Living Historical Legacies: The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Institutional Persistence – The Case of Ukraine

47 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2010 Last revised: 4 Nov 2010

See all articles by Leonid V. Peisakhin

Leonid V. Peisakhin

Juan March Institute for Study and Research

Date Written: September 1, 2010


In this paper I present a theory explaining how historical legacies influence contemporary voting behavior and attitudes towards property and laws and test it against empirical evidence from Ukraine. I hypothesize that behavioral scripts created at the time of rapid modernization can survive under certain conditions, and that these pre-Communist expectations about the states of the world are the cause of much of contemporary variation in political and economic regimes across the former Communist space. I chose Ukraine as a case study because of a natural experiment that played out in western Ukraine at the end of the 18th century. Between 1772 and 1795, an otherwise homogenous population of landowning Poles and Ukrainian peasants was divided between two different empires at the partition of Poland between the Habsburgs and the Romanovs. Both empires faced the same challenge in their Ukrainian borderlands: the need to ensure that the powerful Polish magnates never realize their dream of reestablishing an independent Polish commonwealth. However, whereas the Habsburgs nurtured the Ukrainian community as a counterweight against the Poles, the Romanovs suppressed all local identities. This master policy cleavage gave rise to two completely different institutional landscapes in the political, commercial and cultural spheres. Imperial institutions disappeared by 1918, yet some behavioral scripts that they established persisted into the present. To demonstrate this persistence, I surveyed 1,675 respondents in 227 settlements (mostly villages) situated within 16 miles of the former imperial frontier. I found that former Russian communities have a very different vision of Ukraine’s geopolitical role, they vote for different political parties, have a greater attachment to the institution of communal property, and although their members exhibit higher levels of social trust, they are also less likely to participate in political protests. Importantly, my findings do not suggest that backward former Russian subjects are living side-by-side with enlightened Europeans: in fact, both former Romanov and Habsburg communities are equally authoritarian.

Keywords: historical legacy, natural experiment, political culture, post-Soviet politics, Ukraine

Suggested Citation

Peisakhin, Leonid V., Living Historical Legacies: The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Institutional Persistence – The Case of Ukraine (September 1, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Leonid V. Peisakhin (Contact Author)

Juan March Institute for Study and Research ( email )

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