Race and Postcolonialism in Ukraine and North America

We are pleased to announce the launch of Krytyka's online forum on Race and Postcolonialism. It has been a long preparatory period since the idea for this discussion emerged for the first time. Editors Oleh Kotsyuba, Jessica Zychowicz and Grace Mahoney, developed the topic for the forum in response to the ever-increasing need for productive discursive engagement around issues of race and postcolonialism in the U.S. As we launch this forum, we would like to thank the Krytyka Institute, especially the vision and initiative of online editor, Oleh Kotsyuba. We would also like to thank the developers who support the web-portal, as well as the intellectual generosity of our friends and colleagues this year who have, on both sides of the Atlantic, stressed the urgency for bringing these ideas to the forefront of our thinking, methods, and ongoing work both inside and outside of the academy.


Aristotle remarked that in order to be a citizen one must know how to both rule and be ruled, writing, “Who is entitled to be a citizen? No agreement exists; someone who would be a citizen in a democracy would often not be a citizen in an oligarchy.”

Trump’s inauguration has marked a return, indeed a reversion, to America’s colonial origin story amid late capitalism. In Trump’s #Great America, filled with violence and a propaganda machine that tells citizens that they can only be made “great” at the hands of the leader alone, everyone is potentially or by default an Other, but fully subjugated: unable to access the ruler. The duality of rule/ruled in participatory citizenship is traded for fixed, given identities—clashing in the streets and institutions of the republic.

In his farewell address to the nation on January 10, 2017 after eight years of serving as 44th President of the United States, President Barack Obama outlined a set of threats to American democracy. Key among them was the state of race relations and discrimination—a threat, “as old as our nation itself.”  

Obama’s outgoing speech was a departure from his own campaign slogans of Hope and Change. His rhetoric redirected xenophobia onto the internal outsider: the Other that exists inside of every Citizen. Race appeared as more than demarcating boundaries (whether by walls or in language), but an experience borne out of several intersections across the social contract. And while the claims to a “post-racial” America that had initially followed Obama’s election may have been all-too-hopeful, the moment served to remind that broad political change can only begin by attempting to see oneself in the Other. As in much national mythmaking, the Citizen yet remains an allegory for freedom and progress, which in the American context, is rooted in immigration and revolution.

Change in this respect has had multiple vectors.

“We have to pay attention, and listen,” Obama stated in his address, “for there to be understanding, especially among whites, that the Civil Rights movement did not do away with the effects of slavery and the Jim Crow laws, and when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”

Like the myth of Janus in ancient Greece, the idea of two opposing sides, between blacks and whites in America, is one of convenience. A much broader and nuanced story underpins individual and collective experiences of nation, class, and civil rights that is neither black nor white alone, but multiple and international. As central as the threat of race-relations to democracy remains in America, there is yet another —future— layer that this threat poses to individuals and institutions globally. This layer appears especially ominous in the spread of “fake news” and the appearance of “alternative facts.” With the rise of artificial intelligence, virtual currencies, and social media as primary methods for human interaction, the sowing of confusion and division between groups and by elites with access to large swaths of capital makes the question of hegemony all the more immediate.


This Krytyka forum is dedicated to translating and expanding a global terminology for discussing identity-based conflicts and postcolonialism. Our primary aim is to build debate around conceptions of individual and collective experiences across sites within and between Ukraine and North America. Now is an especially critical time in which to extend our scholarly dialogue in these areas, due to the rapid flow of news media images of the removal of public monuments and the hate crimes taking place in the U.S., and the mass broadcasting of such events throughout the world.

Contemporary events involving racial violence - bodily, structural, and symbolic - can serve as points of reference for terms for thinking about race that teach and enlighten, rather than constrain and divide. Our hope is to make visible through dialogue individual and collective struggles for dignity. For many scholars of Ukraine, notions of violence and prejudice often recall past political prosecutions based on ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic identity, with consequences for public memory and policymaking in the present. How do the Soviet past and tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship shape perceptions of race and hegemony globally and in Ukraine today?

