Where do Ukrainians live in Russia?—And who are the “benderovcy”?

Oct 6, 2014 by

In the last 10 months there has been much discussion in the media and blogosphere of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Such discussions generally focus on which parts of Ukraine ethnic Russians live in, whether “ethnic Russians” can be equated with “speakers of Russian”, and whether their linguistic and other rights are being violated. What has not been discussed, however, is the symmetrical question about Ukrainians living in Russia. There are nearly 3 million ethnic Ukrainians living in the Russian Federation, according to the 2010 census, and where exactly they live and how they got there reveals a great deal about the current tensions. (All figures below are from the 2010 census, with absolute numbers rounded to thousand.)

The general principles of migration predict that we should find significant Ukrainian population in regions bordering Ukraine (just as there are numerous Mexican immigrants in southern states bordering Mexico, from California to Texas), and in large cities, such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which attract migrants of all kinds. The 2010 census data reveal that there are indeed 290,000 Ukrainians living in the five Russian regions bordering Ukraine: Bryansk, Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov oblasts. However, in none of these oblasts does the proportion of Ukrainians in the total population exceed 4%: the highest proportion, 3.83%, is found in Belgorod oblast, with Voronezh a distant second (3.1%), and Rostov ranking third (2.69%). In the more northern Bryansk and Kursk oblasts, Ukrainians constitute less than 2% of the total population. Russia’s two largest cities have relatively large absolute numbers of Ukrainians (254,000 in Moscow and 87,000 in Saint Petersburg), but they constitute merely 2.44% and 1.87% of the total populations, respectively. The regions surrounding these two cities—Moscow and Leningrad oblasts—show similar proportions of Ukrainians in the total population, 2.23% and 2.51%, respectively. Altogether the number of Ukrainians living in the five regions bordering Ukraine, the two largest cities, and their surrounding oblasts is 820,000—less than a third of the total Ukrainian population in the Russian Federation. Moreover, Ukrainians constitute less than 3% of the total population of these areas.

Ukrainians in Russia

Most Ukrainians in Russia obviously live in other parts of this vast country. But are they spatially concentrated in a few particular areas, or are they relatively evenly distributed? To answer this question, I mapped the 2010 census data, showing the proportion of Ukrainians in the total population, by federal subject (see map on the left). As expected, the lowest concentration of Ukrainians is found in ethnic republics in the North Caucasus, Middle Volga, and the Altai area. There are also relatively few Ukrainians in the central regions of European Russia. The highest concentration of Ukrainians is found in Yamal-Nenets autonomous okrug of Western Siberia—13.03%. Similarly high figures are found in Magadan oblast, and Chukotka and Khanty-Mansi autonomous okrugs—9.89%, 9.22%, and 8.6%, respectively. Tyumen and Murmansk oblasts, and the Komi Republic are the only other federal subjects with over 6% of Ukrainian population. The absolute number of Ukrainians in those areas is not very high—542,000 total in the seven above-mentioned areas, roughly the same as in the five oblasts bordering Ukraine plus the city of Moscow. The high ratio of Ukrainians in these lightly populated areas, however, is surprising.  It also shockingly reminds us why Ukrainians settled in such remote areas in the first place.


What all seven areas share in common is their horrific GULAG past (to be discussed in more detail in the following posts). In fact, Chukotka autonomous okrug and Magadan oblast are known collectively as “Kolyma” (named after the Kolyma River), a term which has become synonymous with the GULAG system. The Komi Republic was another epicenter of GULAG camps; some of the country’s worse labor camps, such as Vorkutlag, were located here. Ukhta, also in the Komi Republic, was another center of labor camps, where many Soviet POWs liberated from the Nazi camps were exiled, including my great-uncle Michael, who survived nearly four years in the Flossenbürg concentration camp only to be exiled to Ukhta.

The camps in the frigid Far North (Murmansk, Komi Republic) and the Kolyma were also the ultimate destination of many ethnic deportees, viewed by the Soviet regime as “anti-Soviet, criminal and socially dangerous elements” simply in virtue of their birth: residents of the Baltic countries, Western Belarus and Ukraine, and Moldova, Volga Germans, and numerous others. While women and children were typically resettled in Kirov, Tomsk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk Oblasts, as well as Krasnoyarsk and Altai Krais, men were generally imprisoned in the more remote and harshest camps, where most of them perished. Those who survived the camps usually could not return home even after liberation and thus often remained in the same areas.

