Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity has been widely hailed as a watershed moment for the country’s evolving sense of national identity. The revolution itself, together with the consequent Russian hybrid assault on Ukraine, are said to have sparked a fundamental reassessment of what it means to be Ukrainian. As a result, narrow definitions of Ukrainian identity rooted in linguistic and ethnic interpretations have given way to a broader civic understanding that embraces people from a far wider variety of backgrounds – at least in theory. This narrative is heartwarmingly multicultural, but does it extend to often overlooked minority groups like the country’s Afro-Ukrainian community?
Multicultural for centuries
Ukraine has been a multicultural society for hundreds of years. As one of the world’s great borderland regions connecting Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia, Ukraine has always been a crossroads land that organically embraced the concept of multiculturalism centuries before it became fashionable in the West. It is a place where Poles, Russians, Armenians, Jews, Georgians, Greeks, Tatars, Turks and a host of other national groups enjoy ancient histories and have each left their imprint on the country’s collective folklore. Ethnic Ukrainians have always played a prominent part in this cosmopolitan cultural mosaic, but due to the absence of a sovereign Ukrainian state until 1991, there has been a long-standing tendency to see Ukrainian national identity exclusively in terms of language and ancestry. As a result, many of the people who became Ukrainian citizens in 1991 did not necessarily self-identify as Ukrainians. In this context, even terms like ‘ethnic Russian’ and ‘ethnic Ukrainian’ can be seen as misleading, given the high levels of intermingling over the centuries in what has always been one of Europe’s great gateway regions.
Post-Soviet identity crisis
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fledgling Ukrainian state has struggled to find the right formula for a national identity capable of uniting all segments of society. In a young and diverse country trying to reinvent itself as an ancient nation, attempts by the state to support the Ukrainian language and rehabilitate key figures from the Ukrainian liberation movement often proved counter-productive. Politicians on all sides did not help matters by exploiting existing regional and inter-generational divisions within post-Soviet Ukrainian society for short-term populist gain. Meanwhile, the chronic corruption of state structures and the absence of a coherent national narrative alienated large swathes of the population and left others apolitically indifferent.
The upheavals in Ukrainian society since 2013 have radically altered this picture. The Euromaidan Revolution energized the debate over Ukraine’s place in the world, while Russia’s subsequent hybrid attack propelled the issue of national identity to the very top of the national agenda. As the Kremlin offensive unfolded in early 2014, millions of Ukrainian citizens found themselves having to make some fundamental choices. Did they want to remain part of Ukraine? Was this, in the final analysis, their country? Perhaps unexpectedly, the answer to both these questions was an overwhelming ‘yes’.
Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots
The Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics depended on significant support from the local population, but this largely failed to materialize. Instead, Russia found itself forced to import its own insurgents while scaling down its imperial ambitions. Grandiose plans to occupy half the country ended up netting less than 5% of the Ukrainian mainland. Rather than answering the clarion call of the Kremlin, tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from regions targeted by Putin’s hybrid campaign chose to sign up for the Ukrainian Armed Forces or join the many patriotic volunteer battalions hastily formed to save the country. This popular resistance of 2014 has all the makings of a national foundation myth. It saw everyone from Orthodox Jews to Crimean Tatar Muslims standing shoulder to shoulder in defence of Ukraine. The frontlines resembled wider Ukrainian society in microcosm, with Ukrainian and Russian languages used interchangeably and little thought given to oversimplified and unhelpful definitions of ethnicity.
This unexpected wave of Ukrainian patriotism was to prove decisive in stemming the tide of Putin’s hybrid attack. Many commentators believe it also marked a turning point in the search for an inclusive Ukrainian national identity. Ever since the pivotal events 2014, the idea of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots no longer seems paradoxical. Instead, there is a growing understanding of Ukrainian identity in a civic sense, embodying notions of patriotic pluralism and European democracy.
Today’s Ukraine has never been more self-consciously multicultural. The country has a Jewish Prime Minister surrounded by a Cabinet drawn from an array of religious and linguistic backgrounds. Ukraine’s Eurovision Song Contest-winning diva Jamala is a Crimean Tatar and a Muslim. Foreign nationals serve throughout government and manage key state-owned enterprises. The man whose Facebook post is widely credited with sparking the Revolution of Dignity is himself an Afghan immigrant. This is the diverse Ukraine that few outside the country are familiar with, and one that flatly contradicts attempts to depict post-Maidan Ukraine as a hotbed of nationalistic intolerance. Nevertheless, today’s Ukraine continues to face enormous social issues relating to race, religion and sexual orientation. Violence and discrimination against ethnic and sexual minorities remains an everyday concern that critics feel the government is failing to address. As the country marked the third anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, Business Ukraine magazine spoke to members of the Afro-Ukrainian community to see how they felt about the broader changes taking place in Ukrainian society.
Glamorous Gabriella Masanga is probably one of the most recognizable faces among the Afro-Ukrainian community. A former catwalk model, she currently works as a TV presenter and is best known for hosting the daily weather forecast on 5 Kanal. “The changes in society are tangible,” she says. “The revolution has ushered in a new understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian. People are now much more actively engaged in the nation-building process and there is more openness in society. I can still remember the communist-style rigidity and passiveness that was common when I was growing up. This lingered on after the fall of the Soviet Union, but we are now seeing a major transformation.”