What are the geographical underpinnings of ideas of postcolonialism and their concurrent social movements? Opponents? Public statements of denial, accusation, or responsibility? What are the points of agreement/disagreement among authors, scholars, and activists across North America, post-Soviet, and non-Western contexts? Who are the vulnerable? Who is entitled to speak? Does the script flip? We invite you to examine these questions with us.

October 2017

Racism and the Contested Moral Standing of Nations

The issue of Ukraine's “Europeanness” was a key focus of the Euromaidan protests, which were started in November 2013 at the initiative of Mustafa Nayem, a Muslim Afghan-Ukrainian journalist. While at first the protesters took a stand in response to Ukrainian President Yanukovych's refusal to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union, the movement came to be called the “Revolution of Dignity” (revolutsiia hidnosti), representing a longing for a broader idea of Europeanness as a state of respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. For some, the acceptance of racial diversity was imagined as integral to Europeanness, as the Euromaidan Journalist Collective expressed in a Facebook post (February 4, 2014): “A majority of Maidan protesters largely tend to think of ethnic and racial inclusion as being one of the European ideals endorsed by the Euromaidan, alongside concepts such as open borders, free trade, and freedom of religion, press, assembly, etc.”

Protest in Lviv, Ukraine against racial discrimination in March 2012. Valeriy Shmakov / UNIAN.

Russia strove to discredit the movement by depicting it as anti-Semitic, drawing on discourses rooted in events during World War Two, when groups of Ukrainian nationalists had allied with Nazi Germany to fight against the Red Army. In Western Ukraine, Ukrainian guerillas fought against Soviet power into the 1950s, years after this region was joined to the rest of the Ukrainian SSR. This guerrilla movement supported the Soviet-era narrative that Western Ukrainians were politically questionable, and that Ukrainian nationalism was by definition anti-Soviet and thus linked to fascism. The equation of Ukrainian nationalism with fascism perdured in Soviet propaganda as a condemnation of desires for a distinct Ukrainian identity. During the Maidan protests, Russian media again put forward this discourse to denounce Ukraine's efforts to break away from Russia's political and economic control.

Jewish community leaders and other activist groups in Ukraine supported the protests and mobilized to rebuke Russia's accusations of anti-Semitism (Zisels et al. 2014). The fact that the first casualty of the Euromaidan protests, shot by government forces, was Serhiy Nigoyan, an Armenian-Ukrainian, symbolized the ethnic inclusivity already present in Ukraine. His death was followed by the deaths of more than one hundred protesters, some of whom had ethnic Russian, Polish, Belorusian, or Jewish roots. The Russian propaganda was particularly ironic given the diverse participation in the Euromaidan, and the very low support for right-wing parties (about 2% in the May 2014 Presidential elections to replace the ousted president). As historian Timothy Snyder (2014a) writes, “Has it ever before happened that people associated with Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Polish, and Jewish culture have died in a revolution that was started by a Muslim? Can we who pride ourselves in our diversity and tolerance think of anything remotely similar in our own histories?”


Perceptions of racial differences depend on local histories and cultural narratives. Globally dominant understandings of race, based on histories of exploitative colonizing relations between first world and third world countries and segregationist policies are not adequate to explain Ukrainian understandings and practices. Ukraine's history of colonization by Russia makes blackness and Ukrainianness commensurable as subjugated identities, even while the predominant racial whiteness of Ukrainians undermines this commensurability. The historic whiteness of Ukrainians also means that black Ukrainians disrupt the stereotype of Ukraine as a provincial backwater, by portraying a Ukrainianness that is at once national, urban, and global. As I have illustrated here, African Ukrainians and African migrants in the entertainment industry in Ukraine are subject to the demands of a market that exoticizes and commodifies blackness, but they are also agents in the construction of national identity.

Visibly diverse Ukrainians are celebrated and embraced as model Ukrainians, but stereotypes of Africa as a backward continent persist in popular discourse. These coexisting contradictory meanings of racial diversity, as a positive symbol of cosmopolitan worldliness or a negative symbol of cultural backwardness, reflect tensions in nation-building. Blackness and Ukrainianness mutually constitute each other, as people navigate the conflicting terrains of nationalism, xenophobia, postcoloniality, and desires for cosmopolitan modernity.

This is an abridged version of an article submitted by the author to this forum and previously published in City & Society, 28: 341–364.


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