At this point I’m unable to tell if the Western media, particularly cable networks, but to some extent also newspapers , are simply irresponsible or actually asinine when it comes to representations of Ukraine and the current situation there. Sure, I have a unique and biased point of view: my wife is Ukrainian, and I get news via social media from friends and family. I’m clearly on the side of Ukraine in this conflict, just as the rest of the civilized world should be. That aside, a lot of the stuff I see in the media is just mind boggling.
Let’s start with this one: What the fuck is a “Russian speaking” person? What sort of rights and protections should this person get?
I speak some Russian. Not enough to lecture on Stalin’s pubes but certainly enough to have a broken and strained conversation over breakfast. While I feel like a five year old when I try to read Russian, I can kinda do it, especially if I have a good dictionary or a smart phone with a translation ap. As a language teacher, I’ve often told my ESL students that they should not think of language as a machine that’s “finished” when all the parts are put together and the key is inserted. Instead, they should think of themselves as “already speaking” when they can say “What color is my dormitory? Let me tell you. It is green.”
So, to get to it. Какого цвета моя общежитие? Позвольте мне рассказать вам. Это зеленый. There it is. I fucking did it. Putin, send the fucking unmarked commandoes to defend me. I’m oppressed.
English speakers, especially Americans, have trouble understanding that multilingualism is standard fare in so many parts of the world. So prepare for this shocker: THE VAST MAJORITY OF UKRAINIANS ARE MULTILINGUAL, AND ALMOST ALL OF THEM SPEAK RUSSIAN. My wife is from Kiev, the place where the revolution started, and she speaks Russian with her family. If you go to a kiosk in Kiev to buy a toothbrush, you will talk to the lady in Russian. Russian is spoken out in the open. It’s on the radio and television. It’s the fucking primary language of conversation in the Ukrainian capital.
In fact, most people over 30 living from Tallinn all the way down to Baku—that’s from the north end of the Baltic Sea to the Caspian—will speak Russian. All of my Lithuanian friends in Vilnius speak Russian, and damn well. There’s a very simple reason for this. Those places were occupied by Russia and forced to speak Russian; Russia moved people there in order to “Russify” the place. That’s what Russia does when it sends the commandoes. Things get “peaceful” really quickly.
Now, it’s true that Ukraine has a variety of cultural identities. It’s a multicultural country. But to say that the country is divided into “east vs west”, into “Russian speakers vs Ukrainian speakers” is to draw a picture so oversimplified to be profane. My father-in-law, whose primary language is Russian, has a friend whose primary language is Ukrainian. They often play cards together, eat stewed fish, smoke cigarettes and drink vodka. My father-in-law will address him in Russian and the friend will answer in Ukrainian. They will pay cards like this for hours, each speaking his language of preference. But they understand each other perfectly well and could switch to the other language on a dime if the whim came over.
I spent parts of several summers in Odessa, one of my favorite places in the world—I love the city so much that I would like to retire there. Odessa’s primary language is also Russian–in fact, Odessa has a special place in Russian consciousness, the topic of many folk songs, a place of romance, lore and mythology, not to mention the site of Eisenstein’s famous scene from Battleship Potemkin. On any given night, in any given cafe or bar, you are liable to meet people vacationing from Lviv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kiev or any other part of Ukraine. The vast majority speak both languages. I have witnessed it countless times: a woman will order food from a waiter in Ukrainian and hear the waiter give an explanation in Russian. No one will be offended or confused. It’s as normal as seeing taxis in New York.
The idea that people categorically want to join Russia, or to be invaded or annexed by Russia simply because they speak Russian is absolutely absurd. How they identify ethnically is another matter, but even that one is complex. What’s bothering me is that the Western media seems to be creating a Hollywood style narrative out of the situation: here are the “sides” that are “fighting” one another. Ukraine is a beautifully complex and nuanced culture. As in any place, they identify most strongly with the region they come from, not with what foreign forces might have gained influence over the place.
Currently, there are anti-Putin demonstrations taking place in “Russian speaking” Doneck. That news is unavailable in English. There are anti-Putin protests in Kherson. American media are also failing to report this. Most Russians themselves, according to this survey, are strongly opposed to Putin’s invasion. Time magazine’s Simon Shuster references similar numbers in this article, 4 Reasons Putin is Already Losing in Ukraine. The neat little divisions and “sides” people are considering fall apart under even the lightest scrutiny when you investigate the situation. Even an intern could do it.
Now, to be fair, there have been outstanding articles, especially in the New York Times. I recommend anyone interested in the situation read the following:
You should also follow The Euromaidan Journalist Collective on Facebook. They have many updates in English.
I’ll leave you with this photo from Donetsk. It represents, apparently, the world’s largest Ukrainian flag. The people holding it do not identify with their language. They identify with their culture, their history and their future, one they want to be able to determine for themselves.
Photo credit: The Euromaidan Journalist Collective