Brother Peoples

A common term you will hear from Russian and non-Russian Kremlin supporters is the classic “brother peoples,” or in Russian, братские народы. What does this term actually mean, and is it worth being a “brother people” to Russia?

There are some in Russia today who still like to imagine Russia as the leader of the Slavic peoples. I say “imagine,” because the fact is that every Slavic nation save Belarus has pretty much rejected an alliance with Russia, both military and economic. Even the “little brother” Serbs are on the path to EU membership and may one day end up in NATO, opening up great opportunities for revenge by purposely doing a really shitty job in military exercises.

“We removed all the kebabs from your MREs! Payback’s a kurva, zar ne?!”

In more recent times, “brother peoples” has been used to refer to Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians, which historically at least makes a little more sense. That is until Maidan, when a certain Ukrainian poet told Moscow where they could stick their brotherhood with this poem called “We’ll never be brothers.” I apologize in advance for the shitty, ironically very Russian rock song that accompanies this video, but it was the only one I could find that has English subtitles:

Why did she choose those words? Well for those who weren’t able to see or hear initial Russian responses to Maidan, it basically went something like this:

“Why are you protesting to join Europe? We are BROTHER PEOPLES! We should unite against the Anglo-Americans! Come on, brothers! We won WWII for you when you were too busy collaborating with Bandera and the Nazis! We freed you from having to speak that awful, horrible, disgusting language that was invented by the Poles, Austrians, and Lenin! We gave you everything, the best parts of our empire, hydroelectric dams, we fed you for decades! Now you want to go and join Gayropa so all your kids will become gay and dance in gay parades every weekend? Go to hell, you American ass-kissing, worthless whores! Ukraine doesn’t exist! It was invented by Poland, Lenin, and Stalin while he was still Georgian. Winter’s coming! Your salo will be frozen! We have all the gas! HA HA HA!”

If you want to learn more, I covered this subject in depth in this post last year. If you don’t have the time, I’ll summarize. Basically, Russia acts like one of these “nice guys” who always talk about how wonderfully they would treat some woman, if only they would appreciate what a “gentleman” he is. He really has nothing else to offer a woman except common courtesy and streams of insincere compliments, all of which he hopes will get him sex. When women fail to swoon at the prospect of exchanging their bodies for doors being held open or free food, he inevitably goes into backlash mode, where he declares women to be stupid whores who are brainwashed into going after “stupid, jocular assholes.”

In our analogy, Russia is the neckbearded nice guy and Ukraine is the hot girl he obsesses over. Ukraine ends up choosing the good-looking, intelligent, mentally stable, charismatic, talented guys such as Europe and the USA instead of Russia, who is just so…nice.  Well except the fact is that like nice guys, Russia isn’t so nice. In fact, Russians were making fun of their Ukrainian “brothers” long before Maidan. The comic below, for example dates to somewhere between 2011 and 2013, while Russia’s man Yanukovych was in power:

Putin: Our countries are like two bottles of mineral water. Yanukovych: Well, yes. Medvedev: Only one of them is 'without gas.'

Putin: Our countries are like two bottles of mineral water.
Yanukovych: Well, yes.
Medvedev: Only one of them is ‘without gas.’

Here we see that Russians were making fun of Ukraine’s gas woes long before Maidan, but this is not all. The memes we heard that came out during and after Maidan, about the Ukrainian language, the idea of Ukraine as an invented country and an invented nationality, etc. did not simply appear out of thin air in 2014. These were all more or less well-circulated ideas throughout Russia many years prior to Maidan. That Yanukovych had returned to power in 2010, ensured the Russian military presence in Sevastopol, and squashed the prospect of NATO membership mattered not.

Of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. Recently someone sent me this article on the travails of nearly 1.1 million Ukrainian citizens who fled to their “brother nation” Russia as a result of the war their “brothers” in the Kremlin started. It’s only in Russian but there’s nothing particularly surprising to me in it. In summer of 2013, again pre-Maidan, a student from Yalta told me that she “hates the Ukrainian language.” Poor thing, had to know another Slavic language that’s incredibly close to Russian. Wonder why all those other Slavic countries don’t seem interested in Pan-Slavism anymore! More recently, while Cyprus one of the people in my camping group was a bit vatniy. He claimed he knew what was going on in Ukraine because he worked with Ukrainians who fled to Russia from the war-torn regions. A bit later, however, he said that Ukrainians in Russia were extremely insolent and lazy. Just for the record, he seriously moderated his tone once he learned that there were three Ukrainians in our group, or as I reminded him, “three and a half.” Brothers, right? Hey it could be worse though, you could be a sister.

