The Evolution of the Russian Diaspora in Independent Ukraine
No. 3 2006 July/September
Boris Zazhigayev

Boris Zazhigaev, Ph.D in Political Science, is professor, head of the Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy and Deputy Director of the Kyiv International University, Ukraine.

Ukraine’s independence, which it acquired in the early 1990s,
came as a total surprise to the republic’s political elite. Kiev’s
path to independence began when it jumped on the sovereignty
bandwagon that – much to the bewilderment of the Ukrainian people –
was set in motion by its huge northern neighbor. On June 12, 1990,
the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Soviet
Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) adopted the Declaration of
State Sovereignty; Ukraine reacted to the “Big Brother’s” move only
a month later: On July 16, 1990, the Supreme Council of the
Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic passed, by an overwhelming
majority of votes (97 percent), the Declaration of State
Sovereignty of Ukraine. Its content hardly matched its title. The
provisions of the Declaration, however, only indicated the
republic’s intention to become an independent state and readiness
to sign a new Union Treaty.

Following are some of its provisions:

1. The Ukrainian SSR shall grant its own citizenship, while
guaranteeing each Ukrainian citizen the preservation of his/her
Soviet citizenship.
2. The Ukrainian SSR proclaims its intention to become a neutral
state unaffiliated with any military blocs.
3. Relations between the Ukrainian SSR and other Soviet republics
shall be built on treaties based on principles of equality, mutual
respect, and non-interference in internal affairs.

The Declaration provides a foundation for a new Ukrainian
Constitution and Ukrainian laws, defining the Republic’s positions
on international affairs. The principles laid down in the
Declaration of Ukraine’s Sovereignty shall be used in signing the
Union Treaty.

In the early 1990s, Ukraine’s population was socially
homogeneous, united by the aspiration for a better life and broader
socio-political freedoms. The sovereignty bandwagon had little if
any effect on the average citizen who at that time did not feel any
pressure from the Ukrainian authorities. Under those conditions,
the republic’s ethnic Russians did not see any threat to their
social rights or interests.

Few people in the east and west of the country believed that a
nation-state could be built in Ukraine, and judging by the
activities of the Ukrainian nationalists, such expectation in the
western regions was even weaker than in the east. Hence plans by
the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement Narodny Rukh,
Vyacheslav Chornovil, to establish a Galician Ukrainian Republic
with the capital in Lvov.

In the early 1990s, Ukraine was a multiethnic state comprising
over 130 ethnic groups and nationalities. At the same time, there
were only two core groups – Ukrainians and Russians. According to
the 1989 census, ethnic Ukrainians accounted for 72.7 percent (37.8
million) and ethnic Russians for 22.1 percent (11.5 million) of the
republic’s population. Any other ethnic group constituted less than
one percent of the population, or a total of 5.2 percent.

At that time, when the Soviet nomenklatura, which had preserved
its positions in Ukraine’s political elite and started an illegal
redistribution of property from the former Soviet Union, the people
at large were not concerned by interethnic relations, not even in
the Crimea, where Crimean Tatars began returning to their homes.
Polls showed that ethnic conflicts ranked just seventh on the list
of the Crimeans’ concerns, after poverty, unemployment, crime, and
other social problems.

In terms of the density and distribution of ethnic Russians,
three regions can be singled out in Ukraine:

– the Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, where ethnic Russians
had an overwhelming majority (65.6 percent in the Crimea and 74.4
percent in Sevastopol);
– eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, where ethnic Russians made
up a substantial share of the population: the Donetsk region (43.6
percent), the Lugansk region (44.8 percent), the Zaporozhye region
(32 percent), the Kharkov region (33.2 percent), the Dnepropetrovsk
region (24.2 percent), the Odessa region (27.4 percent), the
Kherson region (20.2 percent), the Nikolayev region (19.4 percent)
and the city of Kiev (20.9 percent);
– western and central parts of Ukraine, where the share of ethnic
Russians varied from 2.3 percent in the Ternopol region, to 11.7
percent in the Kirovograd region.

