Russia's 2021 census showed a record drop in the number of Ukrainians living in Russia. But the cleansing of everything Ukrainian, including language and culture, started long before Putin's invasion.
The 2021 Russian Population Census showed a record reduction in the number of Ukrainians living in Russia. The figure has halved since the last census just over a decade ago in 2010.
While experts question the results of the census, the same trend has been recorded by a number of other studies, demographers, and representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora themselves.
Independent Russian news outlet Vazhnyye Istorii has revealed how the Russian authorities began the eradication of Ukrainian identity from citizens within Russia long before the full-scale invasion. Its origin goes back to the very beginning of Vladimir Putin's presidency.
Historically, Ukrainians have been one of the most widely represented nationalities in Russia: ten years ago they were the third largest behind Tatars and Russians. In 2021, they left the top three for the first time and moved to eighth place.
Ten years ago, almost two million Ukrainians lived in Russia, but before the start of the war there were only 884,000 of them remaining.
Some demographers warn that the results of the 2021 census are questionable due to the large numbers of violations. According to independent demographer Aleksey Raksha, around 50 million people did not take part in the census and some 16 million participants did not indicate their nationality.
However, a similar trend is found when looking at results from an investigation carried out by the Moscow-based public research university, Higher School of Economics, studying the health and economic situation of the Russian population. According to these figures, in the 2000s Ukrainians made up 2% of the Russian population but by 2021 they made up less than 1%.
Representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora believe that the Russian authorities have been reducing the Ukrainian population of the country for years, erasing their identity and destroying organizations that would represent the interests of Ukrainians in Russia: the official state policy aimed at clearing the entire Ukrainian field in Russia influenced the population decline. Here are their stories.
When it's not safe to admit you're Ukrainian
“Being an ethnic Ukrainian in Russia has become uncomfortable,” Viktor Girzhov, former deputy chairman of the Association of Ukrainians in Russia, explains. He lived in Russia for over 20 years, but in 2015 the FSB banned him from entering the country for five years. The official reason was that he violated migration formalities, but Girzhov himself believes that he was expelled for telling the truth about how Russian state TV was reporting the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Girzhov considers the official state policy aimed at clearing the entire Ukrainian field in Russia one of the main reasons why there are fewer Ukrainians. According to him, this began just after 2004 in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution (a series of protests and political events that took place across Ukraine following the presidential elections marred by massive corruption and exploitation). The Revolution period (November 2004-January 2005) is often said to be the origin of an increasing sense of nationalism amongst the Ukrainian population following the fall of the Soviet Union.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian organizations began to appear in Russia like mushrooms after the rain. There was such euphoria, such a mood that under Gorbachev, under Yeltsin there would be some kind of freedom,” Girzhov said. “And then something clicked, and it all started to fall apart — it happened under Putin.”
There's no longer the opportunity to study the Ukrainian language
The Ukrainian organizations that had appeared in Russia were quickly dissolved. Grizhkov explains how in 2010 and 2012 two federal organizations of the Ukrainian diaspora were liquidated: “Association of Ukrainians in Russia” and “Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians in Russia”, which were engaged in the preservation of Ukrainian identity and the development and dissemination of Ukrainian culture.
No schools, no libraries
By the mid-2000s, there was no longer the opportunity in Russia to study the Ukrainian language, says Girzhov: “In Ukraine, there were a lot of schools teaching Russian. And in Russia, for the entire two-million diaspora, there was not a single school, not even a class with Ukrainian. In Russia, there is no way to communicate in Ukrainian: there are no schools, no libraries [with Ukrainian literature].”
According to the 2021 Russian Population Census, only 33% of Ukrainians living in Russia actually speak Ukrainian.
There are almost no associations of Ukrainians left in Russia, says Girzhov. “Formally, such organizations exist, but they live on the money of the [Russian] government and presidential grants. These organizations participate in holidays and festivals, dance and sing, but no politics, no social activity, no rights for Ukrainians,” says Girzhov. “As soon as you start supporting Ukraine… bye bye!”
