Much has been written about Ukraine lately, as commentators continue to offer competing interpretations of the recent complex and gruelling events in this diverse and dynamic Eastern European country. Rather than recount the chronology of these events, this piece discusses a new voice that has emerged in the country in response to its current realities, but has not yet received much international recognition. This manifold presence springs from a set of semantic changes to the thesaurus of the nation, which – over the course of several months – has expanded to encompass Russophone Ukrainians. In Ukraine’s new semantic landscape, speakers of the Russian language have assumed an important position: one at the forefront of the nation’s response to international discord.
This is not a role Russophone Ukrainians are used to. For years after the Soviet Union collapsed, they were regarded as ‘the other’ by some of the population of their own country,[i] particularly by those who position themselves as the national intellectual elite. Likewise, some western commentators have consistently cast them as ‘something akin to the fifth column in Ukraine’.[ii] Now among the main players in the region’s political arena, Ukraine’s Russian-speakers are suddenly at the forefront of defining and voicing their country’s interaction with Russia – and they are doing so with an assertiveness quite unexpected by less perceptive observers. In the process, they challenge stereotype after stereotype: of Ukraine as a divided country; of equating language and geopolitical orientation; of a homogeneous Russophile ‘south-east’; and of a weak or non-existent national identity as a diagnostically functional concept, among others.[iii]
Across the border, in the Russian Federation, it has not been uncommon to describe Russian-speaking residents of nearby east Ukraine as ‘our own other’.[iv] This view was mutual for a fair number of east Ukrainians, until the moment troops entered their country in Crimea. In an intriguing turn of events, those closest to Russia – by virtue of language, culture, or both – now stood at the vanguard of formulating a response to its policies. Many of the Russophone voices that began to appear in the mass media and on personal websites turned out to be fiercely protective of Ukraine’s independence.
As a reaction to – or perhaps as a part of – these profound changes to the nation’s sense of itself, as well as to the voices rising on its behalf, one of Ukraine’s top TV channels, Channel 5, diversified its usual Ukrainophone broadcasting by introducing a daily news hour in Russian. In early March 2014 it also joined the wider mass media trend of displaying a banner that rotates between Russian and Ukrainian words for ‘One Country’ (other participating TV channels include Inter Media Group, Starlight Media, 1+1 Media, and Media Gruppa Ukraina). In a classic case of silver lining, Ukraine is stubbornly pulling together at a time when centrifugal forces try to pull it apart.
Interestingly, some analysts pointed to the country’s diversity, including linguistic diversity, as a mediating and positive factor years before the current information war erupted. Historian Andrii Portnov, for instance, wrote back in 2010 in response to commentators who called and continue to call) Ukraine’s cultural heterogeneity ‘feckless’: ‘The challenge facing Ukrainian society and elites nowadays is how to perceive regional diversity not in confrontational and mutually exclusive terms, but as a wealth of differences; how to recognize “the other” not as a threat, but as an opportunity.’[v] It appears that now, such voices are finally beginning to be heard. And with good reason: throughout recent developments, the feelings of many Russophone residents of Ukraine towards their home nation have been revealed to be nothing short of powerful.
Something important is happening in Ukraine in this regard. Or perhaps it took shape a long time ago, and is now revealing its voice. We are witnessing a phenomenon whose layers analysts have yet to address fully. When Russian writers from my hometown in east Ukraine enlisted me to help spread their call to keep Russia’s troops out of the country, their strong wording was unsurprising. Contrary to much of the recent media coverage, this winter’s Ukrainian uprising was not an either-or struggle between European and Russian allegiances. Rather, for the majority of participants the demonstrations had to do with the people’s growing sense of dignity – and its violation. A wide spectrum of society took part, and about a quarter of those on the Maidan identified Russian as the primary language they speak at home. This nuance appears to have surprised some observers (those wary of the perils of multiculturalism) more than they did others (those who have celebrated, and continue to celebrate, the complexity of Ukraine’s diverse population). It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no longer such thing as a Russophile south-east [iugo-vostok] of Ukraine. And thoughtful observers know that, in its imagined monochrome form, it never existed in the first place.
