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Friday, 27 November 2015

Coming to Terms with Odessa Ukraine: How Maidan Reshaped the Ukrainian Diaspora

Canadian Cossacks at Dauphin's Canadian National Ukrainian Festival, 2011.

For over a century Ukrainians facing economic deprivation and political instability have left their homeland to find work in distant countries. As successive waves of mass migration gained momentum Ukrainian communities emerged in Europe, North America and even farther afield. From its very beginning, Ukrainian emigration to Europe and North America in the nineteenth century took place in parallel with the first attempts by Ukrainian intellectuals to construct a shared sense of nationhood. A Ukrainian nation-building project that hoped to unite divided territories through a shared linguistic and cultural heritage became intertwined with processes of transnational migration and community-building. This expanding Ukrainian diaspora played a key role in debates over Ukrainian identity as the boundaries of what constituted a possible territorial space for Ukrainian statehood remained contested.

Starting with clusters in Austria or Germany of so-called Ruthenians from Halychyna and Bukovyna who were heavily influenced by nascent forms of Ukrainian nationalism, by 1900 tens of thousands of migrants who self-identified as Ukrainians went on to settle in Canada and the United States. During the subsequent twenty years, war and revolution displaced further thousands of Ukrainians from the former Austrian-Hungarian lands as well as a fragmenting Russian empire, with the reach of Ukrainian diaspora networks spreading to Brazil, Argentina and Australia. These transnational communities became increasingly politicised, as political exiles including the followers of Hetman Skoropadsky, Nestor Makho or Simon Peltiura set up rival politcal structures in diaspora communities to gain recruits for the political comeback in Soviet-controlled Ukraine they pined for. 

This increased politicisation of disapora milieus was reinforced by particular patterns of migration experienced by Ukrainians from Halychyna and other parts of Ukraine controlled by Romania or Poland. In Canada in particular, the mass internment of citizens from Austro-Hungarian territories, including Ukrainians, helped reinforce the importance of community organisations working to protect members of the diaspora from the state. While most Ukrainians from these Western regions settled permanently in their new places of residence, a significant number engaged in circulatory migration to non-Soviet Ukraine until 1939. Individuals or even whole families would spend a few years in North America before returning to Halychyna or Bukovyna. In Europe intellectuals and labourers would regularly move back and forth between German, Austrian or French cities and their home regions. As various radical Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) factions rose to prominence in the 1920s, the ideas of influential figures aligned with the movement such as Stepan Bandera and Dmytro Dontsov began to spread to diaspora milieus. By 1939 the political life of the Ukrainian diaspora mirrored religious and political trends reshaping non-Soviet Ukraine. This dynamic helped to anchor a set of linguistic and ethno-nationalist assumptions about Ukrainian identity that shape the stance of most diaspora organisations to this day.

The strong cultural cohesion of Ukrainian communities in North America meant that their institutions were in a position to integrate a large influx of refugees that fled Ukraine after the Second World War. The arrival of many supporters of the OUN and the Ukrainian Patriotic Army (UPA) who had fought Germans, Soviets and Poles in turn helped reinforce a romanticised ethno-nationalist historical narrative in churches, Sunday schools and youth movements such as CYM (Спілка Української Молоді/Ukrainian Youth Organisation) or the Plast scouting federation. Stepan Bandera's presence in Munich until his assassination in 1958 and Dmytro Dontsov's exile in Montreal until his death in 1973 meant that diaspora milieus came into direct contact with the dominant figures of interwar Ukrainian nationalist thought. Though a surprising number of Ukrainian-Canadians and Ukrainian-Americans were able to visit Soviet Ukraine after the mid-1960s, the barriers to regular interaction between Ukraine and its diaspora led to significant cultural divergences between the two sides. In Germany, communities that were predominantly the product of refugee migration contained many senior OUN/UPA activists. Strong community ties with West European conservative movements and security services reinforced deep hostility to any aspect of Soviet society right up until the collapse of the USSR.

Cold War texts promoting the Ukrainian national cause

Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union had a very different impact on the diaspora in Germany than on Ukrainian communities in North America. Though both Canada and the United States saw renewed growth in immigrant numbers from Ukraine, it did not fundamentally reshape community institutions. By contrast in Germany a numerically smaller community was overwhelmed by new immigrants that continued to circulate back and forth between Ukraine and the cities they had moved to in a way that would have been impossible before 1990. As a consequence, while North American diasporas only had a limited degree of contact with the cultural and political context of post-Soviet Ukraine many of the tensions over language, identity and national myth that were a crucial feature of 1990s Ukrainian politics had a strong impact on the internal development of communities in the EU.

