The Assyrians of Ukraine, Donbass and Crimea

Assyrians in Ukraine

With the recent emergence of Ukraine in the news, it would surprise some to discover that there are also Assyrians who live there.

The Assyrian diaspora communities in the Ukraine were founded in the late 19th century by Assyrians from Urmia in Iran, who used to go to cities such as Kiev or Mariupol to practice skills such as carpentry or as builders.

Often they would return home to their villages with the money they had earned, but some did stay.

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Head of the Zaporizhia Assyrian community, Mr. Givargis Badari, with members of the Shamiram Dance Ensemble, c. 2016.

These were joined by refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire and Iran during and after the First World War. In the last three decades though, many Assyrians have immigrated to the Ukraine especially from Armenia.

Among the well-known Assyrians born in the Ukraine is the late musical virtuoso Rabi Alexander “Shoora” Michailian (1930-2022), who was born in Kharkiv and recently passed away in Sydney, Australia.

Others may have heard of are Zaya Avdysh (Kiev 1945 – Zhitomir 2015), who was a Soviet football player, Ukrainian football coach, manager and president of FC Polissya Zhitomir, as well as his younger brother Valeriy (born 1950), also a Soviet football player, Ukrainian football referee and linesman.

Another Soviet Assyrian footballer and Ukrainian fooball coach was Anatoliy Zayaev (Simferopol 1931 – Melitopol 2012).

Then there is the bronze medalist judoka Yakiv Khammo (born Donetsk 1994), who competed at the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.

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Less known, but no less important was Prof. Promarz Tamrazov (1933-2012), an internationally acclaimed Ukrainian mathematician of Assyrian descent, doctor of physical and mathematical sciences and corresponding member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian capital Kiev is also the home of Victor Avidshev (born Khanlar, Azerbaijan 1956), a world champion Greco-Roman wrestler of the late 1970s and one of the country’s most famous wrestling and weightlifting coaches, having trained the national team in the late 1990s.

In 2014, when I visited Russia, I managed to enquire from some reliable sources about the Assyrian population in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including the Ukraine.

I was also able to meet Assyrian refugees from Mariupol, who were taking shelter in the town of Krymsk near Krasnodar.

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Assyrian monument for the fallen from 1914-1945, at Baikove Cemetery in Kiev, erected on 5 September 2008.

The information I gathered while in Russia, I then collated with that on a website (which now does not exist) with information regarding to Eastern Orthodox Assyrian communities.

At that time (c. 2015), there were about 7,500 Assyrians in the Ukraine.

There were about 1,600 Assyrians in the Donbass region, or the Donets River basin:

– Of these, 800 were in areas of Donetsk Oblast still under Ukrainian government control, at Mariupol, Konstantinovka, Pokrovsk, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk (with roots in Urmia, Upper Barwar, Albaq, Diz, Tal, Lewin and Khananis).

– Another 550 were in cities controlled by Donetsk People’s Republic including Donetsk, Makiivka, Horlivka and Debal’tseve (with roots in Gawar, Mar-Bishu, Nochiya, Tergawar and Tal).

– Finally, about 250 Assyrians lived in cities controlled by the Luhansk People’s Republic, including Lugansk, Sverdlovsk and Khrustalny (mostly with roots from Tal).

In the rest of the Ukraine, there were about 5,800 Assyrians, scattered in 17 of the country’s provinces – with the largest communities in Nova Kakhovka (300-400 households), Kiev (c. 1,000 people) and Nizhyn (c. 400 people).

Assyrian wedding in Zolotonosha in the 1950s.
Assyrian wedding in Zolotonosha in the 1950s.

Other Assyrian communities and families could be found in the cities and towns of Vinnytsia, Mykolaiv, Zolotonosha, Odessa, Zaporizhia, Zhitomir, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Kryvyi Rih, Lviv, Kamianske, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Sumy, Poltava, Berdychiv, Kherson, Slavuta, Pryluky, Ivano-Frankivsk and Kirovograd.

The Assyrians in these parts of the Ukraine trace their ancestry to districts in the homeland such as Jilu, Gawar, Diz, Albaq, Nochiya, Tergawar, Mar-Bishu, Urmia and Tal.

Another 110 Assyrians lived in the Crimean cities of Simferopol and Kerch (some of them with roots in Albaq) – but this former Ukrainian territory had already been incorporated into the Russian Federation by March 2014.

It is my sincere wish that the war ends as quickly as possible, with minimal loss of life and damage to property.

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Commemoration of Assyrian Martyrs Day in Zaporizhia c. 2016.

War and violence is never the answer, and everyone engaging in it and affected by it loses.

That being said, I hope our small Assyrian community in the Ukraine will be OK!

For an interesting article about one Assyrian family in the Ukrainian city of Zolotonosha, read the article “Born in Mesopotamia” by Svitlana Oslavska (10 September 2019).

There is also a long article in Ukrainian (use Google Translate) here:

Finally, the website of the Assyrian periodical “Khabre d-Aturaye” (Assyrian News), which is published in Zaporizhia, can be found here.

Nicholas Al-Jeloo is a professor in Assyrian Studies based in Turkey.

READ MORE: Why do so many cities in Ukraine and Crimea have Greek sounding names? 

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor