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Premonition: the Kremlin’s quest to destroy Ukrainian language and culture

The fight for Ukraine’s survival is happening in more ways than just on the front. The rich heritage of the country’s language and culture is now under attack from a genocidal Kremlin administration determined to consign it to history. Moscow’s war goal of “denazification” is none other than Russification.

July 22, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - UkraineAtWar

Borodyanka, Kyiv region, Ukraine. A monument to the poet Taras Shevchenko was fired upon by the Russian invaders. Photo: Andrey Sarymsakov / Shutterstock

A storm is brewing

During the first two months of 2022 Russia’s rhetoric grew angrier by the day. The country’s armies and the Belarusian forces amassed around the Ukrainian frontiers: in the north, east and south. Western commentators still saw these “exercises” as “posturing”. According to them, Moscow was just flexing its military muscle in a show of strength. A show for what? Of course, a major war in 21st century Europe appeared an absurdity, a throwback to the earlier, altogether darker age of the Cold War.

Ukraine and its culture and language quickly found themselves in Moscow’s crosshairs. In the Russian president’s words, the Ukrainian state was an artificial, fake country. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian language was a sham. According to the Kremlin, neither of these were worth preserving. This situation personally plunged me into the quiet depths of despair. I research the cultures, languages and history of Central and Eastern Europe for a living and enjoy reading books in the region’s languages. My latest plan was to go there on a research trip this very spring. I hoped to do a bit of city-hopping, from Lviv to Ivano-Frankivsk to Chernivtsi, and then across the border to the Moldovan capital of Chișinău. The aim was to visit bookshops and to buy books in a variety of languages and scripts.

This prepared itinerary, almost literally, was vanishing in front of my eyes. I cancelled tentative reservations that still remained to be reconfirmed. War appeared around the corner, despite the Kremlin’s protestations to the contrary. A string of western leaders continued arriving to Moscow to appease the wrathful Russian president. Most preferred not to believe US intelligence on Russia’s imminent war plans, which Washington declassified in an unprecedented move.

I feared that once again an entire culture and language would be wiped out. There was no time to lose. This realisation made me dizzy and nauseous. I am distrustful of e-books, but ordering paper copies of the titles I am interested in from Ukraine is now almost impossible. On February 23rd, I got to work and bought a dozen Ukrainian-language books on the website Yakaboo. Among others, I purchased the upcoming literary star Andriy Liubka’s V poshukakh varvariv (In Search of Barbarians); the acclaimed Kharkiv writer Serhiy Zhadan’s Internat (The Orphanage); Ukraine’s beloved popular writer Yuriy Vynnychuk’s Tanho smerti (Tango of Death); and the Ukrainian translation of the Austrian writer of Belarusian-Polish origins Carolina Schutti’s Kolysʹ ya bihala bosonizh po m’yakiy travi (I Used to Run Barefoot on the Soft Grass).

Moscow strikes

The following day I woke up to my wife’s gentle kiss. I saw sadness in her eyes. She told me what had happened. At four in the morning Russian tanks had started rolling in by the hundreds from Belarus to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. I was disconsolate. For the first week, I emailed and talked to my friends and contacts in Ukraine. Some fled westwards, while others braved Russian shelling and rockets in besieged towns. When I urged them to run for safety, they calmed me down and said that Kyiv would not fall. I was not so sure. No one really was. Mass media was full of news about Russian blacklists of Ukrainian elites to be liquidated first, among them writers and scholars.

Colleagues to whom I confided in Scotland, brushed off my alarm by saying that it is impossible to liquidate a culture and language. Sadly, I knew better than that, due to my decades-long research on the subject of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Did the European empires not wipe out indigenous cultures outside Eurasia? People there now read and write in the languages of the European conquerors and colonialists. In the Americas and Australia some indigenous ethnic groups survive, but their members in most cases lost their languages. The situation is better in Africa. Most speak their indigenous languages. However, they tend to see them as inferior, so all official business and education is conducted through the medium of a European colonial language.

This example shook my colleagues but failed to convince them. After all, are we not in Europe? Such things do not happen here. Really? Prior to the Second World War, 13 million of the world’s 17 million Jews spoke Yiddish. Since the mid-19th century a vibrant and modern Yiddish-language culture, involving literature, education, theatre, music, press, and book publishing, had developed with its main centres in New York, Vilnius and Warsaw. It was a great Central European culture, numerically on a par with Dutch language, culture and literature. Yet, Yiddish was more global and outward looking thanks to the Jewish diaspora.

We all know about the Holocaust, this unceasingly shocking crime of crimes. As a consolation, we repeat the worn-out slogan “Never again!” and point to the fact that nazi Germany did not manage to attain its ultimate goal. However few, Jews still live in Europe, Germany included. And above all, after 1948, the world’s Jews won for themselves their own state of Israel.

But the half-full glass is always half-empty. Yiddish culture and language vanished. Yes, some Hasidic religious communities speak Yiddish but they have not continued the pre-war secular Yiddish culture. Today, there are no popular Yiddish television and radio stations, or stand-up comedians and pop stars. Even more shockingly, not a single Yiddish-language library survives in Europe, the heartland of Yiddish culture prior to the Holocaust. Hundreds of millions of copies of Yiddish books and periodicals that were in circulation across Europe prior to the war vanished into thin air. They are nowhere to be spotted in Europe’s numerous bookstores and second-hand bookshops. Such a highly cultured continent!

