This article considers efforts by the de facto authorities of non-governmental-controlled areas (NGCAs) of eastern Ukraine to shape regional identity from 2014 through 2021. It focuses on the paradoxes of top-down identity construction in an environment of mixed popular sentiments, fluid borders, and an uncertain political future. It argues that nascent identity construction projects in the NGCAs were often inconsistent and unclear, emphasizing different layers of “candidate Fatherlands,” be it the individual self-declared republics, the Donbas, Novorossiia, the Russian Federation, or a broader Russian civilization. While internally inconsistent and contradictive, however, the various initiatives often took antemurale political myths as a point of departure. These myths spin around the idea that regional inhabitants constitute a particular brand of “frontline Russians”—hardened warriors protecting a western outpost of the Russian civilization. Even as “candidate Fatherlands” came and went, this ideational core manifested not only in policy and aloof declarations, but also in a persistent growth of so-called military-patriotic education in the region. Militarized ideas of political identity became mainstream within the occupied areas—reflecting both influences from Russia and the ongoing war.

In 2015 the de facto authorities of the non-governmental-controlled areas (NGCAs) of the Donbas1 introduced a new “Concept of Patriotic Education” (DPR) and a law “On the System of Patriotic Education” (LPR), setting a baseline for patriotic education policy in the region. In line with Russian patriotic discourse, both documents stress the love for the Fatherland above all. A fundamental contradiction, however, emerged when the policy in practice rejected and even incited hatred towards Ukraine—the actual home country of the target groups (Roozenbeek 2019; Alexeev 2017). Instead of advocating love for Ukraine to make reunification easier, patriotic education advocated an identification with several “candidate Fatherlands”: Novorossiia, the Donbas, the individual self-declared republics, Russia. Without a definite plan, it appears, the identity policy was long left wavering between different ideas, the regimes unable to give their full devotion to any particular vision of what future nation they wanted to build. This article delves into this challenge of top-down patriotic education combined with political uncertainty, and how shifts in the geopolitical situation manifested in changing policy and implementation in the NGCAs of Ukraine from 2014 until the full-scale invasion of 2022.

In January 2023, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia by May 11, 2014, enjoyed a “decisive degree of influence” over the NGCAs and therefore has been judicially accountable for their actions since then. At the same time, it is clear that the occupied territories were not ruled like just another region of Russia. Also, the Russian proxies in the Donbas pursued an uneven policy of political belonging—unlike that of Crimea or Russia itself. Structured research on the NGCAs may therefore shed light on many aspects of the war, including regional agency as well as Russian strategic interests and methods of subversion. The case of the NGCAs shows how directly political leaders may try to change the identities and symbolic attachment of the local population, and also the challenges involved in inventing new traditions from the top down. The political views and sense of belonging of the inhabitants of occupied areas will be paramount to any future attempts of reintegration with the rest of Ukraine.

Finally, the article provides much wanted insight on how military patriotism is used to build attachment to Russia. Some have suggested that military-patriotic clubs are indeed used for promoting Russia’s malign influence on foreign countries, yet actual research on their footprint is lacking. A document apparently from the Kremlin Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation, leaked in 2022, indicates that promoting pro-Russian youth organizations and expanding Russian “cultural presence” is an integral part of Russia’s strategy toward its friendly neighbors. The document suggests that Russia indeed uses patriotic education to prepare the ground for integration with Russia, with the ultimate intention of future annexation (Mironyuk 2023). The above study indicates that the same playbook may have been used in the occupied parts of Donbas since at least 2019.

The next section of the article presents my methods of inquiry, and briefly considers the case of Donbas identity formation in light of similar regions. The article continues by discussing theoretical issues related to the formation of identity in geopolitical borderlands in more detail. Here I stress the importance of military control over state tools of identity construction and present the concept of antemurale political myths, frequently referred to in the analysis. After this section, the article introduces readers to the regional political context and highlights the challenges of top-down identity construction without a clear political vision of the future. I then present the research data and analysis through a loose chronological approach, culiminating in an analysis of the declaration of the so-called “Russian Donbas” Doctrine from 2021. The article concludes by summarizing key findings.

To examine how the policy field of military education is implemented locally in occupied areas, this article introduces freshly gathered material from social media profiles of military-patriotic clubs (MPCs) operating on the territory. The compiled material comprises several years of activity among 14 MPC profiles on the Russian social media platform VK, reporting on club activity in 8 different settlements in the NGCAs. Exact club names, settlements, and sample dates may be found in Appendix Table A1.

The sample is intended to represent a diversity of settlements, but also take into account the MPCs’ online longevity in order to track development over time. The dataset includes a small number of posts dating from late 2013 (for background) and only five clubs for 2014–16 (see Appendix Table A1). By far the most material dates from 2017 and later, reflecting the combined effect of digitalization, an increase in the number of clubs, the removal of profiles for terminated clubs, and possibly new incentives for reporting activity (to please funders, etc). Two sets of codes were applied in the software NVivo to sort the material for subsequent qualitative analysis. One set related to the specific events, activities, dates, actors, and specific settlements. The other consisted of various concepts and tropes (e.g., opolchentsy, Novorossiia). While the coding revealed some quantitative insights (e.g., lack of focus on the “Russian world”), the difference in emphasis and importance between posts would often make straightforward quantification irrelevant or even misleading.

Taking these coded posts as a point of departure, we get a rough account of what the local youth do, see, and (to a lesser extent) hear when engaged in these clubs. In a policy field of high ambitions, overblown reporting, and focus on quantitative measuring criteria, this provides an important supplement to our knowledge. What we do not get, however, is a systematic overview of the thousands of planned activities in the region. Moreover, the material is naturally skewed toward clubs that are active online, and it underrepresents some important audio sources such as speeches. The material also gives little indication as to the prospects of the policy to succeed in its goals.

By MPCs, I bear in mind organized children and youth groups that combine ideological and military training outside of ordinary education. These two pillars of activity are often complemented by a third, which varies from club to club—for instance, sports, military shows/drill, survivalism, or cossackhood. The ideological content they have in common typically involves commemoration of military history within an overarching heroic-patriotic narrative that emphasizes “military glory” and unity above all. Notably, club activities often involve a whole network of agents and organizers of “state,” semi-state, or non-state character. In the DPR, for instance, both de facto ruling parties are actively involved in supporting patriotic education, as is United Russia and other Russian actors.

A second pillar of the research data consists of policy documents issued by the de facto powerholders and their institutions, including so-called constitutions, state programs, and education plans. For the most part, these were mapped out, linked, and stored in a separate report within the same research project (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023).

To some extent, the article is comparing various aspects of military-patriotic policy and activities with those in Russia. For many scholars of militarized patriotism, Russia is a better-known case and comparisons may thus serve useful for presenting certain findings. For further introductions to the activities, discourses, and functions of these clubs, see, for instance, Alava (2021), Bækken (2019, 2021, 2022, 2023), and Laruelle (2015). At the time the present article was under review, Jaroslava Barbieri (2023) also published an analysis on the topic of military patriotism in the occupied Donbas, focusing on the similarities and links with Russia, of which there are many. Yet, as I will argue, a systematic look at local implementation also reveals significant differences. Compared to Barberi, my article also pays more attention to the inherent contradictions in promoting “patriotism” in an occupied territory without a clear vision for the future, and the resulting shifts and turns in both policy and implementation. Likewise, implementation of similar policies varies according to local context.