All these events hit close to home, both literally and figuratively speaking. I hail from east Ukraine, from the culturally vibrant city of Kharkiv / Kharkov, which became the centerpiece of my academic work as well. While finalizing a doctoral dissertation on the topics of literature, memory and identity in the eastern borderlands of Ukraine, I sought ways to process the developments at home and to separate these two challengingly different perspectives: that of a scholar and that of a local. Meanwhile, continually emerging analytic texts of various calibers proved helpful in pondering the changes Ukraine was undergoing. Nevertheless, for a while, pinpointing the force behind these changes was not an easy task.
A column by political scientist Olga Mikhailova helped piece the puzzle together. Discussing the emergence of a group she calls ‘the Ukrainian Russians’ in Ukrains’ka Pravda, Mikhailova used a key word to explain why many in this cohort are standing up for Ukraine’s territorial and cultural unity. That word was ‘betrayal’. A new animal in the existing thesaurus of analytical media coverage, it is key to much of the emotional reaction observable in the country today. Mikhailova’s suggestion that ‘in the historical narrative of the Ukrainian Russians, [supporting] an empire is […] a betrayal they refuse to commit’ illuminates the origin of the force sustaining Ukrainian society at this time: a sense of responsibility and loyalty. It is a community in the making – or, more precisely, in the awakening.
Scholars and journalists may continue to discuss recent events in the languages of nation, post-colonialism, politics, patriotism, or cultural memory. But it is the vocabulary of sentiment that hits closest to explaining developments in Ukraine today. Russian and Russophone Ukrainians alike (the former are ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, the latter are Ukrainians whose native language is Russian) are vocal in refusing military protection from the Russian Federation. This issue has adopted, and is now framed by, the discourse of dignity. In fact, a number of commentators have highlighted the term ‘dignity’ as central to the lexicon of the Maidan uprising.
In an apt illustration of Leonard Cohen’s lyric, ‘I love the country but I can’t stand the scene’, many (though, at this point, not all) Russophone Ukrainians continue to appreciate Russia’s language and culture. Most of them, however, have little tolerance for the Russian Federation’s current politics. To such people, supporting these politics would mean turning their backs on those with whom for years they have shared streets, cities, a nation – even if they did not always share the same language, literally or figuratively. This conscious loyalty is what stands behind the country’s coming together at this time of crisis: a refusal to betray, no matter how sentimental it may sound, can be observed among much of the Russian-speaking community today.
Meanwhile, some of those who used to condemn the Russian language in Ukraine as undesirable – a contaminating remnant to be rectified for the sake of nation-building – are seeing these processes, and are responding to them as well. As a result, things appear to be changing on all sides. Recent initiatives, such as a group of Lviv residents choosing to speak Russian for a day in February 2014 and a group of Donetsk residents responding by speaking Ukrainian, have shown that many Ukrainians have processed their revolution on terms different from the divisive rhetoric imposed on them by some international opinion.
This is not to paint a pastoral landscape where none exists. Shredding forces continue to test uniting ones on a daily basis. They draw their strength not only from the grievances and hostility in the streets, but also from the commentators who still present Ukraine as a fatally divided nation, maintaining the outdated and prejudiced myth of the ‘Two Ukraines’. This fairly popular misconception, which portrays the country as a synthetic and flammable combination of irreconcilable halves, relies in part on the notion of ‘mentality’ – a vague and useless concept applied to a subset of the population in order to shrink-wrap its motivations, feelings and perceptions into one general standardized psychological condition. If this sounds inaccurate and irresponsible, that’s because it is. Recent battles have, unfortunately, revived the Two Ukraines framework as the most accessible explanation for events taking place in the region. In line with this approach, for instance, international media has often wrongly painted the Maidan as two parts of the nation pulling in two directions.[vi] What could be easier? The western part is ‘fascist’ or ‘nationalist’ (also known as pro-European); the eastern part is ‘contaminated’ or ‘zombified’ by its Soviet past (also known as pro-Russian or pro-multicultural, depending on whom one asks). Who needs to know more?
Refreshingly, many do. A number of respected historians and commentators, both inside and outside of Ukraine, have done much to counter this inept interpretation of multi-layered social processes that unequivocally lack homogeneity. Nevertheless, heavy-handed and uncompromising verdicts continue to appear in media coverage of the Ukrainian situation. They are fairly easy to recognize: a nationally framed argument that relies on variations of the notion of mentality is limited in both content and utility, because it explicitly lacks nuance. Among these rigid judgements, one that continues to hit hard is that of bydlo, a curious word derived from the Polish term for cattle (bydło).
