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‘It’s not safe to admit you’re Ukrainian’ How Putin’s domestic war on Ukrainian culture began years before the 2022 invasion

Source: iStories
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Report by Sonya Savina from iStories. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

Data from Russia’s 2021 census showed a record decrease in the country’s Ukrainian population: according to the survey, the number of Ukrainians living in Russia dropped by half between 2010 and 2021. And while experts have cast doubt on the census’s accuracy, the same pattern has been found by multiple other surveys, demographers, and Ukrainian diaspora members themselves. The reasons might seem obvious — Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 — but Ukrainian activists in Russia say the decline is part of a story that goes back decades. The independent outlet iStories dug into how Vladimir Putin’s efforts to stamp out Ukrainian identity in Russia began long before his full-scale war. In English, Meduza summarizes what they learned.

A record decline

Ukrainians have historically been one of the most highly represented nationalities in Russia: just a decade ago, they were the third largest group (about two million people), after ethnic Russians and Tatars, according to census data. By 2021, however, they’d fallen to the eighth spot (about 884,000 people).

While Russia’s Ukrainian population has been gradually shrinking for decades, this sudden decline of more than half was unprecedented. Other data sources show the same pattern: according to the Russia Longitudinal Monitoring Survey conducted by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, while Ukrainians made up almost 2 percent of Russia’s population in the 2000s, they made up less than 1 percent in 2021.

Demographer Alexey Raksha believes the most likely reason for the apparent decline in Russia’s Ukrainian population is that Ukrainians, especially young ones, tend to start self-identifying as Russians sooner after moving to Russia than people of other ethnicities do. It may also be the case that Ukrainians are leaving Russia faster than they’re immigrating there, Raksha said, though reliable data here are scarce.

According to members of Russia’s Ukrainian diaspora, the shift hasn’t been a natural process, regardless of whether the decrease is due to emigration or a change in how people self-identify. They say the Russian authorities have been working to reduce the country’s Ukrainian population for years, namely by discouraging expressions of Ukrainian identity and shutting down organizations that represent Ukrainians’ interests in Russia.

‘There was this euphoria. And then a switch flipped.’

“It’s become uncomfortable to be an ethnic Ukrainian in Russia,” said Viktor Girzhov, the former deputy chairman of the Association of Ukrainians in Russia. Though Girzhov lived in Russia for more than 20 years, in 2015, the Russian FSB banned him from entering the country for five years. The official reason was that he violated border-crossing procedures, but Girzhov believes the real reason was that he told the truth about Russia’s actions in Ukraine on Russian television.

Ukrainians forced into Russia

‘They’re trying to assimilate us’ Ukrainian civilians deported to Russia describe forced evacuations and ‘filtration camps’

Ukrainians forced into Russia

‘They’re trying to assimilate us’ Ukrainian civilians deported to Russia describe forced evacuations and ‘filtration camps’

In Girzhov’s view, the rapid decrease in Russia’s Ukrainian population is largely a result of Russian state policies intended to purge all things Ukrainian. He says this began in 2004, when Ukrainians launched the Orange Revolution in opposition to Putin-backed presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, and some Ukrainian organizations in Russia openly supported the uprising.

“After the collapse of the [Soviet] Union, Ukrainian organizations started popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. There was this euphoria, this feeling that under Gorbachev, under Yeltsin, we would have some freedoms,” Girzhov told iStories. “And then a switch flipped, and it all started to fall apart. That was under Putin.”

In 2010 and 2012, Girzhov recalls, two Ukrainian diaspora organizations that aimed to preserve and share Ukrainian culture in Russia were shut down. Then, in 2018, the Russian authorities closed the Moscow Library of Ukrainian Literature, claiming the director had “distributed extremist materials.” The following year, the largest association of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine, the Ukrainian World Congress, was banned as an “undesirable organization” in Russia.

By the mid-2000s, says Girzhov, it was effectively impossible to study the Ukrainian language in Russia:

In Ukraine [at that time], there were very many schools where Russian was taught. But in Russia, there wasn’t a single school, not even a single Ukrainian class, for the two-million-person Ukrainian diaspora. In Russia, there are no places where you can speak Ukrainian; there are neither schools nor libraries [of Ukrainian literature].

Girzhov and some other diaspora members tried to open Moscow’s first Ukrainian school, but the Russian authorities “continually made unrealistic demands, and [the project] petered out.” Today, according to Russia’s 2021 census, only 33 percent of ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia speak Ukrainian.

fleeing through russia

‘Mom, we want to live’ The Ukrainian refugees forced to travel through Russia on their way to safety

fleeing through russia

‘Mom, we want to live’ The Ukrainian refugees forced to travel through Russia on their way to safety

And while, on paper, there are still some organizations that support Ukrainian culture in Russia, Girzhov said they exist solely to promote what he calls “Ukrainian fakelore”: “They’re funded by the [Russian] state and by presidential grants. […] These organizations participate in city events and festivals, people dance and sing, but there’s no politics, no social activism, no rights for Ukrainians. The Russian government creates these caricatures of Ukrainians. But as soon as you start to support Ukraine — not even the Maidan [Revolution], just independence, culture, language — it’s over.”