These structural differences need to be kept in mind when approaching diaspora responses to the Orange and Maidan Revolutions. Since 1990, Ukrainians in Canada and the United States remained largely insulated from the cultural shifts that led to the emergence of what one could call a Russophone Odessa Ukraine nationalism that now complements what Andrew Wilson once defined as Ukrainophone Halychyna Ukraine nationalism and linguistically mixed Dnieper Ukraine nationalism. Within the diaspora in the EU, however, frustration with highly corrupt state institutions was more central to shaping attitudes towards developments in the homeland. In order to understand how the diaspora in North America has responded to the emergence of a militant civic Ukrainian nationalism since the occupation of Crimea, we therefore need to reflect on how these differences in social structure and identity narratives between the diaspora in the EU and in North America has led to distinct patterns of engagement with the politics of post-Maidan Ukraine.

A collective reframing of identity narratives among diaspora communities as well as in Ukraine was already apparent at key moments of escalation during the Maidan protests. The adoption of the symbols of the Bandera OUN by both Ukrainophone and Russophone demonstrators who had not previously been associated with nationalist ideologies led to ambivalent responses among many diaspora organizations and international support groups for the protest movement. Undoubtedly the revival of aspects of Stepan Bandera and Dmytro Dontsov’s radical ideology among Ukrainian nationalists and their adoption by many Russophone Ukrainians after Maidan was endorsed with enthusiasm by certain diaspora milieus. Even in the 1990s, quite a few diaspora activists in Canada would have seen the revival of Bandera symbols as a sign of national renewal. Yet in 2014 key stakeholders within the social mainstream of diaspora communities such as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress were perfectly aware of how fraught a revival of OUN symbols would be within Ukraine as well as with EU partners.

Ukrainian Youth Association meeting in Acton Ontario, 2012

Once armed conflict gained momentum in the Donbas region an exclusive focus on the Ukrainian language, another pillar of diaspora identity discourse, also became a problematic basis for mobilizing support to halt Russian infiltration. Contrary to deep suspicion over the loyalty of Russophone Ukrainians harboured by much of the diaspora in North America, many volunteer fighters and regular soldiers came from communities in which Russian was the predominant language. As a consequence, Ukrainian-Canadian and Ukrainian-American organisations pledged to defend the dominance of the Ukrainian language found themselves fundraising for nationalist volunteer battalions dominated by Russian-speakers. This dynamic was reinforced by a shaky interim Ukrainian government doing its best to shore up the support of Russian-speakers after self-inflicted propaganda disasters over the language issue. In this context, while the preservation of Ukrainian as a language of state was still seen as a crucial means of differentiation from neighbouring societies, Russian-speakers were also recognized as fully Ukrainian if they adopted a set of shared symbols and cultural norms defining the relationship between the individual and the nation.

While Ukrainian communities in Europe had already struggled with the integration of Russian-speakers since the early 1990s, the notion of Russian-speakers willing to fight and die for Ukraine represented a fundamental challenge to ethno-nationalist assumptions underpinning diaspora identity in North America. With a profound threat to Ukrainian independence after the loss of Crimea forcing swift action by civil society to compensate for state paralysis, diaspora organisations engaged with efforts to contain the crisis in the Donbas region in a way that gave them little time to openly oppose an increasing emphasis within Ukraine on the civic components of Ukrainian national identity. As a consequence, diaspora networks acquiesced to the priorities of Ukrainian military, political and civil society leaders rather than trying to actively reshape the debate to reflect their own priorities. The depth of the crisis of 2014 and the way in which Russian-speakers became a key component of a rapidly expanding Ukrainian security sector forced diaspora communities to accept a redefinition of Ukrainian identity that until then had largely been resisted in North America and evaded in Europe.

Yet there were also social and institutional factors that helped diaspora communities adjust to a shift towards a civic basis for Ukrainian identity while still retaining a sense of cultural continuity that integrated Maidan, the struggles for Odessa and Kharkiv as well as the Donbas war that followed into a familiar historical narrative. In searching for explanations why civil society, business milieus and even established political factions had been willing to engage in tenacious acts of protest, many diaspora activists emphasised a long standing national foundation myth that located the basis of modern Ukrainian nationhood in Cossack polities of the sixteenth century that were the product of fierce defiance of external authority. This shared Cossack myth was also appropriated by volunteer battalions attempting to bind an often diverse range of recruits into an emerging post-Maidan military ethos.

