From Eastern Europe to South America – The Expansive Network of Ukrainian Communities Worldwide

Published: Nov 18, 2022 Reading time: 12 minutes
From Eastern Europe to South America – The Expansive Network of Ukrainian Communities Worldwide
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More than 14 million people have left Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022. Over 450 thousand people have found refuge in the Czech Republic, hosting the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita in comparison to any other EU country. There is no single explanation as to why there are so many refugees there. One major factor is naturally the country’s proximity – Czechia is only a few hours away from the Ukrainian border. There is also a noticeable cultural and linguistic connection. But geography, language, or a nation’s economy can’t explain why, for instance, Czechia has twice as many refugees per capita as Slovakia, or why Spain and Portugal both have two to three times more Ukrainian refugees than France, despite being much further away. We also can’t say why several times more people headed to Canada than to the United States, or why, during the first month of the war, most people chose to move – of all places – to Brazil. The key to understanding these and other seemingly unusual trends is hidden in the rich and fascinating history of the Ukrainian migration.

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“Migration is nothing new to the peoples of Ukraine,” notes the historian Paul Robert Magocsi. He illustrates his point with the example of the 16th-century migration of the Ukrainian people to the Dutchy of Moscow, spurred by dissatisfaction with the economic and cultural situation in the Kingdom of Poland. Political migration from Ukraine was first documented in the 18th century, after the 1709 Russian defeat of the Swedish-Cossack coalition. This is when many Ukrainian Cossacks left for the Ottoman Empire or for western Europe. Another wave of Cossack migration came after the Russian Empire occupied and destroyed Zaporozhian Sich in 1775.

Settling in the Russian Steppes and Taiga

A pivotal point in the establishment of the Ukrainian diaspora in the world came at the end of the 19th century. At this time, the Ukrainian territory was divided into two separate empires, with the larger part belonging to the Russian Empire, while the other part to the west (Galicia, part of Bukovina, and Zakarpattia) went to Austria-Hungary. In the past, most migration flowed from the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine eastward. In the 1890s, due to overpopulation, a lack of land and limited alternative sources of livelihood, the Russian Empire began drawing people from the left-bank of Ukraine specifically to areas in the rest of its territory. By the time WWI swept across Europe, more than one million Ukrainian people had moved to the neighbouring Novorossiya region and the Caucasus, and another million headed for Siberia and Kazakhstan. Ukrainian migrants made up a particularly large portion of the newcomers – and therefore the overall population – in the Russian Far East. Settlers on a site, which they called Zeleny Klyn (Green Ukraine) and lay in the area of the Amur River and Primorye, even attempted the formation of an autonomous state at the end of the Russian Civil War in 1920.

The Journey Across the Atlantic

The most common destination for Ukrainians leaving areas controlled by Austria-Hungary was North America. Reasons for migration were essentially the same as in Russia – little to no hope of turning the economic situation around and fear of enlistment in the army. Migration to the United States and Canada began gaining momentum in the 1890s and by 1914, about 600 thousand ethnic Ukrainians had left Ukraine for North America. 

A major catalyst for increased migration also had to do with the large formation of Jewish, Polish, Slovak and Hungarian communities all around North America. Transport agents also incentivised people to migrate in an attempt to find potential customers. Another common driver of migration was the receipt of letters from friends and relatives abroad. These letters from America began to paint a very positive, albeit idealised, image in people’s minds about life abroad. 

The reality for first-generation immigrants arriving in North America was much harsher. Many of them arrived via boat at New York’s Ellis Island and were sent directly to the mining and industrial areas in states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and later New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Men had no other choice but to withstand the hard and underpaid work in coalmines or steelworks while women – few during the first couple waves of migration – sometimes had to work in hotels and hostels to earn supplementary income. It was also not uncommon for a portion of the migrants’ humble earnings to end up in the pockets of intermediaries who had helped them secure their jobs initially. During times of crisis, Ukrainian migrants – largely uneducated farmers or unqualified labourers – were often the subjects of ill-treatment.

