War in Ukraine

The history of coexistence between two neighboring peoples is coming to an end before our eyes

The history of coexistence between two neighboring peoples is coming to an end before our eyes


On one of the Israeli banknotes dedicated to Prime Minister Golda Meir, one can see a classic scene related to Golda's visit to the Moscow Choral Synagogue, then head of the Israeli embassy in the Soviet capital. Neither Golda nor Soviet leaders could have predicted the number of people who would gather to see the Israeli diplomats. Later, Stalin would launch unprecedented anti-Semitic repressions, which did not culminate only after the dictator's death. However, the visitors to the synagogue on Archipova Street could imagine how the Soviet leaders would react. That is why they preferred to avoid any contact or conversation with Golda Meir and her colleagues. And rightly so! When one of Golda Meir's heirs, Shmuel Elyashiv, visited the synagogue in Kyiv a few years later, every word that the community elder, my great-grandfather Hershl Portnikov, said to him was recorded and passed on to the KGB. So it is not for nothing that Soviet Jews in Israel were called "Jews of silence," as we can now call Russian Ukrainians.

Indeed, the war has been going on for two years now - I'm not even mentioning the ten-year conflict over Crimea and Donbas. And during this time, there has been no initiative from existing (well, probably no longer existing) Ukrainian organizations in Russia, no one has even dared to do what the so-called "anti-war candidate" for the Russian presidency, Boris Nadezhdin, is now proposing: to call for at least an end to the war. The Ukrainian state is already reminding us of the historical territories of Ukrainians that are now part of the Russian Federation – where are these Ukrainians?

The Ukrainian diaspora in Russia is not an abstract concept for me. 35 years ago, I participated in the creation of the first Ukrainian organizations in Russia, launched Ukrainian programs in the Russian media (yes, even in Ukrainian - it's hard to imagine it now!), followed the development of the Moscow library of Ukrainian literature, which was later destroyed by Putin, and the creation of new Ukrainian centers... And I came to the conclusion that there is no need to talk about any mass movement.

We talk a lot about the Russification and erasure of Ukrainian identity in the Ukrainian SSR itself. This pressure was so strong that it is still felt in independent Ukraine, and for all the decades of its existence we have remained a state of split identities – and no one knows what it will look like after the war. Now let's just imagine what the Russification movement was like in the Russian Federation itself without Ukrainian schools, without awareness of at least simulated statehood, and without the possibility of being a Ukrainian without fear of being ridiculed (although in Soviet times, people were ridiculed in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odesa, and Dnipro). And let's ask ourselves what level of self-respect in an authoritarian country and an archaic chauvinistic society is necessary to remain Ukrainian?

So, Ukrainians in Russia are divided into roughly three groups. The first and smallest of them are people with a Ukrainian identity. This group has been shrinking all these decades also because independent Russia remains much more hostile to Ukrainian identity than even the Soviet Union. People belonging to this group have a simple choice: leave Russia or live in secret.

The second group includes people who cannot hide their Ukrainian ethnicity but are ashamed of it. These are the people from the historical Ukrainian territories. People whom their neighbors (not necessarily Russians, but Ukrainians who have been "converted" to Russianness) consider "Khokhles" - and they consider themselves "Khokhles." These people are like bears in a circus. To demonstrate the "broad Russian soul" and "big brother's tolerance." Here, the "Khokhles" live next door, we don't offend them, we go to their house for dumplings, and we laugh at their conversation. Not like those "Nazis".

And finally, the largest group of Russian Ukrainians are people who consider themselves ethnic Russians and want everyone else to consider them as such. Even their Ukrainian surnames do not convince them of anything, because, like Putin, they believe that there are no Ukrainians at all. If you want to make sure that this thesis is correct, just look at the list of fallen Russian soldiers and see for yourself how many people there are with Ukrainian surnames and Ukrainian ancestry. When we say that in the traditional territories of Ukrainian settlement, Ukrainians have simply disappeared in recent decades, this does not mean that they have mostly left. It means that most of them have finally turned into Russians (and the abolition of the famous "nationality" column in passports and questionnaires only contributed to this). And I am sure that the war will finally put an end to the history of Ukrainians in Russia. As, however paradoxical it may sound, it will also put an end to the history of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, because most of these people will feel Ukrainian after such a bloody and unexpected conflict - not only in the sense of identity but also in the sense of ethnicity. And those who continue to feel Russian are likely to have already left or will leave Ukraine, and not necessarily in favor of Russia itself.

So the history of coexistence between two neighboring peoples with diasporas of millions in Ukraine and Russia is coming to an end before our eyes. And all we can do is preserve the historical memory of the lands where Ukrainians once lived and their unique civilization on these lands, from the Green Wedge to the Kuban.


But we are unlikely to ever meet "living" Ukrainians on these lands.