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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #373

I had rather a dull and unwelcoming return to Lviv after bumping and grinding my way back on the overnight train to Odessa, only to be unceremoniously dumped out onto the railway platform at 6.15am and amidst the usual throng of taxi drivers shouting in Russian and other such unpleasantnesses. It was cold and damp and my new friend, NSK, had to part ways after sharing such a panoply of experiences over the last few days. I felt glad to be back but the grim early March weather was putting me in a bad mood and I’m not left with the same sting of excitement that typically bewitches me every time I return to the frozen Saigon. I kissed NSK goodbye and took my tumbling tram with my gigantic rucksack full of mostly unused body armour back into the Old Town, where my good friend who had I had loaned my apartment to for the week or so while I was away greeted me in a cheerful military manner even though it was barely 7 O’Clock in the morning and I felt like death. He had tidied up for me while I was away which was particularly generous of him, and wants to hear tonight all about my crazy adventures while away which I will regale him with tonight in Mano’s Bar.

I took some sleep and slogged into work in my military kitchen, thinking primarily of all these crazy adventures in Odessa with NSK who I realise is quite mad but in a beautiful and generous way. Her behaviour occasionally veers outside the scope of what is normal and I want to keep an eye on her so that she doesn’t go completely off the rails. I think she knows these things about herself anyway, and she’s grateful for the support she receives from me. We are meeting again for some music on Friday evening - I have encouraged her to enjoy classical music I think by exposing her relentlessly to it in Odessa - and then I can have a talk with her again about all the complications she creates for herself in her life.

The kitchen itself was packed with people and we were supposed to be working on red onions which was a thankless task because they were 70 per cent of them rotten. So I squished and squashed my way through all of these rotten vegetables in search of some that the soldiers could actually eat. I think we may need more refrigeration facilities but I’m not quite sure what’s required. These vegetables were virtually inedible so it was mostly a job just of throwing them out. Then my place at the chopping table was taken by a small old lady and I realised I could hardly stand up with the fatigue. A night of going bump with all these rattling trains, even in first class, knocks the hell out of the hardiest of us.

Anyway I took my leave from the old lady who barged me out of the way and I headed into town to “America House”, an initiative of the US Government that has apparently been in town for a while but nobody knew anything about it. It’s a sort of free space for NGO’s and individuals and it can be used to host meetings, conferences, talks, print t-shirts and read books in English about Ukraine. Today they were handing out “F@CK PUTIN” bumper stickers and I took a couple, and there was an interesting talk about the history of the Ukrainian language and its suppression by a well-known Ukrainian language teacher here in town. However I asked her two political questions. The first was to ask her for her opinion of the fact that the Russian language has been enshrined as a national minority language in the Ukrainian constitution of 1996. Did she think that should continue? The second was to ask what she thought the effect of President Zelenskiy’s decree that all Ukrainian civil servants should learn English. Would this effectively make English a second language?

She dodged both questions; Ukrainians still hate being asked political questions in public, something that is probably a legacy of the Soviet era, and so she hesitated and blustered. As to the first question, she distinguished the question of whether people have a right to speak Russian in Ukraine, and the question of whether they have a right to be taught Russian in Ukrainian schools or to use Russian in Ukrainian public institutions. This is of course a false dichotomy, often drawn by people who want to give negative answers to the latter types of question by proposing something else that such a constitutional provision might mean. In a western liberal democracy, which Ukraine aspires to become, everyone has the right to use any language in a public or private setting and the law has no role criminalising the use of any language. Just because the Russian Empire and latterly the Soviet Union had laws (or, better, practices) criminalising the use of Ukrainian does not mean that modern Ukraine has any business criminalising the use of Russian (or any other language). No country in the modern western world criminalises the use of languages and you don’t need a constitutional provision to protect that. It’s already protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and similar international constitutional documents.

The right to use Russian as a minority language obviously means something more, and Ukrainians in Lviv, who would like to see the end of the Russian language because they feel it represents the policy of their oppressors. While this may be understandable from an empathic point of view, the constitutional right to use Russian as a minority language must grant it quasi-official status within Ukrainian public institutions or the right is entirely empty. This is the sort of constitutional protection for minorities that Ukraine must inevitably embrace if she is to join the European Union, war or no war.

As to the second question, should English become an unofficial second language of Ukraine, the answer is undoubtedly yes, as it has done throughout Eastern Europe, because Europeans in the European Union need to be able to communicate in a common language and this language is English. This isn’t colonial oppression of the kind the Russians engaged in; it’s mere fact, because Ukraine’s future has European aspirations that are in their very nature internationalist.


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