Cossacks at the Euromaidan protests, December 2013

This emphasis on a Cossack myth familiar to anyone with experience of diaspora church and educational structures helped link a brutal and confusing war with a recognisable narrative of betrayal, survival and liberation. By providing shared symbols that could link diverse milieus in Ukraine with European and North American diaspora communities, the Cossack myth provided a means through which more problematic aspects of Ukrainian identity discourse could be put aside. Building on a tradition going back to Hrushevsky’s initial historical works of the late nineteenth century, in the process deeply problematic aspects of early modern Cossack history such as Khmelnytsky’s pact with the tsars of Muscovy or anti-Jewish pogroms were glossed over. Rather it was the image of a Cossack republic made up of self-organized bands that decide the fate of their Hetman that helped a diverse range of milieus in Ukraine and the wider diaspora build a shared identity narrative in the face of crisis during the Maidan protests and the military campaigns that followed.

When witnessing the Maidan protests first hand or from afar through social media, diaspora commentators quickly recognised the symbolic and rhetoric allusions to the Cossack myth that permeated Maidan from its very beginnings. It was this shared imagery of the Cossack warrior defending his or he freedom from a tyrannical ruler that enabled diaspora communities to reconcile their own traditionally ethno-nationalist narrative of Ukrainian identity with the multi-lingual and multi-religious realities of early twenty first century Ukraine that manifested themselves in their country of origin. Key moments such as clashes between Maidan protesters and Berkut police units for control of Hrushevsky street or the final street battles of late February 2014 were interpreted with familiar frames of reference based on the Cossack myth that enabled diaspora observers and supporters to revise their assumptions about Ukrainian society while still retaining a sense of cultural continuity. The appearance of protesters in Cossack dress, the ritual “warning” drumming on Hrushevsky street, the creation of relatively disciplined paramilitary units within Maidan self-defence that consciously modelled their structure of military organization on the Cossack bands, all these factors were key to enabling this enormous conceptual leap from one model of identity to another in a very compressed period of time.

Maidan 'Hundreds' in front of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament), 22 February 2014

This use of the Cossack narrative to reinforce shared narratives of identity despite linguistic and religious diversity gained redoubled importance in the military mobilisation efforts that followed the fall of Yanukovych. With the Ukrainian Army in a near terminal crisis in April and May 2014, the use of Cossack titles, symbols and language provided a unifying element that could anchor a chaotic war effort with a familiar warrior ethos. This shared symbolic resource became a key feature of volunteer battalions, in terms of dress, rhetoric and symbols to the extent of even shaping responses to combat on the battlefield. Despite the often underrated ideological differences between various nationalist battalions as well as within the Ukrainian military and intelligence services, the language of the Cossack myth helped instil a particular warrior codex that could be presented as uniquely Ukrainian. From the perspective of diaspora networks not particularly familiar with the ideological worldview shaping volunteer battalions or the neo-Soviet traditions of regular military units, the Cossack myth again provided a key theme that provided a point of identifiable connection with a wider effort for communities in North America that were both geographically and culturally distant from the social order of contemporary Ukraine.

Troops from the 79th Airmobile Brigade mock Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2014 by re-enacting Repin's 1891 painting, 'Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks to the Sultan'.

While the Cossack myth was a crucial symbolic resource that strengthened the commitment of Ukrainian diaspora communities to Ukraine's fraught national mobilisation efforts, it was the survival of the modern Ukrainian state that proved crucial in shaping the form this engagement took. In and of itself the Maidan Revolution was to a large extent driven by a profound distrust of state institutions that came to be seen as corrupt and oppressive. Both the popular defiance of police intimidation and the seizure of administrative buildings after the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) enacted the so-called Dictatorship Laws of 16 January 2014 represented the culmination of deep popular resentment over the extent to which the state was failing its citizens at home and abroad.

This hostility to Ukrainian state institutions found considerable resonance across the diaspora. Many members of Ukrainian communities in North America who have worked or lived in Ukraine over the past two decades have come away with a profound sense of disillusionment as the realities of an oligarch dominated society clashed with the myths of their own identity narrative. For large swathes of the Canadian and American diaspora, Kuchma’s equivocation about the role of the Russian language and Yanukovych’s comeback in 2010 were taken as profoundly frustrating signs that the state was dominated by Russified elites unwilling to protect Ukrainian culture. By contrast, for Ukrainian communities in EU member states the disillusion was often more the result of regular contact with corrupt state institutions that  obstructed business projects, property purchases and other forms of engagement with day to day life in Ukraine. In this context, the Maidan movement's demand for state reform resonated strongly with diaspora communities disappointed in the fact that the post-Soviet Ukrainian state had not built the Cossack utopia that nationalists had yearned for when dreaming of an independent Ukraine.

