Ukraine and the Traps of Proximity to European and Russian Slavic Whiteness



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 Darya Tsymbalyuk and Ahmed Abozaid at a vigil in St Andrews, Scotland on February 28, 2022, a few days after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ahmed’s sign reads “No to War No to Occupation.” / Photo by Fayaz Kacho.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, Darya Tsymbalyuk attempts to reckon with the complex layering of racialization Ukrainians are subjected to. In being presented unequivocally as “white” when they receive support from western nations, we ought to question the peremptory dimension of this characterization and reflect instead on the conditionality of this temporary access to European whiteness. 

On March 4, 2022, a few days after the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh published an essay entitled “Why Ukraine is a Syrian cause.” In it, he offered a generous gesture of solidarity from a place of pain and embodied knowledge of Russian imperial violence. Several weeks later, Saleh published another piece, this time reflecting on the failure to condemn Russian imperialism in Syria in comparison to Ukraine and exposing profound racism within western institutions of power, including towards people fleeing the war as refugees, where he frames this dynamic as “selective solidarity.” Saleh’s work deeply speaks to me because he is able to address both violences of racial capitalism and of Russian military invasions, exposing their complexities and entanglements. It is this multiplicity of regimes of violence which is unfortunately often missing in some perspectives on Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the war’s international impact, and which I try to understand in this text. 

The escalation of Russia’s eight-years long war on Ukraine to a full-scale invasion resulted in millions of people instantaneously crossing into the European Union, where the EU’s response exposed deep structural racism and organization of life according to white supremacy and perceived proximities to European whiteness. People perceived as not-belonging to Ukrainian whiteness or racialized citizens of non-European countries residing in Ukraine have been obstructed, mistreated, and in some cases detained while trying to flee the Russian invasion. Moreover, the same eastern borders of the EU that opened to welcome Ukrainian refugees have for long been a place of systematic violence against other refugees trying to cross from the Belarusian side. The unprecedented fast and efficient EU response in helping fleeing Ukrainians by activating the Temporary Protection Drive has also clearly demonstrated that such actions are possible when the EU deems certain lives “worth saving.” Finally, the racist public discourse that surrounded the situation and which privileged and pitied Ukrainians against other people that have been fleeing violence globally, revealed the hypocrisy of the values of human rights and the deadly structuring of life according to the proximity to European whiteness. Rightfully, these racist dynamics provoked a wave of outrage and condemnation. 

At the same time, and in response to western hypocrisy, there has been a tendency among many people involved in the global anti-racist movement to wrongfully conflate a rightful rage at racial capitalism with Ukraine’s ability to continue resisting colonial aggressor, where this ability is conditioned by the support of the western allies. This tendency is often articulated by explaining Russia’s war on Ukraine through the frame of “white European war.” According to this logic, if Ukraine is only supported because it is seen as white and European, it means that by supporting Ukraine one perpetuates the ordering of life according to white supremacy. Such kinds of (mis)interpretations of the war result in direct or indirect suggestions of reducing and denying support for Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle. 

In “Fighting for Whiteness in Ukraine” (2023), U.S.-based law academic Marissa Jackson Sow discusses “Ukraine’s leveraging of the Russian invasion to negotiate enhanced status within the global white body politic.” As Jackson Sow points out, the narrative of Europeanness and associated whiteness is indeed instrumentalized by some Ukrainians, yet the argument that Ukraine is “leveraging” the war diminishes the existential nature of Ukraine’s anti-colonial resistance and misrepresents geopolitical complexity of Russia’s imperial invasion and its impact.

Constructed as belonging to European whiteness, Ukrainians are both seen as pawns in western racist geopolitical games and as complicit in perpetuating white supremacy.

