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Race, Media, and Postcoloniality: Ukraine Between Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism

October 2017

Minority identities have come to figure centrally in constructions of Ukrainian identity, as post-Soviet Ukrainians seek to define themselves as modern and worthy members of the international community. The inclusion of ethnic and racial diversity serves as a marker of enlightenment and global connectedness, a counterpoint to stereotypes of Ukrainians as isolated, rural, and uncivilized. The image of Ukraine as cosmopolitan and inclusive is part of an effort to construct Ukraine as a globally and locally desirable brand, part of the global trend of the commodification and marketing of ethnicity and nation (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009).

Various scholars have argued that it is useful to view Ukraine as a postcolonial country (Moore 2001; Masenko 2004; Korek 2007; Riabczuk 2013; Horbyk 2015; Snyder 2015). This approach supports a parallelism between Africans and Ukrainians as sharing histories of oppression, albeit with the critical difference that race was not a factor in the subordination of Ukrainians. When Ukraine was part of the Russian empire, its labor and natural resources were exploited, and Ukrainian identity, language, and culture were subjugated both through explicit laws and unofficial discrimination. Later, under the Russian-dominated Soviet regime, Ukrainian language and culture continued to be derogated and persecuted. This history has led to a cultural inferiority complex that has continued to be expressed in independent Ukraine.

Ideologies of identity and difference influence broader international discourses regarding the status of Ukraine in the global arena. The significance of race in Ukraine lies in the moral economy that now surrounds the political and cultural claims of nations, particularly those, like Ukraine, that aspire to “Europeanness.” Ukrainians who aspire to be a part of Europe are aware that racial and ethnic inclusivity is a prerequisite for admission to the European Union; this requirement supports the use of racial diversity as an ideological marker of cultural advancement and moral deservedness.

Other countries have been quick to condemn Ukraine for racism and ethnic discrimination as a way to delegitimize the country's status in the global community of nations; this can be viewed as a form of Orientalism, a patronizing attitude of the West towards its “nearest east,” Eastern Europe. The question of the inclusivity or the xenophobia of Ukrainian society became a focal point of national and international news media in 2012 regarding the Eurovision Song Contest and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) soccer competition. In 2013-2014, during the Euromaidan protests, Ukraine's record on diversity became the central topic in an informational war, with implications for whether or not the international community supported Ukraine while Russia violated its borders. Russia used accusations of ethnic discrimination to discredit the Euromaidan movement and also to justify its incursions on Ukraine's sovereignty, just as it had used such accusations to justify its occupation of Moldovan and Georgian territories (Dunn and Bobick 2014; Kulyk 2014).

Discourses about racism and ethnic discrimination underscore the importance of visible minorities in constructions of identity and nation in Ukraine. Ukrainian media presentations of Ukrainians as racially inclusive and cosmopolitan can be compared to Israel's promotion of an LGBTQ-friendly image to curry international approval “in terms of civilizational narratives measured by (sexual) modernity” (Puar 2013, 337). Similarly, Ukraine aspires to international approval in terms of civilizational narratives measured by ethnic and racial inclusivity.

In writing about identities that are discursively constructed, it is critical to scrutinize the terms that are used to refer to these identities in both lay and scholarly discourse, and to be aware of their slipperiness and multivalence, as Lan similarly describes in the case of China. Ukrainians, who are widely bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian, have a term that is cognate to English “race” (rasa in both Ukrainian and Russian); however, that term is rarely the focus of discussion. In Ukraine, as in Israel, “race” does not often appear in discourse, and when it does, it is most often in the related term “racism” to discuss conflict, rather than race as an identity (Lefkowitz 2004, 15). The most common term in Ukraine for discussing identities believed to have their basis in some combination of biological heredity and cultural heritage is “nationality” (natsional'nist in Ukrainian and natsional'nost’ in Russian). In more academic contexts, “ethnicity” (etnichnist in Ukrainian and etnichnost in Russian) is also used. Given the overlapping semantic domains of the terms for nationality, ethnicity, and race in Ukraine, it is useful to extend the conceptualization of ethnicity offered by Comaroff and Comaroff's (2009, 38) to all three terms: they are “best understood as a loose, labile repertoire of signs by means of which relations are constructed and communicated; through which a collective consciousness of cultural likeness is rendered sensible; with reference to which shared sentiment is made substantial.” All three terms refer to identity concepts that exist because people believe they exist and act accordingly (Daynes and Lee 2008).