The number of Russians living in these parts of Ukraine, their
ethnic mix and their links with Russian culture were key factors in
the ethnic identification of the Russian population and its
aspiration for reunification with its historical motherland, as
well as its resistance to the nationalist policy pursued by the
Ukrainian ruling authorities.

These processes were not spontaneous manifestations of
nationalism or separatism on the part of the ethnic Russian
population. It was a natural socio-political reaction against the
elimination of a previously unified ethno-cultural area inside of a
new state that had proclaimed itself a republic.

Political pundits, especially in Russia, believe that the
Crimeans, under the leadership of the CPSU [Communist Party of the
Soviet Union] regional committee, started petitioning for the
return to Russia as early as August 19, 1991. This does not
correspond to reality.

The Crimean nomenklatura was concerned with something else –
namely, holding on to power and property, and preventing both the
Russians and Kiev from making a grab for it. This explains why a
year prior to the State Emergency Committee coup attempt and the
Belovezha Forest Accords, on January 20, 1991, a referendum on
“restoration of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic”
was held in the Crimean region. At that time, there was no question
about a rapprochement with Russia nor about secession from the
Ukrainian SSR and accession to the RSFSR, which could have happened
during perestroika. At that time, there were no ethnic-Russian
organizations in Crimea. There was the Movement of Voters for a
Crimean Republic, but it was not concerned with ethnic issues. Even
the RDK, an abbreviation that was often defined (erroneously) as
the Russian Movement of the Crimea [from Russkoye Dvizheniye
Kryma], was in fact the Republican Movement of the Crimea
[Respublikanskoye Dvizheniye Kryma], which subsequently became
known as the RDK/RPK Crimean political party (the party of Yuri
Meshkov, the Crimea’s only president).

Until 1994, all branches of government were controlled by the
Crimean nomenklatura, including the judiciary, the Prosecutor’s
Office, the Interior Ministry, and the security service (now the
Ukrainian Security Service). Neither Ukraine nor Russia had any
influence there. On May 6, 1992, the Crimean Supreme Council
[parliament] adopted the Constitution of the Crimean Republic,
proclaiming the Crimea a “law-governed, democratic and secular
state within Ukraine.” Under the Constitution, the Crimean
Republic’s relations with Ukraine were built on a power-sharing
law; it was the constitution of a full-fledged state where Ukraine
had no claims on the Crimea. At the same time, the Constitution did
not use the word “Russia” or “Russian” even once.

Due to the state policy of the Ukrainization in the southeastern
regions, ethnic contradictions began to emerge in 1993-94. This led
to the suppression of the rights of ethnic Russians and
Russian-speakers, the imposition of the Ukrainian language, the
aggressive expansion of Ukrainian culture, and the threat that
ethnic Russians would lose the connection with their historical

The Crimea was the only part of Ukraine that saw a complete
rotation of the political elite in 1994. This was caused by the
inability of the Crimean nomenklatura to rule the region amid
pressure from the Crimean Tatars, who were demanding a privileged
position for themselves and striving for national statehood on the
Crimean Peninsula. In those conditions, the majority of the
Crimea’s population began to identify themselves as Russians.

From 1993 to 1997, Crimea’s ethnic Russians linked their
security to the presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and Russia’s
historical interests in the Crimea. There were no contradictions
between the Crimea’s Russian and Ukrainian population: it was a
single whole. Furthermore, the majority of Crimean Ukrainians
identified themselves as Russian-speakers. At that period, the
interests of the people and the nomenklatura, which had started the
re-division of the Soviet pie, came into conflict.

In that situation, the RDK movement, led by Yuri Meshkov, who,
with support from Russia, became the president of the Crimea in the
1994, expressed the interests of the Crimea’s ethnic Russian
majority. Two months later, the Rossia bloc secured a majority in
regional parliamentary elections.

The change of the elite in the Crimea, together with the
coincidence of the national interests of its ethnic Russian
population and the state interests of Russia, laid the groundwork
for the formation of ethnic-Russian NGOs in the Crimea and

The Crimea was the only region in Ukraine where the nomenklatura
had entered into an open conflict with civil society. One
distinguishing feature of the situation was that in fighting for
the restoration of its ruling status in the Crimea, the
nomenklatura betrayed its public interests and took Ukraine’s side
in its conflict with the pro-Russian Crimea.

