Ukraine at war : flight and forced migration in the contemporary era

Thomas Chopard, historian

The invasion of Ukraine by the russian army triggered a massive exodus of ukrainian populations towards the west of the country. This is yet another tragic episode in the long history of war and forced population displacements on ukrainian territory.

Ilya Klein, Without Title, 2022, digital pain­ting. Credit : Ilya Klein

The history of Ukraine in the contem­po­rary era is indis­so­ciable from the wars and mass violence that have profoundly scarred its terri­tory and its popu­la­tion. World wars, civil wars and Soviet repres­sion have constantly rede­fined its borders and trig­gered vast forced popu­la­tion move­ments under varying degrees of constraint, be it flight, evacua­tion or depor­ta­tion, all bearing witness to the preda­tory poli­cies of neigh­bou­ring states.

The reasons for such move­ments of flight appear incom­pre­hen­sible if we fail to grasp the massive scale of human and mate­rial destruc­tion that recur­rent conflict has inflicted upon Ukraine. Some 5.5 million people were killed or went missing during the First World War and the civil war that followed the revo­lu­tion : 3.5 million between 1914 and 1917, and 2 million between 1917 and 1921. The Second World War, for its part, produced a death toll of over 7 million on the current terri­tory of Ukraine : 1.4 million combat­tants and around 6 million civi­lians, inclu­ding 1.58 million Jews.

Access to former Soviet archives, a substan­tial renewal of research interest in the various sequences of popu­la­tion move­ment, and the inclu­sion of Ukraine in broader histo­rical deve­lop­ments now provide a clearer vision of the chro­no­logy and scale of these move­ments, their trajec­to­ries and organization.

From one conflict to the next : From the First World War to the civil war

The inva­sions of 1914 and 1941 both trig­gered similar vast move­ments of flight to the east, often via make­shift evacua­tion convoys set up by the autho­ri­ties. Sani­tary condi­tions were poor and reset­tle­ment was diffi­cult : refu­gees were housed wherever a roof could be found, meals were frugal in times of shor­tage and the displaced popu­la­tions, some­times stig­ma­tized, were gene­rally left to fend for them­selves. These massive depar­tures profoundly desta­bi­lized the areas concerned and formed part of the scor­ched earth policy decreed by the mili­tary autho­ri­ties : crops were burnt in the fields, indus­trial infra­struc­ture was trans­ferred elsew­here, and vast terri­to­ries were emptied of their populations.

During the First World War, evacua­tions began on a local scale, towards the regions of central and eastern Ukraine, but then extended farther afield, towards central Russia and some­times as far as the Urals and Siberia. In all, almost six million people fled the figh­ting in the Russian empire, and the histo­rian Liubov Zhvanko esti­mates that around one million left their homes in Ukraine. In November 1916, the refugee welfare commit­tees counted more than 760,000 refu­gees in the Ukrai­nian regions of the empire. And they still numbered almost 850,000 when the revo­lu­tion began in 1917. Half were from Poland, Belarus or Lithuania – Ukraine was both a sending and a recei­ving country for refugees.

Ukraine, its western regions espe­cially, now a vast battle­field, were largely popu­lated by ethnic mino­ri­ties, quali­fied as “natio­na­li­ties” by the impe­rial rulers. Civi­lian popu­la­tions fleeing the war were joined by others – Germans and Jews – forced back­wards because deemed “suspi­cious” on mainly ethnic criteria. While citi­zens of enemy foreign powers were interned, 200,000 subjects of the Russian Empire with German natio­na­lity were deported to Volhynia in north-western Ukraine, mainly by rail, at the outset of the war. At the same time, entire Jewish commu­ni­ties were expelled, initially from occu­pied Austro-Hunga­rian Galicia then, during the Great Retreat of the summer of 1915, from a vast zone under mili­tary admi­nis­tra­tion exten­ding from the Baltic to the Black Sea and inclu­ding large swathes of central and western Ukraine. Out of almost 700,000 Jews forced by the army to leave their homes, gene­rally on foot, one-third came initially from Ukraine.

On Austro-Hunga­rian terri­tory, 300,000 people from Galicia and Buko­vina, regions now in Ukraine, half of whom were Jews fearing expul­sion by the Russian army, fled to the interior of the Habs­burg empire. At the same time, almost 5,700 people from Galicia and suspected of pro-Russian sepa­ra­tism were brutally interned in the Thale­rhof concen­tra­tion camp near Graz.

Russian, Ukrai­nian and Jewish exiles after the revolution 

The after­math of wars, like their outbreak, led to vast migra­tions across Ukraine follo­wing the instal­la­tion of Soviet rule in 1920, and the border rede­fi­ni­tion in 1945.