The (other) de facto states around Russia’s borders provide another evident source for relevant insights on the Donbas case. They share an unrecognized international status and close connections to Russia, including military support. They are also dominated by conflict with, and othering of, the mother country, and thus an identity policy shaped by these commonalities (Blakkisrud and Kolstø 2011; Dembińska 2023). While local context has set conditions for militarized borderland identities elsewhere as well, none of these de facto states have seen such a long and bloody war as in the Donbas. Perpetual war and the uncertain future have also ensured that no clear concept of Fatherland emerged here, perhaps resembling what Dembińska (2023, 90) has called “waiting room nation building” in South Ossetia. Most post-Soviet de facto states, with an arguable exception for Transnistria, have had more or less established ethnic identities and territories to work with. The Donbas has traditionally been a large steppe borderland marked by “cultural fluidity, ethnic heterogeneity, and relative mobility”—defining it as a “frontier region” in social geography (Popov 2012, 1742). Research from elsewhere has found such regions particularly fertile grounds for new identities to emerge (Popov, 2012, 1742). In the Donbas case, however, Russia has been pursuing an active policy of russification—not leaving the development of new identities to the local population alone. Whereas the attempted annexation of 2022 can be seen as a culmination of this policy, it is undoubtedly not its end point—as the russification and integration policy is still actively pursued today to tie the region more firmly to Russia in both administrative and cultural terms. Under the system of Presidential grants in 2023, for instance, the Kremlin aimed to provide hundreds of millions of rubles in support for projects “involving residents of new territories in the overall historical and cultural space of the country and holding various events in these regions” (President of Russia 2023).

Georg Simmel asserted in 1908 that “the boundary is not a spatial fact with sociological consequences, but a sociological fact that forms itself spatially” (Berezhnaya and Hein-Kircher 2019, 8). At the same time, the ongoing war reminds us that ideational boundaries as well as physical are in part manifestations of military power. While we cannot clearly foresee how events would have played out in 2014 without covert military support from Russia, Russia continued to step up its military presence to sustain the conflict. During the summer of 2014, when the Armed Forces of Ukraine threatened to take back the entire territory, Russia intervened with several thousand regular troops with artillery support from within Russia. They were almost certainly decisive for retaining and recapturing Ukrainian territory to be illegally included in the DNR/LNR (Sutyagin 2015). In short, The NGCAs would hardly exist if not for Russian military support.

Crucially, the military backing granted the regional de facto leadership identity-shaping tools associated with state power—the educational system, public events and holidays, museums, monuments, memorials, and more. In other words, while symbolic diacritica may over time lead to borderization, the physical borders themselves may also be militarily imposed to split and reshape imagined communities by state or state-like tools. In this way, the social and ideational basis may be actively altered within the controlled areas with a distinct purpose to follow up military conquest. Arguably, wartime conditions make political identity construction doubly relevant, providing both extraordinarily high stakes and a particularly malleable context. War can thus “incentivize elites to…demarcate group boundaries and seek to re-write history to aid the creation of a national community” (Mutz 2020, 56).

Antemurale Myths and the Geopolitical Borderlands

Because individuals and social groups have different interests, the narratives, myths, symbols, and practices they promote are different too. Pål Kolstø (2019) separates “boundary-constituting myths” into four types that may be exploited and harnessed among aspiring nations: antiquitis, martyrium, sui generis, and antemurale. Kolstø’s four subtypes are arguably all interconnected and present in the symbolic discourse of the occupied areas. This article, however, will focus on the last two subtypes, which my analysis deems particularly important in the identity construction policy of the NGCAs; sui generis myths, which emphasize ingroup uniqueness, preparing the population for potential futures as sovereign nations; and antemurale myths, which also highlight the special characteristics of the promoted group, but within a larger frame of national belonging. The myths of antiquitis and martyrium, while also present in the construction of regional identity, are less prominent and not emphasized in the analysis below.

I give particular emphasis to antemurale political myths, which promote a social group as “defendants of a larger civilization faced with outside assailants” (Kolstø 2019, 348). In the NGCAs, these myths present the “Donbas people” as a distinct brand of front fighters and vanguard for the Russo-Soviet nation or civilization. The region, similarly, is presented as a fortified outpost—an antemurale. By claiming this role, the de facto authorities emphasized particular narratives of the imperial and Soviet past, regional cultural bonds with Russia, and a particular emphasis on its military dimension—coupled with an othering and securitization of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Notably, however, the term “Russian world” (russkii mir) itself was rarely used by the clubs, despite its emphasis in policy documents. Apparently, its lack in specificity (including specific dates) makes the concept difficult to promote actively in the form of MPC events and activity (Suslov 2018). Also noteworthy is the lack of overly politicized religion, and that the othering only on exception included Western countries before 2022.

Antemurale political myths have historical roots in these borderland areas but were activated and harnessed by the armed conflict. As Kolstø (2019, 351) explains: “Antemurale myths are normally invoked by smaller and vulnerable groups in order to enhance their relative power in one direction by latching on to a larger, powerful group in another direction.” He continues: “They will try to enlist the support of stronger groups by claiming that they share with them not only common identity/culture/history but also a common enemy” (351). Antemurale identity frames are particularly useful for irredentist movements, as they signal to the patron state a moral obligation to transfer resources from the “heartland” to be supplied to the “front.”

While Ukraine insistently rejects the violation of its territorial integrity, its political leadership largely shares the overarching idea of persistent civilizational struggle. In fact, Kolstø uses Ukrainian nationalism (in a neutral sense) as his primary example of antemurale myths. In Ukraine, he states, nationalistic tropes have historically been centered on Ukraine as a stronghold and outpost defending Europe from its Russian rivals or enemies. In more recent times, it was a favorite rhetorical frame for President Poroshenko, and later for Zelenskii too. After the Russian full-scale invasion of 2022, the presentation of Ukraine as the “defenders of Europe” was at the core of Zelenskii’s appeals for Western countries to step up military support. Agree as they may on this sort of framing, however, the warring parties obviously fall short of agreeing where the ideational boundaries go. As the region is seen less as a bridge and more as a wall, the identity of people living there have been fundamentally politicized in both geopolitical and civilizational terms.

A Foundation for Nation Engineering?

While calls for separatist agendas have been marginal and the international community has been firm in its support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, the mixture of strong regional identities and Russian influence has long been a challenge to the status quo. Political elites played upon these factors when establishing and maintaining the so-called Donetsk-clan that was long dominating the region’s economic and political life, as well as influencing that of Kyiv. Likewise, controversies over historical interpretation have long been an aspect of political disputes in the area. As early as the mid-1990s, Andrew Wilson (1995, 283) claimed that “Russian historiography…created the ideological basis for a movement for regional autonomy or even separatism in the Donbas.”

In the independence referendums of 1991, the Donbas population gave overwhelming support for Ukrainian independence, not least reflecting increasing dissatisfaction with Moscow. Yet, there are reasons to assume that the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have had a rather mixed sense of national belonging, and that regional identities have been strong (Abibok 2018; Kuromiya 1998; Roozenbeek 2019, 25–33; Stebelsky 2018; Zimmer 2007). The two oblasts also constituted Ukraine’s most Russian-speaking region, yet did not display a particularly strong attachment with Russian ethnic identity. Instead, the industrial and multinational character of the Donbas was at the core of regional identity—at least in the urban areas (Stebelsky 2018). Kerstin Zimmer’s (2007) interview study in Donetsk in 1999–2000 echoes this, finding regional attachment strong and defined primarily in socioeconomic rather than ethnic terms. While the socioeconomic identity of the region was “inextricably linked with Soviet symbols and beliefs” (106), most inhabitants of the regions could be described as tutoshnie—people whose main identification is with their locality rather than with a state or nation (104). Wilson (2016) finds that civic Ukrainian identity was firmly on the rise in the region until 2013, and while the academic community has been very aware of remaining regionalist sentiments in the Donbas, it was rarely concerned with separatist or irredentist sentiments before this date (638–641). During the political events related to Euromaidan, however, regional identity became a point of mobilization by Donbas elites (Malyarenko and Wolff 2019, 34–35). Survey material also suggests that regional identity was statistically correlated with personal support for the rebels in wake of the rebellion (Kudelia and Zyl 2019).

