Ukraine’s Constitutional Identity vs “Russian World”

Ukraine's Constitutional Identity vs “Russian World”

In their Position on Article 7 of the Law on Education submitted to the Venice Commission, the Ukrainian authorities specifically referred to the notion of the “Russian World” as a tool that shaped Russia’s policies towards post-Maidan Ukraine. Our expert Dr. Kiryl Kascian discusses the concept of the “Russian World” and its reciprocation with the constitutional identity of Ukraine.

New Law on Education as a de-Russification tool

In its Position on Article 7 of the Law on Education submitted to the Venice Commission, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine inter alia emphasized that the political struggle camouflaged by the need to “preserve the national accord” was a significant obstacle for the implementation of the constitution norms on the language of education. The Ukrainian authorities argued that “[t]his policy was used by the Russian Federation as a motive for aggression against Ukraine with the slogan of preserving the “Russian World” (“Russkii mir”), by which the Russian authorities understood all the territories where the Russian language dominated”.[1] Thus, the Ukrainian officials link the need to change the language policies in the sphere of education with the security domain and see it as a threat of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.[2]

Among various possible interpretations of this position of the Ukrainian authorities, three issues should be underlined. Firstly, the attribution of the linguistic factor to the security domain in Ukraine was triggered by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Secondly, these endeavors in the educational sphere primarily target the Russian language because of its wide usage and specific legal status among other minority languages of Ukraine. Thirdly, the approach of the Ukrainian authorities establishes a direct link between ethnicity and language, i.e. schools with the Russian language of instruction are seen not as national minority schools but as “an element of the continued russification of Ukraine”.[3]

The reference to the concept of the “Russian World” in the document submitted by the Ukrainian authorities to the Venice Commission produces two questions. Firstly, what is “Russian World” according to the Russian officials? Secondly, how it affects the constitutional identity of Ukraine?

What is the “Russian World”?

Actually, one can hardly find a piece of the Russian legislation that sets up a clear definition of the “Russian World”. Therefore, it is merely a hybrid of a sociocultural concept with a political doctrine, embodied in the public speeches and texts of the Russian officials, clergy and intellectuals.

While “searching” for the “spiritual ties” back in 2012, Vladimir Putin suggested “to tie together the historical epochs and return to the understanding of the simple truth that Russia did not emerged in 1917 or even in 1991, that it has a single, indissoluble millennial history upon which we find inner strength and sense of national development”.[4] Moreover, Putin’s further thesis on Russians as the biggest divided nation in the world as a result of the USSR collapse[5], echoes in his perception of the “Russian World” concept, as a trans-national and multiethnic community united by Russian as “the language of a historical fraternity of peoples” and “international communication”, which preserves “the living space for the many millions of people in the Russian-speaking world, a community that goes far beyond Russia itself”.[6] In his so-called “Crimean speech” on March 18, 2014, Putin called Kyiv “the mother of Russian cities” and emphasized that the baptism of Prince Vladimir[7] in Khersones “predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”.[8]

The approach of the Russian Orthodox Church largely resembles that of the Kremlin. Its Partiarch Kirill (Vladimir Gundiaev) perceives the Russian world as a system of values “the entire East Slavic civilization […] created through baptism in the Dnieper river”[9]. This and other speeches of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church reveal two trends. First, Gundiaev refers to a number of historical personalities (Prince Vladimir) and geographical objects (the Dnieper river in Kyiv) which form the ideological core of the Russian official historical canon. Second, he emphasizes the central role of the Orthodox Church in maintaining, developing and preserving this allegedly common origins of Russians and Ukrainians. Thus, the activities of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church are complementary, as they act in parallel in the secular and religious domains. Their interpretation of history, its key dates and events is unambiguously Russo-centric.