Having travelled from the West Slavic languages to Ukrainian to Russian, bydlo gained a heavily pejorative meaning and is currently used to describe those who are purportedly cattle-like – backward and unrefined – in terms of their mental and spiritual development. In recent discussions, this word has been revitalized and repurposed to refer to a certain type of east Ukrainian, particularly those hailing from the country’s easternmost region, the long-suffering Donbas (Donets Basin). On the map of stereotypes, this area is renowned for its coal mining, its industry and, thus, its blue-collar workers. This setting has attracted uncompromising and unkind generalizations about its inhabitants. Even in a recent attempt to illuminate the genuine hardship that shaped these lands over the past century, a Donbas-born commentator portrayed its residents as ‘a quivering biomass’. Some of the so-called intellectual elite have also fallen victim to this judgemental stance, which Portnov described recently as a dangerous kind of ‘reductionism’:
Let us get rid of the country’s ‘far east’ (where the people are ‘completely different’, meaning: worse) and have us a nice life in European Ukraine… And such arrogant, generalizing, isolationist, orientalist and narcissistic ideas come from those who are so impressed with ‘multicultural Austria’ and ‘lost diversity’. Of course, inventing a nice past while impersonating an enlightened and tolerant intellectual is much easier than to put at least some effort into comprehending and accepting the heterogeneity and complexity of contemporary Ukraine.[vii]
Indeed, it is easier. A well-known Ukrainian historian and an equally well-known writer have both recently come up with offensive texts reducing their eastern neighbours to brainless homo sovieticus. This unfortunate and myopic cycle of self-perpetuating discrimination involves similarly uncompromising verdicts on ‘pro-Ukrainian’ activists as neo-Nazis – a technique particularly favoured by Vladimir Putin’s information war machinery.
The reductive approach maintains, among other things, that those who stand to protect Lenin monuments are standing up for Putin’s Russia. However, the gap between these two causes may be wider than usually acknowledged. The alternate view is that such persons are trying to defend a sense of self and a narrative of their past that, they feel, is being wrenched from them without adequate replacement. A closer look at video footage of such demonstrations suggests that the majority of participants are elderly. For them, the gap created by the collapse of the country they knew as home was never quite filled by anything else. In response, they may be defending old monuments to Lenin as a symbol of their youth — which they now perceive as negated, re-narrated as nothing but meaningless existence under an oppressive regime — rather than a genuinely political symbol of any kind, much less a Putin-related one. Serhii Zhadan, a brilliant Ukrainophone writer who lives and works in Kharkiv (and who hails, incidentally, from Donbas)[viii], describes their ordeal as follows:
Stonemasons of the new world […] returned as heroes and victors, and all they could do in that bizarre situation was to erect their plaster Holy Grail in a park of culture and leisure, hoping for the ultimate victory of communist ideas and for the good memory of their offspring, who instead will stone you to death, toppling all your monuments, having no faith in your past, having no past of their own.[ix]
As I have previously argued, there is a fine line between denouncing a regime and denouncing human lives that coincided with it.[x] Some people may misperceive this line as warped or absent. The resulting anxiety, erroneous or not, provides prime grounds for abuse and misuse by a whole slew of political forces and players, and such manipulation is happening on a daily basis. Yet there is another way to see the troubles gripping Donbas: some of its people, who have become targets of both condescension from within the country and manipulation from without, were simply not as fortunate as those of us whose parents kept collections of Ukrainian poetry in our Russophone households, and made sure we could recite Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Oles (1878-1944) as soon as we started reciting his contemporary – Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). They were possibly also less fortunate in encountering approachable language tutors who are enthusiastic about Ukrainian and interested in helping people speak it with confidence. What they know of the rest of Ukraine instead, and face on a daily basis, is precisely the ‘reductionism’ that says the country would be better off without them – the zombified bydlo incapable of anything other than having ridiculous feelings about obsolete monuments. In this light, their frustration appears far less surprising. And the politicians’ willingness to manipulate this frustration – even more despicable.
