The once large Ukrainian nation within the borders of what is now the Russian Federation is rapidly disappearing, the result of out-migration to Ukraine, elimination of the nationality line in the passport, and assimilation by the more numerous ethnic Russian community, according to Kyiv ethnographer Anatoly Momrik.
Ethnographers calculate, he says, that two-thirds of the population in the Russian Far East and more than half of the population of the Kuban region have Ukrainian roots, but few in either place continue to speak Ukrainian as their primary language or identify as Ukrainian by nationality.
But despite assimilationist pressures – there are no Ukrainian-language schools in Russia in contrast to the approximately 500 Russian-language schools in Ukraine, a pattern that reflects the lack of concentration of Ukrainians in any one place in Russia – much of the decline in the number of Ukrainians in Russia since 1991 reflects outmigration.
Indeed, Momrik says, the reduction of roughly four million at the end of Soviet times to two million now has been mostly driven by migration back to Ukraine. (There has been a relatively small migration in the opposite direction as Ukrainians have sought work in the oil fields of Russian Far East and Siberia.)
An additional factor depressing the number of Ukrainians in Russia, the ethnographer continues, is the elimination of the nationality line in Russian passports. As long as that existed, people retained the nationality of their parents and grandparents even if they no longer really identified as such or spoke the titular language. Once it was gone, they simply identified themselves as they felt.
Momrik also points the relatively “short cultural distance” between Russians and Ukrainians living in Russia [after centuries of Russification and Russianization in the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union – Ed.] That lack of distance and the absence of areas of compact Ukrainian populations has done more to contribute to assimilation than the presence or absence of Ukrainian schools. Even if the latter existed, they would not have as much influence as many think.
Passportization played a large role in the disappearance of Ukrainians from the RSFSR in the pre-World War II Soviet Union. In the 1926 census, there were six million Ukrainians in the Russian republic, but according to the 1939 census, there were only two million left. That happened because “we lost four million instantly when in the early 1930s, Russian passports began to be handed out in the Kuban and in Stavropol.”
Since that time, he says, “while being Ukrainians by origin,” people in these regions “already in the third generation have been living as ethnic Russians. They identify themselves as Russians because their grandfathers had the nationality ‘Russian’ in their passports” and so do they. Moreover, most do not speak Ukrainian any more.
“Theoretically,” Momrik says, this process could be reversed. “We all know the case of the Jews who for a millennium did not speak Hebrew but only used it in religious life. And they were able to transform a dead language into a living one. Who can say that we cannot do this,” at least at the level of a theoretical possibility?
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