Despite such profound disappointments diaspora organizations and activists engaged with civil society initiatives focused on reform of existing state institutions rather than a utopian vision of dismantling them and starting anew. Though more radical milieus within diaspora communities actively supported nationalist groups such as the Svoboda Party or Praviy Sector, the main community organizations in Canada, the United States, the UK and Germany worked with organizations and state institutions that had a reformist rather than a revolutionary emphasis. Similarly, in the rush to rebuild Ukraine’s security infrastructure after March 2014, diaspora communities provided far more aid to volunteer regiments that cooperated with the state such as Donbass, Dnipro-1 and even the radical nationalist Azov rather than units such as Praviy Sektor or Sich that openly threatened to use violence against institutions that did not fulfil their demands.

Euromaidan Canada fundraising dinner in Toronto, 26 April 2014.
Note the ticket price.

By contrast, indications of how the diaspora could have responded had Maidan protests or Russian military operations led to a complete collapse of the Ukrainian state can be seen in the traumatic experience of other immigrant milieus. From Turkish guest workers in 1980s Germany through to transnational networks from various Arab societies over the last two decades, a crisis resulting in a collapse of trust in the state has often had a radicalising effect on diaspora communities. Such knock-on effects of destabilisation in a country of origin has regularly drawn deeply alienated immigrant communities into civil conflicts on the side of political movements whose actions accelerated a conflict spiral. Other diasporas faced with armed conflict in their countries of origin have often become a major source of funding and personnel for movements that operated outside state control. In societies where the state has collapsed such as Yemen or where an armed group at war with the state becomes politically dominant as in the case with Kurdish communities, diasporas have often become enmeshed with insurgencies that fostered profound hostility towards state institutions of their country of origin. With considerable levels of population circulation between EU member states and Ukraine as well as a rose-tinted view of the ethno-nationalist legacy of Stepan Bandera in Canada and the United States, in the hyper-charged atmosphere of 2014 the risks were high of a similar radicalising effect on diaspora milieus feeding back into events in Ukraine. 

While the Maidan protests were driven by mass defiance of state authority, the speed of President Yanukovych's fall ensured that hostility within diaspora communities towards Ukrainian state institutions dissipated quickly. Though such diaspora support efforts were initially linked to civil society and volunteer paramilitaries resisting Russian aggression, these groups gradually connected this mobilisation with a wider effort to restore state power in a framework based on the rule of law. This shift was also reflected in a level of engagement with state institutions in countries of settlement not seen since the Cold War, as diaspora organisations in the EU and North America worked hard to lobby their governments to provide weapons and financial support to a Ukrainian state struggling for survival. For many diaspora activists and organisations support for an uprising against the misuse of state power swiftly shifted to a support effort for a national mobilisation effort to save Ukrainian statehood.

The past two years have not just proven a remarkable period of turmoil in Ukraine, they have also fostered a shift in attitudes among large parts of the Ukrainian diaspora that would have been considered barely imaginable for previous generations. Even a decade ago, many diaspora organisations in North America pushed Ukrainian governments to adopt a more clearly defined ethno-nationalist agenda and looked at what they considered to be the neo-Soviet tendencies of the Ukrainian state with great scepticism. For Ukrainian communities in the EU, a deep disillusion with the deep-seated corruption that had created the conditions necessitating emigration also fostered scepticism over national identity debates that dominated Ukrainian politics and state institutions impervious to change.

Odessa Ukraine Nationalism: Russophone Ukrainian Patriots

The Maidan protests helped accelerate a cultural and political process of reassessment among diaspora communities in both the EU and North America. The intensity with which both supporters of civic models of Ukrainian identity as well as ultra-nationalist groups for which language debates only played a secondary role helped drive the Maidan protests forward had a profound impact on identity discourses within diaspora milieus. Increasingly it seems that intellectual debates within Ukraine are coming to reshape diaspora attitudes as well, fostering acceptance that a Russophone Odessa Ukraine could be as loyal and worth defending as more established forms of Dnieper Ukraine or Halychyna Ukraine identities. The manner in which a diaspora mobilisation effort became linked with the defence of Ukrainian statehood also revived a focus on institutional engagement and reform that had largely gone into abeyance after profound disappointment set in over the stagnation of the 1990s and the failures of the Orange Revolution.

Crucially, by reaching back to the Cossack myth to build a shared framework for debate and defiance, the movements on the Maidan and the military units struggling to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression used a symbolic resource that was immediately recognisable to diaspora communities that were not necessarily familiar with the complexities and nuances of contemporary Ukrainian society. By building their symbolic Cossack fortress, the Maidan protesters not only used a shared ideological language that could mobilise resistance within Ukraine, they also created a dynamic that is transforming identity discourses across the diaspora in ways that will continue to resonate over the coming decades.