Ms. Masanga claims she does not personally encounter racism in her everyday life, but says there is still a novelty factor associated with being Afro-Ukrainian and admits this can often generate unwanted and unflattering attention. “When I am out in public, I often get the sense that am I am an object of fascination because I stand out. Strangers will ask me where I come from, while people are regularly amazed to hear me speaking perfect Ukrainian!”
This sense of otherness is perhaps understandable. While exact statistics are not available, the Afro-Ukrainian community ranks among Ukraine’s smaller minority groups. It traces its roots back to the Soviet Union’s courtship of post-colonial Africa, which saw tens of thousands of young Africans invited to study in towns and cities across the USSR from the late 1950s onwards. Kyiv-based Nigerian Dr. Johnson Aniki is the Head of the African Community in Ukraine. He has been living in the Ukrainian capital for more than two decades after first arriving in the country during the twilight years of the Soviet era. “We have no official figures, but I would estimate the size of the Afro-Ukrainian community at more than 10,000 nationally,” he says. Dr. Aniki has noted a significant improvement in race relations within Ukrainian society over the past few years. However, he attributes this process to a combination of government efforts and greater social awareness in the run-up to the Euro 2012 football championship, rather than the unifying effects of more recent upheavals. During the buildup to Euro 2012, international media coverage focused on an alleged far-right threat to ethnic minority fans visiting Ukraine. The negative attention even led to some calls for a boycott, but the championship was a huge success, with no major incidents of racial of xenophobic violence. He believes the negative coverage forced Ukrainians to confront the issue of racism and helped foster greater tolerance.
Dr. Aniki sees a positive contrast between the relatively accepting attitudes he encounters in today’s Ukraine with the rising tensions of the earlier post-independence years. “In Soviet times, racial abuse was a major taboo due to the dominant political philosophy of internationalism, but after the collapse of the USSR, attitudes changed. The poverty of the early post-Soviet years was a major factor fuelling hostility towards foreigners.”
He identifies the mid-2000s as the lowest point in Ukrainian race relations. Skinhead movements were on the rise in much of Ukraine at the time, and escalating violence against ethnic minorities eventually led to a number of deaths. “Racial hatred was a deadly threat – not just to Africans and Afro-Ukrainians, but also to other ethnic minorities including Arabs, Chinese, Indians, and Vietnamese.” This wave of violence led many embassies to issue specific security warnings advising members of ethnic minorities to exercise extreme caution and avoid many public places. The deteriorating situation sparked considerable international condemnation but many felt Ukraine’s reaction was inadequate. Dr. Aniki remains highly critical of the government’s failure to respond sufficiently to the challenges posed by skinhead violence, but says relations with law enforcement organs have improved considerably over the intervening decade. Incidents like the attacks on black supporters during a 2015 Dynamo Kyiv Champions League match serve as reminders of the challenges Ukrainian society continues to face in confronting racial hatred, but Dr. Aniki classifies the current situation as more or less “peaceful coexistence”.
Ukraine must seize post-revolutionary opportunities
Twenty five year old Kharkiv-born Afro-Ukrainian musician Victoria Olize shares Dr. Aniki’s broadly optimistic prognosis for Ukrainian race relations, but feels the government could be doing much more to confront negative attitudes and damaging stereotypes in society. “There should be no sacred cows. Social and racial prejudice of any kind cannot be taken lightly. The government needs to work with the mainstream media proactively to promote ideas of inclusiveness throughout society,” she offers. Ms. Olize says she has noticed signs of significant shifts in Ukrainian society since Euromaidan, but is cautious of reading too much into the situation at this relatively early stage in the process. “The changes taking place in Ukraine need to be handled with care. Change is good in any society as long as it is sincere and brings people of different backgrounds together. The revolution has created an opportunity for all Ukrainians to come together, which is obviously a good thing, but we cannot take positive change for granted.”
Fellow Kharkiv native Kristina Agu is part of the new generation of post-Soviet Afro-Ukrainians. The seventeen year old has come of age at a time when many of her fellow Ukrainians are also discovering their sense of identity against a backdrop of political turmoil and conflict. Like many of the younger generation of Ukrainians, she embraced the Euromaidan movement. She speaks of the protests as the birth of political consciousness among many of her peers, and remains enthusiastic about the evolving identity debate currently taking place in the country.
Ms. Agu singles out the formation of the Patrol Police service as the most striking street-level change in post-Maidan Ukrainian society. This is partly due to her own negative encounters with racial harassment involving members of the pre-revolutionary Ukrainian police force. “The reform of the police has been a particularly welcome development since Euromaidan. The police now play a more constructive role in society. As a little girl, I can remember witnessing the police brutally harassing African market traders in Kharkiv without any apparent concerns for due process. Today’s police are much friendlier and more positive.”
Kyiv restaurant guest manager Helen Sanogo spends her working days mixing with a wealthy international clientele that includes many of Ukraine’s high rollers. She says her Afro-Ukrainian background has helped her to feel comfortable in any company, and argues that Euromaidan has helped Ukrainian society to become similarly inclusive. “The revolution has led to new attitudes towards Ukrainian identity,” she says. “Ukrainians now have a greater sense of unity and solidarity, irrespective of ethnic background.” Ms. Sanogo believes this shift in thinking is partly down to the recognition that in these turbulent and historic times, all Ukrainians share a common fate, no matter what their ethnic or religious backgrounds may be. “We all realized that we have no other country.”
About the author: Cosmos Ojukwu is a Kyiv-based Nigerian journalist who has been covering Ukrainian affairs for more than a decade