“My identity journey was not straightforward,” Alice smiled, “It was complex and confusing at times, and it took some years to figure out.”
Alice Zhuravel is a radiant young woman. In her mid-twenties, charming, she exudes confidence and trust. In a coffee place in her native Kharkiv, Eastern Ukraine, Alice shared her thoughts on what it was like growing up with a mixed background, and how diversity is perceived in Ukraine now.
“I came to accept myself fully,” she told me, “I embraced my identity as a proud Ukrainian with Nigerian roots, and it helped me tremendously.”
“I used to wonder about people’s origins and what it meant for their identities,” Alice added, “I embrace the idea of diversity and that people of different backgrounds identify as Ukrainians because they are born and raised here.”
“The war especially made me want to highlight the diversity that is here, in Ukraine, and that’s why I decided to launch my project,” she continued, “I want to show the true Ukraine to the people who’ve never been here, and showcase how the racist tropes around Ukraine are false.”
Alice Zhuravel is the founder of Tozhsamist — which means “identity” in Ukrainian. It is a digital platform that collects testimonies of Ukrainians of color. Through personal stories, diverse Ukrainians are trying to break the Russian narratives about Ukraine which portray their native country as racist and intolerant.
“We’re decolonizing Ukraine for us and for the world,” Alice said.
REFLECTING ON IDENTITY
“I was always interested in diversity because it is relevant to me personally,” Alice explained. As a Ukrainian with Nigerian roots, she started to notice some differences between herself and others when going to school. “There was no discrimination toward me or anything that made me feel excluded,” she said, “I did not feel any difference from other kids until I started paying more attention to my hair. In Ukraine in the nineties, there were few products suited for African hair. When I saw my classmates have small braids, I started realizing this difference as I had a big Afro.”
At first, Alice did not like being different. She relaxed her hair and tried to blend in as much as possible. However, as she grew up, her attitude toward differences – such as skin color, hair, or diverse heritage – changed. She started listening to hip-hop music and reading about African cultures, which helped her understand her value and uniqueness. “I started wearing my Afro proudly,” Alice smiled, “As a kid, I never thought I would do it, but as an adult, I loved my natural hair. I accepted it because it was mine. I accepted myself fully.”
At the same time, Alice still struggled with her Ukrainian identity. Growing up so close to the Russian border, she rarely used Ukrainian outside school or work. Her attitudes toward Ukrainian culture and language also started to change as Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. “I remember telling my mom that if something were to happen in Kharkiv, if Russia were to invade it, then I would immediately switch to Ukrainian,” she said. “So it has been 14 months since I speak Ukrainian all the time.”
When Alice decided to share her identity journey with the world, she received many messages from fellow Ukrainians praising her work. Many came forward with their testimonies of growing up as Ukrainians of color or digging up long-forgotten family ties to other cultures and countries.
RACE AND IDENTITY
Ukraine is a predominantly white country although its demographics have changed dramatically in the last century. Ukrainians were cleansed during the Stalin repressions and throughout the entire Soviet period; at least 4 million ethnic Ukrainians were killed. In addition, Communist leadership deported Indigenous Crimean Tatars from the Crimean peninsula to various countries in Central Asia. Other ethnic groups – such as Jews and Poles – were displaced, killed during the Second World War, or Russified.
Ethnic Russians were instead brought in large numbers to Ukraine, and the Russification of Ukraine intensified. While Ukrainian was still widely used, Russian became the main language of politics and decision-making.
It was in this environment, where all were expected to identify as “Soviet citizens” and use Russian as a common denominator, that new immigrants started coming to Ukraine. In addition to residents of other then-Soviet republics from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, many Africans arrived in Ukraine. After the decolonization of many African states, young professionals and students from USSR-friendly countries came to the Soviet Union to study, work, or just to visit. While many have returned home, others chose to settle in a new country.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, almost five million Ukrainians were immigrants, meaning they were born outside of Ukraine; Africans were the second biggest group arriving in Ukraine in the past ten years after Asians. Black Ukrainians comprise less than 1% of Ukraine’s current population, and most reside in urban areas. In addition, there are approximately 30,000 Africans studying in Ukraine. The number shrank by one-third when the Russo-Ukrainian war started.
While Ukraine’s population remains predominantly white, the country’s pre-war’s flow of tourism and immigrants made Ukrainians more receptive toward diversity.
