LETTER FROM KYIV: American Expat Says Russians Aren’t Baby Killers—But Ukrainian Nationalism Is Here To Stay
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When I came to Ukraine in 2007, which language to learn seemed like a simple choice. I read that most Ukrainians were bilingual in Russian and Ukrainian. Russian is a world language, spoken natively by 200 million people more or less, and as a second language throughout the former Soviet Union. It is a language of science and literature. They say there are three language clines in Ukraine: west to east, country to city, and poor to rich. They say that Russian was the dominant language in 10 of the 11 largest cities in Ukraine. Kyiv is the richest city, in the center. Russian seemed like the logical choice.

I had used Pimsleur to learn Portuguese and was very satisfied. I bought the Pimsleur Russian language tapes and started to listen to them in my car six months before coming to Kyiv. I don't think there is anything comparable for Ukrainian.

In my first two years I visited Sevastopol, Simferopol, Donetsk, Mariupol, Berdyansk, Odessa and Kharkiv, where Russian was the only language I heard. In the cities more to the west it was certainly understood. Russian got me by everywhere I went except Lviv, in the far west.

One of my frustrations with Russian was that there do not seem to be any good dictionaries. Although several people have tried to convince me otherwise, I have not found anything on a par with the German Duden, the French Larousse, or even Larousse's Spanish dictionary. My Oxford Russian-English dictionary is better than any plain Russian dictionary. The situation is even worse with Ukrainian. I have two dual language dictionaries, both terrible, and yet better than anything I have seen in the way of a pure Ukrainian dictionary. If I were choosing a language on the basis of its utility and the quality of the support tools, Russian would be the better of bad options.

There was a small but noisy minority in Kyiv who were adamant that Ukraine should be the language of the country. This was especially true of members of the Ukrainian diaspora returning from Canada and the U.S., where they had never had to learn Russian. They identified the Russian language with the Communists that they or their parents had fled, and did not want to go out of their way to learn the language of the oppressor.

There is a patriotically themed restaurant on the town square in Lviv. To get in you have to give a secret passcode in Ukrainian. Once in they give you a free shot of medavuka, the Ukrainian honey liqueur. Although on the surface it is all in fun, I did not doubt for a minute that these ardent patriots passionately disliked the idea of speaking Russian.

I lived in the very center of Kyiv from 2008 to 2012, across the street from a restaurant called Kupidon. It was also owned by a staunch patriot and featured a very Ukrainian menu. I had asked the owner Fyodya if our Toastmasters club could meet there. We did for a year, until one of the club newcomers one day said after a meeting, very loudly in Russian, that we should get together at another restaurant upstairs for lunch. We got disinvited and had to find a new meeting place.

Language has played an unfortunate part in Ukrainian politics. Victor Yushchenko, elected in 2004 with strong support from the U.S., enacted language laws prejudicial to the Russian speakers. Viktor Yanukovych, a Donetsk native with all the subtlety of a brick, elected President in 2010, turned things totally around with pro-Russian language policies, frightening the Ukrainian-speakers in the west. The language question was very much a factor in the Maidan uprisings of 2014.

The Donetsk and Luhansk secessionist republics are overwhelmingly Russian-speaking. But, significantly, they also have quite different histories than Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking Ukraine: depopulated under Muslim rule, they were shaped by immigration from Russia proper after the eighteenth century conquests, whereas west and central Ukraine were more influenced by Polish and German rule.

I was as socially active as I could be from 2007 to 2009, making friends and looking for a wife in this new city [Kyiv]. I spent a year as a volunteer on the staff of the All-Ukrainian Association of Pensioners, which aspired to emulate the success of AARP. We spoke Russian in the office. Though we never articulated the quid pro quo, the deal was that I offered my computer skills for free, and they provided Russian conversation to bring me up to speed.

Teaching English was another useful device for meeting women. I never had trouble using Russian to explain the English vocabulary and concepts. Whether the students spoke Ukrainian or Russian among themselves didn't matter. They all understood my Russian and were not offended that I did not choose Ukrainian.

I gradually came to recognize that the two languages are not all that similar, despite the fact that everybody seemed to speak both. (At least in the cities—Wikipedia suggests that, overall, only about a quarter of Ukrainians are bilingual in Russian and Ukrainian.)  A trip to Poland a couple of years later convinced me that, although their alphabets are respectively Roman and Cyrillic, spoken Polish is at least as close to spoken Ukrainian as Ukrainian is to Russian. Whereas Russian may have quite a few Western loanwords such as computer, the French trottoir for sidewalk and the German Schlagbaum for a railroad crossing barrier, it is clear that these words did not evolve with the language but were adopted into it.

On the other hand, Western cognates in Ukrainian such as tsebolya for onion, farb for color and malyar for artist appear to have developed naturally from Indo-European root words. Ukrainian appears to occupy a position in the spectrum of European languages closer to Polish on the west than Russian on the east. And it is structurally different. The Ukrainian and Russian alphabets, while both Cyrillic, have more subtle differences than, say, French and German. Additionally, Russian and Ukrainian use different language cases and conjugation structures.

