4 maps that debunk National Geographic, and why they need to issue another correction

National Geographic recently published a map on their online publication showing Ukraine not only divided along what it portrayed as very obvious and cutting divisions, but also giving topographical legitimacy to the Russian colonial term “Novorossiya,” mixing fantasy with reality.

When this map went public, our comments were filled with complaints, with readers blown away that such a major, international news source would make such a gaffe in their map making. The National Geographic Society previously made claims that it would shade in grey “disputed” territory when it recognized Russia’s occupation of Crimea, but that rule didn’t apply in this case.

Here’s why this map was wrong:


The following two maps show the real linguistic situation in Ukraine. While many in Ukraine are bilingual, in both the east and the west, native tongue is an important form of ethnolinguistic affiliation. Here we can see that the idea of a “Ukrainian-Russian” plurality among all of eastern Ukraine doesn’t pan out, with only Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odesa oblasts having real parity.

Ukraine language map
2001 census results on language, by region

But Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are still “Russian”, that is, until you break down map by district and not gerrymander it by region:

Ukraine language map
2001 census results on language, by district

Instead, the areas with a majority of native Russian speakers correspond more closely to the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone now occupied by Russia, nearly exactly.


Another issue with National Geographic’s map is that it demarcated the entire south-east of Ukraine as being involved in pro-Russian protests. While many of these regions saw protests, they were often isolated to the capitals, small in number (especially when compared to the mass Euromaidan protests in Kyiv), and sporadic. In many cases these protests would happen on a weekend and never be seen from again, or drop considerably in number after the border with Russia was closed.

Further, the isolated protest in Kherson was so small we had to omit it from the map altogether as it did not meet our cutoff of 500 persons.

© Mat Babiak

What National Geographic’s definition of pro-Russian protests also omits is that concurrent to these rallies were also a wave of pro-Ukraine unity counter-protests, which covered a large area of the country, and in many cases dwarfed their Russian counterparts. (note: this map does not include all western Ukrainian pro-Ukraine rallies, and focused only on areas outside of the very pro-Ukrainian west.)

© Mat Babiak

Now, let’s look at the before and after of the Nat Geo map gaffe, which has since been mildly corrected:


As you can see, while they have removed the dotted-red line that indicated the “most common language,” the indicators of  “Ukrainian,” “Ukrainian-Russian,” and “Russian” are still not telling the true story. They did, however, demote “Novorossiya” from a bold black font to a light grey, adding “Historical region” in parenthesis.

National Geographic is not the only publication guilty of simplifying Ukraine’s narrative into two equally opposed halves. Binary concepts are easy to digest and easy to explain to readers. Clean lines are easy to understand and equal halves give parity. But it’s oversimplification that leads to distortion, and this was the case with National Geographic. Although demoting “Novorossiya” is an improvement in removing fantasy, they do need to issue another correction on the language and protest reality on the ground.

23 thoughts on “4 maps that debunk National Geographic, and why they need to issue another correction”

  1. Anout the linguistic discussion, maybe its time to accept subcarpathian russin as a separate language and gave the russins staus of national minority.

    1. Ukraine doesn’t recognize it as a language and only about 10,000 people even identify as non-Ukrainian ‘Rusyn’

      This is complicated because all Ukrainians used to all be called Rusyns, so how can one be Rusyn but not Ukrainian if it’s the same thing?

      1. My wife is Rusyn, she does not feel it complicated, Ukrainians are Ukrainians, rusyns are rusyns. They all leave in Ukraine but they speak a different language even if its kind of close. How Ukrainians were called before by some people its irrelevant, this kind of arguments just avoid to discuss the real issue: my wife was 25 years old when she first could read a story in her mother tongue… So recognize the language and the Rusyns as a national minority. Problem solved.

        1. The term Rusyn is an anachronism. As the previous commenter Mat stated, all Ukrainians were “Rusyns”. Sometime 100+ years ago Rusyns started to self-identify as Ukrainians. If you were an immigrant to the US or Canada before your native region in Ukraine made the conversion from Rusyn to Ukrainian, then you continued to identify yourself as Rusyn and so did your offspring.
          As an example, my great grandfather and his contemporaries in his part of Ukraine considered themselves “Rusyn”, but his daughter and thereafter self identified as “Ukrainian”. The region my family came from is in western Ukraine and has its own dialect and vernacular, yet if I went back there and stated I was “Rusyn” the people would look at me funny. Now, if my great grandfather had immigrated to the US and lived happily ever after, then its possible his offspring (me) may today be insisting that they are “Rusyn”.
          It actually is a complicated subject matter. In my opinion, Ukrainians probably never should have changed from “Rusyn”, but I believe it was a political decision to separate themselves from the “Russians” who had stolen their name and cultural legacy. Ukrainians rather should have insisted that the Russians give up their assumed name and stick to their historically accurate and traditional name “Moskali” or “Muscovites”.
          I like regional variety including language, and my part of Ukraine is just as different from parts in the central, south, east, and western mountain areas, yet it is still Ukrainian.
          As for the current idea of “Rusyns” and its current political manifestation you will notice that it is actively pushed and promoted by the Kremlin. Gee I wonder why? From the land of ethnic cleansing, Russia Today is going to champion the good people of the earth. Excuse me while I vomit.

          1. Spot on and all good points.

            Especially about Russia’s interests. In this case, the ‘Rusyns’ act like the Russophile “Old Ruthenians” from when the Ukrainian debate began, where western Ukrainians were called “Young Ruthenians” before they adopted the Ukrainian ethnonym.