When it comes to Ukraine, however, the violence of racial capitalism does not cancel the violence of a colonial invasion. In relation to Russia’s war on Ukraine, these violent phenomena co-exist producing a set of global and intersecting complexities and articulations. What strikes me in interpreting Ukraine’s anti-colonial resistance only as a “white European war” is that by homogeneously framing Ukrainian people as white, and therefore privileged, one is erasing or diminishing other very real and material aspects of millions of Ukrainians which are not necessarily structured by whiteness only. Indeed, many Ukrainians are living under murderous Russian occupation, others live in the threat of being killed daily, and/or do not have access to basic goods because of the Russian invasion. Moreover, Russia has been justifying its colonial invasion of Ukraine by claiming that it is de-nazifying the country. For years, on both domestic and international levels, Russia has engaged in complex propaganda campaign that misleadingly constructed Ukraine as a far-right and neo-Nazi state —it’s worth noting that far-right parties failed to pass the electoral minimum at the last parliamentary elections in Ukraine in 2019—and where Ukrainian democratic revolution of 2013-2014 against state violence and the rise of authoritarianism has been wrongly portrayed as a far-right coup. It is therefore important to be aware where the narratives of linking the support for Ukraine with perpetuating white supremacy risk overlapping and feeding into deadly Russian propaganda that mobilizes and legitimizes the daily murder of people in Ukraine. 

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Symbolic beheading of the Russian figure on Ukraine-Russia Friendship Monument in Kyiv on April 26, 2022. The eight meters tall statue had been erected in 1982 for the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union. / Photo by Studio Melange.

At the same time, Ukraine (like any other country) is not a place free of racism, and of course, the experience of Russia’s war on Ukraine is also multilayered, where those belonging to racially marginalized groups, sexualities, and genders outside the constructed norm, and impoverished classes are often in much more vulnerable positions. For example, in the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, there were numerous instances of racism on Ukrainian borders, where non-Ukrainian and/or non-white people were often deliberately slowed or obstructed in their exit, or even detained. Scholar of race in Ukraine and the Soviet Union Kimberly St. Julian Varnon has commented on these cases at length in her crucial work. Ukraine has also been complicit in policing EU borders through the operation of three detention centers, open with EU funding and as a condition for liberalizing a visa-free regime for Ukraine. The centers have continued, to operate after Russia’s full-scale invasion. 

Ukraine is not a homogeneously white country, though people who, within the Ukrainian context would be considered as white do constitute an overwhelming majority. Still Ukraine is ethnically diverse, consisting not only of white Ukrainians, but also of Jews, Gagauz, Roma, as well as people indigenous (korinni narody) to Crimea (Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, and Crimean Karaites…). People from all ethnicities inhabiting Ukraine have joined and united in the anti-colonial struggle against the Russian aggression. At the same time, construction of whiteness and racialization within Ukraine operates through the systematic exclusion of Romani Ukrainians and other racialized Ukrainians. Initiatives addressing these processes of racialization in the country have been growing, especially in response to anti-Roma pogroms in 2018. At the same time, the work of anti-racist activists has also been affected by the invasion. One of the most prominent defenders of the rights of refugees, migrants, stateless and displaced persons in Ukraine, and an anti-racist activist Maksym Butkevych joined the Ukrainian army in 2022. Several months later, he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Russian military and sentenced on fabricated charges by an occupation court to thirteen years in a high-security prison. While anti-racist activists have been laboring tirelessly, larger Ukrainian society still needs to do a lot of work to address complicity in (domestically and internationally) upholding racialized categories, as well as to combat structural racism against Roma people and other racialized groups in Ukraine. This exclusion based on racialization is also part of the colonial trap of proximity to hegemonic (European or Russian Slavic) whiteness in Ukraine and of larger colonial dynamics. 

Racialized categories and whiteness are always contextually articulated, and construction of whiteness in Ukraine and in relation to Ukraine is inextricably linked to the country’s legacies of being positioned at the intersection of multiple colonial regimes.

For a long time, Ukraine has been imagined as a borderland between East and West. This borderland imaginary is strongly linked to Ukraine’s perceived proximity to different colonial metropoles whether in Russia or in Europe, where these metropoles remain at one point seemingly close and yet forever unattainable. 

