Staunton, July 24 – Most Russians and many outsiders believe that when the Russian Empire acquired the Far East, it dispatched Russians to settle the area and that members of that nation are the ancestors of those who live there now, a view actively promoted by cultural institutions in the region.
But this commonly accepted view isn’t true: Most of those who were sent to the Russian Far East were from Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic lands, with the Ukrainians being especially dominant up until the 1920s and 1930s (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/10/window-on-eurasia-three-demographic.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/06/window-on-eurasia-zelenyi-klin-isnt.html).
But from that time forward, Soviet and then Russian institutions have sought to Russify these groups and their history, a drive that has only intensified because of Kyiv’s interest in what was once a Ukrainian territory in the Far East (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/10/kyivs-interest-in-ukrainians-in-russia.html).
Russian commentator Maksim Goryunov says that at present Vladivostok’s Museum of the History of the Far East largely ignores the non-Russian origin of “the Russians” of the Russian Far East (facebook.com/maxim.goryunov/posts/2770975419674314 reposted at newizv.ru/article/general/24-07-2020/tayna-istorii-zhiteli-dalnego-vostoka-strany-ne-znayut-svoego-proishozhdeniya).
The museum mentions in passing that the ancestors of the current population of the region came from Ukraine, Belarus and Latvia, the Russian writer says; but it doesn’t specify where precisely they came from, what languages they spoke, what institutions they had, and why they came.
In the city itself, he continues, “there is not a single Ukrainian or Belarusian restaurant/cultural center/publishing house/’society of lovers of history.’ If one didn’t read books, it would be difficult to learn that people came” from where they did, although anyone can see that many last names are anything but Russian.
From a European perspective, he says, “this certainly is not very normal.” People have and are encouraged to have a knowledge of their pasts. “But that is in Europe. Within Russia, an individual is only an individual,” and he or she takes on those attributes including identity that the state wants – and gives up those the state doesn’t want people to have.
Comments appended to Goryunov’s post suggest that at least some people in the Russian Far East remain very interested in their non-Russian origins but currently have few sources to turn to for information besides elderly members of their families who remember something of what is becoming an ever more distant past.
It wasn’t always like that. Ukrainians in the Russian emigration in China promoted Ukrainian identity in the Far East as did the Japanese right up to World War II. And for a brief period in the mid-1980s, the United States even broadcast in Ukrainian to the Russian Far East from Japan.
Since 1991, activists and officials in Ukraine have talked about promoting Ukrainian identity in that region, but they have done relatively little not only because Moscow is so sensitive to this issue but because many in the West argue that talking about that is overly provocative.