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Ethnocide and cultural genocide in Crimea: fiction or factual reality?


The policy of eradicating Ukraine’s national identity carried out by the Russian Federation (the RF) on the occupied Crimean peninsula, is accompanied by changes in the demographic composition and systematic and widespread human rights abuses. This policy has characteristics of both war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the self-incrimination of the policy aimed at the cultural extermination of people (ethnocide)  at the international level remains controversial.

The terms “ethnocide” and “cultural genocide” can usually be found in the media and legal doctrine. Nowadays, the use of these legal categories is a challenge, as their content is not clearly defined, and international treaties as well as acts of universal organizations do not directly enshrine them.This situation is not due to the fact that ethnocide has never been implemented in practice, but due to the lack of political will, as evidenced by the history of adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention, 1948).

Historical perspective and international practice

The author of the concept of “genocide” in international law is Raphael Lemkin. From his point of view, culture was an integral part of the individual and group well-being of the society, and the threat or destruction of culture itself was a trigger for the assimilation and physical destruction of the group.According to Lemkin’s concept, cultural genocide has two phases:

  • destruction of the national identity of the oppressed group;
  • imposing the oppressor’s national identity on those who remained in the occupied territory after the expulsion processes, including by colonizing such territory with the oppressor’s own citizens.

According to Lemkin, cultural genocide is an integral part of the crime of genocide – the systematic activity of destroying a group of people by any means over a period of time, including by banning political and social institutions, eradicating culture and language, changing national identity and persecution of religious minorities. Such activities directly affect the feeling of personal security, freedom and dignity. Therefore, for Lemkin, it is primary, and the “machine gun” can be used when the mentioned tools fail or the genocide is planned to be carried out by blitzkrieg.

Despite a fairly sound theory, the inclusion of cultural genocide as an element of international crime in the Genocide Convention was prevented by states that feared persecution for the degrading treatment of minorities on their own territory. During the development of the text of the international treaty, the countries were divided into two camps. The first called for the inclusion of cultural genocide, citing as a negative example Hitler’s policy of banning minority language teaching in schools, destroying museums and seizing cultural monuments. The second camp expressed its dissatisfaction with the inclusion of an article on cultural genocide, justifying such opposition by the lack of a definition of the term and the fact that cultural genocide, unlike physical destruction, does not shock the conscience of humanity (mass killings cannot be compared to burning libraries).

Interestingly, despite the fact that Lemkin paid special attention to the cultural genocide of Ukrainians carried out by the USSR, the socialist states belonged to the first camp, while Australia, the United States, Iran, Canada, Sweden, France, Peru, India and Great Britain – to the second one.

Some states of the second camp (Canada, Australia, Iran) not only refrained from condemning cultural genocide, but also considered it an instrument of spreading civilization among indigenous peoples, a kind of “fruitful path to salvation”. The victims of their “educational activities” were, first of all, children. Marlene Brant Castellano, Linda Archibald, and Mike DeGagné explain such attention to the younger generation there that aggressive domestication was considered futile in the case of adults. For example, Canada’s policy to expand boarding schools for indigenous peoples was a conscious choice to change children’s identities, and attempts to instill a Euro-Canadian identity in them lasted from 1831 to the 1970s.

As a result, the Genocide Convention was adopted in abbreviated form. While the world celebrated the victory of human rights ideals and the international criminalization of atrocities against racial, ethnic, religious and national groups, Raphael Lemkin considered this international treaty his defeat. Among the five components of the international crime of genocide, only one is related to cultural extermination: the forcible transfer of children of a protected group to another group.

However, Lemkin’s approach was developed and supplemented by other scholars. In particular, Julian Burger believed that the group’s cultural assimilation was no less dangerous than physical destruction. The researcher calls the marginalization of culture cultural genocide or ethnocide. The latter term refers to the deprivation of an ethnic group or its individual members of the right to use, develop and disseminate their own culture and language collectively or individually. For Burger, ethnocide and cultural genocide are synonymous. Instead, the drafting of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples revealed that there was no clear agreement on the meaning of these terms, their common and different features. Part III, B Travaux Préparatoires, states that “ethnocide is seen as the destruction of peoples, and cultural genocide as the destruction of the physical manifestations of culture”. The protection against ethnocide (although this concept is not mentioned in the Declaration) provided for in Article 8 is closely linked to the prohibition of genocide. The relevant article grants indigenous peoples a collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as separate peoples and prohibits any acts of genocide or any other act of violence, including the forcible transfer of children from one protected group to another group.

Despite the fact that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007 after 20 years of drafting processes, is not legally binding, acts developed for its implementation by individual states not only increase understanding of the concept of ethnocide, but are quite progressive for states that a few decades ago were proponents of cultural genocide “for the purpose of civilization”.

Thus, the Australian Commission on Human Rights believes that the prohibition of ethnocide includes the protection of indigenous peoples from forced assimilation, genocide and the destruction of their culture, as well as any action that:

  • is a threat to identity;
  • can deprive indigenous peoples of their homeland;
  • disseminate information that leads to discrimination.