At the same time these proximities to colonial centers and to the hegemonic (European or Russian Slavic) whiteness operated differently from each side of Ukrainian borders. In the Russian empire, Ukraine was called Malorossiya, “little Russia,” a name that originated before Russia’s imperial rise and had different meanings, but which came to signify Ukraine as a lesser and integral part of “greater Russia.” The term Malorossiya is invoked by Vladimir Putin in his imperial rhetoric, including his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Russian colonial politics in relation to Ukraine is based on the denial of the very existence of Ukrainian culture, language, state, as Putin also proclaimed in his invasion speech on February 21, 2022. Russian colonial erasure of Ukraine is therefore based on constructing Ukrainianness as a deviation from Russianness, where Ukrainians have been either represented as caricatured and burlesque, or as morally corrupt by the West and brainwashed by neo-Nazi ideologies. In the history of Russian colonialism of Ukraine, Russia attempted to eliminate this “deviation” and return “the lost Slavic sibling” to the “family” through politics of russification or the murder of the hopelessly “deviated” ones, and we clearly observe both dynamics today.

Perceived and constructed proximity to colonial metropoles and European whiteness is also a defining feature of Ukraine’s colonial relationship with Europe, though operating in a very different fashion. In relation to Europe, Ukraine is always catching up and striving to be recognized as fully European, but yet always remaining the “Other,” exploited, sexualized, romanticized, corrupt, and sacrificed. Ukraine has its own history of European colonialism, where parts of Ukraine were colonized by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ukraine is also one of the places butchered the most in Nazi colonial expansion in World War II, where more than 1.5 million of Ukraine’s Jewish and Romani people were assassinated in the Holocaust—for example, Babyn Yar in Kyiv is the site of the largest single Holocaust massacre)—while many other Ukrainians were killed, injured, or exploited as forced labor, Ukrainian lands were occupied. If direct colonial subjugation by European powers is in the past for Ukraine, following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the country became inscribed in global capitalism as a site of cheap labor force, including sex trafficking. This can be observed in the trope of a sexualized and impoverished Ukrainian woman, often the only representation of Ukrainian women on a western screen—see for example The Unknown Woman (Italy, 2006), Import/Export (Austria, 2007), and Olla (France, 2019). Numerous other instances can be found in Andriy Pryymachenko’s video collage entitled “56 Years, 89 Titles, and a Single Story about Ukraine,” assembling the moments Ukraine has been mentioned in Hollywood films. The video provides an interesting glimpse into the tropes through which Ukraine has been perceived in the West; in addition to sexualized women, there are also narratives of nuclear apocalypse and around Chornobyl, toxic masculinity, and condescending humor around the seemingly absurdity of Ukrainians insisting on not being confused with Russians. 

Perceived proximity to imperial metropoles set several colonial traps for Ukraine, including a forever catching up game, and gaslighting, where colonial violence can be easily obscured or underestimated by the perceived proximity to the colonial centers of power.

Whiteness of most Ukrainians is part of the privilege of perceived proximity to the imperial metropoles, whether it is the Slavic whiteness at different points of Russian and Soviet imperial histories constructed in opposition to the non-Slavic Other, or it is European whiteness constructed in the opposition to non-white Other in western colonial rhetoric. This trap is, for example, visible in the unprecedented western support to the Ukrainian state and army, as well as Ukrainian refugees. Yet, where in the eyes of many, Ukraine seems to be showered with western aid, from the perspective of many Ukrainians, western deliberate slowness, in providing military support for example, also indirectly contributes to the growing number of people killed by Russia in Ukraine. 

At the same time, construction of whiteness in Ukraine is also conditioned by the colonial trap of proximity to the imperial metropoles, where white Ukrainians have been always constructed as not white enough in comparison to the hegemonic Russian Slavic whiteness or the hegemonic European whiteness. Racial capitalism orders the value of life according to whiteness. In the context of Ukraine, the hierarchy of white supremacy conditions the ones who are perceived as almost white to strive for whiteness, where being white is constructed as the only possibility to survive. This, in turn, often results in Ukrainians being complicit in the construction of white supremacy. This dynamic has been much critiqued with regards to Ukraine’s relation to and construction of Europeanness, and it can also be observed in the history of Ukrainian Canadian communities on Indigenous land, for example. This dynamic and its logic need to be urgently examined and dismantled, if one is willing to envision inclusive imaginaries for the post-war Ukraine which are grounded in freedom and liberation for all people everywhere. 

