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20 March, 2019  ▪  Світлана Одинець

The nomadic state

What is unique about Ukrainian migration and how it impacts national identity

Mobility could be one of the fundamental social experiences that might help Ukrainian society better understand its collective identity and implement its modern political project. In her article titled A Big Migrant Family in the Krytyka magazine, Is. 7-8 from 2015, Svitlana Filonova listed all “voluntary” migrations experienced by millions of Ukrainians in the 20th century alone, including the removal of kurkuls, the soviet label for peasants owning land or property, deportations, mass replacement migration, exiles, expulsions and special replacement to industrial areas in the Soviet Union. The death of Joseph Stalin hardly stopped this perpetuum mobile. Other important waves of Ukrainian migration date back to the period between the 1890s and the beginning of World War I, the interwar period and World War II, when many were political migrants, including Ukrainian nationalists. Then came the post-1991 migration.  

The beginning of the 1990s saw physical dismantling of the borders against the freshly post-soviet states and the rise of globalization discourse in the Western world. Movement and mobility gained special value in it, becoming an exclusive symbolic asset: tell me how much you travel, and I will tell you who you are. 

Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman believes that traveling has become an item of consumption similar to fancy cars, nice clothing and good food. People are now into mass consumption of emotions, landscapes and experiences gained through traveling. As a result, the ability to travel the world and to choose the routes increasingly becomes a new factor of inequality between who can travel freely and those who have no resources to do so, or no resources to travel freely, safely, with a comfortable amount of food and sleep. According to Bauman, all active travellers of today fall into “tourists” or “vagabonds”. Tourists can travel freely, their presence desirable and expected. According to Bauman, these include what we refer to as the global elite, i.e. journalists, writers, software developers, academics and scientists, and managers in international companies. I would add the entire nominal middle and upper middle class in different parts of the world to this cohort. Vagabonds travel too, but they often do so against their will, forced out of the places where they would prefer to stay. 

Bauman points out that most tourists don’t really know which status they will find themselves in the next day, while today’s privilege is in no way guaranteed for them tomorrow. However nominal these metaphors, they lead to an interesting conclusion: the movement of today, including all types of migration, is closely tied with the reformatting of identities and values. Migration can be both cause and consequence in these transformations. As the discourse of individuality evolves, people move in space as well as within their own understanding of self regardless of the quality of their migration. In a broader sense, migrations are linked to the dynamics of subjectivity and development of agency – both individually and as a group. Isn’t it important to reflect on this in Ukraine’s context as 5.8 million of Ukrainians have left the country since 1991, including nearly 3 million as labor migrants, and another 1.6 million migrating within the country after 2014?


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How does this historical experience of mobility affect Ukrainians – primarily in a positive sense – and how could we reconsider it today, in the new context of globalization as it affects Ukraine, because going to live somewhere far for a long time injects many senses and consequences into an individual and his or her environment, rather than being just an escape, treason or the survival strategy of the last resort. What kinds of cultural and social capital do the travellers of today exchange, and who stays waiting for them in Ukraine? How many diasporas does Ukraine have, and who are the people we deal with across our border? Where exactly is across? 


Shaped by collective memory 

The first most interesting thing is that mass migration was the fastest voluntary reaction of society to the economic and social crisis of the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union was almost immediately followed by the labor migration of many people who took little to no time to mobilize, find the necessary means, ways and labor markets when mass access to internet wasn’t yet there. Initially came the shuttle migration with several border crossings in a day to resell cigarettes. This was followed by summer migration to harvest berries in the neighbour countries. After Eastern Europe, Ukrainians discovered the labor markets in Southern and Western Europe where they ended up working many years. Nordic countries are an exception with no mass labor migration from beyond the EU. That long-term migration in which people maintain very close relations with the family back home, spend regular vacations in Ukraine and build several-bedroom houses “for retirement” is a new type of migration, a new type of cross-border social relations and a new type of identity that contribute to Ukraine’s development and will do so in the future.   

The pioneers crossed the borders to the countries with no Ukrainian diasporas or Russian-speaking post-soviet diasporas which they often saw as “ours”. The newcomers could not even expect to get a place to sleep when they first arrived. In those markets where nobody really welcomed them, they took positions alongside the third or fourth-generation migrants within a matter of years. For example, the Ukrainian community in Italy is now the largest community of emigrant women, ahead of women from the Philippines and African countries that started emigrating to Italy over 50 years ago. I will dare assume that such fast build-up of Ukrainian communities in Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece is a unique phenomenon. I have personally not encountered similar cases in research of other migrations in the world. 

Paul Collier, a heavily quoted researcher of migration, and many others believe that the presence of old diaspora is one of the three key factors in the development of migration flows to a country, and an important factor of integration for the newcomers. This was the case of the post-2004 mass Polish migration to the UK and Nordic countries among others. Old Polish diaspora structures were awaiting and EU membership with its free access to the labor market helped. Collier claims that the movement of new migrants in economically poor countries is often enhanced by banks, special organizations that fund the trips, or diasporas in the destination countries. None of these factors worked collectively in Ukraine’s migration after 1991. 