Ethnic-Russian NGOs in the Crimea saw their activities peak in
the mid-to late 1990s. They enjoyed a broad public base and high
potential, but unlike other Crimean ethnic groups, they received
only selective support from Russia in strict compliance with
interstate agreements. Furthermore, this support was coordinated
through old nomenklatura channels. Funding went mostly to
organizations that fit into the configuration of Ukraine’s state
political machine.
As a result, ethnic Russian organizations in the Crimea have come
to be led by ethnic Bulgarians, Karaims and Ukrainians. It is
noteworthy that ethnic Ukrainians as a general rule are more
radical toward Ukraine than any other groups. Ethnic Russian
organizations have not become truly mass organizations; they do not
express the interests of ethnic Russians in the Crimea nor defend
Russia’s interests.

Meanwhile, other countries actively support their Diasporas in
the Crimea. Turkey, for example, provides especially strong support
to the Crimean Tatars. This collaboration has an economic basis
that has united the Crimean Tatars and turned them into a robust
political force and an effective mechanism for exerting pressure on
the ruling authorities. There also exists close humanitarian and
cultural cooperation.

Similar aid is provided to other ethnic communities – from Greek
to German to Estonian, not to mention the Jewish community whose
positions in the Crimea are by far the strongest. The United States
and all European countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark,
provide assistance to all ethnic groups in the Crimea, including
the nationalist part of the Ukrainian Diaspora. The only exception
to this rule is the Russian population.

Russia has always regarded the Crimea’s ethnic Russians as part
of the Soviet people. This approach – at a time when Ukraine’s
officials view this group as a potential source of separatism – has
turned them into the most oppressed section of the population.
Today, ethnic Russians make up the greatest part of the population
in the Crimea but remain the worst organized ethnic group. They
have been left without political parties to represent their
interests, as well as organizational or economic structures. They
have no significant representation in the legislative or executive
branch of government.

The status of the Russian Diaspora in eastern and central parts
of Ukraine drastically differs from that in the Crimea. These are
large industrial coal-mining and metallurgic areas, while Russia
was the principal, if not the only consumer of their products.

The people who live in these regions were raised on the Soviet
doctrine of internationalism and are still under the influence of
the ideology of proletarian collectivism. They are united into
large collectives, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, by the
simple survival instinct. Ukrainian pundits described this
phenomenon as civic dormancy. The population of Ukraine’s eastern
regions is controlled through “red” enterprise directors who are
running state-owned companies like their own fiefdoms.

The people from the eastern regions of Ukraine have a strong
connection with the industrial enterprise or coalmine where they
work. They usually speak Russian or use a mixture of Russian and
Ukrainian. Both steelmakers and coalminers are native Ukrainians,
and except for the language and the Soviet era of
industrialization, there is little that links them to Russia.

Their mentality is different from that of the Crimean people,
the majority of who are former servicemen of the Black Sea Fleet or
family members. The Crimean people have been raised on the
historical traditions of Russian soldiers and the heroism they
showed in the numerous wars fought on Crimean soil. Ethnic Russians
from the east and south of Ukraine have been brought up on
internationalism and working-class traditions of the Soviet

The political elite in southeastern Ukraine is comprised of the
Soviet-era nomenclature, which has a strong element of organized
crime and casts itself as a defender and protector of working-class

Ethnic Russians in the southeastern regions of Ukraine have not
yet acquired a distinct identity, merging with the rest of the
population. Their demands are exclusively economic and social:
payment of wage arrears, job security, welfare benefits, etc. At
the same time, their mentality is more solid, more associated with
Russia than western or central Ukraine.

Ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine clearly gravitate more
toward Russia than the West. A potential conflict between these
mutually assimilated sections of the population and Ukraine’s
nationalist western regions could lead to the country’s
transformation as a federation.

