What's going on in Ukraine?

Birth, Death, and Fictive Citizenship: Citizenship and Political Agency in War-Torn Ukraine

The Editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome Greta Uehling for the latest in our continuing Forum, What’s Going on in Ukraine?

Parent and child shoes

As the war in Eastern Ukraine grinds on, and diplomats have forgotten about occupied Crimea, there are new realities shaping the way Ukrainians are born, live, and die in this war-torn country.

Most readers will be aware that Russian troops entered Crimea in Spring, 2014 and, without a single shot, took control of key military installations, held a bogus referendum, and set up a new government. The residents of that occupied territory are now caught, so to speak, between Ukraine and Russia. This post is based on ethnographic fieldwork with individuals coming out of the occupied territories into free Ukraine in May and June 2015..

Whether birth, death or the acquisition of a passport, the processes and practices are as worthy of attention as the status itself.

I explore how the basic processes of documentation (birth, death, citizenship) occur (or don’t) in a space of contestation. These thoughts expand on those of Marshall (1983) Ong (1996) and Lazar and Nuijten (2013) that open up the category citizenship as more than a legal status with rights and responsibilities. Whether birth, death or the acquisition of a passport, the processes and practices are as worthy of attention as the status itself.


For a moment, Khomenko, head of a humanitarian organization called “Country of Free People,” becomes radiant. She leans forward to show me the photos on her cell phone “We have had 17 babies born!” Women flee the zone when they are pregnant because they want the baby to be born in Ukraine.”

Khomenko assists people fleeing the occupied territory and the war in Eastern Ukraine. She left her native Kramatorsk in January, 2015 after a 4 AM call that tanks were rolling in. Since then, she has been filling minivans with food and medicine for delivery to those still in the zone of military action, and running a shelter for displaced families (from both Crimea and Donbas) outside it.Image 1

People who have been displaced from one part of Ukraine to another face challenges unknown in most parts of the world. According to Ukrainian law, neither birth nor death certificates issued in territory occupied or controlled by Russia are recognized.

This means a baby born in occupied territory, legally at least, doesn’t exist as an official citizen of Ukraine. This complicates getting medical care, enrolling the child in daycare, and receiving the benefits accorded to other families. It is important to understand here that the Ukrainian government offers all families a helpful stipend for the birth of a child, assistance families without a valid birth certificate for their children are ineligible for.

One workaround is a $300-500 bribe (about twice the average monthly salary). An attorney at a humanitarian organization won a decision on the issuance of a birth certificate by sheer persistence, bringing both the baby and detailed records of her postpartum medical care before a court. But a corpse, he mused? Much harder to transport across new, internationalized borders.

Legal advocates fear this lack of alignment between the two countries feeds corruption. They ask who will be collecting the pension of the person who is physically dead but can’t be pronounced legally dead in occupied Crimea, or the militarized “anti-terrorist operation” zone in Eastern Ukraine? Another concern associated with deaths is the ability to inherit property within families – a transaction that is only possible with a valid death certificate.

Birth and death are useful lens for exploring the politics of citizenship in Ukraine. Ong’s insight (1996) that within the seemingly unitary category of citizenship there are in fact hierarchical schemes of difference that intersect in contingent ways is useful here. I am particularly concerned with people holding valid Ukrainian citizenship but formerly residing in Crimea (and bearing a stamp called a propiska to that effect in their passports). De facto, they have a different set of rights in independent Ukraine.  Somewhat like the “whitening” and “blackening” processes described by Ong (1996: 741) there is a “marking” by Russian occupation that sets these political subjects apart. It is IDPs from Crimea, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or indigenous Crimean Tatar who are subject to this form of regulation. They find themselves in a legal limbo because of both Russian and Ukrainian state policies.

Citizenship and political agency

The top-down processes of being “made” citizens through the registering of birth, schooling, welfare, and the propiska system articulate with, and can’t be clearly understood independently from, the bottom-up processes of self-making. How does individual action meet the top-down process of the project of assigning citizenship?

without a Russian Federation passport you will be refused medical care, lose your job, be unable to collect a pension or even sign up for a cellphone plan.

Residents of the occupied territory of Crimea have learned to function within an overlapping system of citizenships, particularly if they plan to cross the “buffer zone” and travel between continental Ukraine and the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula. While neither Russia nor Ukraine allows for dual citizenship, many of those affected by the conflict carry two passports. This is because after Russian-backed authorities in Crimea solidified their power, they basically compelled the residents of the peninsula to take citizenship of the Russian Federation. The consequences of excluding oneself are dire: without a Russian Federation passport you will be refused medical care, lose your job, be unable to collect a pension or even purchase a cellphone plan.

