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Change Afoot in Ukraine

5:33 AM, Jul 10, 2014 • By CHRISTOPHER NADON
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At the time of independence, Kiev was very much a Russian speaking town.  When I ask about the situation today, most Ukrainian speakers say it is still Russian while the Russian speakers say Ukrainian predominates.  Both are about right.  What is clear is that young people favor Ukrainian.  This makes sense given that those under twenty-five have received almost all their education in Ukrainian.  But no one has given me a hard time for speaking Russian and I have yet to witness a single instance of language policing.  Olexiy Haran, a professor of international relations at Kiev-Mohyla and popular commentator on Ukrainian politics, told me that he traveled to Luhanks at the end of March just before the separatist movement began to stir.  He made it a point to speak Ukrainian to see if it might provoke a reaction.  No one cared.  Even the nationalist Svoboda Party has backed away from language politics.  Of course, in the East that has now changed.  “But you should understand,” Haran told me, “many of the Ukrainian soldiers now enlisting to put town the terrorists are themselves Russian speakers.”  Ukrainians object not to those who speak Russian but to those they characterize as “Moskal,” by which they mean chauvinistic Russians intent on re-establishing the hegemony of Moscow.  A poster in the center of the Maidan declares (in Russian, not Ukrainian): “We love Russians.  We despise Putin.” 

In the late 1990s many Russian speaking Ukrainians reconciled themselves to independence as a result of Russia’s Chechen wars.  Watching the official Moscow coverage of the conflict and then the accounts in the Ukrainian and foreign media, they concluded, “We might not be doing so well, but at least were not doing that and then lying about it.”  Today few things disturb Ukrainians more than the willingness of the Russian public to swallow their media’s accounts of the Maidan and the border war even when other sources of information are easily available.  Yet, this too, has had good domestic effects.  Software engineer Laryssa Parfenenko is nearing retirement and like many her age looks back on Soviet times with some nostalgia.  She had remained something of an admirer of Putin’s decisiveness and strength, that is, until she recently returned from a vacation at a Russian resort in Turkey.  There she met and spoke to so many Russians with lurid fantasies about fascists patrolling and controlling the streets of Kiev that at first she almost thought them to have been drugged.  She no longer admires the one man most responsible for such misinformation. 

Ukrainians like to claim that unlike Russians their own form of nationalism is patriotic but pluralistic, and in practice they have been as good as their word.  Russian speakers in Ukraine have fared well, especially in comparison with their counterparts in, say, Kazakhstan, a republic that somehow still manages to maintain good relation with Putin.  Even over the past four months, with passions running high over the Crimea and Donbas, international organizations have found no evidence that the rights of ethnic Russians are being threatened or suppressed.   Whether Ukrainians practice the virtue of an inclusive tolerance out of necessity or choice is probably beside the point since there is no prospect that such necessity will disappear in the foreseeable future.  And there is a real difference in national character from the Russians.  No one in Ukraine feels tortured or humiliated by the loss of past glories.  What kind of country opens its national anthem with the verse “Ukraine is not yet dead”?

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