Ukrainian migration stands out as an exception that may well question the consensus of Western migration theories. How did these transnational migrations evolve within very short timeframes without intermediaries, and how did those who risked the move manage to organize themselves so quickly without any help from social institutions in Ukraine or from the destination countries in the EU? In fact, the only supporting institutions were the Roman Catholic Church acting through the Caritas network in Southern Europe and the Greek Catholic Church that quickly established parishes in new countries. They supported Ukrainian migrants from the Christian perspective. That self-organization of people coming from a society with very low social trust and little experience of daily grassroots civic activity – up until the fall of 2013 at least – is a distinct phenomenon in the post-soviet Ukrainian realm on a par with both revolutions and the volunteer movement now.  

My hypothesis and attempt to explain this phenomenon based on interviews with migrants, – which still makes it a hypothesis as this phenomenon has not really been researched in Ukraine or abroad – is that the migration happened under the umbrella of collective memory. Most of my interviewees who work as labor migrants in EU member-states today had labor migrants in their families, mostly in the first and the second waves. They used to read their letters and knew their life trajectories. 

In a country where the movement of grandparents across borders was so intense and large-scale, and so was the movement of borders over people to paraphrase Rogers Brubaker, mobility may have become one of the most important collective traits and experiences of a community. It may now be shared via air or genes as the main way to earn one’s living, especially when there is no longer a field you grow food for that. Owning a field where wheat grows as an opportunity to be yourself and to take back your own subjectivity – could these be the main drivers for the grand exodus that began a long time ago and continues to this day?  


Social contract on pause

Those who decide to emigrate do so not only to build a new house or pay for their children’s education. Emigration is often a suspension of social contract with the state, or termination of it in extreme scenarios. This is foot voting, an open message of dissent, protest and a private war against those in power in some cases. Those who stay are mostly critical about those who emigrate although physical movement does not imply – and never did – a refusal to fight that war. Quite on the contrary, it often implies the intensification of the fight. Emigration as a protest, regardless of whether this is how the reason for emigration is articulated, is often a reaction to insufficient opposition to injustice within the society the person leaves.  

The same can be relevant for those who stay. Staying may also imply struggle or a private war against injustice, and protest against social norms and values. This is a barely researched phenomenon: Western universities and foundations are far less interested in looking at the changes resulting from mass migrations in the countries of origin, even though there are far more non-migrants in the world as 97% of people on the planet live in the countries of their birth.  


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There is a permanent hidden conflict between the people who stay and people who leave, and it manifests itself quite strongly in the public discourse. This is because mobility has become new symbolic capital. This is also because the traumatic memory of life in the socialist camp, its imagined barbed wires stronger than the real ones, is still very much alive. But there is freedom to stay in addition to freedom to move. One is free to not leave his or her country. Both choices, as well as their underlying values and identities, can be a resource for the country provided that the agents of these choices cooperate as partners. They can start with respecting the choice of the other. 

The distant rear. Ukrainian diaspora got actively engaged in the civic life of their homeland after 2014 



After so many migrations Ukrainians experienced in the 20th century, today’s Ukraine seems to have very few families with no experience of traveling as labor migrants or as IDPs according to the bureaucratic definition. This means that we are facing millions of people who, willingly or not, are beyond their usual and established matrix and patterns of communication and conduct, and seek to rediscover themselves. How much innovation and social trauma is there in that capital, and which of the two dominates in it? 

Given the lack of research and broader reflections about this, we still talk about migration within the same categories and intonations as for the first waves of migration, even though modern transnational movements generate a completely different migration experience. Most migrants do not treat that movement as leaving Ukraine for good.   

The migrants in the EU return to Ukraine regularly, once or several times a year, and invest into their families. They prepare to retire in Ukraine as they build big houses that stay empty so far. They are very much tied to their country. I assume that most will ultimately return to Ukraine. That return, however, will happen once they overcome the shock and the great internal anxiety of settling the conflict between the memory of the environment they left and their experience of the environment they return to several decades later, which can never be the same. For now, they could be Ukraine’s best cultural diplomats if they knew that the government and society would appreciate that. 


In need of decompression


In addition to the millions of Ukrainian migrants across Europe and the US, Ukraine’s society today has over a million people moved within the country. While they remain in the same climate, language and overall cultural experience, they still have to comprehend a generally familiar, yet different social environment. Therefore, in addition to the traditional diasporas abroad of which Ukrainian society always remembers, it has a diaspora of sorts within the country as the borders have moved over people, accidental diasporas according to Brubaker. This group also encompasses all those who openly or silently identify themselves as part of the political Ukrainian national project and play a special role in the shaping of it, even when they do not liveon the territory controlled by Kyiv. Crimean Tatars provide one example. These groups require special policy from Kyiv and special individual approach to attempts to comprehend their internal history.    

Ukraine is facing many questions in this respect. They are about the ties between the diasporas and their country of origin in the future; and whether society actually benefits from the multi-billion financial transfers the migrants send from abroad, possibly offsetting social protest against corrupt systems that would be inevitable without these financial cushions. More important is a discussion about the circulation of cultural capitals: can we benefit from communication with those who have lived in the West for many years, and how values change within that migration project? Could Ukrainian society embrace back the millions of Ukrainians who have migrated over the past 30 years, and what would it change? 

The answers probably lie in the decompression of complex collective experiences. This means that we should stop thinking about modern movement of people as flows and masses, and focus instead on the diversity of live human experiences with curiosity about others. The experience of mobility could be our next Pandora box, but we could hardly avoid opening it.



Svitlana Odynets, social anthropologist, PhD in History


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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