Image 2Informants explained that authorities actually came to them: they arrived at schools, factories, and businesses and distributed Russian passports. Not surprisingly, mistakes were made. A college student I interviewed had a wry smile while describing how a female friend was marked as “male” in her passport. The spelling of names was sometimes butchered, with consequences later on when the name in the passport fails to align with other documents.

The most interesting thing, however, is that even when my informants carried Russian Federation passports, they did not see themselves as having Russian citizenship. For the most part, residents of Crimea who relocated to continental Ukraine treated their Russian Federation citizenship as fictive:

“I was unsure if it was a dream or a real life. When I finally understood, I started to cry. But I still have the sensation that its not real. It’s like some kind of a farce. It’s like some kind of theatre.”

She described how violated she felt still in Crimea when the occupation meant she was suddenly a citizen of a country she despised. She eventually left for continental Ukraine (taking her Russian passport) where she feels more empowered to be a political subject, rather than an object of rule.

The whole process is certainly Kafkaesque. As a young man pointed out We learned later that the passports that they gave out are not like regular Russian passports. If a normal Russian passport has a number in it that is registered with the state, the passports they handed out have numbers in them, but they aren’t recorded!

In spite of the technologies of power used to solidify the occupational regime, it was experienced as fictive by those who opposed it. In fact, when asked about citizenship, most informants did not mention their Russian Federation passport unless probed. When I asked why, a young man explained: «Its hard to consider it citizenship considering where the document came from.»

Residents of Crimea, have developed ways of accomodating (carrying two passports) and resisting (refusing to consider one political subjectivity as real or denoting real citizenship) as they forge a path through this highly contested terrain. This underscores the complexity of how political communities and political agency are made.


For ordinary citizens and non-combatants coming from Crimea and the East, there are also grimmer realities: death and burial.

According to law of Ukraine, death certificates issued by occupational authorities can’t be recognized. This small fact speaks volumes. Denying a document as valid, is of course, a way of delegitimizing the Russian-backed authorities in Crimea. Katherine Verdery argues persuasively in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies that corpses and statues can be effective political symbols anywhere, and they are therefore often used to make political points.

what the people of the occupied territories “hear” is that they are, secondary to the body politic: attached, but not fully joined as political subjects.

Here, the political point from the Ukrainian side is clear: the territory has been occupied unlawfully. In sending that message, however, what the people of the occupied territories “hear” is that they are, secondary to the body politic: attached, but not fully joined as political subjects.

It is perhaps understandable that Ukraine would refuse to recognize the regime currently occupying Crimea in the south, and controlling territory in the East. In most countries of the world, however, the registration of births and deaths is accomplished at the municipal level and unaffected by military action or international disagreements like this one.

Attorneys I interviewed suspected this matter remains unresolved, in spite of the fact that it disadvantages loyal Ukrainian citizens, because it is not in Ukraine’s interest to make departure from the occupied territory any easier. Complications like these, the reasoning went, help tie people to Crimean towns and villages, and prevent even greater depopulation of a territory Ukraine hopes someday to regain.

Image 3In this time of contestation between Russian and Ukraine, there is a certain amount of space for choice and negotiation. That space is likely to expand if Ukraine amends current legislation and provides a reasonable process for those wishing to continue their Ukrainian citizenship (or have Ukrainian children) to actually claim this political subjectivity. It will contract if the Russian Federation follows through on threats to impose disciplinary measures for residents of the occupied Crimean territory who continue to hold Ukrainian passports.

Greta Uehling received her PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Michigan. She teaches in the Program on International and Comparative Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is also Faculty Associate in the Center for Russian and East European Studies. In 2015, she was a Fulbright scholar based in Ukraine. Her current project considers the political and affective frameworks guiding policy and practice with respect to IDPs in Ukraine.

Works Cited

Lazar, Sian and Monique Nuijten. 2013. “Citizenship, the self and political agency,” Critique of Anthropology 33(1) 3-7.

Marshall TH (1983 [1950]) “Citizenship and social class,” in: Held D (ed.) States and Societies. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 248–260.

Ong, Aiwa. 1996. “Cultural Citizenship as Subject-Making: Immigrants Negotiate Racial and Cultural Boundaries in the United States,” Current Anthropology 37(5) 737-762.

Verdery, Katherine. 2000. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies.  New York: Columbia University Press.


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