There is a lot of anti-racism work that has to be done in Ukraine, and this work cannot be done without understanding Ukraine as a site of multiple colonialities and ways in which these different colonialities have operated and continue to operate through racialization. Moreover, the anti-racist struggle in Ukraine and in relation to Ukraine cannot be separated from the existential anti-colonial resistance against the Russian invasion, as the illegal imprisonment of Maksym Butkevych poignantly reminds us. Racial capitalism is not the only structure of power that organizes life in Ukraine today and that decides who is privileged and white enough to be worthy of being saved or to live. Hence it would be inaccurate to interpret Russia’s war on Ukraine and its global implications exclusively through the lens of “white European war”—as some of the members of the global anti-racist movement falsely suggest—and without a thorough engagement with the impact of Russian imperial violence, which structures life and death not only in Ukraine, but also in Saqartvelo (Georgia), Syria, Moldova, Chechnya, and many other places. 

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Crimea Tatar and Ukrainian flags in a street of Kyiv on April 29, 2021. The Ukrainian flag bears the name of Bakhchisaray, a town in Crimea. / Photo by Andrii Koval.

Furthermore, Russia’s imperial violence also operates as racial violence, which is clearly visible in the unproportionate recruitment of non-white Russian citizens and indigenous people into the Russian military, as well as in the Russian colonial occupation of Ukraine, where, in the settler colonial regime installed in Crimea (occupied since 2014), indigenous Crimean Tatars have been targeted through persecution. Therefore, when it comes to Ukraine, it is important to understand complex layers in which racial violence overlaps with the multiplicity of colonial legacies through which Ukraine has been shaped and the ongoing Russian colonial invasion and occupation and its role in structuring conditions of life and death for all people living in Ukraine today. Only then can we also start untangling and confronting the dynamic of colonial traps of proximity to imperial metropoles and to hegemonic (European or Russian Slavic) whiteness, and the Ukrainian role in upholding racial structures of oppression inside the country and globally. Understanding the dynamics of these overlapping phenomena is the first step in addressing and dismantling these entangled regimes of violence, and like with everything else, such work is only possible in solidarity and in labor with others. 

The generous support of Ukraine by other people who lived through violence (Taiwan, Syria, Qazaqstan, Saqartvelo, Bosnia…) opened up new lines of exchange and possibilities of building anti-colonial non-Western solidarity networks.

It also created the possibility of collective work towards dismantling different and overlapping structures of oppression: Russian imperialism, racial capitalism, Eurocentricity. Saleh warns against “Syrianizing” Ukraine and instead calls for “Ukrainizing Syria,” meaning that the same support mobilized for Ukraine should be also mobilized for the Syrian Revolution—and we should add: for other places struggling for survival, freedom, and dignified life.

Many communities that have been standing in solidarity with Ukraine have helped materially, but have also shared their own knowledge of resistance, of surviving wars, of the difficulties of post-conflict reconstruction, and tactics of responding to “westsplainers.” The labor of solidarity is not easy, especially when someone is fighting for survival, and when, after nine years of war, communities of Ukraine (inside the country and abroad) are emotionally and physically depleted, as are so many of the communities who live through violence and oppression daily in other parts of the world. 

To conclude, Ukraine’s freedom cannot come at the expense of the lives of others, and Ukrainian people cannot be sacrificed for the logic of opposing western hypocrisy in the global anti-racist struggle. We must find a way to fight against several violent regimes, such as racial capitalism and Russian imperialism at once and tackle their articulations with attention and knowledge of sociocultural and sociohistorical contexts. There is no justice and if not for all. ■