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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #33

It is important to classify the war in Ukraine as an unlawful Russian invasion, not as a conflict between two groups of Ukrainians. Although there have been political differences between Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian as their first language in the past and those who speak Russian as a first language, in free Ukraine at least most of those differences have evaporated due to the sense of common unity that wartime resistance to Russia has engendered. That is why I do not classify the war in Ukraine as an ethno-nationalist conflict, but as a more straightforward case of a larger country invading her smaller neighbour with imperialist ambitions.

We would do well to remember this, because while Ukraine has only one official language at the state level - Ukrainian, the constitution guarantees the free development, use and protection of the Russian language, and on occasion people start to use this dichotomy as a weapon in an imagined cultural conflict that does not exist and certainly should not be catalysed. On two occasions recently, I have found myself the subject of linguistic correction along frankly ethno-nationalist lines and I did not like it one bit. On one occasion, I had spelled the southwestern city of Odessa with two s’s, and it was corrected by a person to spelling with one s. On another occasion someone corrected my spelling of the northeastern city of Kharkiv to Kharkov. The point is this: the spelling of Odessa (as opposed to Odesa) is associated with transliteration of the Russian, whereas Odesa is associated with the transliteration of the Ukrainian. Likewise, Kharkiv is associated with the transliteration of the Ukrainian, whereas Kharkov is associated with the transliteration of the Russian.

In correcting my spellings - in one case “correcting” me from Russian to Ukrainian, and in the other case “correcting” me in the other direction, I fear that my interlocutors were trying to make obscure political points. However this sort of thing grates with foreigners, who are present in Ukraine to support all Ukrainians irrespective of their first language. At least that is the imperative under which I am acting. I support the Government in Kyiv / Kiev, and it does not matter how one spells the capital - at least, not for me. I don’t think it should matter for Ukrainians either.

Ukrainians are rightly aggrieved by the egregious actions of the Russian government in their wanton and callous invasion of their country and the heartless attacks upon Ukrainian civilians and culture that have characterised the Russian Armed Forces’ military policy. Nevertheless it would be a grave mistake, in my view, to try to compel almost half of the population of Ukraine whose native language is Russian to stop speaking that language and instead to speak only Ukrainian. Unless and until there is a constitutional change to eliminate the use of Russian, substantially supported by a countrywide consensus, attitudes of political tolerance should prevail.

Ukraine has had a tragic history. In the course of World War II, some 25% of her population perished; during the Holodmor, a wholly unnecessary famine in 1932-33 under Stalinist rule, millions more perished. As a result of these mass deaths, parts of Ukraine, particularly in the east and southeast, were repopulated by ethnic Russians, and that is why it is estimated that something like 30% of the population of Ukraine speaks Russian as a first language today (although accurate estimates in wartime are very hard to come by). It might be superficially easy to blame the Russian speakers in Ukraine for the Russian invasion; but this would of course be wholly bogus and, as I have seen first-hand, it is Russian-speaking Ukrainian civilians who have born the brunt of civilian suffering on the front line which mostly passes through Russian-speaking areas.

Although undoubtedly there are bad apples, these Russian speakers are every bit as much Ukrainian patriots, despising the Russian invasion, as are the Ukrainian speakers. Irrespective of the country’s often sad and mottled history of different peoples occupying the same region, it is my experience that Ukrainians now, for the most part, are united in their distaste for Russian occupation and appalled by the methods being used by the Russian Armed Forces who they despise.

Therefore we should not adopt language as a weapon of war. Ukrainian people, united in common suffering and in resistance to Russian occupation, should not condemn one-another for the language that they speak. It is probably desirable, in the long run, that Ukrainian continues to be the sole official language of Ukraine; it is probably desirable, in the interests of national harmony, particularly after the war, that Russian speakers learn ever more to embrace the Ukrainian language whereas they may not have done so previously in certain parts of the east and the south. Nonetheless Ukraine remains a polyglot country, even during the horrors of war. She has always been a country with more than one language but now increasingly Ukraine has a single culture and a single sense of national identity. That dramatic positive development - one of the few beneficial things to emerge from the war - should not be dented by disputes over language. There is nothing wrong with either spelling of Odessa or Kharkiv, both of which traditionally have been Russian speaking cities, and it is not attractive to enter into disputes with foreign visitors seeking to help the Ukrainian people about questions of transliteration.

I have seen this before. At the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that country’s new constitution asserted that there were three official languages: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Each of these languages was very similar to the other and they were just derivations from the pre-war common language of Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croat. Each language was subtly different in a few words and Serbian became habitually written in the Cyrillic alphabet (whereas Serbian is often not written in the Cyrillic alphabet in Serbia itself). Linguistic differences were used to create gulfs in the political imagination, and to create partitions between people where none really exist - or none ought to.

Ukraine aspires to become a Western European country, and to leave behind the yoke of Russian political oppression and Soviet-era paranoia in favour of Euro-Atlantic democratic institutions. One of the consequences of pursuing this course - and Ukraine has already achieved great strides in pursuing European values - is to acknowledge and make political space for cultural and linguistic diversity. Tolerance and plurality will be essential values in post-war Ukraine. We had best start inculcating them now.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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