Although civic Ukrainian identity in general was strong, there were several movements in the Donbas openly advocating for different degrees of political independence before 2014. In 1990, the “International Movement of Donbas,” for instance, promoted the idea that the region would remain Soviet if the rest of Ukraine declared independence. At the time of the outbreak of the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, a congress of disgruntled local deputies in Sievierodonetsk famously called for the region’s secession. Alarmed by the large-scale protests, Russia at this time also stepped up its information activity in eastern Ukraine, and established closer cooperation with Ianukovich and his Party of Regions. This possibly helped consolidate the Donbas as a political force and paved the way for Ianukovich’s remarkable comeback as president in 2010. New organizations appeared, such as the “Donetsk Republic,” whose members would play a role in the 2014 rebellion. It has been argued that irredentism was less openly on the agenda of Party of Regions as well, and that local security forces were actively shielding irredentists from prosecution (Skorkin 2023).

Whereas the revolution of 2014 managed to oust the incumbent president Viktor Ianukovich—who had strong links to both Donetsk and Russia—countermovements appeared in the southeast of Ukraine. Possibly inflamed by covert Russian activity (see Mitrokhin 2015) and soon by an influx of Russian citizens, these wrestled for control over the state apparatus in several regions in the late winter and spring of 2014, when Russia intervened militarily. The rebels had most success in the east Donbas where in May they declared two independent “People’s Republics,” DPR and LPR. When Ukraine attempted to recapture the rebel-held areas in a military operation (the “ATO”), Russia stepped up its military intervention to sustain them.

As militias with Russian support seized power in many places locally, a new scene opened within the nascent militant regime, with plenty of space for upward mobility and ideological fantasies. Russian nationalists participated in both the fighting and ideological policy development, finding in the conflict a way to promote their imperialist and nationalist views. The first major ideological initiative within the occupied areas, the concept of Novorossiia, was thus a joint venture between Russian nationalists and local actors, vaguely supported by Kremlin rhetoric (Laruelle 2016; Suslov 2017). The Party of Novorossiia was established under the leadership of then DPR-leader Pavel Gubarev, while Oleg Tsarev formed the Popular Front of Novorossiia with delegates from eight oblasts of the southeastern part of Ukraine. Soon after the rebels had declared their “republics,” they signed a treaty on May 24 to unify as “Novorossiia” (Mutz 2020; O’Loughlin, Toal, and Kolosov 2016; Suslov 2017).

In Mikhail Suslov’s (2017) analysis, there were two main approaches to Novorossiia at play in 2014. Some of those promoting the concept interpreted it through a Russian imperial lens—as large swaths of Ukraine that were historically “just another piece of Russia” with Odesa at its center. Others employed a Soviet-influenced perspective, in which the Donbas was the epicenter of Novorossiia and even “the heart of Russia.” Either way, it was unclear what exactly Novorossiia would encompass in terms of territory. Gubarev himself operated with the terms “larger Novorossiia” and “larger Novorossiia plus” to label various layers of the territories he claimed had special relations to Russia. Meanwhile, rebel leaders often referred to their locally controlled territories as Novorossiia too (Suslov 2017).

Ideas of the antemurale were arguably at the core of Novorossiia, quite in line with Soviet myths of these steppes as a western frontier and land of adventure. In Suslov’s (2017, 211) words, the DPR leadership saw Novorossiia to be the Russian civilization’s “most precious pearl” and a “condensation of ‘Russianness,’ with its military glory, economic success, and cultural heterogeneity.” Antemurale frames were prominent among Russian nationalists too. The Izborskii Club co-founder Vitalii Averianov, for instance, saw Novorossiia as “the Avant Garde of culturally-defined Russianness or Russian civilization”; while Putin’s advisor on regional economic integration, Sergei Glaz’ev, found it to be “on the frontline of a new world war against the global capitalist order” (quoted in Suslov 2017, 212). Retired General Leonid Ivashov, who became an outspoken critic of the larger invasion of 2022, similarly saw the region as “the Avant Garde of the Russian world in its war against ‘Atlantic civilization’” (213).

Within just a year of its initiation, the expansionist project had run out of steam and the propagation of Novorossiia was largely abandoned by the de facto authorities (O’Loughlin, Toal, and Kolosov 2017; Suslov 2017; Roozenbeek 2019). For all the headlines it made, Novorossiia did not make it into core documents of the NGCAs (until 2021). The two “constitutions” of 2014, for instance, do not mention either Russia or Novorossiia (Konstitutsiia LNR 2014; Konstitutsiia DNR 2014). Similarly, the DPR Concept of Patriotic Education from 2015 clearly assigns “DPR” (33 mentions) and “the republic” (27 mentions) as Fatherland. These terms are repeatedly connected to “national” (natsional’nyi) symbols, traditions, interests, history, and so on. Here as well, neither “Russia” nor “Novorossiia” appears at all, though a single passage refers to the importance of “Russian history” (Kontseptsiia patrioticheskogo vospitaniia 2015). A similar pattern is visible in LPR policy documents too, such as the law on patriotic education from 2015 (O sisteme patrioticheskogo vospitaniia 2015) or the corresponding “state program” from 2016 (Postanovlenie 2016).

Due to low online production in these years, the collected material on MPCs from the first years is meager. The hashtag “#Novorossiia” and the Novorossiia flag were occasionally used alongside others, and some youth clubs made explicit use of Novorossiia in their branding. Beyond this phase, Novorossiia continued to be referenced in low-profile events, and terms like “defender of the people of Novorossiia” or “hero of Novorossiia” were used to commemorate fallen soldiers. In 2019, a map of the southeastern parts of Ukraine with the text “protecting Novorossiia” won a patriotic drawing competition for local children in LPR, documenting its continued discursive presence. The social media sample, however, contains no evidence of larger events symbolically promoting Novorossiia above other identity frames.

Another far-fetched template for regional statehood was made official in a February 2015 “memorandum” that declared DPR to be the “successor state” of the Donetsk-Krivovoi Rog Republic (DKR), a loose political entity existing for less than two months in the turmoil of the wars following the dissolution of the Russian empire. While this predecessor of a “Donbas state” had also been used by separatist forces previously, its historical territory did not match the one controlled by DPR particularly well. Moreover, some historians regard the DKR’s declaration of independence largely a trick to escape the future Brest-Litovsk treaty that envisioned to cede parts of Ukraine to Germany (Kuromiya 1998, 98–99). This did not stop longtime separatist and deputy speaker of the DPR parliament Andrei Purgin from romanticizing how good it was to remember “that we were once united in such an interesting and mighty way” (Alting 2018, 59). In general, however, historical references to DKR were rare in the reviewed material from the MPCs. Even in 2018, declared the “year of history” and the centennial of DKR, commemoration of this entity appears very modest.

