Pretty much everything that we now call South-Eastern Ukraine was once, and not so long ago, called Little Tatary, and belonged to the Crimean Khanate and Ottoman Empire...
The text below is about why South-Eastern Ukraine is so influenced by the Russian element today. Remind you that I only pass on some of my observations on the matter, the whole matter requires a much more thorough investigation (which I cannot undertake unfortunately) to arrive at definitive conclusions. I am sure that this is not the first such article I am writing. As I am going to argue, to blame the current situation squarely on Russification is in my opinion insufficient. I will also argue that introduction of the Russian element to this area was pretty much natural, and did not go that much against Ukrainian element in the region, the way it can be said of other parts of Ukraine.
I will here present two maps (both courtesy of wikipedia as is some other basic information here) to which I am going to provide some commentary:
There is no direct continuity between the seventeenth century Cossack Hetmanate and the present Ukrainian state, but I would say that the Ukrainian element in contemporary Ukraine is a direct descendant of the culture of the Hetmanate. According to my reading, the language of the Hetmanate differed considerably from that of its northern cousin by seventeen century. Apparently, interpreters were present at the signing of the Pereyaslav Treaty in 1654. This treaty effectively established unity between the Hetmanate and Russian Tsardom. Another cradle of Ukrainehood were Galicia and Volhynia to the West. Although descended from Rus', due to their Western location, their history was tied with the states to the West of its borders. The state that formed there when Rus' fell to the Mongols was absorbed by Poland and Lithuania already by fourteenth century.
The above map is good in that it shows the borders of the present Ukrainian state. We notice that the South-Eastern part of contemporary Ukraine is called 'Wild Fields', I personally prefer to call them here 'Savage Fields' for stylistic reasons. The term was a colloquial name given to these territories by Cossacks. It was settled by Nomadic tribes, which had loose allegiance to the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. The area around Odessa was the Ottoman province of Yedisan. These lands were fully annexed by the Russian Empire in late eighteenth century, Crimean Khanate in 1787, Yedisan in 1792. The nomads were expelled. The whole area was given a new name with a very colonial twist, the New Russia. Compare that with New England or New Spain.
The above map shows the distribution of the Russian language in Ukraine as of 2003. There are similarities between this map and the map further above. In fact, this map also bares similarities to the electoral maps which are displayed at almost every election since the independence of Ukraine. How did it come to this? Well, it is best to first answer how the Savage Fields became civilised? As was already hinted above, through colonisation of course. An article I found concerning this colonisation tells that 42,4 % of immigrants were of proto-Ukrainian extraction, Greater Russians (or who we now call simply Russians) made up 31,8%, the rest belongs to Belorussians, Poles, Moldavians, Germans, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. After the Crimean War a number of volunteers from the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Montenegrins) decided to settle in the area, these settlers have gradually assimilated into the Ukrainian/Russian element.
The author of the above-linked article, Igor' Gurov, further asserts that from the beginning of this colonisation, the dominant language was Russian albeit having some dialectical specificities. I personally find local Russian to be similar to that used in Kuban' and among Cossacks in North Caucasus. Gurov says that there developed a Russian sub-ethnic group, the Novorussians. Today, Ukrainian is used primarily in the rural areas, although often that Ukrainian is tainted with Russian, cities are predominantly Russian speaking. Pretty much all major local cities were established following Russian conquests in eighteenth century. And since these cities were established by the imperial metropolis, and their development was directed from that metropolis, the culture of these new cities reflected that of the metropolis. Below I provide the names of local cities and the dates they were established:
Kherson: established by Potemkin in 1778.
Odessa: established by a decree of Catherine the Great in 1794.
Donetsk: Established by a Welsh businessman John Hughes, who established a coal mining and steel making operation there 1869.
Nikolayev: Established by Mikhail Faleyev on the orders of Potemkin in 1790.
Lugansk: The origins of the city can be traced to 1795 when British industrialist Charles Gascoigne established a metal factory there.
As you can see from this small sample of cities, their founding was rather late, especially when compared with cities in the central regions of Ukraine. If one looks at where all the fathers of Ukrainian nationalism (such as Taras Shevchenko, Panteleimon Kulish, Ivan Franko) were born and conducted their work, you see it is either in Central Ukraine, or Galicia. Although I am sure we may find examples of nationalists originating from New Russia, the place simply did not provide the environment for early nationalist work.
How did it then happen that New Russia is today part of Ukraine? We would have to consult the Communists who have included the place in the state they have created. I would not be surprised that the policy of Ukrainisation, which the Bolshevik regime started shortly after creating Ukraine, had the most vocal opponents in former New Russia. I would have to find out more about this unfortunately. The area was also heavily afflicted by the Holodomor, and given its diverse ethnic composition, the argument that Holodomor was an artificial famine designed to crush Ukrainian nationalist sentiments falls apart. I heard one famous historian (I will not name any names) make the claim at a lecture that the fist settlement to perish was a village of Albanians. Sounds awkward but if true, the ancestors of these Albanians probably came here with the aforementioned Serbians and Bulgarians.
In Stalin's industrialisation there was no longer any place for Ukrainisation in this area. The Soviet Union needed a an interchangeable workforce that could be taken from Ukraine and moved elsewhere. Likewise workers and specialists from elsewhere could be brought to this place without learning Ukrainian. Many people from other parts of Soviet Union settled in this way in South-Eastern Ukraine. However, speaking about the region formerly called New Russia, one is left wondering if reintroduction of some degree of Russification under Stalin was not simply a reversal of Ukrainisation, and whether the prior introduction of Ukrainisation to the place was not introducing and promoting Ukrainian element in a place that was not quite Ukrainian.
The obvious task for Ukrainian post-independence nation-builders is to make the Russian speakers of this region into proper Ukrainians. While teaching Russian speakers Ukrainian is an easy task, making them abandon Russian language for Ukrainian is another matter, and I am not sure this can be done in foreseeable future. We see many young people, born after independence (or being small children at the time) still use Russian more than Ukrainian in vernacular speech. According to a recent Itar-Tass report I have presented here, the number of Russian speakers is actually rising. I would be interested in where this rise has occurred exactly, but I suspect it would be in the region in question.
PS: In a recent article criticising 'Soviet like political culture' in Donetsk, published on openDemocracy, Alexey Matsuka might be on to something when he writes:
In pre-Soviet times, Donetsk region was popularly known as the Wild Land: sparsely inhabited, lacking infrastructure and without the rich history of neighbouring Kievan Rus’. The Soviet experience transformed the region completely, turning it into a frontrunner in every way: industrial output, population numbers and members of the Communist Party. The area was a godsend for Soviet propaganda – a place with no history, owing its very existence to the Communists who covered the land in factories and housing developments for the workers who arrived to staff them.