For nearly three years, Europe’s largest country has been at war with Europe’s second-largest country. There are many geopolitical and geostrategic reasons for Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine, but the Kremlin often distracts attention from them with the help of one very red herring: Ukraine’s multilingualism.
As recently as October 2016, Vladimir Putin volunteered that Russia ‘was forced to defend the Russian-speaking population’ of the industrial region in eastern Ukraine known as Donbas, most of which is now under a Kremlin-led military and political occupation.
As Timothy Snyder has put it, ‘for Russia to invade Ukraine to protect the right of Ukrainian citizens to express themselves in the Russian language makes no more sense than Germany invading Switzerland to protect the rights of its German speakers.’ But in Great Britain and beyond, the mendacity of Putin’s claim is not as apparent to some journalists and politicians who still misconstrue Ukraine as a country divided by languages.
Simply search news feeds for Ukraine’s ‘Russian-speaking east’ and ‘Ukrainian-speaking west’, and you will see what I mean. Our go-to terminology about Ukraine is rife with reductive bifurcations, even after three years (and counting) of upheaval and war that should have taught us differently.
Ukraine is a multilingual country ultimately united, not divided, by languages: Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean Tatar, Hungarian and Polish, among others. Its historical emergence as a state was driven above all by a civic national movement that connected diverse constituencies and resisted making language use a zero-sum game. In fact, when the Ukrainian People’s Republic arose out of the rubble of the Russian Empire one hundred years ago, notes of its currency displayed text in four languages: Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.
Today Ukraine’s constitution enshrines Ukrainian – which was repeatedly subjected to tsarist bans in the nineteenth century – as the state language. It also guarantees the ‘free development, use and protection’ of Russian as well as the languages of other national minorities. In the twenty-first century, these languages live alongside each other, on top of each other and, in the Ukrainian-Russian patois known as surzhyk, even inside each other.
The fascinating complexity of Ukraine’s linguistic landscape was the subject of a recent panel discussion in Oslo between four Ukrainian writers from Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine only forty kilometers from the Russian border. The panel was organised by Dr Tanya Zaharchenko, an alumna of Cambridge’s Department of Slavonic Studies. It featured Andrei Krasniashchykh, speaking in the Russian language; Oleh Kotsarev, speaking in the Ukrainian language; Yuri Tsaplin, speaking in Russian; and Serhii Zhadan, speaking in Ukrainian.
Krasniashchykh, Kotsarev, Tsaplin and Zhadan are writers of different modes, voices and aesthetic inclinations, but they all agree on one central point: there is no problem with the coexistence of the Russian and Ukrainian languages in Ukraine today.
As Kotsarev notes, Ukraine is a country where each town and city can have its own distinct linguistic culture. There are no hard-and-fast regional divides. ‘In Ukraine we see a phenomenon quite uncommon to many other countries’, he says, ‘in which it is absolutely normal to have two friends speaking different languages, or a husband and wife speaking different languages, or even a brother and sister speaking different languages.’
These differences can facilitate, rather than impede, connection and dialogue. Kotsarev makes the point by way of a telling observation from his days as a student at V.N. Karazin National University in Kharkiv, where one of his lecturers in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Classical Philology was none other than his fellow panelist Krasniashchykh. As a lecturer, Krasniashchykh taught in Russian; as a student, Kotsarev responded to him in Ukrainian. Now colleagues, the two smile at the mention of these first exchanges.
This is the reality of Ukraine’s peculiar multilingualism – a reality we can no longer afford to ignore. ‘When you start ignoring reality,” remarks Serhii Zhadan toward the end of the discussion, “reality starts ignoring you.’
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