On top of Novorossiia, the DKR, and declarations of official independence on the “republican” level, the de facto leaders came up with yet other radical ideas of past or present foundations for a state. The anthem of DPR, for instance, includes a curious reference to “Donetsk Rus”—a term that rarely appears elsewhere. In summer 2017, the de facto DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko surprisingly declared an intention to create a new state, “Malorossiia,” with its capital in Donetsk, and in which the rest of Ukraine would eventually be integrated. Apparently, this grand ambition had not been discussed with neither Russia nor other regional leaders and was quickly shot down (BBC 2019). A political entity in which a leader can promote such ideas left-handedly arguably lacks in both political and symbolic consolidation.

From late 2014, the NGCAs seemed to glide toward the ungraceful status of unrecognized de facto states, albeit strongly dependent on Russia. In September, the first Minsk Accord was agreed upon, in which the parties would bind themselves to seek the reintegration of the NGCAs of Donbas into Ukraine with a special status. The most active politicians of the revolutionary phase were purged from high-level politics as Moscow maneuvered its own favorites into positions (Malyarenko and Wolff 2019). Not before the assassination of Zakharchenko and the 2018 “elections” of Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik as new leaders, however, did the political situation become relatively stable. The NGCAs had by now become more institutionalized and open violence had been reduced, yet they remained exceedingly authoritarian. The oft-quoted Freedom House index gives the regions an appalling 4 points out of 100 on its weighted scale for both 2021 and 2022, much worse than Russia (20 and 19 points) and only marginally better than North Korea (3 points in both years).2 The economy greatly deteriorated under war and international isolation, and the region saw massive emigration. The de facto status was not least founded on the failures to implement the Minsk Accords I and II, the conditions of which were hopelessly inadequate from Kyiv’s perspective (Allen 2020). Under the Poroshenko administration, Ukraine increasingly pursued a policy of economically isolating the territories that in practice appeared to push the region away from Kyiv (Matveeva 2022).

With no political solution in sight, the Donbas was stuck in limbo. The first building blocks of an aspiring independent state had been laid down in “official” policy already in the declarative documents of 2014, not least the “constitutions” and new “state symbols.” This was followed up by efforts to create some sort of joint Donbas identity, apparently to fit the potentially long-term political freeze. While a focused regional project within current frontlines was more realistic than the ambitious yet woolly concept of Novorossiia, there were still major issues at hand.

First, the relationship between the NGCAs and their Russian patron was still anything but clear. In 2017 Russia started to accept “official” documents issued by the NGCAs on a temporary basis, referring to the areas as “certain regions…of Ukraine” (Matveeva 2022). It was Russian doublespeak in a nutshell, signaling both an acceptance for—and a rejection of—recognition. Second, there was no strong popular support for any particular vision for the region’s future at the time. According to a poll conducted in the NGCAs in 2016, popular opinion was divided. One-third of respondents wanted special status within the borders of Russia; another third wanted special status within Ukraine; and the final third was split between reintegration into either Ukraine or Russia without a special status (Sasse 2017).

As is the case of other territorial concepts used in the region, “the Donbas” is poorly defined. In modern administrative usage, it is often seen as identical to the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, but in its old sense as a coal mining region it may also include other parts of both Ukraine and Russia. What exact territory is referred to is rarely specified in the reviewed policy. At any rate, there were no preexisting conceptions to fit neatly with currently occupied territories. The fact that rebels controlled only parts of the oblasts thus made for a third challenge to sui generis identity formation. This made it difficult to symbolically detach the local identity from people and lands on the other side of the frontlines. Moreover, the leadership of the NGCA also seemed unwilling to follow up on the plan of a real unification of the territories they did hold. While the region was promoted as a “candidate Fatherland,” the relationship between the two purported republics in reality soured, and border controls, tolls, and customs were set up (Matveeva 2022, 418). In November 2017, DPR forces even intervened militarily in Luhansk to install Pasechnik as leader, presumably with Moscow’s blessings (Romanenko and Kupfer 2017).

The military-patriotic field was continuously expanded. After DPR had adopted its Concept of Patriotic Education in 2015, it also introduced the neo-Soviet program “Ready for Labour and Defence” (GTO) and a “Standard Program” for extracurricular education within military-patriotic groups, sport clubs, and associations (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 12–14). In 2017, yet another concept for “continuous upbringing” of youth was enacted with the intention to form “civic, cultural, and national identity for the DPR’s rising generation” (13). The “Concept for Continuous Education” of DPR followed the same pattern as the Concept of 2015, asserting priority to the historical and cultural heritage at the “republican” level, aiming to promote the “spiritual values and traditions” of the “republic” and for its children to be “involved in the ‘Fatherland’s fate’” (Kontseptsiia nepreryvnogo vospitaniia 2017). Another program that specified the content of extracurricular military-patriotic education in 2018 followed similar lines (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 13–14).

LPR adopted its first law on patriotic education in summer 2015 (“On the System of Patriotic Education of Citizens of the Luhansk People’s Republic”), quite resembling the DPR concept and without explicit concern for Russia. The Fatherland is associated with “state,” and patriotic education aimed at fostering “love and respect for the history, culture and tradition of the republic” (my emphasis). Similar tropes are repeated in a four-year program for the “Patriotic Education of the Younger Generation of the LPR” as well as a “Republican Program for Spiritual and Moral Education of LPR Students” (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 16). In a push for joint initiatives, the so-called “Humanitarian Program for the Re-unification of the Donbas People” was launched jointly in both “republics” in 2017, promoting the term “Donbas people” in official discourse (Abibok 2018, 6). It also aimed for cross-border cooperation with the Kyiv-controlled part of the oblasts, but apparently without success (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 10).

The subject “Citizenship of the Donbas” (Grazhdanstvennost’ Donbassa) also moved beyond Fatherland in the narrow republican sense. Taught in every schoolyear in primary and secondary education, it promoted a mix of regional and Russian identity building. It was intended to create an understanding of the Donbas inhabitants’ special “mentality,” but also claimed that this mentality exists only “as part of the Russian world.” Unsurprisingly, the school subject has much focus on military history. Among the topics taught for eighth graders was, for instance, “Heroism as a Unique Characteristic of the Character of the Donbas Inhabitant.” The plans also underscore multiethnicity and ethnic tolerance as a particular trait of the region.3

Regional Symbols and Narratives in Military-Patriotic Clubs

By 2015, several MPCs had started to report from various events on special days, such as the Day of the “Defender of the Fatherland” on February 23, Victory Day on May 9, and the anniversary of the independence declarations on May 11 and 12. They displayed Soviet and republican flags above all, and their textual comments on social media were in line with Russian patriotic discourse (e.g., presenting the victory of 1945 as that of the “Soviet people” over “Fascist Germany”). Diatribes and emotional outbursts were relatively rare, though some MPC leaders shared material from adult organizations with a more radical framing and agitated language. The sample contains relatively few examples of symbolic attachment to the Russian Federation in this period, which may be interpreted in light of diminished hopes for annexation.