Some poli­tical figures of Ukrai­nian natio­na­lism had fled the Russian Empire before 1914 to take refuge in western Ukraine under Austro-Hunga­rian domi­na­tion. This move­ment grew in scale after the failure of the Ukrai­nian procla­ma­tion of inde­pen­dence in 1918 : almost 80,000 soldiers and former inde­pen­den­tist leaders took refuge in western Ukraine annexed to Poland, forming part of the vast exodus of the former anti-Bolshevik armies in 1920. At the same time, almost 200,000 Jews fled the anti-Semitic violence and pogroms that were rava­ging Ukraine, some­times cros­sing paths in exile with their former Polish or Roma­nian persecutors.

Made state­less in many cases by the redra­wing of terri­to­rial boun­da­ries and the emer­gence of new states, most Ukrai­nian refu­gees were protected by the League of Nations. It was diffi­cult, however, for the Ukrai­nians, like the Jews of Ukraine, to emerge as a popu­la­tion distinct from that of “Russian refu­gees” in general. These popu­la­tions assumed their sepa­rate iden­tity later, when they emigrated. The perse­cuted Jews joined those who had earlier fled the Russian Empire and esta­bli­shed commu­ni­ties elsew­here, notably in the United States, while the interwar period saw the emer­gence of a specific Ukrai­nian diaspora, with its own insti­tu­tions, cultural life and press, often tinged with anti-Soviet senti­ment. This emigra­tion in the after­math of the civil war also included the handful of Ukrai­nian popu­la­tions that managed to escape a country turned into fortress by Stalin’s repres­sive poli­cies : collec­ti­vi­za­tion and the Great Famine in 1930–1933, the Great Terror and border secu­rity opera­tions in 1937–1938.

Depor­ta­tion, evacua­tion, perse­cu­tion : Ukraine in the Second World War

As in 1914, Ukraine witnessed different types of forced move­ment during the Second World War. In 1941, the Soviet leader­ship orga­nized a massive human and mate­rial evacua­tion, sending rail convoys to far distant desti­na­tions in central Asia and Siberia, thou­sands of kilo­metres from Ukraine. Nearly four million people were evacuated. Along­side the move­ments of evacua­tion and flight, a major opera­tion was set in place to deport all the German mino­ri­ties of the Soviet Union, inclu­ding 110,000 Germans from southern Ukraine who were deported to Kaza­khstan in September 1941.


Thomas Chopard, historian

The popu­la­tions who stayed in occu­pied Ukraine were subject to brutal forced displa­ce­ment poli­cies. During the Shoah, the majo­rity of Ukrai­nian Jews were exter­mi­nated on the spot, gene­rally by a firing squad, although some 200,000 Jews from western Ukraine, notably those interned in city ghettos, were deported in 1942, most to the Belzec exter­mi­na­tion camp, and some to Sobibor. Almost 6.5 million people were forced to work for the German war economy : 4.5 million came from eastern Europe and were quali­fied as Ostar­beiter, and 2.5 million Ukrai­nians were forced to work in all areas of the economy under inhuman condi­tions. Three-quar­ters of these workers across occu­pied Europe did not survive the war.

Inside the new borders of Ukraine

The end of the Second World War was marked by exodus as much as by the vast Ukrai­nian popu­la­tion restruc­tu­ring exer­cise decreed by Stalin even before the cessa­tion of hosti­li­ties. In Ukraine, this policy involved remo­ving mino­ri­ties from across the entire repu­blic, star­ting in May 1944 with the depor­ta­tion to central Asia of 200,000 Crimean Tatars collec­ti­vely accused of colla­bo­ra­ting with the enemy. All Crimean mino­ri­ties were simul­ta­neously deported or dispersed : along­side the Tatars, 15,000 Greeks and 12,000 Bulga­rians were deported to Siberia in 1944, followed in 1947 by 27,000 other Greeks from the Black Sea region. Some 50,000 Arme­nians were also forced out of Ukraine between 1945 and 1947. The largest ethnic clean­sing opera­tion took place between 1944 and 1947, with the exchange of Polish-Ukrai­nian popu­la­tions. Almost a million Ukrai­nian Poles and half a million Ukrai­nians from Poland were exchanged to make the poli­tical and ethnic boun­da­ries coincide.