            Russian interests are are at play here, and unlike the diaspora Rusyns, the ones in Ukraine can be Russophile and their leadership is full of agents of Moscow. Sydor was always for separatism and the other guy (name is escaping me) is already called for armed uprising to ‘liberate the Rusyns’. This is ridiculous and makes the idea of Rusyns as separate even more ridiculous and obviously an invention of Moscow – which is sad because the region and its people have their own culture that should be celebrated among all Ukrainians, but these clowns give it a bad name.

          2. I can agree with most of your comment, just two slight addition:

            Ruysns are extremely apolitical, most of them do not even know who is Sydor and they certainly not supporting any separatism
            (least not my wife’s friends and family or people who she knows about).

            I do not think that Moscow’s involvement makes the idea of the Rusyn autonomy oblast an invention of Moscow, Rusyns struggling
            for recognition and language/cultural rights since the mid-1800s. Moscow makes the whole situation more difficult and complicated also Hungarian far right likes to talk about an independent Zakarpatia which is not helping at all. It is up to the Ukrainian people to separate the real issue from the Kremlin propaganda and hopefully you guys will show some wisdom and not let those Kremlin bastards steer up trouble in Zakarpatia too.

          3. we’ve been known as Ukrainians well before 100 years ago…read a variety of history books….Gogol talks about Ukraine, Shevchenko talks about Ukraine also Catherine the Great had a Ukrainian lover for years also whoever was queen before her did too and they refered to them as Ukrainian. We’ve been Ukrainians for well over 300 years. Yes Rusyns is what Ukrainians were called in ancient times. Everyone needs to speak one language to keep a country united. They can speak any language they want at home or in their afliated organizations as we do here in the States. But for unity and sovernity you must have one language.

          4. It is really interesting to have a discussion on the origin of the Rusyns and the use of the them Rusyn,fascinating, really, still I take this as an irrelevant discussion. You forget that Sub-Carpathian Rusyns has a different history than west Ukrainians. They
            were living as integrated part of the Hungarian kingdom for around 1000 years,their culture, language and religion had a different history than Ukrainians.

            About the current political situation it is deeply unfair to identify the long existing Rusyn national movements with the current Russian politics. This kind of thinking is not helping to solve the issue with
            democratic means, opposite, you effectively label the Rusyn speaking population of Zakarpatia Russian agent and separatist. The Kremlin did not created the Rusyn question they just using it for their own evil agenda.

            The Rusyn national movement started in the mid-1800s against the Hungarians, later they were struggling for the promised autonomy
            within Czechoslovakia, or you saying that Kremlin agents are behind the events in the 1800s? They have a time machine?

            The Rusyns mostly want recognition and their language rights so their kids can study in their mother tongue.

        2. First…is it a language, or a dialect? There’s a saying about languages being dialects with an army. Is it sufficiently different from your average western / carpathian Ukrainian?

          Second, it’s not irrelevant because the idea of being ‘Rusyn’ is what is contested here. There are Rusyns in the former Yugoslavia, and those in America and Slovakia – they didn’t self identify as ‘Ukrainian’ because they were populations that were separated from the whole, and that makes sense. But those in carpatho-Ukraine where 99.9% of the population of Rusyns stayed with the rest of Ukrainians? Do those 10,000 really represent that region’s population?

          Rusyns are a complicated bunch. They claim Lemkos, even though the Lemkos identify as a further separate entity and not as Rusyns. They claim Hutsuls and Boykos…who identify as Ukrainians entirely.

          I’m from a family of Boykos, and we have Warhols and other ‘Rusyn’ surnames in our family tree. I recognize my ‘Rusyn’ roots and the roots of western Ukraine as a whole…but not as something separate from the rest. Dare I say, self described Rusyns are hipsters?

          That may be going too far. Paul Robert Magocsi is an amazing Ukrainian history professor, who is a Carpatho-Rusyn, and I really need to read his work on the topic; but it’s no coincidence that he’s a Ukrainian history professor who covers Ukraine and not the Carpathians in isolation – and I think that’s the case with Rusyns, why isolate and reject your neighbors?

        3. It’s not others who called Ukrainians “rusyns” 100 years ago. It was Ukrainians themselves who called themselves “rusyns”. If you asked a typical Galician peasant circa 1900 who he was, he would have answered “rusyn”.

  2. Looks like National Geographic cannot afford to lose its Russian readership? Google also had to provide Russia with a separate version map of Crimea recently. I mean, who are they kidding?

    1. Because they all only care about money. And they are all becoming monopolies: Google, Facebook, Microsoft… none of them are willing to give up on a bad market or a bad client, even when they know they should.

  3. Russian language is used everywhere in Ukraine beside Ukrainian – Russian language does NOT mean Russian sympahties. Very many Russian people do NOT agree with Russian politics and behaviour. All this nationalistic noncense creates misery! The economy in Donbass is totally ruined for a long time

    1. Correct. If the idea is to show which side is “Ukrainian-Russian”, then that implies bilingualism, and that should be all of Ukraine, not just half the country.

      1. That is how it is! But the language problem does not exist ! Ukraine has very many problems – language is NOT a problem . economy IS a problem

  4. 75-80% are bilingual, fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, in eastern Ukraine. The term Russian-speaking should not be used by anyone.

    The May, 2013 Gallup poll in Crimea showed that language was an issue for only 4%.

  5. It is INDEED dissapointing to see such a simplistic view on things from such a respected publication as NG! 🙁 Hope they will research the matter and present facts more thoroughly…

  6. Actually, ALL Ukrainians could switch to the name “Rusyn”. Boy, would that piss Russia off… lol After all, we are the original RUS’. And then start promoting ourselves as the ORIGINAL, the GENUINE, the HISTORICALLY aboriginal people of Rus’… and Russia’s ‘big brother’ (i.e., the older brother), while we’re at it. 😀

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