“In a multinational Russia, all peoples must mutually exist and mutually enrich themselves,” Girzhov continues. “But this cultural environment was constantly cleaned up and banned in Russia. This gives rise to animosity and conflict between nations.”
According to Girzhov, the decrease in the number of Ukrainians in the census can also be explained by the fact that not all ethnic Ukrainians in Russia identify themselves as such when answering the question about nationality. “People are afraid because now it is not safe to admit that you are Ukrainian,” says Girzhov.
Inside the Moscow underground
Sing in Russian, or don't sing at all
Valery Semenenko moved to Moscow from Ukraine in 1978 originally to enroll in graduate school, though settling down there afterwards. He is one of the founders of the "Association of Ukrainians in Russia" and from 2005 to 2012 was a co-chairman of the organization until it was closed by the Russian authorities.
“At first, in the late 2000s and in the 2010s, we wrote letters, appeals addressed to Putin: we called for mutual understanding [between Russia and Ukraine], so that they might take our interests into account. They closed us down. Two months later, they created a puppet federal organization of Ukrainians, whose representatives would say on television that we are all Russians,” Semenenko said.
Semenenko now heads a public association of Ukrainians in Russia, but operates without legal registration. “Now the Ukrainians of Russia are sitting underground. In fact, there is no public activity — it’s dangerous… We know Russian law: we can only write about the pain and suffering of Ukrainians, but of course, we can’t write about military operations, let alone discuss the [Russian] army.
“You can't even sing. In the fall of 2022, there was an annual concert in St. Petersburg: there, each ethnic society — Kalmyks, Chuvashs, etc. — is given the chance to perform. Ukrainians were also invited. They told us: “Come on, sing in Russian.” Then they pushed hard: “Either you sing in Russian, or you don’t sing at all.”
“This is a general trend towards the denial of Ukrainian identity,” he continues. “Now they [authorities and propagandists] are already openly saying that there are no Ukrainians and there never were, that there was no Ukrainian language, even.”
Really, No Ukrainians left?
Anna, originally from the Ukrainian city of Chernigov, has been living in Russia for more than 20 years and heads one of the associations of Ukrainian women in Russia.
Every time an air raid alert sounds in Chernigov, she “hears” it at her home in the Moscow region. Anna is especially conscious of what happens in her Chernigov because her adult daughter lives there. When the war began, Anna invited her daughter to evacuate to Russia: “I told her: 'Come here, to Russia,' and she replied: “No, mother, I will not go to fascist Russia.”
“When I first arrived, in the early 2000s, everything was developing so rapidly: we talked about opening a Ukrainian school…” Anna said.
Anna fears that after the end of the war, there will be no Ukrainians left in Russia.
“It seemed to us that Russia was so big with so much potential that much could be done to communicate with countries, to exchange students, exchange artists. But the Ukrainian diaspora is now in a very deplorable state. If you say what the local authorities say, then, of course, the authorities will support you. But I don’t know how you can say something that is totally untrue.”
“Recently, people who care, took flowers to the Lesya Ukrainka [a famous Ukrainian writer] monument. They were all arrested. Now the police will probably be on duty around all Ukrainian monuments.”
Anna has since withdrawn from any activity in her organization so as not to “harm her family”: “We used to be engaged in cultural and educational activities, and we saw many Russians who helped us, were with us on our [Ukrainian] public holidays. Now we can’t do anything: we just worry, we help our refugees. But you know how the authorities treat you, even if you help, you have to be careful.”
Anna fears that after the end of the war, there will be no Ukrainians left in Russia. “I know very many who are waiting for the end of the war to leave, because it is impossible to live here after what has been done there [in Ukraine]. I have a daughter in Chernihiv, how can I morally justify staying here?” Anna asks.
“I lived there for 40 years, worked at the school, my students, classmates, relatives are there, my parents' graves are there. They came and destroyed everything: in Chernihiv, 70% of the city is gone. How can I look at it? I just can't mentally live here, knowing what they have done there.”