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Soviet administrators used ethnicity as a tool of bureaucracy and therefore assumed it was an objectively ascribable category. This paper offers an analysis of the long term consequences the practice of ascribing an ethnic identity to everyone had in southern Bessarabia, a multiethnic and rural region in Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast. Fieldwork concentrated on the small town of Izmail and surrounding villages, inhabited by Ukrainians, Russians, Moldovans, Bulgarians and Gagauz, as well as many people with ambiguous ethnic identities. Using biographical interviews, the study sought to find out how people adopted their present ethnic identity and how they learned to categorize others around them. Concluding from these interviews, five realms that were named repeatedly as the core of an ethnic identity could be distinguished: common language, common religion, common historical experience, a common stock of folklore, and the idea of a common genetic pool. For all five realms, respondents could give elaborate narratives how they shape an allegedly unique ethnic character in each group. All five realms are then analyzed as systems of signs and rules that can be combined to ever new meanings. At the same time, these systems also provide the techniques for inclusion into the ethnic group and exclusion from it. The more rigid the rules, the better ethnic boundaries can be drawn along them. This is why breaching these rules poses a challenge to the claim that ethnic identities are essential and intuitively detectable.