Russia and Ukraine are indeed two different countries and two different peoples, with two different histories. But like every pair of neighboring countries, there is overlap. The German border town I lived in 50 years ago had two names, both meaning two bridges: Zweibrücken and Deux Ponts. People on both sides of the border natively spoke the same God-awful dialect of German. The French, because they learned it almost as a second language in school, spoke a purer version of their native language than did the Germans.

I had been able to use my understanding of Spanish as a basis for teaching myself Portuguese through Pimsleur. Although the pronunciation of the languages is fairly different, the structure and vocabularies are similar. But despite my knowledge of Russian, I have been struggling to learn Ukrainian. The languages are different. It is only out of ignorance that Vladimir Putin makes his claim that Ukrainian is merely a dialect of Russian. Whereas Ukrainians have been compelled to learn Russian, the converse has not been true.

Ukraine's situation is somewhat comparable to that of the Irish. The Irish speak English because they have to. The English don't speak Irish because they have no need for it. But the Irish are no less Irish for speaking what was once a foreign language. The difference in Ukraine is that a significant majority of the country's 40 million people, about two-thirds, speak their own language; only one-third speak Russian. In contrast, less than two percent of the Irish use Irish daily. Thus Ukrainian has a sufficient critical mass of speakers, literature, press and television to be viable. My view: however this war turns out, the Ukrainian language—and Ukrainian nationalism—is bound to benefit.

People here feel distinctly Ukrainian whatever language they speak at home. My wife Oksana's parents grew up speaking Ukrainian around the house. Her father grew up in Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East when his father was stationed there. Dad of course spoke Russian in school. Oksana also went through school and university speaking Russian.

Because I didn't speak Ukrainian, we talked to our son Eddie in Russian for the first three years of his life. After the events of 2014 we decided to switch to Ukrainian. Eddie would need it in school, and I would learn it as need be. That's where we stand now. The three children speak Ukrainian with their mother and their grandparents.

Except when there are people present who don't know it, I speak to the children in English. It is the true World Language, and they will benefit from growing up with a native speaker. I'm getting moderately good at reading four-year-old Zoriana bedtime stories in Ukrainian. We have about an equal understanding of the vocabulary, although her pronunciation is better than mine. She is not bashful about correcting me, nor I in expressing my gratitude.

We have quite a few children's books in Russian. Zoriana asks that I read them to her in English, which I do. Incidentally, I do the same for the smattering of French and German children's books around the house. The fact that I translate on the fly means that they never hear exactly the same story twice. It makes it fun.

My wife cautions me not to try to learn Ukrainian from her mother, who speaks what is called Surzhik—a mixture of the two languages. Even my wife will often know a word in one language and not the other and simply go with what she knows.

This war of 2022 is completing the process of defining the Ukrainian nation that began in 2014. The patriotism, the spirit of this place is remarkable to be around. It has taken the hatred of a common enemy, the Russians, to make us realize that we are indeed one people. It is reminiscent of the feeling in the America of my childhood, only stronger for being more immediate. In the 1940s the United States had a singleness of purpose in defeating the Axis and the Japanese. Its 1950s unity in confronting the threats of Soviet Russia and Communist China was similar. The very few dissenters were definitely on the fringe.

After ten years in my neighborhood of Russanovsky Sad outside Kyiv, which started its existence as a close-in collection of 3000 summer houses for privileged Soviets, I had gotten to know most of the neighbors. The fact that we did not bug out in this time of trial, but have chosen to stay, certainly raises my standing among them.

My decision not to leave the country was indeed a vote of confidence in the Ukrainians. Even if the Russians have defeated the Ukrainian army, which initially seemed quite possible, I was sure that Russian soldiers would not be welcome in out-of-the-way neighborhoods such as ours. I also reasoned that the Russians would not place a high priority on occupying a collection of summer houses with no through roads and nothing of strategic or military importance. They could never have enough troops available to do so.

The other consideration was that they would simply not see three septuagenarians, three children and a distraught mother as much of a threat. Even if they came, they would probably leave us alone. Although the Russians certainly have committed some atrocities during this war, there are also many videos of Russians patiently tolerating verbal abuse from the civilians in towns they have captured. They are not all heartless baby killers.

Language is a tool for communication, not a museum piece or a political instrument. People will speak what they will. From this point on, however, I am quite sure that there will be a strong impetus to speak Ukrainian. We are two separate peoples, and insistence on our own language will strongly reinforce that point

Personally, I think the solution is territorial readjustment and guarantees about neutrality and language status. But my household does not agree. And I wonder if the U.S. State Department, whose behavior throughout has been bizarre, would permit it.

Graham Seibert (email him) lives in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. His website is here; he now has a Substack here.


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