Ukraine’s constitutional identity: roots and capacities

The Ukrainian constitution was adopted in 1996. It contains a concise formulation of the country’s historical statehood which is “based on the centuries-old history of Ukrainian state-building and on the right to self-determination realized by the Ukrainian nation.” However, the constitution does not specifically refer to the historical entities which had previously existed on the territory of today’s Ukraine. At the same time, this formulation implies that Ukraine emerged much earlier that in 1917 when the first modern Ukrainian statehood (the Ukrainian National Republic) was proclaimed.

This political entity was also the first one which used the name “Ukraine.” Contrary to the constitutional acts of reinstated Belarus or Lithuania[10], the UNR documents neither contained at least indirect references to the previous statehoods on the territory of Ukraine, nor provided their evaluations in terms of the “own-foreign” dichotomy. These acts spoke only about the “rebirth of Ukraine’s freedom” encarnated as the UNR and viewed this entity as “an old dream of the fathers which came true”.[11] This implies that the adherence of the Ukrainian lands to the Russian Empire could be interpreted as a foreign domination, although this accentuation was not as significant as, for instance, in case of Belarus. Furthermore, a somewhat similar vision of the Russian Empire can be found in the Ukrainian SSR constitution of 1937.

Apart of the Ukrainian constitution, there are only a few enactments which contain specific assessment of the nature of the ancient historical entities on the territory of today’s Ukraine.[12] For instance, the presidential Decree No. 107 (2015) is devoted to the commemoration of Prince Volodymyr the Great. The document depicts him as “a prominent statesman and politician, prince of Kyiv, the founder of medieval European state – Ukraine-Rus”.[13] Thus, the Ukrainian version of the statehood origins largely resembles that of the Russian one as it refers to the same geographical objects (Kyiv) and personalities (Prince Vladimir). Issued by the post-Maidan authorities, this decree emphasizes the European nature of that ancient statehood and therefore complies with the pro-European political course of the country.

The aforementioned indicators depict Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities” and root the alleged beginnings of the “Russian World” from Prince Vladimir and “baptism in the Dnieper river”. Respectively, they point out to the conflicting Russian-Ukrainian historical narratives in terms of statehood origins of the two countries. The clash of approaches between Ukrainian and Russian interpretations concerns the key historical personalities and geographical objects which form the ideological core of the Russian official historical canon and are at least equally important for the official Ukrainian interpretation of history. Therefore, it emphasizes the central role of Ukraine in the “sacred geography” of the “Russian World” doctrine which could produce different effects in terms of distinguishing between “us” and “them” in these two countries. Equally, it provides Ukrainian authorities with additional lines of reasoning of their nationalization policies that affect numerous ethnic groups residing in the country.


[1] Position on Article 7 of the Law on Education submitted by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, CDL-REF(2017)051,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Putin: v Rossii defitsit dukhovnykh skrep,, 12/12/2012,
[5] Address by President of the Russian Federation, 18/03/2014,
[6] Address by President of the Russian Federation to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, 26/04/2007,
[7] The Ukrainian form of his name is Volodymyr.
[8] Address by President of the Russian Federation, op. cit., note 5 above.
[9] Slovo Sviateyshego Patriarkha Kirilla na V Vsemirnom kongresse sootechestvennikov, prozhivayushchikh za rubezhom, 05/11/2015,
[10] K. Kaścian. ‘Die Litauische Verfassung und die Auslegung des Begriffs „Volk“ in historischer Perspektive’. Osteuropa-Recht, 5 (2008), pp. 290-297; K. Kaścian. ‘Nation and Statehood in the Constitutional Acts of the Belarusian People’s Republic’, in: S. Doucette (ed.). Returning to Europe: Belarus Past and Future. Łazarski University Publishing House, Warsaw, 2011, pp. 109-115.
[11]  Third Universal of the Central Council of Ukraine,
[12] See also: O. Hrytsenko. Prezydenty i pam’yat. Polityka pam’yati prezydentiv Ukrayiny (1994-2014): pidgruntya, poslannya, realizatsiya, rezultaty. Kyiv: K.I.S., 2017.
[13] Decree of the President of Ukraine, No. 107/2015, 25/02/2015,

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