There were multiple means of acclimating to the difficult living conditions. However, oftentimes people mostly had no choice but to simply tighten their belts. Aside from their thriftiness (and relatively low crime rates in comparison to other migrant groups), Ukrainian people were well known for their ability to form strong interpersonal relationships. The main function of these “brotherhoods”, at least initially, was for insurance reasons, be it against unemployment, an accident at work or a death in the family. Over time, these associations gained cultural and educational meaning as well. Whatever their focus, they helped resolve more current, and pragmatic issues while the church remained the institution that provided socio-cultural solidarity and a connection to their homeland. The most significant remnant of Ukrainian civic life in the USA over time is the Ukrainian National Association (UNA), with its roots dating back to 1894. Today, the UNA has over 50 thousand members.

“The Ukrainian-American community has often been viewed by others as one of the most vital ethnic groups in the United States.” (Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups)

The Canadian Prairies

There were several key differences between Ukrainians moving to Canada and those headed to the US. Primarily, migration to Canada was almost exclusively agricultural. This was also closely related to the immigrants' plans - while the vast majority of migrants saw the move to the USA as temporary and refused any capital investment on principle, Canada was seen by Ukrainian immigrants as a new home from the very beginning. The conditions for permanent settlement there were enticing: nearly unlimited swaths of land subsidised by the government, practically limitless access to natural resources such as timber and water, climate conditions comparable to those in Ukraine, and, finally, a stable political-economic situation. A big factor drawing redirecting those who initially headed to the USA was the option to fit into one of the small expatriate communities that helped mitigate culture shock and start farming faster.

Approximately 170,000 Ukrainians had already moved to Canada before the start of the First World War, most of them settling in the largely uninhabited prairies provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. During the interwar period, approximately 70,000 more followed. However, the second wave of immigrants differed from their predecessors, as they were largely coming due to political reasons, rather than economic ones. More often, they tended to seek work in bigger cities, as opposed to in the countryside. Both trends – that of migrating for political reasons instead of purely economic ones, as well as the tendency to be drawn to cities, instead of the countryside - became even more pronounced in the aftermath of WWII. 

"Brazilian Fever"

A remarkable chapter in the history of the Ukrainian diaspora is the emigration to Latin America, especially to Brazil and Argentina. Much like with Canada, the prospect of readily available farmable land played drew many people to move. What’s more, the Brazilian government needed more people to help build up the nation’s railway network and work on its coffee plantations as they were on the verge of economic collapse after the abolition of slavery in 1888. Here too, Ukrainian (and Polish) workers took on these difficult jobs with little or no qualifications – jobs most often connected to the economic development of remote areas, be it deforestation and infrastructure building. As historical demographer Vladimir Kabuzan put it, the Brazilian and Argentinian governments used east European immigrants mainly as “pioneers in their effort to expand into their vast, uninhabited territories.”

The extreme living conditions inevitably affected people’s health and even claimed lives. Many settlers returned to their homeland – or moved to the USA or Canada – shortly after coming face to face with the harsh reality of South America. The “Brazilian fever” that swept through western Ukraine in 1895 (especially in the city of Galicia) quickly subsided. More Ukrainian people continued to migrate to South America in the coming years and decades that followed – especially because the governments in South America welcomed Eastern European immigrants much more readily than elsewhere (especially in the USA).

Ukrainian migration to South America has always been concentrated in just a couple of countries. Without a doubt, the best chance of running into a Ukrainian Brazilian is in the state of Paraná, especially in the southern part spanning roughly 5 thousand square kilometres (over 1 million acres), referred to as “Brazilian Ukraine” by the locals. The city of Prudentópolis is largely perceived as a Ukrainian metropole, but there are also still some Ukrainian countryside communities. Living in isolation while upholding their unique linguistic and cultural heritage, Ukrainian-Canadian historian Orest Subtelny described them as “the closest approximation that exists of the 19th-century Galician village.” When it comes to Brazil, we can find the most ethnic Ukrainians in Buenos Aires, but the historical centre of Ukrainian migration is the northeast-situated province of Misiones. Today, the total number of Ukrainian people in Brazil and Argentina approaches one million.

