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Ukraine 101

A review of Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays by Ukrainian Intellectuals. Edited by Volodymyr Yermolenko. Publisher: Internews Ukraine / Ukraine World, Kyiv: 2019.

January 27, 2020 - Margarita Novikova - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2020Magazine

For most of the time of Ukraine’s independence since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has been mostly covered by the international press as a country of revolutions (2004 and 2013-14) and war (which, of course, continues to take place in Donbas). Ukraine has also become known internationally as a state whose territory was annexed by Russia, and for having ineffective economic reforms. This is where, more or less, most western media outlets finish their coverage on Ukraine. Without attempts to go deeper, they re-enforce the image of Ukraine as a failing, war-torn state.

Today, the situation is quite the opposite. The recent election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the country’s president, as well as the ongoing American political scandal, which revolves around efforts by US President Donald Trump to coerce Ukraine into providing damaging narratives about the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary candidate, Joe Biden, has generated a lot of media coverage on Ukraine-related topics. Thus, especially in the United States, it is now hard to find a newspaper that would go to print without the word “Ukraine” at least in the lead of one article. Even though there is some deeper analysis on Ukraine coming from smaller media outlets, the question remains: how deeply Ukraine is covered by western media?

To find answers to questions that are not being asked in current discussions on Ukraine, it is recommended to search for a different kind of read, one that has been provided to us by Ukrainians themselves. Such material can be found in a collection of essays, published recently by Internews Ukraine and Ukraine World, tellingly titled Ukraine in Histories and Stories. Given all of the above, its publication is very timely.

A roadmap

As the title suggests the book mainly focuses on Ukrainian history and presents subjective stories by writers who often include narratives of their close relatives. Andriy Kulakov, in the introduction, calls the publication a “road map”. It is targeted at non-Ukrainians who are referred to here as travellers desiring to understand Ukraine through the lenses – or glasses – of Ukrainian writers, poets, historians, philosophers, journalists and political analysts. Indeed, the book offers a “package of glasses” as all the contributors depict Ukraine from very different angles. This book can serve as a theoretical introduction to Ukraine, which later can be enriched by practical encounters with Ukrainian people, places and stories.

The book starts with a comprehensive historical overview, which enables us to understand the context from which certain contemporary developments evolve, especially in the realms of nationhood and national identity. For many Ukrainian historians, the starting point for what we today call Ukraine begins with Kyivan Rus’. This idea is however challenged by other nations, in particular Russia and Belarus, who claim Rus’ to be their antecedent. In his contribution, Yaroslav Hrytsak, a Ukrainian history professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board, rightly argues about the futility of the debate surrounding the true foremother of Kyivan Rus’. Hrytsak points out that the concept of a nation-state emerged only in the late 19th century, making it senseless to place the people of Rus’ into a notion that did not exist at that time. Additionally, we may decide that a nation is more of a cultural construct, or as Benedict Anderson framed it, an imagined political community. It is imagined in the sense that the majority of the population of a state will never meet each other, while there still is a created connection that brings the people together.

The latter idea of an imagined community can be seen in Ukraine in its choice to focus on the Cossack revolts of the 17th century in order to construct its contemporary national identity. Cossacks, in many ways, are seen as the Ukrainians who stood up against the imperial powers and fought for “Ukraine”. This perception is widespread in spite of the fact that the Cossacks were not a strictly ethnic community. They were rather, as Andrew Wilson points out in his book The Ukrainians: An Unexpected Nation, “defined by their Orthodoxy and their democratic/demotic political culture and welcomed … Moldovans, Poles, Jews, Greeks and even renegade Tatars”. This is not something surprising and confirms the words of French philosopher, Ernest Renan, who famously said: “Getting histories wrong is part of being a nation.” It would, nonetheless, be interesting to enquire into how much the identification with the Zaporozhian Cossacks has affected present-day Ukrainians to fight for Ukraine today.

A blessing and a curse

Going back to late 18th century, Ukraine was “the breadbasket of Europe”, which was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in a sense that good soil provided people with abundance of food at a time when other regions faced shortages. It was a curse because Ukraine’s natural resources attracted neighbouring powers and increased their desire to bring the fabled chornozem (black soil) territories under their control, a disparaging tactic undertaken by the Russian Empire (they referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia” (Mala Rus)). Significantly, imperial Russia refused to recognise the Ukrainians as separate people and maintained that the Ukrainian territories to the east were nothing more than a province of Russia. This approximation and denial of national identity has left a deep mark on the identity of the Ukrainian people, specifically in the country’s eastern parts. While those living in the western territories were recognised by the Polish Kingdom as separate peoples with their own Ruthenian language, their national sentiments were still often suppressed in the fight for the agricultural breadbasket. This, however, took place to a lesser extent than in the east and therefore allowed for the development of a distinct Ukrainian culture and identity. The relationship of language and national identity must be discussed further as without it any analysis of Ukraine cannot be complete.