A good friend of mine will recall telling me a personal story from 2014 of a woman who fled Luhansk to take up residence in the concierge office of his apartment towers. This is not an incredibly uncommon thing, and in her case it could be rightly called an emergency measure. She never bothered anyone and basically worked on the premises. In spite of this, many residents circulated a petition to get her removed. Brotherly love right? That’s only the beginning. The woman recounted to my friend how some men in the building had offered her either money or shelter for sexual favors. Yeah. Classy.

Of course this isn’t limited to Ukrainians by any means. Russians express similar jokes and barbs against Belorussians, express outright hatred for Caucasians (except Ramzan Kadyrov, if they know what’s good for them), make patronizing and condescending comments about Tatars, and so on. Any expression of cultural pride or concern for one’s native language is interpreted as nationalism, while “good” minorities accept Russian cultural hegemony and tolerate displays of Russian nationalism and patriotism. If you’re American this should sound familiar to you; just replace “Russian” with “white people.”

The problem I’m getting at here isn’t so much with Russians but rather this imperialistic, patronizing idea of “brother people’s.” You’re only a “brother” if Moscow is the dominant, big brother in the relationship. They get to dictate your history and culture to you, and they also get to make jokes or condescending statements about your people as well. On the flip side, any criticism going the other way is at best, radical, divisive nationalism, and at worst- literal fascism.

Bottom line is this- the concept of “brother peoples” is absolute bullshit and there is nothing to be gained from being one. You’ll endure jokes and condescension for years until you get tired of it and lash out, and then you’ll be accused of whoring your country to the United States, because this is the only kind of relationship between countries that Moscow can imagine.

You know the funny thing about that poem, “We’ll never be brothers,” is that in reality Ukraine and Russia will always have strong ties. In spite of the war the two countries still engage in a lot of trade. Many Ukrainian citizens who support Kyiv are in fact ethnically Russian or mixed. Many Ukrainian soldiers and activists have relatives in Russia. As the sniper I met on the train back to Kyiv once told me, twice in fact: “I’m not fighting against Russia. I’m fighting for Ukraine.” Apt seeing as how he was ethnically Russian and born in Russia. Even my vatniy camping companion said he had relatives in Ukraine, though he insisted he knew better about what was going on in their own country better than they do. So with all these integral ties, could Ukrainians and Muscovite Russians ever be “brothers?” In the commonly understood Russian sense of the word? No, never. But as equals, on the basis of mutual respect? Perhaps.


10 thoughts on “Brother Peoples

    1. Estragon

      That’s always been my thought when I hear this term. Brothers fight, and sometimes they become so estranged they won’t talk to each other for years. So the term is perhaps more accurate than its speakers intend.

  1. EP

    “Brother people” is not a very good translation of “братские народы”. The correct one is “brotherly people” (as in “The City of Brotherly Love”).

    Also, you make it sound like Russians aren’t vastly more xenophobic than all but the worst segments of the American people. From casual racism to serious hate crimes, Russia is way, WAY ahead of America.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Huh? Okay I should have written the plural but come on, it’s “brother peoples.”

      But yeah, Russia definitely has the US beat in areas like that. One thing about this guy on the camping trip is that he had something negative to say about every nationality that was brought up. Europeans- They’re pansies who are getting taken over by Arabs. Poles- They’re cunning and dishonest. Ukrainians- Lazy and insolent.

      Usually when Americans say insulting things about other countries, it’s just out of sheer ignorance rather than actual malice.

      1. EP

        In Soviet Russia, Poles are the cunning ones…

        And it’s definitely “brotherly”. “Brother peoples” would work for “народы-братья”, however. (Yes, I’m pedantic. I’m also a native speaker, however 😉 )

      2. EP

        Both Russian phrases are perfectly legit. It’s just that the one you have in mind is translated “brotherly people(s)”, not “brother people(s)”. And, as Estragon points out, “fraternal people(s)” also works, if your models are Progress Publishers or Foreign Language Press 🙂

    2. Estragon

      The Soviet-era “legacy translation” of this term would be “fraternal peoples,” I think. I never see that one anymore. Maybe it sounds too commie for our current age.

  2. Asehpe

    I wonder if Americans ever thought of Canadians as a “brother(ly) people” (or vice-versa). The relation between Canadians and Americans has certain similarities with that between Russians and Ukrainians; but the idea of “brotherly love” never really seemed to catch on in US-Canada relations.

    Historically, I think terms like “brother(ly) peoples” were rarely used without some hidden geopolitical agenda. Cases like “la Francophonie” or the British Commonwealth (where one sometimes hears about “brotherly nations”) seem to be attempts at clinging on to a (romanticized?) imperial ideal. I wonder if it is possible to claim that the very use of the expression is sufficient to diagnose similar hidden intentions.


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