Erased Identity: Ethnic Ukrainians on Russia’s Lands

October 8, 2023
Have you heard of Ukrainian Kuban, Siberia, or the Far East? In fact, ethnic Ukrainians have lived in close quarters on modern Russia's territory for centuries.
Photo credit: Hennadiy Kvashura. Resettlement of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Kuban.

The history of their resettlement is particularly pertinent now that Russia is actively deporting Ukrainians.

How did ethnic Ukrainians end up on Russian territory? What was going on with the Ukrainian identity? UkraineWorld put these questions to Vladyslav Havrylov, a historian, researcher, and writer at the Where Are Our People project and a research fellow at Georgetown University's Collaborative on Global Children's Issues.

The resettlement of ethnic Ukrainians to certain Russian territories occurred primarily in the 19th century. The primary purpose of their relocation was to develop the Russian Empire's sparsely populated territories.

Despite these processes having different ways of being implemented, modern deportations, for example, have a similar aim. Ukrainians have been deported to Russian regions with severe demographic problems.

There are three concentrated areas of Ukrainians in Russia. Zelenyy Klyn, Malynovyy Klyn, and Siryy Klyn are their historical names.

The Zelenyy Klyn is the territory of Amur Oblast, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Primorsky Krai, and the southern part of Khabarovsk Krai of modern Russia (the Russian Far East).

The Malynovyy Klyn is the territory of Russia’s modern Krasnodar and Stavropol Krai (Kuban).

The Siryy Klyn is the Southern-Eastern Siberia of modern Russia and the northern part of Kazakhstan.

There were common trends in Ukrainian resettlements to the aforementioned territories. The authorities of the Russian Empire encouraged this process.

For example, in order to incentivize Ukrainians to settle in Far Eastern territories, a five-year tax exemption was introduced, and residents were exempted from military service.

Ukrainians composed 50% of all the people resettled to the Far East of the Russian Empire.

Regarding Siberia, according to a census conducted in 1897, more than 200 thousand Ukrainians lived there. Taking into account the territory of northern Kazakhstan, which was once part of the Russian Empire, this figure amounted to around a million Ukrainians.

Relocation to Kuban began earlier, in the 18th century. Following the destruction of the Zaporizhzhia Sich by the Russian Empire, some Cossacks managed to relocate to the devastated region of Kuban and established the Black Sea Cossack Host.

The Cossacks established 40 settlements that resembled those in which they had previously lived.

During the Soviet period, the number of ethnic Ukrainians in Siberia and the Far East grew as a result of their forced relocation to special settlements after serving their sentences in Soviet prisons.

For example, the number of Ukrainians in the Far East increased from 362 thousand to 500 thousand between 1939 and 1989.

Russian propaganda has been hyping the topic of the so-called infringement of the rights of Russians in Ukraine.

However, that was the Ukrainian ethnic minority in Russia, which was severely oppressed by Russian authorities.

Despite the challenges that the Ukrainian national movement faced during the Russian Empire, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Soviet "nativisation," a certain segment of Ukrainians acknowledged their true identity as Ukrainian.

For example, according to a 1930s census, more than 62% of the Ukrainian population of Krasnodar Krai identified as Ukrainians.

During the "nativisation" period, ethnic Ukrainian settlements had Ukrainian cultural and educational societies, theaters, and folklore ensembles.

The processes that occurred in the Far East during the Bolshevik Revolution deserve special attention. Following the revolution, the Zelenyy Klyn was incorporated into the Far Eastern Republic.

Petro Marchyshyn, a prominent Ukrainian, was appointed deputy minister of national affairs. He was actively working to improve Ukrainian education. He was later arrested and died in a Soviet prison.

Ukrainians from the Far East took part in the Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917 to 1921. During 1917-1918, fourAll-Ukrainian Far Eastern Congresses took place. They even created the highest Ukrainian representative body - the Ukrainian Far Eastern Regional Council.

However, in 1922, the Bolsheviks liquidated the Far Eastern Republic, and up to 200 Ukrainian public figures were arrested.

Starting from the 1930s, the Ukrainian national movement collapsed all over.

The tragic events of the 20th century (the Second World War, the aggressive Soviet policy of Russification) led to the erasure of Ukrainian national self-awareness among the Ukrainian ethnic minority.

Only the collapse of the USSR brought a chance for a certain extent of the Ukrainian national revival in these territories. In particular, in the Far East, the days of Ukrainian culture took place. In 1993, the Ukrainian Far Eastern Congress was held in Vladivostok.

In December 1991, the Association of Ukrainian Culture of the Kuban was registered in the Krasnodar Krai, and the Ukrainian newspaper "Cossacke Slovo" was published.

However, with the rise of Putin's politics in the 2000s, this process collapsed, and the practice of aggressive Russification reappeared.

For example, in 2010 almost 85% of ethnic Ukrainians in Russia’s Far East called Russia their mother tongue and few of them were aware of themselves as Ukrainians.

The relationship between the representatives of the Ukrainian ethnic minority in Russia and the currently deported Ukrainians is a difficult one.

We can only speculate whether the ethnic factor will work, and whether the descendants of ethnic Ukrainians who relocated to Russia will help the deported Ukrainians.

Vladyslav Havrylov, a historian, researcher, and writer at the Where Are Our People project and a research fellow at Georgetown University's Collaborative on Global Children's Issues.