In the clubs, the focus on traditional regional identity markers found different forms. Some clubs for instance participated on patriotic events dedicated to the “Day of Miners” toward the end of August, visited monuments for fallen miners of World War II or posted standard greetings on their social media profiles. In 2020 one of the clubs also assisted in putting up a new monument to the miners.4

Another important protagonist in the military-patriotic discourse is the opolchenets (insurgent) and the corresponding cult of heroes developed around the militia leaders involved in the first years of the war. Iryna Shuvalova (2021, 92) concludes that the term used to be marginal before it was reintroduced in 2014. Already by May this year, however, it had become mainstream in Russian media to denote militias in eastern Ukraine. The term is emotionally laden, and foregrounds territorial defense, volunteerism, and supposed grassroots attachment (91–92). In Shuvalova’s analysis, the term symbolically embeds the region into the “Russian world.” With its militarized meaning, the opolchenie myth largely aligns with broader antemurale frames. In the MPCs, the label opolchenets is not reserved for those originally from the area. On the contrary, the most frequently celebrated opolchenets in the sample is Artem Pavlov (“Motorola”)—a Russian nationalist traveling to Ukraine to participate in the war. Both Pavlov’s birth and his death date in 2016 are commemorated by the clubs, whereas his suspected war crimes are left unmentioned. Another militia leader frequently commemorated as opolchenets is Oleg Mamiev (“Mamai”), a Russia-born commander who was leading the International Brigade Piatnashka in the Donbas where he was killed in a fire exchange. DPR declared a Day of Mourning on the occasion. Among other purported heroes in the sample is Aleksandr Zakharchenko, militia leader and de facto head of DPR until he was killed by an explosion in 2018. Youth clubs put flowers on his grave, circulate memes with his (patriotic) quotes, and take photos in front of his portrait.

As is the case in Russia, most MPCs spend much time commemorating the Great Patriotic War (the German-Soviet war 1941–45) and frequently merge it symbolically with the war taking place since 2014. The extensive use of the Savur Mohyla monument near to the Russian border stands out in this regard. First built to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the hills’ liberation in 1943, it changed hands no fewer than eight times in 2014, and its central obelisk was destroyed by shelling. On the September 7, 2015, Savur Mohyla was chosen for a regional version of the popular all-Russian event known as the immortal regiment. On the occasion, a mixed crowd paraded photos of (assumedly) fallen relatives from the ongoing war, mimicking a nascent Russian tradition on Victory Day. Both on (new) “republican” holidays and before Victory Day, MPC members were bussed to the memorial complex for parades and ceremonies. The proximity of Victory Day to the new days of the “republics” makes the symbolic war merging all the more tempting (Bækken 2023). At least on one occasion, flowers were put down during the May holidays in joint commemoration of fallen soldiers from both 1941–45 and the ongoing war.

Slight differences in focus tell the regional military-patriotic discourse apart from the Russian. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing war since 2014 is subject to even more attention. Some, for instance, commemorate the “liberation” of Debaltseve (a city taken from Ukraine in 2014), fallen militia soldiers, or civilian victims of the war, especially children. For previous wars too, the local aspects of memorial infrastructure (graves, monuments, museums) ensure that local “heroes” attract above-average attention in excursions, flower ceremonies, and so on. Thus, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is actively commemorated in a solemn way at local monuments, whereas the Russian post-Soviet wars in Chechnya appear less commemorated than in Russia. Likewise, references to large events on the territory of what is today the Russian Federation are much less prominent. The Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–43, for instance, is routinely commemorated by faraway Russian clubs, but less so by those of the Donbas. Commemoration of events from older history is also relatively rare. Beyond Cossack events, the victory over Napoleon in 1812 and the end of the Polish siege of Moscow in 1612 provide the most frequently mentioned events from before 1917.

The self-declared republics of DPR and LPR celebrate their “Day of the Republic” on May 11 and 12, respectively. Several clubs in the DPR participated in parades and other events on this day, predominantly with DPR flags up until 2019. Besides semi-mandatory holiday greetings, many accompanying texts on VK used the term “people of Donbas” (narod Donbassa) on the occasion, gradually shifting from the less ambitious term “inhabitants” (zhiteli). In the LPR, one Cossack club used the republican day of May 12 to host Cossack games. Another club shared a professionally edited video clip of events taking place in Luhansk, in which youth in civilian clothing carried a massive LPR flag through the streets and gathered in front of a stage.

Construction of enemy images and a sense of otherness is vital to the attempt to construe a regional identity separate from the Ukrainian motherland. Representations of common Ukrainian citizens as friends and Slavic brothers are almost non-existent in the reviewed material. There is one report of a joint event with a group from non-occupied parts of Luhansk oblast, but the video has since been removed. Much coverage of Ukraine is instead focused on alleged fascists. Examples include numerous instances were the war against Ukrainian Armed Forces is compared with that against Nazi-Germany, with or without explicit labeling. Another very prominent framing of Ukraine is to contextualize it as a collective perpetrator of shelling, responsible for the Odesa fire of 2014, or the death of Donbas children. Commemoration of Polina Sladkaia is by far the most prominent in this regard—allegedly “the first child killed by Ukro-fascists” in the ongoing war.

Notably, the West is not in focus in this material—neither as a physical nor a moral security threat. The material contains some scattered challenges of Western cultural hegemony, but photos reveal the continued presence of decidedly Western brands among participants in patriotic events—such as Disney clothing on a patriotic event, or a birthday greeting card with French Cognac. One club reposted a meme to claim that “real men” do not wear tight jeans or ear piercings, yet soon later posted a quote by Freddie Mercury. Harsher representations of an aggressive, conspiring, and Russophobe (not to mention Satanic) West that we know from Russian propaganda are even less common—mostly limited to personal posts of one club leader who is also responsible for spreading memes about Europe as a region of perversity and sexual deviants. Another club in 2018 reposted claims that the US was using social media to prop up a planned coup in Moscow. Overall, however, securitizing the West is not by far the major trope it later became in Russian propaganda.

The Cossack Dimension

An important aspect of identity contestation in the Donbas relates to Cossack identity, in a sense being a miniature version of the larger conflict. The background includes a long-term dispute over the histories, influence, and territorial control of Don Cossacks and Zaporozhian Cossacks in the area (Wilson 1995, 276). Don Cossacks often make claim to a homeland encompassing both Russian and Ukrainian territories, whereas in Ukraine, many allege that key settlements under occupation were originally founded by Zaporozhian Cossacks. The standoff is particularly flammable since it involves not only territorial disputes, but also different myths of origin and value sets (Popov 2012). Whereas some present Cossacks as autokhtonous groups of mixed ethnic origin, others perceive them primary as a Russian subethnos, whose forefathers were Russian runaway-serfs and military men (Popov 2012, 1741). In Russia, the Cossack figure has since its institutionalization for state purposes in 2012 become an important symbol of Orthodox conservativism and militarized patriotism, even if perhaps bureaucratized in the process (Darczewska 2017). Simultaneously, it is also instrumentalized for purely military purposes (Darczewska 2017). On both sides of the frontline, fighting units are actively promoting their own Cossack identity, fighting an ideational as well as a physical war.

A number of military patriotic clubs are nominally based on Cossack identity, reportedly more visible in LPR than in DPR policy (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023). A small subsample in the collected material also include such clubs. Among the events reported here is a local “festival of Cossack military songs” in DPR and traditional Cossack games on “LPR Day” in May. Other events also carry signs of Cossack folkore. Some Cossack-themed posts have explicit focus on regional uniqueness—for instance, a somewhat agitated declaration that the Donbas is “the real cradle of Cossackhood.” In general, however, the representations of Cossacks among the clubs more often highlight positive relations to Russia (see next section). Predictably, the long and troublesome history of rebellions and conflict between Don Cossacks and Moscow is rarely mentioned. Notably, however, the Cossack clubs in the sample commemorated the Bolshevik repressions of Cossacks during the wars following the 1917 revolution, thus providing a counter-narrative to the common alignment with Soviet identity within the military-patriotic discourse.

