity as Ukrainian and/or Russian.
If you would ask her today, she would tell you that she identifies as Ukrainian, but she would also agree that “Ukrainian” no longer means that it is its own stand alone culture, but rather that for her and her family, “Ukrainian” means “born in Ukraine, but practicing Russian language, culture, and religion.
Feklyunina, V. (2015, September 24). Soft power and identity: Russia, Ukraine and the ‘Russian world(s).’ European Journal of International Relations, 22(4), 773–796. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066115601200
The Pennsylvania State University. (n.d.). Eastern Europe and Russian Population. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2008449/modules/items/27027028.