While recognizing the socially constructed and labile nature of the phenomena referred to as nationality, ethnicity, and race, for the purposes of analysis I use “race” as a shorthand to refer to aspects of identity conceptualized as rooted in heredity and physical appearance, as “the organizing category of those ways of speaking, systems of representation, and social practices (discourses), which utilize a loose, often unspecified set of differences in physical characteristics—skin color, hair texture, physical and bodily features, etc.—as symbolic markers in order to differentiate one group socially from another” (Hall 1996, 617). I use “ethnicity” to refer to aspects of identity that are conceptualized as primarily based on culture and language. When representing discourses that use the Ukrainian term natsional'nist or Russian natsional'nost, I use the English cognate term “nationality.”

Race in the USSR

The Soviet Union was originally conceptualized as a social experiment intended to lead to the emergence of a new kind of people who would not be divided by class, national, ethnic, or racial differences. In practice, however, identities in the Soviet system were institutionally essentialized, reinforced and often articulated in racialized terms (Martin 2001; Slezkine 1994). Everyone was categorized by nationality, which was pervasively noted in documents such as classroom registers, passports, and censuses.

Leonid Brezhnev celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Komsomol organization, with multiethnic youth. Source: HOLLIS Images, Harvard University Library

According to the official state ideology, all nationalities were equal and there was no racism in the USSR, yet practices did not always live up to these ideals (Matusevich 2009). Some groups were “more equal” than others, with ethnic Russians at the top in terms of prestige and power, and other Slavic groups close behind. Ukrainians tended to have higher social status than non-Slavic groups. Even so, the historical colonial relationship with Imperial Russia persisted through the treatment of Ukrainian language and culture as second-rate in comparison to Russian. This was manifested in references to the Ukrainian language as the language of cattle or dogs, and to Ukrainians as inherently uncivilized. This has led scholars to draw parallels between Ukrainianness and blackness in their similar positioning relative to dominant colonizing cultures (Riabczuk 2013; Snyder 2015, 697).

People from republics southeast of Russia, including the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, were disparagingly referred to as “blacks” during Soviet times, a practice which continues in post-Soviet countries (Fikes and Lemon 2002, 507). “Black” in the USSR did not denote specifically African origins as it does in the West, but could mean anyone perceived as non-white. In my fieldwork, I also encountered the phrase “black people” used to refer to the socially unprivileged, regardless of race. People with African roots were usually referred to as afrykantsi in Ukrainian and afrikantsy in Russian (Africans) or nehry in Ukrainian and negry in Russian (cognates to the English term “Negro”).

A key part of the Soviets’ conflict with the West was articulated as “a contest for moral superiority,” and the regime strove to portray itself as antiracist and anticolonial by welcoming African American and African visitors (Matusevich 2009, 61–65; Quist-Adade 2007, 167).Yet official teachings did not eliminate the existence of racism in the USSR, which took the form of discrimination, exclusion, verbal and physical abuse, and discourses presenting Africa as wild and uncivilized (Quist-Adade 2007). Compared to local Soviet students, foreign students were often provided with better living conditions in dorms, better financial provisions, and freedom to travel outside the USSR, and this spurred resentment and racism among local students. Nevertheless, overall Soviet society can be said to have been less prejudiced toward people of African heritage than other “white” industrialized countries, and many Soviet citizens embraced the idea of interethnic and international unity (Matusevich 2009, 59). The openness to people of different backgrounds carried over into personal relations, and many of the black students from Africa, the majority of whom were male, dated and formed families with local women.

Soviet propaganda poster about racial inequality under capitalism and alleged equality under socialism.  V. B. Koretsky, 1948. Source: Yevgeniy Fiks, The Wayland Rudd Collection at the Winklemann Gallery, New York.