Emigration after 1945

Western Europe already saw a huge wave of Ukrainian migration at the start of the interwar period, but the real turning point in the formation of local Ukrainian communities came right after the end of World War II. After the defeat of the Nazi regime, about 12 million displaced people found themselves on German territory, ranging from prisoners of war to forced labourers to concentration camp survivors. Among the 12 million, there were about 2.5 million displaced Ukrainians. Getting the exact figures is nearly impossible, as many Ukrainians used to pass themselves off as Polish in order to avoid forced repatriation into the Soviet Union. The issue was finally resolved with the organised mass resettlement of the “Last Million” into third countries in 1951. Most Ukrainian people headed overseas – not only to the USA and Canada this time, but to Australia, too. The move to this new far-flung destination was especially hard on Ukrainians, as the newcomers lacked any previous ties to their new homes and had to start from scratch. The difficult situation was compounded by the often-disdainful attitude of the locals. Among western European nations, Great Britain, France, and Belgium remained the most popular designations for displaced individuals, while a significant number of people remained in Germany and Austria, too. 

If we label the first mass emigration of Ukrainian people as taking place before WWI, the second during the interwar period, and the third just after World War II, then we can categorize the fourth wave of the European Ukrainian diaspora as occurring between the years of 1991 – 2022, starting with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This wave, not unlike the first one, had an economic character and was largely made up of labour migrants who went abroad seasonally to work in construction, agriculture or as household staff. The main post-Soviet destinations of Ukrainian migrants can be easily seen on the map below. Aside from Russia, the most common countries of choice were Poland, Czechia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and in all of these destinations, we can see a gradual shift from circular to permanent migration.

The Czech Lands

By the end of 2021, just shy of 200 thousand Ukrainian citizens lived in Czechia according to the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ). Combined with the 50 thousand Czech citizens of Ukrainian descent, Ukrainians formed the largest national minority in the Czech Republic. The current Ukrainian presence in Czechia is often (and rightfully) connected to the labour migration of the 1990s, but the roots of the Ukrainian diaspora in Czechia go much deeper than that. The first Ukrainian students and mercenaries appeared in the Czech lands early as the 16th and 17th centuries, and by the end of the 19th century, Prague became one of the centres of Ukrainian intelligentsia. At this time, many Ukrainian people in the greater areas of Ostrava and Těšín worked at railway and post offices, while others held positions on the administrative boards of mining and metallurgical businesses. In the Most area, Ukrainians worked in coal mines, and some came to Bohemia and Moravia seasonally to work in the agricultural sector.

After the start of WWI, many civilians fleeing from the east found refuge on Czech territory after the unsuccessful struggle of Austro-Hungarian against Czarist Russia. Refugee camps could be found in Ostrava, Moravská Třebová, Uherské Hradiště, and Choceň, among other places. At the beginning of the internal period, several thousand interned soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army (UHA) resided in the Czechoslovak Republic (first in the Růžodol part of Liberec, and later in Josefov). An important chapter in the history of the First Czechoslovak Republic includes the establishment of Ukrainian national schools (such as the Polytechnic in Poděbrady), as well as the exiled Ukrainian nationalistic movement, the latter of which was only dismantled when the Red Army arrived in May 1945.

And what about the Ukrainian diaspora today? It is very difficult to know exactly how many ethnic Ukrainians are currently living outside of their homeland. During Volodymyr Zelensky’s 2019 presidential inauguration speech, he addressed “65 million Ukrainians,” which he defined as “everyone born on Ukrainian soil.” Judging by the country’s current population, we can surmise that Zelensky assumed that the number of Ukrainian people living abroad was roughly 30 million. However, professional estimates today tend to be a bit lower, estimating between 10 to 20 million people outside Ukraine depending on the methodology employed. The extent to which the Ukrainian diaspora will continue to grow due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that current and future emigrants are likely to follow in the historical footsteps if their ancestors.

Key sources:
Vladimir Kabuzan. Ukrajincy v mire. Dinamika čislennosti i rasselenija. Moskva: Nauka, 2006
Vic Satzewich. The Ukrainian Diaspora. Routledge, 2002
Orest Subtelny. Ukraine: A History (3rd ed.). University of Toronto Press, 2000
Bohdan Zilynskyj. Ukrajinci v Čechách a na Moravě. X-Egem, 1995

Cover photo: 13th convention of the Ukrainian National Association (UNA), Buffalo, USA, 1914

Autor: Jakub Andrle, Migration Awareness Coordinator

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