Ukraine on the move: a century of migration

The current refugee crisis is the latest chapter in a history of displacement in the region that embraces two world wars and their aftermath.

Migration Ukraine
Ukrainian Displaced Persons in a camp (Lysenko DP camp) in Hannover, Germany in 1948. Credit:

‘Tears flowed when listening to people’s stories about the terrible destruction of their homes, about the enforced departure, the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children.’ Not Ukraine in 2022, but Ukraine in 1916. The displacement of around one million civilians on Ukrainian territory during the First World War is a reminder that the country has been exposed to dramatic political, social and economic upheavals for more than a century.

War, revolution, and civil war in the years between 1914-21 were followed by the catastrophe of forced collectivisation and famine in the early 1930s, and by recurrent conflicts between Soviet Ukraine, its Polish neighbour, and Ukrainian nationalists before, during, and after the Second World War. Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Ukrainian men and women were dragged from their homes to work in the Nazi war economy. Many of these so-called Displaced Persons returned to their homes at the war’s end, but others refused to do so, before being resettled in far-flung destinations beyond Soviet reach. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the ongoing conflict needs to be set in the context of these other events.

Let us look more closely at forced migration and what it meant for those most directly affected. Between 1914 and 1921 the territory of Ukraine, dominated by ethnic Ukrainians but home to a significant Russian and Jewish population (some 12% and 8% of the total population according to the 1897 census), was ravaged by invasion from German and Austro-Hungarian armed forces. During the ‘great retreat’ in 1915, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children fled eastwards to escape the enemy. Alongside the reports of brutality at the hands of enemy troops, there were stories of the murder and rape of Ukrainians and other civilians by Russian, especially Cossack, soldiers, who regarded Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, and Belarusians as a potential fifth column, liable to undermine the Russian war effort. In short, the mass exodus from Ukraine was not just prompted by fear of the enemy but by the actions of the Tsarist state towards its own subjects. By highlighting the poor performance of the Russian military and the government, the crisis helped to destabilise the old regime and eventually ushered in the Bolsheviks, who seized power in October 1917.

This first refugee crisis in Ukraine was, in today’s parlance, a crisis of internal displacement in so far as refugees moved within the Russian Empire. This meant that responsibility for managing and supporting them fell to local officials and voluntary bodies, including organisations created and led by refugees themselves.

In early 1918, Ukraine declared independence from the enfeebled Russian state, hoping, with the support of Germany, to keep Bolshevism at bay. In short order, however, the collapse of the German war effort led to the imposition of Soviet rule in Ukraine and the formation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Amid this turmoil, millions of refugees who fled eastwards during the war returned to their homes; they included refugees of non-Ukrainian origin who travelled across Ukrainian territory to get to Poland to escape communism. Poland imposed controls on entry to ensure that refugees were vectors neither of infectious disease nor Bolshevism. Others remained or were trapped on Soviet soil, a reminder that alongside mass displacement there are always people who are immobilised by infirmity or have other reasons for staying put.

The entire region was then engulfed once more by violent conflict in the shape of civil war between the Reds (Bolsheviks) and their White opponents, with the added complication of peasant armies (Greens) fighting to keep both sides at arm’s length and control their own lives. Food shortages and infectious disease contributed to the devastation wrought by the fighting.

With the final victory of Soviet forces in 1921, Ukraine embarked on a period of economic and social stability. Many villagers either moved to towns and cities permanently or for seasonal work, and their migration helped improve the lives of everyone. Impoverished Jewish traders, who had been the victims of pogroms before and after 1917, were given the chance to settle on farms in southern Ukraine where they were thought less likely to be targeted on the grounds of ‘exploiting’ the Ukrainian proletariat. But the stability proved short-lived. Although some Ukrainians benefited from new opportunities sparked by Soviet investment in industry and infrastructure, the turning point came in 1928 with Stalin’s decision to embark on mass collectivisation, overturning the traditions of centuries of peasant farming. One result of the speed and coercion involved was that some peasants escaped to the relative safety of towns. Another was that the seizure of grain contributed, together with adverse weather conditions, to a devastating famine in 1932. Further punishment followed when Stalin deported ‘disloyal’ Ukrainians to Central Asia.

