Friday, 01 August 2014 00:00

#MH17: the voice of the Ukrainian community in London

Written by Darya Malyutina
Ukrainian protests in London - 3
Photo: Darya Malyutina; Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
Members of the Ukrainian diaspora protesting in London


Ukrainians living in London have been very active since the early days of Euromaidan. Motivated by a desire to help compatriots back home and make Ukraine a democratic country, free from corruption, authoritarianism and Russia’s meddling, they have organised numerous protests, the last three of which were connected to the MH17 air disaster. Darya Malyutina, a London-based migration researcher, who has focused on the transnational politics of the Ukrainian activist community, takes us inside their feelings and actions.

Just hours after the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, a few dozen Ukrainians laid flowers in front of the Dutch and Malaysian Embassies in London. This group of activists then headed to the Russian Embassy and demonstrated there because, according to circumstantial evidence, the plane seemed to have been downed by a surface-to-air missile apparently launched by Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk area.  On 20 July, three days after the tragedy, they gathered with flags and banners for another rally in front of the Russian embassy, chanting "Putin is a terrorist!" "Where are the British? Where are the Dutch and the Malaysians? Why aren’t they protesting with us?", they asked. On 21 July, they were at Whitehall, in front of the prime minister’s residence, calling for sanctions to be imposed on Russia. 

In fact, since the end of November 2013, when Euromaidan started in Kiev, protesting has become a common way of expressing political agency for members of Ukrainian communities around the world. The MH17 crash, an event which may yet have further massive international consequences, was one of the most critical points in the Ukrainian crisis; the diaspora reacted immediately.

The Ukrainian community in the UK quickly became one of the most active and mobilised diasporic groups, with protest activities developing as a grassroots movement in close connection with the events in Ukraine. The London-based movement has brought together Ukrainians and people of Ukrainian origin descending from the two major immigration waves, the post-WWII and post-1991. These groups have previously been described as being quite disengaged from each other, but diaspora members have noted that the protest has brought them closer together. Social media, in particular Facebook, have been by far the most important tools for mobilisation, discussion and the dissemination of news as well as announcements and reports about protests in London, something which was in keeping with the critical role played by social media during Euromaidan. As the events unfolded in Ukraine, the protest rhetoric in London also evolved from 'pro-European' to 'anti-government' and then to 'anti-Putin'.

As the events unfolded in Ukraine, the protest rhetoric in London also evolved from 'pro-European' to 'anti-government' and then to 'anti-Putin'.

Other social and national groups occasionally took part in the large-scale rallies, particularly Polish, Georgian, Lithuanian and Syrian activists, and LGBT rights supporters, but the support from Russian migrants was very limited. The protesters regularly participated in rallies in front of the Ukrainian Institute in London, the Ukrainian and Russian Embassies and the UK Parliament. They targeted the UK political establishment, including holding a round-the-clock protest from March to June 2014 in front of 10 Downing Street, calling for sanctions to be imposed on Russia. Ukrainian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash were another of the protesters' targets this winter. They sought to bring to light the oligarchs’ role in supporting the corrupt government in Ukraine, as well as hopes that they might exert their influence to change the course of events in their home country. The Russian Embassy was one of the most common protest locations, especially since the annexation of Crimea in March 2013. In the spring, Russian oligarchs and businesses were targeted too. London-based Ukrainians participated in the worldwide #boycottrussian campaign, which called for the boycott of Russian goods and services. They also rallied against France for planning to sell Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. Since the begining of the crisis, they have actively engaged in fundraising activities, such as organising charity concerts, collecting money, warm clothes and other things for Maidan in Ukraine and, later, transferring donations to the Ukrainian army. According to some sources, over £100,000 has been collected by the diaspora in eight months of protest.

This migrant protest has been distinguished by several features. Firstly, it is informed by long-distance nationalism: national community discourses and national symbols (flags, anthem, patriotic images) are a strong component in sustaining the protest and providing links with Ukraine. This is connected to the special role of nationalism in the history of the Ukrainian diaspora – in particular that of the UK – as well as to the prominence of the rhetoric of national liberation struggle within the Ukrainian crisis. Secondly, it is possible to note the dynamic character of the protest development, the persistence and regularity of the protest activities, their constantly expanding scope and diverse targets, and the social diversity of participants. Finally, the protest has been based upon and driven by transnational connections between London and Ukraine, including the flow of information, remittances, appropriation of forms of protest, international lobbying and expressions of solidarity, leading to the recognition of diasporas as transnational political actors.

Ukrainian protests in London - 2
Photo: Darya Malyutina; Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
Not all Londoners have been moved to protest


Meanwhile the political turmoil in Ukraine, which began as a local conflict, has gradually become a crisis of international significance with global repercussions – most recently the shooting down of a civilian plane that left almost 300 dead. Ukrainian activists abroad have, for a long time, been trying to take action on a global scale and attract the attention of the West, amongst other things to the risks the conflict poses to international peace and security. In particular, they have been calling for measures against Russia's aggressive politics, which has been exacerbating  political turmoil and fanning the flames of war in the east of Ukraine. "Maybe now they will listen to us. Maybe now they will understand the danger. But it’s so sad that these Europeans will have had to actually die for that to happen", say some of the London-based Ukrainians.

Darya Malyutina completed her PhD in Geography at UCL in 2013. Her thesis focused on friendship and transnationalism amongst Russian-speaking migrants in London. Since then, she has worked as an Editorial Assistant at openDemocracy Russia, and is currently a freelance researcher. Her research interests include post-Soviet and Russian-speaking migration to the UK, super-diversity, political transnationalism, as well as ethnography as a way of studying urban communities and social spaces and the ethical dilemmas of the fieldwork process. She writes a blog about Ukrainian protests in London: http://daryamalyutina.wordpress.com/

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 August 2014 13:37

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