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

October 2017
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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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