According to Girzhov, the official decline in Russia’s Ukrainian population might be the result of ethnic Ukrainians in Russia self-identifying as Russians in official surveys:

People are afraid because it’s not safe to admit that you’re Ukrainian right now. For example, the [Federal Security Service] has questioned people who appeared on the Library of Ukrainian Literature’s list of readers. Older people are worried about their children and grandchildren. Younger people are worried about losing their jobs. Everybody who could leave left before the war. Now it’s difficult, because until the war ends, everybody who’s left is trying not to emphasize their “Ukrainianness.”

‘Why don’t you sing in Russian?’

Valery Semenenko moved from Ukraine to Moscow for graduate school in 1978, and he ended up settling down there. He’s one of the founders of the Association of Ukrainians in Russia, and he served as the organization’s co-chair until 2012, when the authorities shut it down:

At first, in the late 2000s and the 2010s, we would write letters, appeals to Putin: we called for mutual understanding [between Russia and Ukrainian]. […] They shut us down for that: after the Orange Revolution, the Russian authorities got nervous. And two months after closing us, they created a puppet federal organization of Ukrainians whose representatives now say on TV that [Ukrainians] are Russians.

Returning home

‘I dreamed of Mariupol every night’ Why Ukrainian refugees return to their uninhabitable city

Returning home

‘I dreamed of Mariupol every night’ Why Ukrainian refugees return to their uninhabitable city

Semenenko has since gone “underground”: he now leads an unregistered organization for Russia’s Ukrainian diaspora. “We know Russia’s laws: we can only write about the pain and suffering of Ukrainians. As far as military activities, let alone discussing the [Russian] army, that’s off the table.”

And politics isn’t the only realm that scares the Russian authorities:

We can’t even sing. In the fall of 2022, there was an annual concert in St. Petersburg. Each group — Kalmyks, Chuvash, [etc.] — performs one song. They invited Ukrainians as well. Then they thought better of it: “Actually, how about you sing in Russian?” But [the Ukrainians] insisted: “Either we sing in Ukrainian, or we don’t sing at all.”

Semenenko said he has little confidence in the 2021 census data, especially since he never received a survey. Still, he has no doubt Russia’s Ukrainian population is indeed shrinking.

“If the Russian state is still in one piece [after the war], and if all of these patterns continue, the number of Ukrainians here will fall to zero,” he said. Even he wants to leave, he adds: “But I have ties here: my home, my family. My wife is a native Muscovite. Where is she supposed to go? We should have left sooner. At least my children can go.”

‘Mom, I’m not going to fascist Russia’

Anna (whose name iStories changed at her request) is from the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv but has been living in Russia for more than two decades. She currently leads an organization for Ukrainian women living in Russia. Every time air raid sirens sound in Chernihiv, she told iStories, she “hears” it from her home outside Moscow. She says she keeps the notifications activated on her cell phone because her daughter still lives in the city.

When the February 2022 invasion began, Anna tried to convince her daughter to move to Russia. “I told her, ‘Come here.’ And she responded, ‘No, Mom, I’m not going to fascist Russia,’” she said.

According to Anna, things were “booming” for the Ukrainian community when she first moved to Russia in 2000; she and other diaspora leaders even met with government officials to discuss opening a Ukrainian school:

It seemed to us that Russia was so big, there was so much to be done, so much to create; our countries could communicate, there could be student exchanges, artist exchanges. We thought that’s how the future would be, but things turned out completely differently. The Ukrainian diaspora is in such a sorry state now. If you say what local authorities tell you to say, then of course they’ll support you. But I don’t know how you can say things that aren’t true.

Since the war began, some of Anna’s acquaintances in Ukraine have cut off contact with her simply because she lives in Russia. “But what can I do here alone?” she said. “Recently, some caring people left flowers at the monument to [Ukrainian writer] Lesya Ukrainka [in Moscow], and all of them were arrested. Now, there will probably be police stationed at all of the Ukrainian monuments.”

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It’s difficult to live in Russia knowing Russians support the war in such large numbers, Anna reflected. “When you start talking about what’s happening [in Ukraine], you see the aggression; people’s eyes fill up with blood, they’re ready to devour you,” she says. “But there are some [Russians] who are just sympathetic, and they come up to me and say, ‘Tell us the truth, because, outside of what we see on TV, we don’t see anything. We don’t know anything.’”

Like Valery Semenenko, Anna doesn’t believe any Ukrainians will stay in Russia after the war ends. “I know a lot of people who are waiting for the end of the war to leave Russia, because it’s impossible to live here knowing what [Russia] did [in Ukraine]. My daughter is in Chernihiv; how could I keep living here in peace?” she says, worrying that it could even become unsafe to remain in Russia:

I lived there for 40 years, worked in a school; my students are there, my classmates, my relatives, and my parents’ graves. The “liberators” came and destroyed everything: 70 percent of Chernihiv is gone. How else am I supposed to view that? Morally, I just can’t live here. For now, it’s just “morally” impossible; later, it might reach the point of physical massacres [of Ukrainians in Russia]. I wouldn’t rule it out.

Report by Sonya Savina from iStories

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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