The Second World War inflicted enormous damage on Ukraine and its inhabitants. In addition to the loss of life, civilians were uprooted on a vast scale. As in the First World War, minorities were exposed to violence, not just from the enemy, which targeted the entire Jewish population for extermination, but also from within, leading to mass expulsions and the resettlement of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in May 1944, on the grounds of their perceived ‘treason’.

With the unstoppable march westwards of the Red Army from 1943 onwards, the Soviet Union brought great swathes of pre-war Polish territory under its control. Before the war, south-eastern Poland had already witnessed a confrontation between Poles and Ukrainians. During the war, Ukrainian nationalists in the shape of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN, Orhanizatsiia Ukrains’kykh Natsionalistiv) and the UPA (Ukrainska Povstanska Armiia, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) actively campaigned for an independent Ukrainian state, enlisting Nazi support; countless Jews, Poles, and others were victims of this struggle for mastery of Ukraine. The war intensified this rivalry and caused further loss of life as Soviet loyalists in Ukraine counter-attacked the OUN-UPA. Putin drew on memories of this conflict when he claimed in February 2022 that his ‘special military operation’ was designed to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine.

Late in 1944, the Polish authorities agreed with their counterparts in Soviet Ukraine and Belarus to arrange for a supposedly ‘voluntary’ exchange of population between Poland and the Soviet Union. Ukrainians in Poland were resettled in western Ukraine on farms vacated by Poles who were, in turn, forced to move to Poland. Both groups were tasked with rebuilding the shattered economies of Poland and Ukraine respectively. The process was far from straightforward: Ukrainian newcomers got a hostile reception from locals. Nor did the UPA cease its attempts to unseat the Soviet administration in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Polish state targeted the remaining Ukrainian minority and in 1947 expelled them to western Poland. In short, another round of forced migration designed to counter Ukrainian nationalism afflicted enormous harm on ordinary Ukrainians.

The defeat of Germany left millions of Displaced Persons (a term that came into official use in 1945 and was subsequently adopted in popular parlance) stranded in camps in Germany and Austria. The victorious Allies – the Western powers and the Soviet Union – agreed that DPs should be allowed to return to their homes. Significant numbers of Ukrainians resisted repatriation, either because they had vivid memories of life under Soviet rule and had taken up arms against the Red Army, or because (like those in Galicia in Volhynia) they had never lived within the borders of the Soviet Union and had no wish to do so now. Some of them passed themselves off as Polish citizens to avoid being repatriated. In the teeth of Soviet opposition, the Western Allies supported programmes to resettle them in North America, Australia, and Western Europe. As well as contributing to the economic recovery and growth of host countries, including Britain, where they worked in agriculture, forestry, and as hospital auxiliaries in the new National Health Service, this meant yet another infusion to the Ukrainian diaspora, which cultivated a staunchly nationalist and anti-communist stance whether in Bradford, Melbourne, or Edmonton, Alberta. Not that they necessarily received a warm welcome from locals: one British publication demanded a rigid selection of Ukrainians, in order ‘to exclude the illiterate, the mentally deficient, the sick, the aged, the politically suspect, and the behaviourally disruptive’.

As in the 1920s, there is a parallel story to tell of peacetime migration. Ukrainians moved in large numbers from villages to towns and cities during the era of Soviet reconstruction and expansion, finding work on building sites and factories during the 1950s and beyond. This was part of a broader rural exodus in the Soviet Union. Politically, the death of Stalin in 1953 eventually paved the way for some 250,000 Crimean Tatars and their descendants to return to Ukraine. But repatriation posed legal and material difficulties. They tried but failed to establish an autonomous republic or to have a national assembly (Mejlis) recognised officially. Caught, so to speak, in the midst of an intense and still unresolved Russian-Ukrainian rivalry, Crimean Tatars insisted on the right to be recognised as indigenous inhabitants of Crimea. They either squatted on vacant land or conducted frustrating and often distressing negotiations with competing (non-Tatar) claimants and the city authorities. Some family members opted to remain in Central Asia, where housing conditions were more tolerable. Others spoke of not feeling ‘at home’ in either place.

One well-known calamity in the late Soviet era added to the litany of displacement in Ukraine, namely, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, the resulting contamination of large swathes of land, and the organisation of mass evacuation across the entire region: ‘It doesn’t look like a war, but we have to flee like refugees,’ an elderly evacuee told the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich.