From about 2019, the NGCAs started to lean more heavily on Moscow both symbolically and practically. Zelenskii was elected in April and Putin first met him in Paris in December. Putin might have had hopes to strike a deal with Zelenskii, who was rumored to be more friendly toward Russia than his predecessors, but reportedly left the meeting in disappointment and anger. This year also saw a turf war on who was to handle the “Ukraine-question” for Putin. Vladislav Surkov, a long-term spin doctor and presidential aide, had been Putin’s main man on the task since 2013. From leaked documents, it appears he was in direct contact with separatists and encouraged them to focus on regional identity building (Shandra and Seely 2019). In 2019 Surkov was challenged by Dmitrii Kozak, a long-term Putin ally who already had been responsible for integrating Crimea in the Russian Federation. By January 2020 Kozak had clearly won the struggle. Surkov was relieved of all his duties for the Russian state and the integrator Kozak was appointed deputy chair of the Presidential Administration. Within the domain of identity policy, however, it is clear that the Russian turn must have been planned before Zelenskii’s victory and Kozak’s overt takeover.

From 2019, more legislation of the NGCAs was harmonized to fit Russian standards, the Russian labor code was enacted, and inhabitants got Russian social security numbers. In addition, economic ties with Russia were broadened, Russian media got a larger market share, and the mobile network switched country codes to that of Russia. The NGCAs also had vaccines and medical aid supplied by Russia through the COVID-19 crisis of 2020–21 (Matveeva 2022). Some integrational processes started previously, however. Already in 2017, the institution Russian Centre (russkii tsentr) was set up under the auspices of Pushilin to facilitate integration with Russia on several issues of “humanitarian, social, and cultural” character, including education and “patriotic upbringing.” It made no secret of its Russian patronage, and in 2021 a representative of the Centre publicly thanked the United Russia party for contributing to its development (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 26–27). These last years, the Russian World Foundation also sponsored a series of “integrational forums” in Donetsk, such as “The Russian World and the Donbas: From Cooperation to Integration of Education, Science, Innovation and Culture” in 2019 and “The Russian World and the Donbas as a Unified Cultural-Civilizational Space” in 2020.

Another important aspect of the Russian turn was the intensive passportization of the soon-to-be-annexed areas from 2019. According to the de facto authorities, 635,000 Russian passports were issued to Donbas residents between April 2019 and the end of January 2022, amounting to somewhere between a third and a fourth of the population (Burkhart et al. 2022, 2). By 2020, these citizens were granted the right to vote in the Russian constitutional plebiscite, and in 2021 they could vote for the 2021 Duma elections from polling stations in Rostov oblast, Russia.

The development of educational standards in the DPR provides an example of how an emphasis on regional identity was coupled with a gradual shift from Ukraine-related subjects toward focus on Russia. A systematic review notes how the standards for secondary schools previously included Ukrainian language and literature, but then changed. In 2018, the educational standards included references to both Ukraine and Russia, whereas in 2020 all references to Ukraine were gone (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 15). Later standards stress the harmonization of the educational spheres of the DPR and Russia, and prepare the teaching of Russian culture, history, traditions, legal system, constitution, and state symbols alongside those of the unrecognized republic. Children in primary schools were now to have lessons on “the special role of Russia in world history” and the historical role of the region as part of Russian history (GOST Primary Education 2020, 12). Secondary school students would attend a course on “Russia in the World” to give them a “well-formed view of the modern world from the point of view of Russia’s interests” (GOST Secondary General Education 2020, 23). In December 2021, the DPR simply switched to use Russian educational standards, whereas the LPR followed suit in 2022 (Oliinyk and Bækken 2023, 15, 17).

The turn toward Russia clearly manifested in the military-patriotic field. In these years, several notable organizations were set up as explicit or implicit branches of Russian mother organizations, such as the Volunteers of Victory (Volontery pobedy) and DOSAAF.5 In April 2019, the youth movement Young Guard/Young Army (Molodaia gvardiia/Iunarmiia) was established in both DPR and LPR. Its double name neatly illustrates the dual track of Donbas identity policy. The name Young Guard may seek to instrumentalize the memory of a local anti-fascist partisan organization of World War II (see Hurska 2019), anchoring the organization within the regional mythscape. At the same time, the rest of its name, as well as its aesthetics, activity, and organization, is clearly oriented toward Iunarmiia, Russia’s largest military-patriotic organization for youth. The establishment of these organizations signaled an attempt to create a Donbas-wide military-patriotic infrastructure for minors, as well as an intensification of cooperation with Russia on the field. As did Iunarmiia in Russia, MG/Iu started off by recruiting preexisting MPCs under a new umbrella organization under the auspices of the military, and worked closely with schools. In 2019, 8 of the 14 sample clubs from the database joined MG/Iu. Several of them traveled to Russia to participate in joint events, and some went to Crimea for summer camps. Various other activities were also organized from Russia, and the clubs partook in various “all-Russian campaigns.” After the attempted annexations of 2022, MG/Iu merged with Iunarmiia.

Local “patriotic” events likewise show a marked turn toward a Russian orientation. Focus on Russia Day on June 12, for instance, increased. In 2020, one of the clubs posted a movie of its members lined up in uniform to sing the national anthem of Russia. By 2021, the date was celebrated with more fanfare than what appears common among Russian clubs. “The power and might of this country instill trepidation and respect,” one MPC declared on the occasion. On a day of celebrating the so-called “Russian spring” of 2014, a banner was sent up in the air by the way of helium balloons in the colors of DPR and Russia—declaring the unity between Crimea and Donbas. Even republican days had a distinctly Russian theme these years. In 2019, one of the clubs fronted a parade under the banner “We are choosing Russia” with Russian flags and balloons, and other events on this day had similar themes. When Russia eventually recognized the NGCAs as independent (not Russian) states just before the 2022 invasion, it was celebrated as an annexation: “Donbas – it is Russia!”

In these years, references to Russian nationhood and the Russian Federation suddenly pop up where they seldom did previously—often related to specific interaction with Russian actors. MPC profiles boasted certificates from online competitions like “Russia is my Motherland,” and some MG/Iu members were awarded the “Young Patriot of Russia” order. One club reposted that “in DPR and LPR, every person is Russian with body and soul,” and another quoted the deceased DPR head Zakharchenko claming that Russia is the Motherland “of us all.”

Cossack-oriented MPCs also frequently refer to Russia as their country of choice, with or without obvious antemurale framing. For instance, they repeatedly refer to the “Supreme Hetman” (verkhovny Ataman) in Russia, and post content from the Orthodox Cossack Festival named “We are Russia’s Future,” annually organized in Stavropol Krai in Russia. In 2021, one sample club also went to participate, branding a large banner “Kids of Novorossiia” and reportedly winning a drilling contest. In one lengthy text rich with capital letters and exclamation marks, the author alleges that there were Cossacks in the Donbas long before there was any Zaporozhian Sich, and that the great majority of Cossacks through their history considered themselves “proper Russians.” One club also shared photos where the Russian imperial flag (imperka) is featured, and another posted material calling for the unification of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. There are many more examples of such statements even among the modest number of total Cossack references in the material (64 posts). One of them summarizes the general sentiment: “Cossacks contributed enormously to the creation of the vast and mighty Russia, protecting it in battles, guarding its borders.”