Although Nikita Khrushchev joked in February 1956 in his speech “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences” that Ukrainians avoided ethnic deportation “because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them”, it is not true that Ukrainians—particularly those from the western regions—eluded such a ghastly fate. As discussed in detail by a Ukrainian journalist and blogger andreistp, Ukrainians were victims of a whole series of ethnic deportations. (The following three paragraphs are based largely on facts and figures cited by andreistp.) The first wave came in 1925-1928, when the borders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were being defined. In this event, those living on the “wrong” side of the border, including hundreds of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians, were forcibly “resettled”—not to the “right” side of the border, but rather east of the Urals. Then, in the early 1930s, Stalin’s collectivization campaign led to the deportation of tens of thousands of Ukrainian kulaks, the Russian term for “rich peasants”, defined as those “with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors”. However, many of those deported under this category were hardly prosperous: even the official Soviet statistics shows that only 22% of the households had two horses, only a third of the households owned a pig, and only a fourth had a plow.

In 1939, western Ukraine was “returned” to the Soviet Union—the Soviets insisted that those areas had been unfairly ceded by the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in what they referred to as the “shameful” Brest peace treaty. Once again, numerous Ukrainians were cleansed from those areas; Poles, Belarusians, Lithuanians, and others were treated much the same way. From December 1939 to March 1940, over 137,000 people were deported from Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, mostly to the Far Northeast, the Komi Republic, and Kazakhstan. An additional 6,000 families of the so-called kulaks were deported from Western Ukraine and Belarus in April 1940. According to some sources, in 1939-1940 up to 20% of Western Ukraine’s people were sent to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Far North, and the camps in the Volga region.

The next deportation, known as Operation “West”, came just two years after World War II, when on October 21, 1947 over 76,000 people were deported from Western Ukraine, among them 18,866 men, 35,152 women and 22,174 children. These figures from the official reports by the Ministry of State Security are challenged by some Ukrainian historians, who contend that according to documents of the Ukrainian nationalist underground, as many as 150,000 were deported. Most of these deportees, sent to Kazakhstan, Far North, and Siberia, were relatives of members of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) or “active bandits, arrested or killed in battles”, as the decree of Council of Ministers of the Union of the USSR put it. The stated goal of this operation was to weaken the so-called “banderovcy”, a term originally referring to the followers of Stepan Bandera, the leader of OUN, but quickly extended by writers of Soviet propaganda to include all Ukrainian nationalists and people opposing the Soviet national policies in Ukraine, regardless of their attitudes towards Bandera, a truly controversial figure.


Recently, the term banderovcy (sometimes incorrectly used as benderovcy) has been enthusiastically revived by the official Russian propaganda and unofficial bloggers alike. On March 18, 2014, President Putin in his speech following the annexation of Crimea labelled the Kiev government as “contemporary henchmen of Bandera” and asserted that “Crimea will never be in the hands of banderovcy”. The popularity of the revived term banderovcy is due in part to its consonance with bandity ‘bandits, gangsters’ and Bandar-logi (Rudyard Kipling’s Bandar-logs, or ‘monkey-people’); the latter term is now often used as banderlogi, mutually exchangeable with banderovcy. In Russian propaganda texts and the blogosphere, the term “banderovcy” is frequently equated implicitly or explicitly with “murderers”, “terrorists”, “fascists”, “Nazis”, “russophobes”, and “anti-Semites”—all of which are often used as catchall swear words, devoid of their original specific meanings.


Yet some Ukrainian nationalists wear the label “banderovcy” proudly. Thus, Oleg Tyahnybok, the leader of the extreme nationalist Svoboda party, said in a 2013 speech (translation mine):

“Stepan Bandera is not just a man who entered history. He is a man whose life and struggle made it so that all of us Ukrainians are called “banderovcy”. His name became a common noun, some people call us “banderovcy” out of spite, others call us “banderovcy” and think we are to be offended. But we are honored by it!”


But time and again, Ukrainian writers, journalists, and bloggers stress that few of today’s Ukrainian nationalists—people who want Ukraine to be truly independent of Russia and better integrated into Europe—hold the extreme right-wing, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic views that are often ascribed to Stepan Bandera. Only slightly more than 1% of Ukrainian citizens voted for Oleg Tyahnybok in the most recent presidential election. Most polls conducted in September 2014 predict that only 4-5% of the electorate will vote for his Svoboda party in the parliamentary elections to take place later this month. It has to be noted, however, that Russia’s anti-Ukrainian attitudes, propaganda, and policies (past and present) serve to push the Ukrainian public opinion in a more nationalist direction. The “Ukrainians in Russia” map above helps us understand why so many Ukrainians today are reluctant to embrace Putin’s Eurasian Union ideas: Kolyma is too far from Ukraine, after all!



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