Ukrainians in Russia's Far East try to maintain community life

by Maryna Makhnonos
Special to The Ukrainian Weekly

MOSCOW - Compared to the heroism that their forebears demonstrated in overcoming obstacles while conquering Russia's severe Far East during their resettlement there some 120 years ago, today Ukrainians living in Russia have only bureaucratic immobility and financial inadequacies to overcome. Even so, many problems continue to exist as Ukrainian Russians attempt to keep their ethnic flame burning, especially when their native country does not provide either sufficient financial or moral support, said a Ukrainian official in charge of diaspora relations.

"Their community life is far from an appropriate level," explained Andrii Popok, head of the department of Ukrainian Diaspora Affairs within Ukraine's State Committee on Migration. He said that a lack of legislation regulating Ukrainian community life in Russia is the main problem. Mr. Popok made his remarks during on April 12 roundtable with some 50 heads of Ukrainian regional communities in Russia, including representatives from communities in Kursk, St. Petersburg, Yakutia, Magadan, Perm, Murmansk and Bashkortostan, as well as Moscow, held to commemorate the anniversary of the forced resettlement of Ukrainians to the Far East region they dubbed Zelenyi Klyn, which was ordered by the Russian Tsar Aleksandr II in 1883.

None of the former Soviet republics had special legislation to protect their ethnic groups abroad at the moment of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, and Ukraine has no legislation to this day, Mr. Popok said, addressing top representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia. The Ukrainian government diaspora coordinator could speak from first-hand experience because he lived in Zelenyi Klyn for a time after his military service and was a community leader there in 1991-1993.

"The success of legislation depends upon the community's activity," continued Mr. Popok. "Unfortunately, Ukrainians lack unity at times, but they also do not get sufficient attention from their historical fatherland."

Mr. Popok said that his department is too small to respond immediately to all the needs of the 20 million or so Ukrainians scattered across the world. Also, the government has dispersed responsibility for coordination with the diaspora among various institutions instead of establishing a centralized system to make actions effective. As a result, individual communities are often left to their own devices when it comes to resolving local problems.

For example, local authorities in Vladivostok in the Far East have banned a Ukrainian Sunday school so as "not to accentuate national issues," according to Mr. Popok.

In other cases, local Ukrainians have no access to information about contemporary life in Ukraine, getting news only from U.S. radio outlets retransmitted in Russia.

Discussing Zelenyi Klyn's problems, regional leaders of the diaspora said they often encountered reluctance by local authorities to respond to their needs and complaints, and media bias in illuminating their problems.

Many Ukrainian community centers continue to have problems finding stable facilities; some have been moved around for years. Other communities suffer from a cynical, Ukrainiophobic media.

Citing an example, Lidia Beda, a Ukrainian community leader from Tatarstan, waved a local newspaper from Naberezhnye Chelny, which disparagingly called their recent cultural festival a "festival of horilka and varenyky" in a headline.

Russia's Minister of Nationalities Vladimir Zorin, who was present as a guest at the roundtable, admitted that ignorance exists among local bureaucrats and journalists. He said that 17 percent of the misunderstandings that arise between community and government were a result of "incorrect media statements, which we see more than enough in Russia."

Mr. Popok urged Ukrainians in Russia to take more active steps in protecting their interests. "The activity of your communities should force the historical fatherland to be more attentive to agreements that are signed, to enact them and give the possibility for communities to exist," Mr. Popok said.

Mr. Popok added that the anniversary of the forced migration, initiated to develop the vast northeastern taiga of the Russian Far East, was the right moment to review how the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia had developed, assess the current situation and lay plans for the future.

Zelenyi Klyn, - literally green wedge - stretches from Siberia to the seas of Japan and Okhotsk and includes the regions of Primorie, Khabarovsk, Amur, the Kamchatka peninsula and Sakhalin Island; it borders China, North Korea and Japan.

The Russian imperialist monarchy earlier had tried to move Russian Cossacks to the region to develop the cold desert. The Russian Cossacks, although they were good warriors, were less able pioneers. Many of them immediately looked for ways to escape the Far East's hardships.

Before the first steamboat with dozens of Ukrainian families aboard left Odesa on April 4, 1883, initiating the mass resettlement, Ukrainians had sporadically immigrated to the Far East, usually making the trek by foot, which could take as long as a year and a half.

A study by the 19th century Russian scholar Alexander Rittikh had decided that Ukrainians were "a nation that works willingly and becomes rich quickly, is skillful in choosing soils and is unpretentious in life, which would bring certain benefit to the state if its natural skills were applied properly."

"This is a nation ... on which a new settlement can be based, to a future of richness and prosperity for the new cities [of the region]," Col. Rittikh concluded in his ethnographic research. His work defined the destiny of many of the Ukrainians who were eventually resettled and whose homeland many considered to be overpopulated at that time.

The emigrants, most of whom initially came from the Chernihiv, Poltava and Kyiv regions, and later from Volyn and Kherson, saw no other choice but to travel to the new land. The only other option was to stay in Ukraine where servitude to local land barons and abject poverty was the norm. They were not wildly optimistic about the future, however, even though the tsar's court had promised them privileges. They carried with them all their cooking utensils and even heavy stones to press vegetables. Having arrived at their destination, a land of nasty weather and arid soils, the settlers, however poor, still built their churches before their schools.

And while the region had an abundance of fish in its many waterways, the none-too-worldly newcomers cautiously partook of what nature offered, so much so that initially they fed their dogs sturgeon black caviar, not realizing the gourmand potential it carried.

The Far East's Ukrainians made great efforts to enhance their community life with a political and cultural structure. They welcomed guest actors from Ukraine, issued ten newspapers, organized several congresses, and created a draft constitution. They even made an attempt to establish their own army after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, but their actions were gradually oppressed by the Communist regime.

Currently, some 800,000 Ukrainians live in the Far East, and, while a resurrection of their cultural heritage is taking place, it continues to be weak. Ukrainians make up the second largest ethnic group in Russia after the Tatars. Russia's State Statistics Committee estimates that some 4.3 million ethnic Ukrainians live in Russia. However, unofficial estimates put their number at closer to 5.6 million.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 4, 2003, No. 18, Vol. LXXI

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