Russia’s Ukrainian minority under pressure

One day last month Roman Romanenko, a Ukrainian living in the Russian city of Vologda, came home to find a swastika painted on his door and flyers stuffed in his neighbours’ mailboxes.

The flyers read: “Living in your building is a piece of Lviv scum”, referring to a western Ukrainian city with a strong sense of national identity, many of whose residents supported the protest movement that led to the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

The flyers warned that Romanenko supported the protest movement, and that his apartment could become a centre for anti-Russian Ukrainian extremists.

Romanenko, who is originally from eastern Ukraine and not Lviv, is the editor of a local newspaper. He recently wrote a popular Facebook post asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops to Vologda, as he had done in Crimea – but this time, to protect local Russians from corruption.

Recently questioned by the local prosecutor’s office, he said the situation has become harder for Ukrainians in Russia over the past few months. “I don’t really talk about Ukraine anymore – not because I don’t have anything to say, but because the topic is just too hot.”

Many Russians were euphoric at their country’s takeover and annexation last month of the Crimean peninsula, which had belonged to neighbouring Ukraine. But Russia’s sizeable Ukrainian minority has remained conspicuously silent. “If you try and talk about Ukraine, they just call you a Banderite [a follower of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera] or a Maidan protester,” Romanenko told Al Jazeera. . . .

“The media in Russia is lying as if it were North Korea. I never believed it, but 90 percent of people in Russia do,” Botezatu told Al Jazeera. “Some believe it 100 percent, some 70 percent and some 30 percent. But the end result is that even those who believe only 30 percent of it are staunchly against Ukraine and see Nazis everywhere.”

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Some pundits say Ukrainians will never be treated entirely equally in Russia, because of a long history of being treated as second-class citizens. During the Russian Empire, Ukrainians were often referred to as “little Russians”, and the Ukrainian language was banned from being used in education.

“In Russia, Ukrainians are not considered a separate nation, and the Ukrainian language is considered a dialect of Russian,” said Gasan Gusejnov, a professor at the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics in Moscow, who has written on Ukrainian identity. “That’s why anti-Ukrainian sentiment is outraged that Ukrainians have any sort of national identity of their own.”