Nation and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine

The post-Soviet states were formed according to the nationalist logic that pervaded Soviet practices, keeping intact the borders of the republics and their naming for their titular nationalities. As the newly independent countries worked to define rules for citizenship and official languages, they each had to contend with the cultural and linguistic diversity of their populations. Ukraine's Constitution, adopted and ratified in 1996, strove to embrace ethnic diversity in its opening lines by using the Ukrainian word narod (a people), and defining it as “Ukrainian citizens of all nationalities.”

People of African descent constitute a very small percentage of Ukraine's total population, although data on this are scarce. Wanner (2007) mentions “fewer than two thousand Africans living among 47 million Ukrainians,” and a 2008 study simply states that “relatively few people of African origin” reside in Ukraine (Human Rights First 2008). The International Organisation for Migration in Ukraine estimated that in 2013 there were 60,500 foreign students in the country, and that about 10,000 of them were black Africans (Terno and Keita 2013). While this may represent a five-fold increase over Wanner's 2007 estimate of two thousand Africans living in Ukraine, this is still a minuscule proportion of the total population (about 0.0002%). I know of no statistics on native-born Ukrainians with an African-born parent.

Given the very small proportion of people of African and other non-European descent in Ukraine, their visibility in the media and in public events is striking. People of color in Ukrainian media are often entertainers, reinforcing the idea that visible Others are mainly welcome to entertain the (mostly) white public. But there are exceptions. One of the most prominent Africans in Ukraine is Pastor Sunday Adelaja, originally from Nigeria, who in 1994 founded the largest evangelical church in Europe in Kyiv. Wanner (2007, 216) argues that “Pastor Sunday has managed to make his Africanness seem like a signifier of spiritual enlightenment, a magnetic draw, a sunshine warmth that masks the pronounced racism in this society.”

The most visible African-Ukrainians in the media have been singers. In 1995, Nigerian-Ukrainian Myroslav Kuvaldin, lead singer of Ukrainian-reggae group The VYO, gained fame as a winner of the national Chervona Ruta Music Festival. He later worked as an announcer on Ukrainian television channel M1. When I interviewed him in 2009 and asked about racism in Ukraine, he answered, “this is not a problem, here in Ukraine, thank God, things are calm in that regard. In Russia, this is supported at the government level, with the formation of youth squads, but here things are all okay in that regard.” When I mentioned the frequency of African-origin people on Ukrainian television, he answered, “in principle that is what the whole of Europe looks like, because of this we are a lot closer to Europe.” While Kuvaldin singled out Russia as exhibiting more racism than Ukraine, he asserted Ukraine's closeness to Europe because of its inclusion of racial diversity.

A key factor in assimilating visible otherness into Ukrainianness is language, although the significance of Ukrainian versus the Russian language continues to be contested, and most Ukrainians are bilingual to some degree. The historically dominant status and benefits associated with Russian led many urban Ukrainians to speak it in their everyday life, and so “beyond marking one as an urban person, it carries negligible political valence” (Wanner 2014, 431).

Language choice is often ignored and interactions carried out in both languages in a non-accommodating linguistic regime (Bilaniuk 2005, 2010; Wanner 2014). Many Russophones participated in the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests, and many continue to fight against pro-Russian separatists in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, undermining the Russian government's rhetoric that Russian speakers need its protection. However, in some contexts language choice does indeed carry symbolic weight, and it has been an important factor in discourses of authenticity. While knowing Russian was the default of urban Soviet upbringing, knowing Ukrainian well is seen as demonstrating a greater commitment to Ukrainianness.

Students who came to study in the Soviet Union were taught Russian, even those who came to study in the Ukrainian SSR, as Russian was the dominant, urban language. It was rare for a person of African origin to acquire the Ukrainian language, with the exception of children of African-Ukrainian couples who were raised with Ukrainian at home and with Ukrainian-language schooling (which was limited in urban areas in Soviet times). The linguistic virtuosity of visible minorities in Ukrainian thus became a particular focus of attention. African-born and other non-European migrants have been admired for speaking Ukrainian, and even more so for reprimanding Russophone locals for not speaking Ukrainian. Videos of such cases have been publicized through social media. For example, in a video from a bus in Donetsk, African students responded in Ukrainian to a Russian-speaking woman who verbally harassed them by saying, “This is Ukraine, not Russia, you hear? You should speak Ukrainian” ( 2014).

