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Russia's Ukrainian minority under pressure

Ukrainians living in Russia are choosing to keep a low profile amid high tension between the countries.

Last updated: 25 Apr 2014 07:26
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Many Russians supported their country's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula [Ian Bateson/Al Jazeera]

Moscow, Russia - One day last month Roman Romanenko, a Ukrainian living in the Russian city of Vologda, came home to find a swastika painted on his door and flyers stuffed in his neighbours' mailboxes.

The flyers read: "Living in your building is a piece of Lviv scum", referring to a western Ukrainian city with a strong sense of national identity, many of whose residents supported the protest movement that led to the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

The flyers warned that Romanenko supported the protest movement, and that his apartment could become a centre for anti-Russian Ukrainian extremists.

Romanenko, who is originally from eastern Ukraine and not Lviv, is the editor of a local newspaper. He recently wrote a popular Facebook post asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops to Vologda, as he had done in Crimea - but this time, to protect local Russians from corruption.

Recently questioned by the local prosecutor's office, he said the situation has become harder for Ukrainians in Russia over the past few months. "I don't really talk about Ukraine anymore - not because I don't have anything to say, but because the topic is just too hot."

Many Russians were euphoric at their country's takeover and annexation last month of the Crimean peninsula, which had belonged to neighbouring Ukraine. But Russia's sizeable Ukrainian minority has remained conspicuously silent. "If you try and talk about Ukraine, they just call you a Banderite [a follower of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera] or a Maidan protester," Romanenko told Al Jazeera.

'Nasty and unpleasant' environment

Though leaders of Russia's Ukrainian community said they have not suffered from widespread physical abuse or discrimination, many are afraid of publicly defending Ukraine out of fear of repercussions.

Alexander Botezatu, 25, is originally from Vinnitsa in central Ukraine, and has been studying and working in Moscow for the past eight years. According to Botezatu, the situation has grown increasingly tense. "It's nasty and unpleasant living in an environment where you are constantly surrounded by people aggressively attacking your country," said Botezatu, who works in the telecommunications sector.

Ukraine orders military action in the east

In moving to Russia, both Botezatu and Romanenko chose a path that millions of other Ukrainians have taken. Nearly two million people described themselves as Ukrainian in Russia's 2010 census, and many more Russians are of mixed Ukrainian heritage. Putin said last month there are three million Ukrainian citizens currently working in Russia.

In the Soviet Union, Russians and Ukrainians lived and worked closely together. Behind Russia, Ukraine was the second-largest republic within the Soviet Union.

Historical ties go back further - with both Ukrainians and Russians tracing the origins of their countries back to the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus. 

Russia's President Putin regularly emphasises their similarities, referring to Ukrainians as Russia's "brothers" and saying the two ethnicities are in fact "one people".

But for many Ukrainians who once believed in that fraternal closeness, the annexation of Crimea and Russia's current support for separatist movements in eastern Ukraine have spoiled that relationship.

Media-fuelled hostility 

The atmosphere soured when Yanukovich was deposed after three months of protests, with Ukraine's new leaders then setting their sights on European Union membership.

Russian state television stepped up a campaign against the new Ukrainian leaders, beaming footage into Russian homes portraying the country as being on the verge of civil war, with "neo-Nazi" gangs threatening the lives of Russian speakers.

"The media in Russia is lying as if it were North Korea. I never believed it, but 90 percent of people in Russia do," Botezatu told Al Jazeera. "Some believe it 100 percent, some 70 percent and some 30 percent. But the end result is that even those who believe only 30 percent of it are staunchly against Ukraine and see Nazis everywhere."

Russian media frequently draw comparisons between Ukrainian nationalists and Stepan Bandera, the leader of a nationalist movement founded in western Ukraine with ties to Nazi Germany's army during its occupation of Ukraine. 

"Here they always try and call me a 'Banderite'," said Valeriy Semenenko, vice president of the Russia branch of the Ukrainian World Congress. "But I'm from Dnipropetrovsk [in eastern Ukraine], so it doesn't work. They don't understand how you can be from the east and speak Ukrainian." 

Ukrainians in Russia make up the largest single diaspora of the Ukrainian people, and they are the largest ethnic group in the country after ethnic Russians and Tatars.

Large numbers of Ukrainians came to Moscow seeking work during Russia's oil-fuelled energy boom in the early 2000s, where wages were often higher than in Ukraine for unskilled labourers and skilled workers alike.

But this was a cause for bitterness among some Russians, who believe that Ukrainians are welcomed with open arms even while their country's government adopts policies they regard as anti-Russian. "I can't understand these khokhli," said Natalya, 62, a Russian pensioner, using a derogatory term for Ukrainians. "They were supposed to be our brothers, and they do this. And they all come to Moscow to work on construction sites and scrounge off us."

'One nation'

The hostility is not entirely new. There has always been some friction between Ukraine and Russia, last coming to a head during the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, which ushered in pro-European leaders in Ukraine. But they lost power when Yanukovich was elected in 2010.

In Russia, Ukrainians are not considered a separate nation, and the Ukrainian language is considered a dialect of Russian.

- Gasan Gusejnov, professor at Moscow's National Research University,

The Federal Association of Ukrainians in Russia, another organisation in which Semenenko was involved, was shut down in 2012. The official reason was that it violated financial regulations, but it had also been accused of "presenting a negative image of Russia".

Worried about persecution, Ukrainians have largely kept their feelings to themselves during the ongoing crisis. Some Ukrainians complain that, while Russian state media has claimed the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine are threatened, Russia does not treat its own Ukrainian minority any better.

Little attention is paid, they say, to the fact that, unlike the Russian minority in Ukraine, the Ukrainian minority in Russia has no access to schools or universities in the Ukrainian language.

'Little Russians'

During Soviet times, Russian language and culture were granted a dominant position. All languages and cultures were guaranteed state protection in the Soviet Union, but Ukrainians and other non-Russian peoples were only granted the opportunity to develop their culture within the administrative borders of their respective republics. When they moved to other parts of the Soviet Union, they were largely assimilated into the local Russian-speaking culture.

Some pundits say Ukrainians will never be treated entirely equally in Russia, because of a long history of being treated as second-class citizens. During the Russian Empire, Ukrainians were often referred to as "little Russians", and the Ukrainian language was banned from being used in education.

"In Russia, Ukrainians are not considered a separate nation, and the Ukrainian language is considered a dialect of Russian," said Gasan Gusejnov, a professor at the National Research University's Higher School of Economics in Moscow, who has written on Ukrainian identity. "That's why anti-Ukrainian sentiment is outraged that Ukrainians have any sort of national identity of their own."

Gusejnov's remarks suggest the atmosphere is not going to improve quickly for Russia's Ukrainian minority. "Ukrainians have historically been considered second class, as poor copies of Russians," he said.

Follow Ian Bateson on Twitter: @IanBateson

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Al Jazeera
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