Cultural genocide

So, Germany’s nazis might not have fully succeeded in destroying the Jews as a people, but they did in the case of Yiddish language and culture. Europe’s antisemites carry on with the little-known legacy of this forgotten cultural genocide to this day. They disparage Yiddish language and culture and discourage any efforts at reviving or even commemorating them. As a result, a Yiddish-language book in a neighbourhood bookstore or corner shop is an utterly out-of-place impossibility. If this happened, no one would believe their eyes. Immediate steps would be taken to revert to the status quo ante, but not ante (before) the Holocaust.

I feared the worst. Moscow may prefer to turn the Ukrainians “just” into docile second-class Russians rather than pursue outright genocide. However, the Russian powers that be would make sure to carry out the full destruction of Ukrainian language and culture. In the first days of the invasion, many Ukrainian online bookstores’ websites became unavailable. The Russian invaders were targeting the country’s vital infrastructure. Thankfully, on March 1st, Elon Musk’s Starlink internet arrived in Ukraine, thwarting Moscow’s stranglehold on communication in the country. On March 3rd, I managed to purchase ten more Ukrainian e-books from Yakaboo, among them Ukraina, 1933 rik. Holodomor (Ukraine in 1933: The Holodomor) and ‘Svitlii Shliakh’. Istoriia odnoho kontstaboru (The ‘Shining Path’: The History of a Concentration Camp). The first book discusses the Soviet genocide of the Ukrainians, while the second the current concentration camp in eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation since 2014. The continuities between Stalin and Putin’s murderous policies are striking.

Exactly a month later, on April 3rd, the Kremlin published its 25-year plan for subjugating the Ukrainians. The current war’s goal is to make Ukraine an indistinct part of Russia’s run-down colonial peripheries, and to erase the very name “Ukraine” from the map and people’s consciousness. The basic facts of the cultural genocide awaiting the Ukrainians were set out in the open for the whole world to see. Now, from Moscow’s point of view, this knowledge is sure to make most Ukrainians start pretending that they are already good and obedient Russians.

The Russian armies ultimately pulled out of Kyiv. But in order to emphasise their long-term resolve, they made sure to leave the evidence of their brutal genocidal rule visible to everyone. During the first week of April, the full extent of the Bucha massacre came to light, with more than 1,000 innocent civilians arbitrarily killed. Their bodies were unceremoniously dumped in the surrounding areas. The mass murder was carried out in an industrialised fashion, typical of the nazi einsatzgruppen (task forces) that during World War II had been dispatched eastwards to exterminate Jews. To spite the Bucha victims even more, the Kremlin denies its responsibility and grotesquely accuses British undercover operatives of perpetrating this mass killing.

Yakaboo began offering the international sale and delivery of books following the flight of many millions of Ukrainian refugees to Central and Western Europe. What a logistical breakthrough in the midst of war! Until then, the best way to obtain such books was to go to Ukraine yourself, as I had originally planned before the Russian invasion. On May 17th, I decided to give this novel service a try. It worked just fine. After a fortnight the ordered books arrived at my doorstep in Scotland, including Tamara Duda’s runaway bestseller Daughter on the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine. Another small victory for Ukrainian language and culture.

With the Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv and Ukrainian books now sold worldwide, a battle might be won. However, the war continues and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Tyranny and darkness may still triumph over democracy and human rights. With planned abandon, Russian troops destroy and loot Ukrainian museums, schools, theatres and archives. In other words, core parts of Ukrainian culture. In such circumstances, Ukrainian authors and other cultural figures have no choice but to fight, help the war effort or busy themselves with rebuilding their lives destroyed in a second by the Russian president. This megalomaniac sees himself as the reincarnation of Peter the Great, set on a “holy mission” to reconstruct an Orthodox empire.

Does Europe have a future?

Ukrainian writers, composers, musicians and actors now have no time and space to create and promote new novels, music or stage plays. They know that “if Russia wins, there will be no [Ukrainian] literature, no culture, nothing,” as Serhiy Zhadan solemnly reminded Europe on June 10th. Yet, despite numerous statements of unwavering support and many promises of weapons for Ukraine, Germany increased its imports from Russia by 60 per cent over the first four months of 2022. What is more, on June 12th, Berlin stopped Spain from delivering the country’s German-made tanks to Ukraine.

Some ridicule the German government by saying that “to ‘Scholz” is now an accepted term in Ukraine meaning to continually promise something without ever actually having any intention of doing it.” Europe’s help for Ukraine is beginning to appear as ineffectual as the ritualised and oft-repeated incantation of the slogan “Never again!” at stopping another European genocide. While Europeans passively or pensively look on, Ukrainian writers are dying at the front and the Russians are incinerating Ukrainian books. Moscow keeps flattening whole Ukrainian cities and has long-term plans for erasing the very name “Ukraine” from the face of the earth. The cultural genocide of Ukraine is in full swing, in accordance with the vainglorious Russian president’s war aims.

After all, the Kremlin’s smooth-talking Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov keeps smiling, emphasising that in Ukraine the “special military operation […] is going on strictly in accordance with the plans and the purposes that were established beforehand.”

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He initiated and co-authored the monograph Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia: From Ethnolinguistic Nation-State to Multiethnic Federation (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.

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