Finally, religion features as a recurrent theme in the material. Most often, it is related to Easter and Christmas greetings and participation in various orthodox traditions on these days. The references are rarely strongly politicized, the single radical LPR leader once again providing an exception by repeated rants against the Ukrainian churches not linked to the Moscow Patriarchate. Another rather bizarre exception is a shared meme encouraging members to follow the Cossack tradition of upholding the “10 commandments of Christ” (sic). The list not only includes one commandment twice, but also a tenth commandment “to defend your Fatherland against enemies.” Other Cossack-related posts also contain the occasional reference to Orthodoxy, but these are rarely elaborated.

The last of the serious attempts to define an official national identity project within the Donbas came in January 2021, when the self-declared republics jointly presented a document they called the “Russian Donbas” Doctrine (Doktrina ‘Russkii Donbass’; Russkii Tsentr 2021). The document is by virtue of its high prestige, declarative nature, and explicit ideological content (5) a useful source to explore the NGCAs’ ideational and political orientations at this point of time. In the authors’ words, it aims to strengthen “Russian national self-awareness, patriotism, and pride of the People of Donbas in its Motherland” (5). The method of choice appears first and foremost to present an official version of regional history. The storyline is deeply unconvincing for academic purposes, but I will not counter its factual claims. Rather, I will explore how it approaches different layers of identity and their interconnections, apparently in an attempt to formulate an official position.

From one perspective, the document may be interpreted as a declaration of independent nationhood, and its authors spend much ink on regional mythmaking. Yet, they are not able to solve the above-mentioned inconsistencies, and hold that the Donbas is, was, and will be “part of the Great Russia” (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 15). In one curious formulation, it aims to “strengthen the statehood of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as Russian nation states”—in the plural (5). Furthermore, it unambigously declares DPR and LPR to include the entire oblasts, and that these areas must be taken under control (46). The Doctrine conclude that the best option for the Donbas would be for Novorossiia to be part of Russia, whereas Ukraine in its contemporary form should cease to exist (46). To add further confusion, a new unspecified term is introduced in capital letters: “The New Russian Donbas.”

With regard to toponymies of political significance, the comeback of Novorossiia is worth noting, the term appearing 33 times in the document. The DPR and LPR are presented as successors of both Novorossiia and the DKR, and DPR and LPR as part of “historical Novorossiia” (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 7). Notably, the document claims that “more universal type of Russian” was born in Novorossiia and that the “Novorossiia identity type” is recognized by a distinctly “Russian imperial self-consciousness that prevails over local interests” (22). It gives the impression that the “more universal type” was the result of a “melting pot” in which “Little Russians” and “Great Russians” mixed (24). The republics have a “unique character as Russian borderland[s] and as centre[s] of Russian industrial and military culture” (10). Arguably contradicting the borderland framework, the whole region is also presented as part of the “core of the Russian nation” (15).

The emphasis of uniqueness is unmistakenly subordinated antemurale frames. In the document, antemurale identity is established as a social fact—and in no uncertain terms: The doctrine posits that the Donbas is “an outpost of the Russian people in the fight against its opponents” (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 10) and “defenders of the Russian world, Russian language and culture” (10). In one place, it also claims the region to be the liberator of Ukraine from “nationalism and aggressive Russophobia” (15). Furthermore, the document emphasizes the inhabitants’ role of fighting Turkish Islam previously (19), as well as “Ukrainian nationalism and fascism” and “Western imperialism” since 2014 when it “again fulfilled its role as a defender and a border fortress of the Russian world” (10). With Russian help, the doctrine declares, “Donbas was turned into a powerful stronghold” (10). The salience of being a borderland region is highlighted with reference to “the constant military danger, the necessity to be at the forefront, at the zone of struggle against foreign civilizations” (13).This persistently militaristic framing of the region apparently aims to make war appear natural, perhaps even unavoidable, and paint a picture of a nation or sub-nation of citizen-soldiers—possibly with an aim to boost recruitment and prestige of military service. In line with Kolstø’s concept, the framing implicitly invites the Russian Federation to intensify its military support to help “reunite” the Donbas.

The doctrine maintains that it is Russia which provides the basis for regional identity, repeatedly highlighting the role of the Russian language. The document emphasizes certain (regional) values as part of Russian national traditions, namely “labour, social solidarity, democracy, truthfulness, peacefulness and willingness to sacrifice,” and the rejection of “any form of Nazi influences” (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 14). References to a propaganda poster from 1921 that frames the Donbas as “the heart of Russia,” also made their way into the official history of the region (28). The doctrine thus oscillates between its representation of the region as a Russian outpost and a Russian core. In these militaristic frames, sui generis and antemurale myths are purposefully blended together.

Under the heading “Values and Priorities of the Russian Donbas,” the self-glorification goes into high gear. Within this Russian supra-nation, Donbas people are presented as unique, and even better than other Russians: “Donbas is an example and a model for the Russian world and the Russian person (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 13).

The people of Donbas have special powers and attractive properties that make them one of the most powerful, hardy and talented types of the Russian people. This has been repeatedly confirmed in history and is a consequence of the peculiarities of the history of the people of Donbas. Donbas is a leading bastion of the Russian world [and] the Russian nation in resistance against ethno-cultural and geopolitical absorption, [and] took this position due to its border position. (13)

The authors underscore that it was this historical experience that made the people of the Donbas particularly heroic and laborious. Their region is also a pillar of orthodox civilization, they add.

The doctrine is equally brazen in othering both the rest of Ukraine and its western partners. It rejects Ukrainian territory as “arbitrarily delineated” in ignorance of the Donbas (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 3). For the entire post-Soviet period, the document maintains, “a full-scale ideological war” has been waged against Donbas residents to inculcate in them alien norms and change their national awareness (37). Kyiv is allegedly set upon destroying the regional identity of the Donbas by means of “meaningless ideologemes, utopian and inhumane programs” and “manipulation of public consciousness [and] deliberate distortion of historical facts” (3). In another section, it accuses Ukraine of promoting “Donbassophobia” (39–40). The doctrine claims to fight “modern Nazism and Ukrainian nationalism,” implicitly blending the narrative of World War II with today. It views the Ukrainian government as a “pro-American marionette regime” (7) and connects the dots of oligarchy, capitalism, neo-fascism, and Western conspiracy—playing on the diverse set of motivations behind the 2014 rebellion. The supposedly historical storyline presents Euromaidan as orchestrated by “The West,” and the authorities in Kyiv as “criminals” wielding “terror” and “repression” against the inhabitants of the southeastern parts of Ukraine (40). In the Donbas, a “broad popular national-liberational movement” rose up in defense (41), and a number of fighters with “military talent and exceptional heroism” are mentioned by name (44).

Among the declared aims of the “Russian Donbas” Doctrine is to shape inhabitants’ worldviews, identity, patriotism, and pride in the region based on “historical truths” (Russkii Tsentr 2021, 5). In the same vein, the openly declared intentions of powerholders to shape identities on their own is sought justified by reference to purported “natural” or “objective” inclinations of its inhabitants. The rights of the Donbas people to determine their own fate are underscored, and so is the irreversibility of the decisions already made. This declared need to aggressively promote supposedly “natural” and even “irreversible” identities is inherently nonsensical. Another example of this oxymoronic argumentation is the doctrine’s declaration that the Donbas has irreversibly chosen the Russian path: The choice is presented as both “objective” and “without alternative”—making its characterization of a “choice” meaningless (4).