This ethnic engi­nee­ring was accom­pa­nied by poli­tical and social engi­nee­ring. The Sovie­ti­za­tion of the western regions of Ukraine, annexed initially in 1939, and defi­ni­ti­vely in 1945, took the form of depor­ta­tions targe­ting popu­la­tion cate­go­ries deemed incom­pa­tible with the new socia­list order : presumed poli­tical oppo­nents, former govern­ment employees, property owners, Polish farm settlers, etc. Almost 300,000 people, mainly Poles and Jews, were deported from western Ukraine in 1940. Depor­ta­tions resumed between 1947 and 1948 with the forced move­ment of more than 250,000 people in opera­tions that also aimed to crush any form of rural resis­tance and to complete the process of land collec­ti­vi­za­tion, i.e. to Sovie­tize the annexed territories.


Thomas Chopard, historian

Outside the Ukrai­nian border

At the end of the war and its mass popu­la­tion move­ments, 220,000 Ukrai­nian displaced persons (or DPs) were living in central Europe. They formed a hete­ro­ge­neous popu­la­tion that included former Soviet priso­ners of war, former forced labou­rers, civi­lians who had fled the advance of the Soviet armies, defeated anti­So­viet parti­sans or former colla­bo­ra­tors fearing retri­bu­tion, all of whom refused repa­tria­tion to Soviet Ukraine. Around 110,000 emigrated to North America while 40,000 remained in western Europe (United Kingdom, Belgium and France), and the remainder headed to South America, Australia and New Zealand.

In contrast to the early 1920s, the status and situa­tion of these DPs was distinct from that of the other displaced Ukrai­nian popu­la­tions clas­si­fied on ethnic criteria : Jewish, Russian or Polish. The admi­nis­tra­tive cate­go­ries and the work of emigrant welfare asso­cia­tions forma­lized this divi­sion of Ukrai­nian emigrants into sepa­rate groups. In this brief over­view of Ukrai­nian migra­tion, we should not forget the other episodes of forced migra­tion from Ukraine, Jewish migra­tion in parti­cular. After a largely unquan­ti­fiable first wave of depar­tures in the after­math of the Shoah and the war, 120 to 130,000 Jews fled discri­mi­na­tion in Soviet Ukraine between Stalin’s death in 1953 and the 1980s, often after lengthy admi­nis­tra­tive battles, and gene­rally settled in Israel.

Destruc­tion and war forced millions of people to flee Ukraine, mainly towards the east. For the first time on such a large scale in modern times, the move­ment in 2022 is west­ward. These massive move­ments of flight are syste­ma­ti­cally asso­ciated with depor­ta­tions and expul­sions that also bear witness to the bruta­lity of succes­sive wars and occu­pa­tion poli­cies in Ukraine through the 20th century. With the impo­si­tion of iden­ti­ties, the dispersal and regrou­ping of popu­la­tions, the impact of these move­ments on the country’s demo­graphy has been profound. Warring states have always behaved with bruta­lity, suspi­cion, repres­sion and rapa­city towards the diverse Ukrai­nian popu­la­tions. Forced displa­ce­ments were also a key instru­ment in the shaping of Ukraine : depor­ta­tion poli­cies sought to homo­ge­nize a terri­tory long inha­bited by mino­ri­ties and to engi­neer its poli­tical and economic destiny. 

To find out more
  • Gous­seff C. 2015. Échanger les peuples. Le dépla­ce­ment des mino­rités aux confins polono-sovié­tiques (1944–1947), Paris, Fayard.
  • Isajiw W. W., Boshyk Y. & Senkus R. (eds.). 1992. The Refugee Expe­rience : Ukrai­nian Displaced Persons After World War II, Edmonton, Cana­dian Insti­tute of Ukrai­nian Studies, Univer­sity of Alberta.
  • Polian P. 2004. Against their Will : The History and Geography of Forced Migra­tions in the USSR, Buda­pest, CEU Press.
  • Zhvanko L. 2012. Beženci Peršoi svitovoi vyjny : ukrainskyj vymir [First World War refu­gees : the Ukrai­nian pers­pec­tive], Kharkiv, Apostrof.
The author

Thomas Chopard is a post­doc­toral resear­cher at CREE, Univer­sity of Languages and Civi­li­za­tions (INALCO), and assis­tant director of the Centre d’études franco-russe. He is a fellow of CI Migration.

Quote this article

Thomas Chopard, “Ukraine at war : flight and forced migra­tion in the contem­po­rary era”, in : Antonin Durand, Thomas Chopard, Cathe­rine Gous­seff and Claire Zalc (eds.), Feature “Migra­tion and the borders of Ukraine at war”, De facto [Online], 33 | June 2022, posted online on 24 June 2022. URL :–03/


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