As Alice put it, “Ukraine’s lack of colonization of other countries has contributed to its relative lack of various ethnic diversity compared to others.” Yet, as the activist highlighted, “Ukraine cannot be characterized as monocultural or monoethnic” because many cultures are represented there.
“Russian propaganda portrayed race in Ukraine in a very negative light,” Alice said, “However, this is not the reality.”
AMPLIFYING DIVERSE VOICES
Alice is a historian by training. Throughout her life, she lived and worked across Ukraine, doing art projects, designing strategies, and finally moving into research.
“I want to amplify the voices that represent Ukraine’s diversity.”
“In summer of 2022, I started analyzing what kind of news people from all over the world were receiving about Ukraine,” she said, “Lots of Russian narratives were claiming that Ukraine was racist and Nazi. For Ukrainians, this information is obviously false, so we just ignore it. However, for a lot of foreigners, this propaganda really worked.”
Alice realized that many people outside of Ukraine formed a very negative image of her country. Even though many have never been to Ukraine or only learned about it in 2022, lots of foreigners pictured Ukraine as racist, intolerant, and aggressive toward people of color.
Alice does not deny that there is racism in Ukraine; however, she rejects that it is systematic, or that it is a mainstream social attitude. “Just because there are individuals who are racist in Ukraine does not mean that they represent the entire nation,” she explained, “There are racists in the US and elsewhere, but we don’t just assume that the entire country is like that. I mean, if someone from a certain country steals, does it mean everyone is a thief there?”
Alice’s native city, Kharkiv, has attracted a large number of foreign students, many from Africa and the Middle East, but thousands fled the country when the full-scale invasion started. There is a similar situation in other major university cities. International tourism nearly disappeared because of the ongoing war and negative propaganda.
“This is huge because this influences the situation on the information front, and it also influences our stance in the cultural and social spaces,” she said, “I want people from across the world to be able to visit Ukraine and enjoy it. Due to Russian propaganda, we may not get foreigners coming and exploring Ukraine.”
To tackle this situation, Alice is sharing testimonies of non-white Ukrainians. She collected stories from African and Latin Ukrainians as well as testimonies of Crimean Tatars, an Indigenous population from the Crimean peninsula.
“It is very difficult to work with disinformation,” Alice continued, “My only tool is to show true stories of diverse Ukrainians like me. I do not hide anything. I show the reality of Ukraine, and if people keep on disbelieving me, the only thing I can do is to invite them to Ukraine to see for themselves.”
WHAT NARRATIVE CAN DO
“While collecting people’s stories, I got to discuss with other Ukrainians of color the difference between ignorance or curiosity and racism,” Alice said, “Very often, these two get mixed up, but it is crucial to separate them.”
For example, Alice used to notice people checking out her hair. Once, a little girl approached her and asked if she could touch it. Alice laughed it off.
“If adult people act this way, they are ignorant and rude,” the woman reflected, “However, they do it not because they are racist, but because they do not understand some ethical boundaries.”
Alice hopes that her work will encourage more Ukrainians to reflect on their past and present and appreciate diversity as a part of their country. “I would like to help society become more diversity-friendly and respectful. Diversity is great, and we need to celebrate it,” she said, “We need both state policy toward diversity and greater understanding and respect toward inclusion and human rights. We need to start working on this now, so when Ukraine wins, this approach will be a part of our reconstruction.”
Alice also aspires to spur more discussions on colonialism and postcolonialism in Ukraine, a country badly affected by Russian imperialism, and still coming to terms with its collective trauma. She started paying more attention to the way the Ukrainian language is being used to revive Ukrainian identity, and how former Russian speakers like herself are switching to Ukrainian in massive numbers. Ukrainians are also embracing historical figures who were demonized during Soviet times and demanding more representation in the world – such as fighting against mislabeling Ukrainian artists as Russians.
“Through my conversations with Crimean Tatars, I learned so much about their history, and about their deportations,” Alice said, “It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of families forcefully taken away from their homeland. One person I interviewed told me that while her grandfather was in Vienna fighting in the Red Army, his family was being deported to Central Asia.”
“Having these conversations and sharing these stories really helped put colonialism onto central stage,” Alice added, “The same practices are being used right now, and we should ask ourselves why this imperialism is still allowed.”
“We as a society need to understand what was Russified and colonized, so we can get rid of these stamps,” she concluded, “While times have changed, Russia’s colonialist methods have not.”