In one of his works Zhadan describes the ageing post-Soviet generation as ‘exhausted and seasoned, who carry within themselves, like an ailing heart, the entire experience of their country, of their infinite daily struggle that eventually ends, yet brings them no solace’.[xi] For this part of Ukraine’s population, the need today is rooted in what Tamara Hundorova identifies as ‘an alternative paradigm to parting with the totalitarian past, rather than rupture and oblivion’. In my attempts at addressing this topic, I have referred to a ‘recalibrated architecture of separation’ in hopes of emphasizing that it is not the separation from the Soviet Union that some people continue to struggle with; it is the totality of the negation that comes with its commonly imposed framework.
The complexity of the post-catastrophic ordeal, in fact, is one of the key reasons behind Zhadan’s overwhelming success as a writer (and one of the key reasons why working with Ukrainian literature is such a fruitful approach to studying the country). Using Ukrainian, a language not easily accused of imperialism, he breaks through the simple dichotomy of imperial Russia and colonial Ukraine with captivating characters whose feelings about the fallen empire are anything but simple. This yields compelling imagery, and one of such lines has become a static element of my blog:
Will they be able to tell their own children and grandchildren how in their peaceful sky, right above their heads, one could still behold the majestic fading flashes of history; this history was distant and inaccessible and had a bloodred hue – like tulips, like blood, like coca-cola.[xii]
What will ‘they’ – literature’s first-hand witnesses to imperial collapse – be able to tell their children? Perhaps even more importantly, what will we be able to tell ours? As revolution and aggression exploded and shook our lives, did we cope by turning against ‘the other’ in our own nation – be it the Westerner we have dubbed ‘Banderite’ or the Easterner we have dubbed ‘bydlo’ (or, in fact, vice versa)? In his thoughtful piece on Odesa / Odessa, Blair Ruble maintains: ‘The port city represents a Russia that always has been open to the world, with a wry smile that scoffs at the sort of ruffians and thugs dispatched by President Vladimir Putin to “liberate”’ it. Ruble identifies an important tendency among Russophone Ukrainians: that of habitual subversion of official narratives, coupled with strong local loyalties. Now that Odessa, known for its humorous and relaxed disposition, has become a site of violence and death, amplifying resentment and anguish on all sides, these loyalties will require courage. And now that a portion of the population of Donbas has declared independence and warfare has begun, the people of Ukraine face another fundamental challenge: not giving up on the entirety of the region’s inhabitants – and refraining from sweeping them all under the rug of the clichéd image of the east as a ‘nature reserve of all things foreign’.[xiii]
Like in the south, many of the Russophone residents of east Ukraine have nurtured a distinctive regional identity that provides ‘an alternative to the ethnically and linguistically determined “national idea”.’[xiv] Now this regional identity is decisive to Ukraine’s next steps as a country. A writer from Donetsk, the largest city in Donbas, articulated it eloquently on April 22, 2014, in Moscow, where she travelled to receive an award for her Russian prose. At the microphone, Elena (Olena) Stiazhkina recited her piece called ‘About Love’: ‘I want to talk about love, a realization that was a surprise for me. There was once a country; then it turned out to be motherland.’ She continued:
There is a problem of hearing in our countries these days. But to those who do hear I’d like to say this: the only language of love I know is Russian, and it certainly does not need military protection. […] The Russian language does not need blood. […] You cannot kill Ukraine in the south and the east, because killing Ukraine would mean murdering me, a Russian, and others, also Russians.
When in 1996 Paul Pirie took issue with ‘an unfortunate tendency to assume the national consciousness and homogeneity of the Russian minority and the Ukrainian majority’, and argued that ‘the national orientation of individuals officially classified as Russians in different parts of the country is often only tenuously so’,[xv] he hit the nail on the head, as such voices have made exceedingly clear. Today, the intricate relationship between Russia and Ukraine is, as ever, decisive for the future of this part of the world. And, as ever, it remains largely simplified as either antagonistic or fraternal. Russian‐speakers in Ukraine effectively topple this dichotomy. They are akin to soldiers of sentiment in a war of calculation. Whether they refer to motherland as rodina (in Russian) or as bat’kivshchyna (in Ukrainian) is secondary. And, importantly, there are also people who do not use any version of the term ‘motherland’ for any nation – for a wide array of reasons – but still choose to support those who do.