The situation with the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking
populations in western Ukraine drastically differs from the
situation in southeastern Ukraine, not to mention the Crimea. In
western Ukraine, the period immediately following the acquisition
of independence is marked by a surge in rabid Ukrainian
nationalism. As a result, ethnic Russians in western Ukraine are
now associated with the crimes of the Soviet-era totalitarian
regime under Stalin, not least the deportation of western
Ukrainians to Siberia and the Soviet Far East. As the country
gained independence, nationalists in western Ukraine began to stage
a comeback, including those who had fought against the Soviet Army
during World War II. Not surprisingly, Russians are now the main
targets of nationalist attacks as nationalism is emerging as a
state ideology in Ukraine.

Following are several excerpts from a Ukrainian history textbook
for 11th graders:

  • 3.3 The resistance movement against Soviet rule by the
    Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian
    Insurgent Army (UPA). At that time, OUN-UPA operated under a slogan
    proclaimed by Roman Shukhevich (who headed the movement since the
    fall of 1943): ‘Make sure that not a single village recognizes
    Soviet power. All those who recognize Soviet power must be
    eliminated. Not intimidated, but physically destroyed. We need not
    be afraid that people will curse us for our cruelty. If only half
    of Ukraine’s 40 million population remains, there will be nothing
    terrible about this.’
  • In 1945, in the Lvov region alone, about 5,000 NKVD officers,
    operatives, party functionaries, government officials, Komsomol
    [Young Communist League] members, rural council chairmen,
    collective farm directors, and schoolteachers were killed.
  • 3.4 Punitive operations by Soviet state security services.
    NKVD-KGB agencies also practiced mass terror in western Ukraine. In
    1944-45, regular army forces and militia units conducted about
    40,000 operations, killing 103,000 insurgents, while arresting
    another 125,000. For their part, the insurgents carried out 6,000
    operations, conducted 14,500 acts of sabotage and terrorism,
    killing at least 30,000 people. On April 24, 1944, a large battle
    took place near the village of Gurby, Rovno region, with about
    30,000 men on the Soviet side and up to 5,000 on the UPA side. [It
    was in effect a second front against the Soviet Army. – B.Z.] In
    independent Ukraine, OUN-UPA activities have acquired a new,
    patriotic meaning for the new generation of Ukrainians in the
    country’s western regions. This is considerably facilitated by the
    assistance of various Western foundations and organizations. Most
    of these foundations and organizations can be regarded as players
    in the Ukrainian political process.”

One distinguishing feature concerning the plight of ethnic
Russians in western Ukraine is that representatives of other ethnic
minority groups, which seek to integrate into the Ukrainian
linguistic environment, distance themselves from ethnic

Ethnic Russians in western Ukraine are comprised of mostly
retired military servicemen and their family members, as well as
intellectuals who were forced to the region in Soviet times to fill
labor positions. Today, these people find themselves in a
precarious situation.

Their under-representation on the national level, in the midst
of a nationalistic, flag-wavering euphoria, prevents ethnic
Russians from effectively upholding their rights in public. There
are only two options open for them – either finding ways to
assimilate into Ukraine or move to Russia, which is in fact what is

The Russian population is shrinking at an especially high rate
in the Ivano-Frankovsk region (56.3 percent) and the Lvov region
(52.6 percent). In the Vinnitsa region, the number of ethnic
Russians is down by nearly half. In the Volyn region, their numbers
have declined by 46.4 percent; in the Zhitomir region, 43.3
percent; the Kirovograd region, 41.7 percent; the Rovno region,
43.8 percent; and the Khmelnitsky region, 42.4 percent. In the
Chernigov, Cherkassy, Kharkov, Sumy, Zaporozhye, Poltava, Odessa,
Kiev, Transcarpathian, and Dnepropetrovsk regions, the Russian
population has decreased by 32 percent to 37 percent (according to
the 1989 and 2001 censuses).

In the republic’s capital of Kiev, the number of ethnic Russians
has fallen by 37.1 percent, or 199,000. Unlike other world
capitals, a large number of people coming to Kiev from the
provinces ignore the opportunities provided by city culture, and
are spreading the low culture of the western Ukrainian provinces.
This has affected not only Kiev’s urban life, but also the rotation
of the Ukrainian elite.

