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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“As long as we project a pseudo-folklore image, nobody will hurt us…”

Valerii Semenenko, an activist of the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia, on mopping up the Ukrainian humanitarian area
7 August, 2012 - 00:00

The Dnipropetrovsk region-born Valerii Semenenko is a well-known figure among Russia’s Ukrainians. Way back in the Soviet era, he, a rocket designer, moved to Moscow. During the Gorbachev perestroika, Semenenko took part in establishing and managing Ukrainian organizations in Russia. He is still active today and, therefore, is knowledgeable about the state of affairs in one of the world’s largest ethnic diasporas. This is the subject of The Day’s interview with Semenenko during his sojourn in Dnipropetrovsk.

Mr. Semenenko, how many Ukrainians live today in the Russian Federation?

“Sadly enough, the number is officially diminishing. For example, as recently as in the 1980s, there were 254,000 Ukrainians in Moscow. And I read some time ago that there are 150,000 Ukrainians who officially reside today in the capital of Russia. The number of the Ukrainians residing on the Russian territory was over four million in the Soviet era and is fewer than two million now. This reduction results from many factors, assimilation being the first and foremost of them. People were just not recorded as Ukrainians during censuses, while some even hide their ethnicity – all the more so that there is no such an item as “ethnicity” in the Russian internal passport. I could see this from my own experience: I was not even asked about my ethnicity during a census. I insisted that they write it down – the questioners laughed and made a note. But far from all do so. Another reason why the Ukrainians “disappear” is that people themselves conceal the fact of being Ukrainian. This became especially common after 2004, when there the Orange Re­volution broke out in Ukraine and Russia launched a vigorous informational campaign. Mud was being slung from television screens every day. As a result, the Ukrainians began to hide their ethnic origin.”

How did the Ukrainian organizations in Russia react to this?

“We did not keep silent. The all-Russian organization, Association of Russia’s Ukrainians, with me at the head, has always defended the rights of Ukrainians. When the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nesterenko publicly “explained” why the number of Ukrainians in Russia was on the decline (“these peoples are close in terms of history, language, and religion”), we gave a response of our own. In our view, a superficial approach like this cannot properly explain what is going on. There are both objective and subjective reasons for this. Indeed, we had a common history. However, being part of the same state produced not only the positive experience of mutual cultural enrichment, but also some extremely negative aspects. It is, above all, the deliberate imperial policy of harassing the Ukrainian language and dubbing it a “southern dialect of the common Russian language,” which resulted in the Ukrainians being Russified and developing a feeling of inferiority. It is also the lack of a Ukrainian informational space in Russia, absence of the Ukrainian church, and undisguised resistance to the spread of the latter. It is no secret that the majority of the Russian political elite do not accept the independence of Ukraine, the self-sufficiency of the Ukrainian nation, and the original status of its language. As a result, Russia pursues no consistent and systemic natio­nalities policy towards the Ukrainians. We have shown the statistics of how many Ukrainian schools and kindergartens are in Russia and how many children study the Ukrainian language. Moreover, we compared this with Russian edu­cation in Ukraine. The statistics were asto­nishing: there was in fact no Ukrainian education in Russia. The Russian authorities must have been dissatisfied with our actions, so they launched an all-round inspection campaign. Of course, they found some “shortcomings” and began to make attempts to close the organizations. By that time, we had had two all-Russian organizations: Federal Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians in Russia and Association of Russia’s Ukrai­nians. They began with the former. No matter how hard we struggled, it was disbanded in Ja­nuary 2011 by a Supreme Court order, while inspections had begun as long ago as in the summer of 2009. It took us two years to appeal and wait for court rulings. We argued that an organization could only be closed if it posed a threat to national security. We said: if we drew up some documents in a wrong way, we will correct this – just tell us what to do. But [Foreign] Minister Sergei Lavrov said bluntly that we were doing po­li­tics. This is on the one hand. And, on the other, when Viktor Yushchenko was still in power, our nice diplomats encouraged us to mark certain dates. But when [the authorities] began to beat us, we received no essential support from the diplomats. At the same time, the Ukrainian expatriate communities have no problems. I must say that a lot of such communities – of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and other expatriates – have been established in Moscow. These associations were set up by the nomenklatura that has settled in Moscow. There was a time when you could come across the now late KGB bosses Vladimir Semichastny and Viktor Chebrikov at the Dnipropetrovsk community. For example, I spoke to the latter in Ukrainian: he said he had gone to a Ukrainian school. It is clear that, as before, these expatriate communities are oriented to the resuscitation of a union between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, but we do not accept this line.”