Visible diversity in the Ukrainian media evoked contradictory possible interpretations, on the one hand, of blackness as a commodity for consumption, and on the other hand, of racial inclusivity. While people of color were visible in positive roles, the fact that many of these roles were in entertainment can be seen as reinforcing the idea that visible Others were mainly welcome to entertain the (mostly) white public. The observations of bell hooks (1992, 21) are applicable here: “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” At the same time, the entertainment industry can be viewed as a space for what Jennifer Carroll (personal communication) calls “safe” anti-racism, where visibility can be high without trust being put to the test as would be the case with teachers or politicians.

In shows such as Holos Kraïny [Voice of the Country], people of color were presented as a normal part of Ukraine's media landscape, much as in the everyday life photographs of Black Germans analyzed by Campt (2012), where the visual medium drew attention to racial difference while paradoxically making it disappear as seemingly irrelevant. Fluency in the local languages, particularly while performing the roles of newscasters or show hosts, also served to assimilate visible others in Ukraine. The embrace of visible otherness as part of Ukrainianness symbolized enlightenment, the inclusion of Ukraine into a global community, and a transcendence of its postcolonial status. At the same time, the Ukrainianization of Otherness through language and dress promoted a narrow nationalist image (Helbig 2014, 157). Like music award programs in the United States, televised talent competitions in Ukraine “perform and sound out a normative ideal, tutoring and instructing viewers in the manners and morals required to belong to the nation” (Gray 2013, 788). This applies to both Ukrainians of color who are instructed in performing Ukrainianness, and to white Ukrainians instructed in performing racial inclusivity.

(Leonardo Obodoeke (stage name Leo Mantis), a Nigerian student at the Medical University in Ternopil, Ukraine, performs at Holos Kraïny in 2014. Watch his interaction with the judges from 5:10.)

Racism in Ukraine

The positive valuation of blackness is countered by competing discourses that associate Africanness with backwardness and exoticism (Demyanenko 2014; Fournier 2012, 56; Helbig 2014). Sociological survey data from 2007 show that Ukraine's population expresses a high degree of xenophobia (Paniotto 2008). This survey used the Bogardus scale of 1 to 7 to gauge willingness to accept others, where 1 indicated willingness to accept someone as a member of one's family, 2—as a close friend, 3—as a neighbor, 4—as a coworker, 5—as a resident of Ukraine, 6—as a visitor of Ukraine, and 7—that one would not allow that person into the country. Roma were rated an average of 5.7, and blacks (referred to as nehry in the survey) an average of 5.5. Americans did not fare much better, being rated 5.3, and Canadians, French, Romanians, and Germans were all rated close to 5.0. The other ethnicities in the survey were Poles and Jews (both rated about 4.5), Belarusians (3.1), and Russians (2.5). Race played a role, as the most visible minorities (Roma and blacks) were least likely to be embraced into Ukrainian society, but it was clearly not the only factor in xenophobia.

Statistics on race-based hate crimes in Ukraine are spotty. According to the International Organisation for Migration in Ukraine, between 2007 and 2012 there were 204 racist attacks registered, mainly against Asians and Africans, including sixteen people killed (Terno and Keita 2013). The actual numbers are likely to be higher, as the racial nature of crimes is often not reported.

In addition to racial violence, egregious examples of racism have appeared in the media. In January 2012 in the Ukrainian city of Ternopil, a local tabloid newspaper published a photo montage juxtaposing orangutans groping a blonde woman with an image of black students sitting at a table having drinks. This image accompanied a story about Arabs and blacks fighting at a bar over Ukrainian women, referred to as “sluts” in the news story (Justice 2012). While this was a provincial newspaper with a circulation of 13,000, this story was considered scandalous and widely distributed through the Internet (Kaftan 2012). While such extreme racism in the media is rare, it documents the currents of racism that people of color experience in everyday life in Ukraine.