Another factor here is the policy of Ukrainization, which has
been acquiring a strong centripetal element amid rising political
populism that is increasingly assuming the form of

Since 1994, the Ukrainian government has actively and very
effectively opposed the formation of the country’s Russian
Diaspora. This counteraction is intensified by Russia’s attitude
toward its compatriots and its economic policy toward Ukraine.
Russia has in effect created Ukraine’s nationalist oligarchy.
According to Igor Bakai, the former head of property management
under President Leonid Kuchma, 50 of the wealthiest Ukrainian
businessmen made their fortunes by cooperating with Russia in the
oil and gas sectors.

Meanwhile, not a single ethnic-Russian organization in Ukraine
has managed to create an economic niche for itself. Russian
businessmen (from Russia) form partnerships exclusively with
representatives of the nationalistic Ukrainian circles. This
applies to LUKoil, TNK and other business majors. Similar trends
are observed in the fields of art, culture, science and

The lack of a financial base has effectively caused ethnic
Russians to fall by the wayside in Ukraine’s political life: they
have become a political tool in hands of others. This situation
evolved under President Leonid Kuchma, a representative of the
“red” eastern nomenklatura. Kuchma, the former director of the
Yuzhmash production association, was seen in Moscow as a
pro-Russian politician, while relations between Russia and Ukraine
in the economic and humanitarian sphere were dominated by
horizontal nomenklatura links inherited from the Soviet era.

The West was for a long time patronizingly indulgent toward the
Kuchma regime’s criminal antics, understanding the degree of its
energy dependence on Russia and Russia’s historical and genetic
influence on Ukraine, as well as its geographic proximity. At the
same time, the West gives Kuchma much credit for distancing Ukraine
from Russia. Long before the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” Neue Zurcher
Zeitung wrote: “It is often overlooked that Russia, even in such
former Soviet republics as Ukraine or Belarus, cannot act at its
own discretion. No matter how ‘anti-West’ he might look to many
Europeans, President Kuchma refused to let Ukraine move back under
Moscow’s wing. He is balancing between the West and the East: Kiev
signs a Common Economic Area agreement with Russia, Kazakhstan and
Belarus, and then asks for EU admission.”

Such a policy enabled Kuchma to escape the fate of Slobodan
Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and of Yugoslavia, and
receive indulgences from the West.

Now that Ukraine has a new president, it is especially clear how
cynically Leonid Kuchma wielded his influence over ethnic Russian
organizations. By a quirk, the city of Lvov was chosen as the
center of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian movement; the Lvov-based
organization was reorganized as a political party called Russian
Bloc. Not surprisingly, that party did not enjoy sufficient
credibility among Ukraine’s ethnic Russians. In the 2002
parliamentary election, the Russian Bloc garnered about 0.7 percent
of the vote nationwide. In the city of Sevastopol, it received 8.9
percent of the vote and about 5 percent in the Crimea as a whole.
At that time, ethnic Russians accounted for over 60 percent of the
Crimea’s population and 72 percent of Sevastopol’s. The Russian
Bloc did not run in the 2006 parliamentary election. In the 2006
election for the Sevastopol city council, it took a mere five seats
out of 75.

Ethnic Russians in Ukraine have always felt the strong influence
that the Ukrainian ruling authorities had on ethnic Russian
organizations in the country. Furthermore, Russia itself supported
only those ethnic Russian organizations in Ukraine that were
supported by the Ukrainian establishment. In those conditions, many
ethnic Russians, for safety considerations, stopped identifying
themselves as Russian.

It is impossible to create an organized Russian Diaspora in
Ukraine under such conditions. In eastern and central parts of the
country, there are small, almost “underground” circles of
intellectuals loyal to the ruling authorities and enjoying the
support of Russian officials.
Concerning the Russian Diaspora, there are two principal levels of
its evolution:

1. Emigration (repatriation) to Russia.
2. Forced assimilation of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

During the space of 12 years between the 1989 and 2001 censuses,
the number of ethnic Russians in Ukraine declined by approximately
3,170,000, or 26.6 percent. In 2001, there were 8,334,100 ethnic
Russians living in Ukraine, or 17.3 percent of the total
population. In between the two censuses, Ukraine’s population
shrank from 51.9 million to 48.2 million, yet the number of ethnic
Ukrainians increased by 0.3 percent since 1989. This means that
ethnic Russians accounted for more than 91 percent of the total
decline in Ukraine’s population.