What happened to the Association of Russia’s Ukrainians (OUR) with you at the head?

“The association got a raw deal after the same happened to the Federal Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians in Russia. Russia’s Ministry of Justice went to court to have the OUR disbanded. They carried out a thorough inspection to find as much compromising material as possible. In particular, they insisted that we should not hold rallies or take part in the elections while the inspection is underway. We held no rallies, but Radio Liberty invited me to give an interview, which I did. This also caused discontent – they equated granting an interview with organizing a mass-scale public event. As is known, a mountain can be made out of a molehill. They checked everything, including the funding, but still failed to spot any violations. We had really been receiving money from Russia’s Ministry for Regional Deve­lopment for specific projects. For examp­le, to celebrate Nikolai Gogols’ 200th anniversary at the Sorochintsi Fair in Moscow, we gathered Ukrainian talents from the entire Russia. There was an extensive program: people came from as far away as the Far East, we held a contest of choirs and a roundtable on the problems of the Ukrainians in Russia.”

Does Ukraine support the activities of Ukrainian organizations in Russia?

“When the Orange Team came to power, they really funded both the OUR and the regional branches in 2006-07. We used those funds for concrete projects, such as commemorative plaques, a monument to Mykhailo Hrushevsky, and publication of literature. We organized festivals of Ukrai­nian culture in the Far East, Omsk, and other regions. Ukraine supported this. But this very money came under a total inspection of Russian auditing bodies, but still, in spite of great zeal, they failed to find violations again. The current Ukrainian government does not seem to be refusing [to help us]. But, in spite of many promises, no tangible support is in sight. Meanwhile, pressure continues to be put on Ukrainian organizations. By order of the Supreme Court of Russia, the Association of Russia’s Ukrainians has also been disbanded. Russia is obviously politicizing the whole range of the problems that refer to the Ukrainian huma­nitarian sphere and is in fact mopping up the Ukrainian humanitarian space. In April 2012 Russia’s Mi­nistry of Justice surprisingly quickly registered a new federal organization with a few ‘zombies,’ which supported the notorious language law of Ukraine.”

Do the Ukrainians who reside in Russia have an opportunity to teach their children in the native language?

“There are no Ukrainian schools as such, as far as mainstream education is concerned. There are Sunday or Saturday schools, where the willing ones can learn the language and bring their children to – but that is all. The Russian authorities are taking the following attitude: first file us your requests, and will see then. But it is obvious that no Ukrainian schools will be set up in this way. We have a different viewpoint: first open a school and then gra­dually increase the number of schoolchildren in it. If we follow some other way, we will never gather a large number of requests. In the Yeltsin era, in 1995, we were given a school in Moscow, where we set up a group of pupils, a decorative art society, and a song ensemble. Thanks to support from Dynamo Kyiv fans, we renovated the premises, set up a TV set and a ‘dish’ to be able to watch soccer matches. All this worked until 2008, when an inspection came. As a result, the project was closed. It is easy to guess that there was an instruction to do so. The attitude to the Ukrainian diaspora is as follows: as long as we project a pseudo-folklore image, nobody will hurt us – they will even encourage us – but God forbid if we broach any more serious issues!”

What is now happening to the Lib­rary of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow?