To summarize, the “Russian Donbas” Doctrine is not so much a doctrine as a declaration of national belonging through an “official” representation of its history. The document is exceedingly self-glorifying on behalf of the Donbas, but strongly emphasizes Russian ethnicity, culture, and history. It culminates the focus on antemurale myths in NGCAs’ identity policy in a number of explicit declarations. In general, it is more radical in its framing than previous “official” documents, harkening back to the nationalistic tropes of Novorossiia and probably with an eye to the radicalization of Russian propaganda at the time.

This article has traced the development of identity policy in the NGCAs of the Donbas since 2014. I have explored the various initiatives and paths taken in times of political uncertainty, and considered both official policy and actual implementation practices in an everyday setting. According to their own interview statements, the initial rebel leaders were not so much separatists as they were irredentists (Matveeva 2017). When initial ambitions were not realized and Russia appeared reluctant to annex the regions they controlled, however, leaders started to orient themselves toward de facto statehood, emphasizing the region’s unique historical experiences and particularities. As years passed, this focus was again diluted by more explicitly Russian references and symbols. From about 2019, and accelerating in the next years, the symbolic emphasis of Russia became commonplace. Importantly, the turn in identity promotion went hand in hand with an administrative and social russification.

My discussion has shed light on the paradoxes of constructing proto-national identities top-down without a clear vision of political future. Whether the rebel leaders suffered under too few or too many visions of the future, most approaches excelled neither in terms of political realism nor in terms of popular support. Political undecidedness provided a backdrop for the whole process—and several initiatives from the top leadership turned out to be politically far-fetched and lacking popular basis. The de facto leaders struggled to define clear roles for the different territorial concepts at play—elevating either DPR/LPR, the Donbas, or Russia to be the primary Fatherland—until Moscow finally decided in favor of integration and possibly annexation. Reproachment toward Kyiv and Ukrainian national identity, however, was marginal in the whole period—even when the parties were supposed to pursue the aims of the Minsk accords.

At the heart of the Donbas identity policy, I find the attempt to balance political myths of belonging to Russia with distinctly regional identity programs. As a red thread to many different policy initiatives, as well as practices in local MPCs, has been a focus on antemurale political myths or tropes. This particular framing of an identity as being on the borderland of geopolitical strife was relatively consistent throughout the period and accommodated a number of various regional, Soviet, and civilizational identity construction initiatives simultaneously. For its simultaneous emphasis on military strife, regional uniqueness, and Russian identity, it served a flexible solution to political uncertainty and insisted on continued Russian support. At different degrees of emphasis, this ideational string goes through the entire period from the branding of Novorossiia in 2014 to the declaration of the “Russian Donbas” Doctrine in 2021.

Common among the military-patriotic clubs in the region is a focus on the so-called Great Patriotic War, binding the NCGAs to the overarching Soviet narrative and putting them firmly on the Russian side in the so-called memory wars—an important identity marker in Ukraine-Russia relations since before 2014. By mixing commemoration of a common historical destiny of the Soviet population with the distinct hardships and military activity on the Donbas front, the “Donbas people” gets to play the role of the eternal guard of the Russo-Soviet civilization. Other examples from an antemurale symbolic repertoire used in the NGCAs include Cossack narratives as well as other tropes of the Donbas as the “western frontier” of the Russian empire—distinguishing Russian civilization from Catholics in the past and decadent imperialists in the present. Culminating this tendency, the “Russian Donbas” Doctrine is unmistakingly declaring an antemurale identity platform—insisting on the peculiarities, and even supremacy, of the “Donbas people”—yet decidedly framing it within an overarching Russian nationhood and positioning the region as a military outpost of Russia.

In the NGCAs of eastern Ukraine, identity policy appears to reflect geopolitical strategy in a rather direct fashion. While ambivalent, it has been relatively consistent in othering Ukraine and Ukrainians, making reproachment ever more difficult as times go by. From the meandering policy, it remains uncertain whether Russia from the outset had any clear plans for these areas—whose policy appeared to drift toward possible independent nationhood. The developments from 2019 saw a marked shift, likely reflecting a strategic choice made in Moscow. The focus on Russia increased considerably in both policy and implementation, and came about at the same time as the regions were increasingly integrating with Russian in social, political, economic, and practical terms. In retrospect, at least, these developments may indicate that a systematic preparation for annexation was taking place.

I am indebted to my research assistant Darya Aspøy for collecting data from social media, and to the Contested Ukraine research group for commenting on previous drafts.

The research project is financed by the Norwegian Research Council.

Published online: May 09, 2024

1.

I use official Ukrainian names and spelling for settlements legally within Ukraine, even if many cited actors use Russian ones (Donbas, not Donbass). As for people’s names, however, I transliterate them from Russian (Zelenskii, not Zelens’kyï). Transliterations of quotes and references are always in accordance with the original spelling, in this article always Russian.

2.

Country reports are available at https://freedomhouse.org/. There are no reports from the preceding years.

3.

For details and links to the educational plans for each year and course, see Oliinyk and Bækken (2023, 14).

4.

For a review of the afterlife of the Soviet “miners cult” in Donetsk oblast, see Zimmer (2007).

5.

The Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy (DOSAAF) provides military training from the age of 14 up to 35. It has been reorganized several times under several different names since its first appearance in the Soviet Union.

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Appendix

Table A1.

Composition of Sample from VK

Club NameSettlementOblastTime Frame
Voin Luhansk Luhansk 2013–22 
Rus’ Luhansk Luhansk 2016–19 
MVD LNR Luhansk Luhansk 2017–22 
Pereval Perevalsk Luhansk 2019–20 
Iunnost’ Novorossii Molodohvardiisk Luhansk 2017–22 
Russkii Medved’ Donetsk Donetsk 2015–21 
Patriot Donetsk Donetsk 2016–20 
Molodaia gvardiia/Iunarmiia Donetsk Donetsk 2019–21 
Zastava 58 Makiivka Donetsk 2017–22 
Peresvet Makiivka Donetsk 2018–20 
Molodezh i sport Makeevki* Makiivka Donetsk 2013–22 
Stepnye Volki Snizhne Donetsk 2018–21 
Vitiaz Amvrosiivka Donetsk 2017–22 
Amazonki Horlivka Donetsk 2016–21 
Club NameSettlementOblastTime Frame
Voin Luhansk Luhansk 2013–22 
Rus’ Luhansk Luhansk 2016–19 
MVD LNR Luhansk Luhansk 2017–22 
Pereval Perevalsk Luhansk 2019–20 
Iunnost’ Novorossii Molodohvardiisk Luhansk 2017–22 
Russkii Medved’ Donetsk Donetsk 2015–21 
Patriot Donetsk Donetsk 2016–20 
Molodaia gvardiia/Iunarmiia Donetsk Donetsk 2019–21 
Zastava 58 Makiivka Donetsk 2017–22 
Peresvet Makiivka Donetsk 2018–20 
Molodezh i sport Makeevki* Makiivka Donetsk 2013–22 
Stepnye Volki Snizhne Donetsk 2018–21 
Vitiaz Amvrosiivka Donetsk 2017–22 
Amazonki Horlivka Donetsk 2016–21 

* Molodezh i sport Makeevki (Sport and Youth of Makiivka) is not technically an MPC. It was included for its online longevity and frequent reports on local military-patriotic activity.

Note: Many clubs organized through Molodaia Gvardiia/Iunarmiia since 2019 retained their original name within the new organization.

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