The most progressive states in the context of developing the concept of “ethnocide” are Latin American countries. In 1981, the San Jose Declaration was adopted in this region under the auspices of UNESCO, which enshrines ethnocide as the denial of an ethnic group’s “right to enjoy, develop and transmit its own culture and its own language, whether collectively or individually”.  Ethnocide implies “an extreme form of mass violation of human rights”, such as the right of ethnic groups to respect their cultural identity.

Article 1 of the San Jose Declaration equates ethnocide with cultural genocide, arguing that it is “a violation of international law equivalent to genocide, which was condemned by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”. This is the only official recognition of the crime of ethnocide at the UN level. Although it is fair to emphasize that only at the regional level and only in the form of a declaration.

Some countries in the region have taken steps at the national level to implement the Declaration. In particular, Article 80 of the Criminal Code of Ecuador defines and punishes the crime of ethnocide.

“Article 80. Ethnocide. A person who intentionally, permanently or systematically, completely or partially destroys the cultural identity of peoples in voluntary isolation is punishable by imprisonment for a term of sixteen to nineteen years”. 

The policy of eradicating Ukraine’s national identity carried out by the Russian Federation on the occupied Crimean peninsula: ethnocide and/ or cultural genocide?

Returning to the main question of this article, whether the policy of eradicating Ukraine’s national identity carried out by the RF in Crimea contains characteristics of ethnocide and cultural genocide, it should be noted that since establishing effective control over the Crimean peninsula, the occupying power has launched a large-scale policy of forcible change of the demographic composition. As of 2021, at least 60,000 to 100,000 people have fled from Crimea to the mainland of Ukraine as a result of the implementation of this policy. At the same time, the number of Russian colonizers on the peninsula rises to 500,000 – 800,000 people. Both of these indicators continue to grow, which threatens the existence of Ukraine’s national identity in the occupied territories.

The implementation of the policy of forcible change of the demographic composition of the population by the Russian Federation, aimed at replacing and assimilating the Ukrainians of Crimea, has manifestations of cultural extermination – ethnocide. In fact, these are modern modifications of the Soviet approach to demographic engineering in order to complete the annexation of the peninsula and the final assertion of control of the aggressor state over it. Despite the fact that Russia continues to insist on the objectivity and independence of the processes of changing national identity in Crimea, it is possible to identify about 30 different components of the policy of forcible change of the demographic composition.

As for ousting, Russia’s overall strategy is to identify target groups of disloyal populations and apply repressive mechanisms to them in the form of numerous restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms, obstruction of professional activity, seizure of property, spreading rhetoric of hatred and enmity, defamation, intimidation and creating atmosphere of danger. Victims of such activities are adherents of the various religions, especially the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Orthodox Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.; human rights defenders, public activists and journalists; representatives of the LGBTI community; entrepreneurs, cultural figures, teachers and others. The main grounds for persecution are the manifestation of their national consciousness and affiliation, the refusal to recognize the occupying power and the attempt to annex the Crimean peninsula. In such circumstances, the potential victims of ousting are mainly those who identify themselves as Ukrainians in the broadest sense of the term – as a nation. The division into persecuted groups is also conditioned by loyalty to Ukraine, and the group’s external characteristics are used only as a direct basis for discrimination and human rights violations.

In the case of colonization, the RF encourages its own civilian population as well as citizens of satellite states to move to the occupied Crimean peninsula. The tools of such encouragement are the extension of federal programs (Zemsky Doctor, Zemsky Paramedic, Zemsky Teacher), establishment of financial and other incentives for business development, full or partial reimbursement of relocation costs, as well as the implementation of large infrastructure projects. In addition, Russia directly relocates its own civil servants and law enforcement officials along with members of their families.

It is also important that Russia’s inaction to establish a ban in national law on the colonization of the occupied territories in view of the scale of the flow of Russian civilians is a separate violation of international humanitarian law. After all, such a move in fact makes it impossible to fulfill the fundamental obligation of the occupying state to provide the inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula “habitual living conditions”, and also has a significant impact on the duration of the occupation of this territory, contributing to its annexation.

In the context of ethnocide carried out by the RF on the territory of the occupied Crimean peninsula, one of the most effective tools is the deprivation of land ownership. Because this type of property has a unique value: not only as a means of subsistence, but also as a place of residence and self-identification. Interference with land ownership is at the same time an attack on the spiritual dimension of the victim’s life, leading to the eradication of cultural identity. In addition, the seizure of land plots, which is sometimes accompanied by the destruction of residential buildings on it, encourages forced displacement. This tool degrades the living conditions of the population due to additional losses related to food security and deteriorating health. Studies conducted by the World Bank Group and the Special Rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council) suggest that such long-term consequences may be a weakening of fertility among victims of violations – in fact, delayed extinction.