“The same story. In 2006 the Moscow City Council gave us a new building, but as soon as six moths later the auditing bodies set their eyes on the library. We held a roundtable on the Holodomor, invited Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky, and then the ‘bullying’ began. The library was picketed by the pro-Putin youth movement – the guys were brought in on buses. Then nine library employees were fired, and the dismissal of the library’s ‘founder’ Yurii Kononenko was the final touch. A new director came in order to turn a Ukrainian lib­rary into the Library of the Peoples of Russia. But a criminal case was open du­ring her directorship, too, because the law-enforcing bodies were warned about the spread of ‘extremist literature’ by some unknown people. Investigators came, pushed the button ‘nationalism’ in the electronic catalogue, and seized all the books, which comprised this word in the title of the text, as extremist literature. Under this approach, one can seize much more books at Moscow’s Lenin Library. We wrote a lot of letters in defense of the Ukrainian library and established contact with the new director. In the long run, the criminal case was soft-pedaled and dropped. Naturally, the library is a cultural institution of the Moscow City Hall, so the latter can make any decision. Yet the Library of Ukrainian Literature has always been something more than just a library. It is one of the intellectual centers of communication for the Moscow Ukrainians, and its holdings came from the Ukrainians all over the world. In general, cultural institutions play a special role in the life of Russia’s Ukrainians. For example, some former Bolshoi actors established a quite a high-level Ukrainian theater, Aeneas. All the activities of the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia pivot on singing and home talent shows in the places where there are some good collectives. For example, the Moscow Folk Chorus is quite well known – it has toured Canada, the US, Europe, and participated in various festivals. And there are choirs of this kind in many places of Russia, such as Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, the Komi Republic, and Ufa.

“Incidentally, Europe is evincing interest in our problems. We met Knut Vollebaek, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, when he visited Moscow. Ukrainian activists from various regions also came over to tell him of the true situation of the Ukrainians in Russia.”

In what regions of Russia are there Ukrainian organizations now?

“There is an active community in Kali­ningrad, where a lot of Ukrainians live. There is one in Arkhangelsk with a local entrepreneur at the head. You will find active Ukrainians in Omsk, where the leader is a lawyer that owns a law firm. The Khabarovsk organization is headed by Natalia Romanenko who learned the Ukrai­nian language on her own in Khabarovsk, and organized a wonderful choir. There also are active Ukrainians in Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, Bashkortostan, Saint Petersburg, Karelia, Surgut, Tomsk, the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, Nizhny Novgorod, Nizhnyekamsk, the Komi Republic, Togliatti, Tver, and Orenburg which has a Taras Shevchenko museum. Naturally, the Ukrainians of Kuban are also active, although there has been some decline lately.”

What is the aim of your visit to Ukraine?

“There are my relatives and ancestral house in Dnipropetrovsk oblast. I regularly visit my homeland, particularly, during the elections. I must say that, in spite of all criticism, Ukrainian elections are beyond comparison with those in Russia by the le­vel of democracy. I have watched presidential elections in both Ukraine and Russia. This year, when the president of Russia was being elected, I personally chased buses with bogus voters, photographed, and tried to record the violations. There was an enormous-scale and never-ending rigging, when people were bussed as factory workers from one polling station to another, where they voted for Putin. This did not happen in Ukraine. Naturally, Ukraine is not Russia, but, much to my regret, Ukraine has been quickly marching in the same direction lately.”

Ukraine’s President Victor Yanu­kovych has announced 2014 as Taras Shevchenko Year. How are the Ukrainians of Russia going to mark the Bard’s anniversary?

“Every March we, as well as the Ukrainians all over the world, honor the memory of Taras Shevchenko. In Moscow, the Bard’s monument that stood next to the Ukraine hotel was recently dismantled allegedly for reconstruction. It was erected in 1964, half a century ago. We traditio­nally used to lay flowers at this monument on Shevchenko Day. Now there is no place to go. Of course, we were promised that the monument would be restored before the anniversary celebrations, but we do not know the truth. The Ukrainian embassy is also concerned about this matter. In general, there are only three monuments to the Bard on the territory of immense Russia – in Moscow, now allegedly under reconstruction, in Saint Petersburg, where Shevchenko lived and studied, and in Surgut. Incidentally, the latter monument was erected at the personal expense of Volodymyr Samborsky, our activist, an entrepreneur of Ukrainian origin. I think it is symbolic because an ethnic diaspora in Russia has to survive on its own.”

By Vadym RYZHKOV, The Day, Dnipropetrovsk