As Hrytsak explains, the growing emergence of Russian-speaking Ukrainians persisted due to different political and economic factors. One of them is Soviet Russification and education reforms, such as the 1938 decree that mandated the study of Russian in schools, the 1958 reform that proclaimed education in the native language as non-compulsory and as a consequence significantly undermined the status of mother tongues in the Soviet Union. Russification policies also included the printing of Russian-Ukrainian dictionaries that attempted to eliminate all Polish-Galician origins in the Ukrainian language. Thus, the majority of Polish sounding words were replaced by their Russian equivalents, pushing Ukrainian much closer to Russian. Recently, however, an interesting development has been taking place, as there are now more than a million Ukrainians working or studying in Poland, leading to Polish vocabulary slowly finding its way back into Ukrainian.

The other important factor is that in Soviet Ukraine, knowledge of Russian language was equated with “vocational opportunity”, as Jacob Ornstein points out in his essay on Soviet language policy. Hence, Russian became the dominant language of Ukraine until at least the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even after, it was hard to find cities where people were speaking predominantly Ukrainian. Again, it was mainly the western parts of the country that were using Ukrainian. The industrial cities to the east and most of central and southern Ukraine used and continue to use Russian in everyday communication, even if Ukrainian is the official language of the state. This is mainly due to the fact, as Anne Applebaum points out in her book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, that the Soviet Union established a solid system that privileged Russian language and assured that “the path to higher social status was a Russian-speaking one”. Hence, it was natural that parents were inclined to choose Russian-speaking schools to ensure a brighter future for their children which – in turn – resulted in Russian language domination.

This phenomenon is eloquently discussed in a beautifully written essay by Volodymyr Rafeenko, a writer and poet who lived in Donetsk until the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. He recalls how in his family they spoke only Russian, as it was considered “the language of the city, the language of education,” and if you had any ambition you had to forsake any national sentiments and accept the Soviet identity, for which the language of communication was strictly Russian. The villages however retained Ukrainian as their primary language even in the Eastern parts, even though, as Rafeenko explains, Ukrainian in the East was significantly influenced by Russian. Nonetheless, the opposition between the peasant Ukrainian-speaking village and educated Russian-speaking city still existed in whole of Ukraine.

Revival of the Ukrainian language

The village-city contrast, as Hrytsak points out, was more flexible due to the emergence of a group of “assimilated Russian-speaking Ukrainians”. These people were less exposed to Ukrainian traditions and customs, yet maintained “an emotional connection” with Ukrainian village life through their childhood memories of visiting their Ukrainian-speaking grandparents. This identification is especially rekindled in the light of the intensification of Russian aggression. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 by the Russian Federation, and their unofficial endorsement of the separatist movement in the Donbas region, has produced a change in attitude towards Russia and the Russian language. Ukrainian is once again being used as a form of political resistance, similar to the time of Taras Shevchenko, who was Ukraine’s most famous romantic poet and national hero for some. Shevchenko attempted to create a Ukrainian language that could express complex ideas and thoughts, including nationalism and opposition to social and political “enslavement” of the Ukrainian people by the Russian Empire.

Today, Ukrainian is used by many out of principle and solidarity with those who have died in the conflict in Donbas and at the Maidan. Nonetheless, Yuri Andrukhovych, a Ukrainian contemporary writer, in his interview for the book presents a different view. He describes Russian as the dominant language which becomes even more dominant as the Galician region in western Ukraine “is swinging towards opportunism”. Andrukhovych sees a bleak future for the Ukrainian language as he states that, realistically, in 30-40 years Ukraine will be “a unilingual Russian-speaking country”. Could he be right?

It depends, of course, on what course Ukraine will decide to take. The current conflict with Russia plays an important role in the (re)construction of Ukrainian identity and will continue to shape it long after it is resolved. The manner by which it will be resolved is in the hands of the current government and will be of immense importance for defining what kind of Ukraine there will be.

Margarita Novikova is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe and currently an MA student of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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