The end of the Cold War provided Ukrainians with the opportunity to travel much more freely and to explore job opportunities abroad, particularly when the Ukrainian economy collapsed in the 1990s. However, this was not straightforward. Some Ukrainians suggested that the Iron Curtain had been replaced by a ‘velvet drape’ (firanka) between East and West, in effect shielding the European Union from without. The accession of Poland to the EU in 2004 imposed visa restrictions on migration from Ukraine. Nevertheless, the barriers were not impermeable and as many as half a million Ukrainians worked in the Polish economy in the new millennium. Others found work further afield. This had important consequences. Not only did post-Soviet migration to Western Europe swell the global Ukrainian diaspora, it provided Ukraine with remittances from migrant workers. It has also proved highly significant in the current refugee crisis because Ukrainian refugees were familiar with travel options and could capitalise on personal contacts in Poland and elsewhere in search of a place of safety.

Alongside this history of Ukrainian migration, we need to acknowledge that Ukraine has also long been a destination for migrants arriving from post-Soviet states – not just Russia, but also Armenia, and for students and workers from the Global South, including Uganda, Ghana, India, China and Vietnam. Their presence in Ukraine, notably in Donetsk, Dnipro, and Kharkiv, sprang into international view following the Russian invasion in 2022, leaving many of them stranded and exposed to discrimination and victimisation.

Russia’s occupation of territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014 displaced as many as 1.2 million civilians, most of them ethnically Russian who sought safety in Russia. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians moved to the west of the country, much to the irritation of the Ukrainian government, which sought to minimise the burden on hard-pressed local councils elsewhere in the country. Faced with these restrictions, many Ukrainians felt trapped: ‘Nobody wants us,’ was a common refrain in eastern Ukraine, where residents contrasted their situation with the more favourable reaction to refugees from Crimea, who fled following the Russian annexation.

The crisis resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February has brought the brutal destruction of human life and property. Millions of Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring states or sought shelter in unoccupied parts of the country. Others have been forced to move to Russia from the Donbass (including the besieged city of Mariupol) and are held in so-called ‘filtration camps’ where they are interrogated. These harmful consequences will take at least a generation to repair. The war-related displacement has also yielded a mixed response from the international community. Although many states and politicians have condemned Russian aggression, others have kept a low profile and, by their silence, have provided tacit support to Putin. So far as Ukrainian refugees are concerned, some Western governments have been slow off the mark. States in the Global South have complained that refugees in other parts of the world have attracted much less attention and support. Truth be told, there has always been a world hierarchy of refugees, in which Europeans have regularly been granted opportunities to resettle, whereas non-Europeans have been deterred from seeking asylum in Europe. In the Ukrainian conflict, refugees of non-Ukrainian ethnic origin have been poorly treated when seeking sanctuary in adjacent states.

The magnitude of forced migration at these different points in time raised important questions about where refugees could turn for assistance and protection. In addition to external measures of relief, such as provided by the Red Cross and a multitude of non-governmental, diasporic organisations and local volunteers, refugees succeeded in forming their own associations, including schools and orphanages during the First World War. Ukrainian Displaced Persons engaged in extensive cultural and educational activity in post-1945 refugee camps. Today, Ukrainian refugees are devising numerous self-help initiatives to support the very young and the very old among their number. Like refugees at other times and in other parts of the world, they are not passive victims.

In due course, questions will inevitably arise concerning post-conflict recovery. This might entail resettlement of refugees in a third country, contributing yet again to the growth of the Ukrainian diaspora. Another route to recovery lies through repatriation, but this simple word disguises just how complicated the process can be. It holds out the prospect for refugees to return to their homes and rebuild their lives, and indeed some refugees have already done so. Setting aside fundamental issues of employment and housing, there are other dimensions to consider: what does it mean to return to one’s home after months or years and re-establish relations with people who did not flee? Will those who fled and those who stayed behind get on with one another or will they be mutually suspicious. There is powerful evidence from former Yugoslavia of difficult encounters between Bosnian Muslim returnees (Bosniaks) and their Serb neighbours, who resent their presence and who include the perpetrators of genocide. In the case of Ukraine, it is by no means clear that peace – when it comes – will deliver genuine security. However, if sufficient measures can be put in place to ensure decent job prospects, education, and social welfare, as well as good governance at a national and local level, then perhaps Ukraine will prosper once more.


Peter Gatrell