Title page of the Nova Ternopil's'ka Hazeta [Ternopil's New Newspaper] from January 2012, depicting the photo montage and featuring the headline "Black Blood Was Flowing Near Ornava [Shopping Mall], [where] Arabs and Negros Fought for our Sluts." Source:

  Racism and the Contested Moral Standing of Nations

The issue of Ukraine's “Europeanness” was a key focus of the Euromaidan protests, which were started in November 2013 at the initiative of Mustafa Nayem, a Muslim Afghan-Ukrainian journalist. While at first the protesters took a stand in response to Ukrainian President Yanukovych's refusal to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union, the movement came to be called the “Revolution of Dignity” (revolutsiia hidnosti), representing a longing for a broader idea of Europeanness as a state of respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. For some, the acceptance of racial diversity was imagined as integral to Europeanness, as the Euromaidan Journalist Collective expressed in a Facebook post (February 4, 2014): “A majority of Maidan protesters largely tend to think of ethnic and racial inclusion as being one of the European ideals endorsed by the Euromaidan, alongside concepts such as open borders, free trade, and freedom of religion, press, assembly, etc.”

Protest in Lviv, Ukraine against racial discrimination in March 2012. Valeriy Shmakov / UNIAN.

Russia strove to discredit the movement by depicting it as anti-Semitic, drawing on discourses rooted in events during World War Two, when groups of Ukrainian nationalists had allied with Nazi Germany to fight against the Red Army. In Western Ukraine, Ukrainian guerillas fought against Soviet power into the 1950s, years after this region was joined to the rest of the Ukrainian SSR. This guerrilla movement supported the Soviet-era narrative that Western Ukrainians were politically questionable, and that Ukrainian nationalism was by definition anti-Soviet and thus linked to fascism. The equation of Ukrainian nationalism with fascism perdured in Soviet propaganda as a condemnation of desires for a distinct Ukrainian identity. During the Maidan protests, Russian media again put forward this discourse to denounce Ukraine's efforts to break away from Russia's political and economic control.

Jewish community leaders and other activist groups in Ukraine supported the protests and mobilized to rebuke Russia's accusations of anti-Semitism (Zisels et al. 2014). The fact that the first casualty of the Euromaidan protests, shot by government forces, was Serhiy Nigoyan, an Armenian-Ukrainian, symbolized the ethnic inclusivity already present in Ukraine. His death was followed by the deaths of more than one hundred protesters, some of whom had ethnic Russian, Polish, Belorusian, or Jewish roots. The Russian propaganda was particularly ironic given the diverse participation in the Euromaidan, and the very low support for right-wing parties (about 2% in the May 2014 Presidential elections to replace the ousted president). As historian Timothy Snyder (2014a) writes, “Has it ever before happened that people associated with Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Polish, and Jewish culture have died in a revolution that was started by a Muslim? Can we who pride ourselves in our diversity and tolerance think of anything remotely similar in our own histories?”


Perceptions of racial differences depend on local histories and cultural narratives. Globally dominant understandings of race, based on histories of exploitative colonizing relations between first world and third world countries and segregationist policies are not adequate to explain Ukrainian understandings and practices. Ukraine's history of colonization by Russia makes blackness and Ukrainianness commensurable as subjugated identities, even while the predominant racial whiteness of Ukrainians undermines this commensurability. The historic whiteness of Ukrainians also means that black Ukrainians disrupt the stereotype of Ukraine as a provincial backwater, by portraying a Ukrainianness that is at once national, urban, and global. As I have illustrated here, African Ukrainians and African migrants in the entertainment industry in Ukraine are subject to the demands of a market that exoticizes and commodifies blackness, but they are also agents in the construction of national identity.

Visibly diverse Ukrainians are celebrated and embraced as model Ukrainians, but stereotypes of Africa as a backward continent persist in popular discourse. These coexisting contradictory meanings of racial diversity, as a positive symbol of cosmopolitan worldliness or a negative symbol of cultural backwardness, reflect tensions in nation-building. Blackness and Ukrainianness mutually constitute each other, as people navigate the conflicting terrains of nationalism, xenophobia, postcoloniality, and desires for cosmopolitan modernity.

This is an abridged version of an article submitted by the author to this forum and previously published in City & Society, 28: 341–364.

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