Violations of the property rights to land on the Crimean peninsula reach the threshold of a war crime as to scale and regularity. In 2020, Presidential Decree No. 201 signed by V. Putin declared the vast majority of the peninsula’s lands (80% of the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and 99.95% of the territory of the city of Sevastopol) to be situated in the “border territories” of the RF. According to the land legislation of the Russian Federation, foreigners and stateless persons are prohibited from owning land plots in the border areas, the list of which is established by the President of the RF. Pursuant to “the State Committee for State Registration and Cadastre of the Republic of Crimea”, 84.2% of 11,572 land plots belong to Ukrainians, which only confirms the purposeful use of deprivation of land ownership as a tool to eradicate Ukrainian (national) identity from the peninsula.

Photo from Wikipedia

The “silent” ban on the use of the Ukrainian language is also an independent tool of ethnocide. In the best traditions of colonialism described above, the first victims of this instrument are children. The Review on the restriction of the functioning of the Ukrainian language in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, prepared by the State Language Protection Commissioner with the assistance of non-governmental organizations, contains information that the Ukrainian language is not used in preschool education. Moreover, as of 2021, only one school of I-II grades with Ukrainian as the language of teaching officially remains in Crimea (the School № 20 in Feodosia). It is noteworthy that before the occupation the school was named after Olena Teliga, but later it was renamed. Olena Teliga is a heroine for Ukrainians, “poet of fire borders” murdered along with thousands of compatriots in Babyn Yar. In the honour of the enemy of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet people, the Russian Federation decided to call the occupied educational institution unworthy.

Although declaratively Ukrainian language is one of the state languages in the non-existent in the legal sphere of the Republic of Crimea, pupils of 10-11 forms do not have the right to learn it. The same restriction on the use of the Ukrainian language exists for students of higher education institutions on the territory of the occupied peninsula. The Ukrainian language has also been removed from the extracurricular learning process, in particular for children’s theater studios. It should be emphasized that the Ukrainian language has been eradicated not only from the sphere of education, but also from the media space and cultural life.

The attack on Ukrainian culture and identity was accompanied by the seizure of 14,000 cultural monuments, 54 museums, 300 000 museum sites, and 6 historical and cultural reserves situated on the Crimean peninsula as of February 2014. In addition, the occupying power conducts illegal archeological excavations, destroys artifacts during the construction of large infrastructure facilities, exports Ukrainian cultural property to its own territory, and what it cannot move – deliberately deprives of historical value. It allows the RF to continue to promote in future pseudo-scientific debates the idea of the supremacy of the “Russian world” and the positioning of Ukraine as Malorossiya – an appendage of Moscow.

The transferred children – genocide of the Ukrainian people

As mentioned above, the Genocide Convention enshrines a separate element of cultural genocide in the form of the forcible transfer of children of a protected group to another group. As of February 2014, there were 4 323 orphans on the territory of the Crimean Peninsula, which the Russian Federation actually appropriated, refusing, despite Ukraine’s calls from international platforms, to provide information about their fate. In accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, the occupying state is obliged to take all necessary measures to ensure respect for the rights of orphans, including preventing their illegal transfer outside Ukrainian territory and adoption by foreigners, including Russian citizens.

Despite the existing ban in international law, the Russian Federation has extended the Train of Hope program to the occupied Crimean peninsula. The exact number of Ukrainian children adopted by Russian families and relocated to Russia in 7 years is unknown. Back in 2012, Russia expelled from its territory an independent monitoring mission of UNICEF. It also refused to cooperate with Ukrainian authorities and did not respond to calls from the world community. During adoption, children have their birth certificates changed, which allows the RF to conceal the commission of an international crime. Although the Russian media often gets information about dozens of Ukrainian orphans from the Crimea who were transferred to Russia under the Train of Hope program.

Even dozens are enough for genocide. This international crime is characterized by the fact that regardless of whether 1 person or a million were killed (transferred), the main thing is to state the existence of criminal intent (dolus malus) to commit genocide, which may be the subject of a separate article.

To make the long story short

The absence of the terms “ethnocide” and “cultural genocide” in the texts of international instruments should not be an obstacle to the further development of legal doctrine in the direction of criminalizing the actions they cover. The real actions of states in the territories where they exercise effective control is a guide to describe the content and elements of these crimes. In this context, Crimea, unfortunately, becomes a significant example of the implementation of the policy of forcible change of the demographic composition, aimed at eradicating Ukraine’s national identity. The lack of direct mention of such a crime in the Rome Statute and relevant international conventions significantly reduces the possibility of bringing Russia and its high-ranking officials to international responsibility, however, does not deny such a possibility at all. In this case, attention should be paid to the establishment of an ad hoc international tribunal and the extension of its jurisdiction to crimes of ethnocide and/or cultural genocide. The issues of approval of such legal innovations by the international community remain problematic, as well as sufficiently high thresholds for proving these crimes, which requires joint efforts for monitoring and proper documentation of existing violations.


Implemented within the project “Information Platform” Voice of Crimea. Culture “- about Crimea honestly, qualitatively, actually” with the support of the Media Development Fund of the US Embassy in Ukraine. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the US government.


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