Viewed outside of an academic framework, Ukraine these days is a conglomeration of hands, stretching towards each other from all its centres and peripheries. Beneath the hands, dirty stones fly in all directions, swung from every centre and periphery as well. Some of these stones hit hard, or hit a wound (Ukraine comes with many), and the hand above it trembles. The pendulum of deleterious mutual diagnoses that underlies the processes of othering is in full swing here at the moment. It is aided in part by history – the Ukrainian language, for instance, was othered in these lands for many years – and in part by the harrowing tension and fervor of armed conflict. One thing academic observers can do at this time is to support those in Ukraine who are still reaching out to each other: to ensure they have a place for which to write, and a platform from which to speak.
In the commentary on Ukraine these days, it seems, if no one is offended, you have not been heard. A gifted Russian rock-bard, Alexander Bashlachev (1960-1988), sang on the verge of the Soviet Union’s collapse: ‘I am most ashamed when you cannot see that I have heard what I listened to.’ Ukrainians are currently making a choice: in a large country with a mosaic of histories, there is much to mutually resent; there is also much to admire. This choice and its aftermaths generate a crucial set of socio-cultural and political processes. It remains to be seen whether the centrifugal forces surrounding these processes can be countered, and at what cost. At the moment, this much is clear: despite adversity, despite a sustained assault on the very possibility of a whole Ukraine, Ukrainians of all kinds (and there are, indeed, many kinds) continue to demonstrate, to each other and to external observers, that all their ways of invoking ‘one country’ – be it iedyna kraina or edinaia strana – are worth listening to.
Unless otherwise noted, all Ukrainian-language and Russian-language sources cited in this piece are my translations. I am thus responsible for any imperfections.
[i] Volodymyr Kulyk, ‘Shschyri ukraïntsi ta ïkhniĭ “othering”’, Krytyka, 12 (2000), 28-31. ^
[ii] Paul S. Pirie, ‘National Identity and Politics in Southern and Eastern Ukraine’, Europe-Asia Studies, 48 (1996), 1079-104 (p. 1080). ^
[iii] For a more detailed discussion of these stereotypes, please see Tanya Zaharchenko, ‘Polyphonic Dichotomies: Memory and Identity in Today’s Ukraine’, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Demokratization, 21 (2013), 241-69. ^
[iv] Mykhailo Karasikov, ‘Slobozhans’ka mental’nist’: myf chy real’nist’?’ Kul’tura ta etno-etika, 3 (1994), 19-20. ^
[v] Andreĭ Portnov, Uprazhneniia s istorieĭ po-ukrainski (Moscow: Memorial, 2010), p. 103. ^
[vii] Translated from Facebook with the author’s permission. ^
[viii] Other Donbas Ukrainians who topple the Ukrainian west / Russian east stereotype include Volodymyr Sosyura, Vasyl Stus, and Ivan Dziuba. In the nearby region of Sloboda, also known as the east, the city of Kharkiv is one of the country’s key cultural hubs. With its University as the centre of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century, Kharkiv gave birth to the modern Ukrainian national idea, and was decisive for its future. These examples, which do not fit the stereotypical delineation, are just some of many – in both eastern and western regions of the country. ^
[ix] Serhiĭ Zhadan, Anarchy in the UKR (Kharkiv: Folio, 2011), p. 26. ^
[x] Tanya Zaharchenko, ‘While the Ox is Still Alive: Memory and Emptiness in Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshylovhrad’, Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, 55 (2013), 45-70. ^
[xi] Zhadan, Anarchy, p. 65. ^
[xii] Zhadan, Anarchy, p. 76. ^
[xiii] Tamara Hundorova, ‘Voroshylovhrad i porozhnecha’, LitAktsent, 8 February 2011. ^
[xiv] Tatiana Zhurzhenko, ‘Cross-border Cooperation and Transformation of Regional Identities in the Ukrainian-Russian Borderlands: Towards a Euroregion “Slobozhanshschyna”? Part 2’, Nationalities Papers, 32 (2004), 497-514 (p. 508). ^
[xv] Pirie, ‘National Identity’, p. 1080. ^