The number of ethnic Russians dropped not only in western parts
of Ukraine. There was an appreciable decline even in the Crimea –
11.6 percent (by 155,000); the Donetsk region, 20.4 percent
(473,000); the Lugansk region, 22.5 percent (287,000); and even in
the city of Sevastopol, 8.2 percent (22,100).
Ethnic Russians in Ukraine are nostalgic for Russia. This attitude,
however, is not matched by Russia’s treatment of its compatriots.
Russia’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Victor Chernomyrdin, has often
stated in public that there are no problems in Ukraine either with
the Russian language or with Russians.
The ethnic evolution of the Russian-speaking population in
independent Ukraine is closely linked with the evolution of Russian
as a means of communication between Russians and Ukrainians.

The issue of the status of Russian as a state language was only
raised in the early years of Ukraine’s independence in the Crimea.
Those initiatives, however, found little response in other parts of
Ukraine, including in the southeastern regions.

The government administration of former president Leonid Kuchma
reacted strongly to those initiatives from the Crimea’s ethnic
Russian organizations, and implemented harsh measures outside the
bounds of the country’s Constitution: ethnic purges among state and
government officials, including in the Interior Ministry and the
National Security Council, as well as in the business community. At
the same time, the government covertly divided enterprises in all
sectors of the economy among Kuchma’s relatives and loyalists. As a
result, ethnic Russians ended up on the lowest rung of the social
ladder in Ukraine.

Beginning in 2000, ethnic Russians, including in the Crimea,
faced up to reality and started actively studying Ukrainian and
taking degree courses in Ukrainian, primarily in Kiev. The same
holds true for secondary education. This trend is observed even in
Sevastopol, in the families of Russian Navy officers.

Most Ukrainians speak both Russian and Ukrainian, but the
proportion of those speaking Russian is relatively higher.
Ukrainian is an official language whereas Russian is used in
everyday life, including among the upper sections of the Ukrainian
political elite. Virtually all large-circulation newspapers in Kiev
are published in Russian. Demand for fiction in Russian is
incomparable to the demand for fiction in Ukrainian.

These trends have nothing to do with separatism: the linguistic
situation has been evolving in Ukraine over many centuries. Some
Ukrainian citizens who find it more convenient to communicate in
Russian will strongly support the idea of giving Russian official
language status. Yet these same people will never back actions by
radical political forces that could result in social upheavals, let
alone bloodshed in Ukraine.

The two languages are closely interacting and interpenetrating.
This factor assists the mutual assimilation of ethnic Russians and
Ukrainians, while the Ukrainian authorities, under Yushchenko, as
it was under Kuchma, strive to accelerate the process.

For example, in 1995, Roman Bessmertny, a former Kuchma
associate but now leader of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine
faction in parliament developed an assimilation program for Crimean
Tatars; they promptly proceeded to sue him for such a move.

The period from 2004 to 2006 marked the climax in the power
struggle between the criminal/oligarchic clans in Ukraine, showing
that the political parties lacked any ideological principles.
Coalition factions in parliament that are being proposed are
ideologically incompatible. Unfortunately, the Russian language
also became a bargaining chip in relations between the oligarchic

The campaign to promote Russian as a regional language is
strongly supported by people living in these regions, but there
will be no mass protests against the central authorities if they
refuse it this status. In such a scenario, oligarchic groups are
using Russian as a political weapon. This idea is actively backed
by Leonid Kuchma’s associates who during his rule just as actively
fought against granting Russian the status of an official or state
language. Today, they have made a U-turn, looking after their own
economic interests and using their extensive experience.
In a situation where ethnic Russians are now the lowest caste on
the social ladder of Ukrainian society, where survival is no longer
a social but a purely biological issue, ethnic Russians are not in
the position to uphold their rights in Ukraine on their own. Today,
the outlook for the Russian Diaspora’s involvement in Ukrainian
politics is bleak. Under Ukraine’s present oligarchic form of
government, the number of ethnic Russians is bound to decline even
further; Russians will remain just a political tool in the hands of
Ukraine’s nationalist elite that has opted for the Western vector
of development.