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Language and Patriotism in Ukraine

Language and Patriotism in Ukraine

Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalists arrive at their beliefs despite their environment not because of it.

How can you be a Ukrainian patriot, praise the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), insist on the complete separation and independence from Russia and still speak Russian? This is hypocrisy!

– 78

– What is 78?

– 78% of Irish people speak English but that does not prevent them from blowing up British armored vehicles.

This is a fairly old joke, and one somewhat lacking in humor. However, it contains a small inaccuracy. In reality, 94% of the Irish use English while only 1.5 million out of 4.5 million (around 33%) still have some command of Irish. According to official figures of the Irish government, of that segment only 300,000 (6%) use Irish in daily life. However, many Irish experts consider even that number overly optimistic and estimate that the actual number of speakers of the ancient Celtic language who use it in everyday communication is about 65,000.

At times one can admit the situation in Ukraine is much better. However there are similarities.

“We will never be brothers. We do not share a homeland or a mother,” recites the Kyiv native Anastasiya Dmytruk whose poetic appeal to Russians took the Internet by storm. The young woman is Russian-speaking, and her poem is in Russian. However, despite possible stereotypes, the use of the Russian language in daily life has never signified belonging to a “fifth column” in Ukraine. And it absolutely has not precluded patriotism. The reason why some Ukrainian patriots are Russian-speaking and continue to use Russian — today without any doubt the language of the occupier — are quite varied. They have to do with regional differences, with habit, and even with a relaxed attitude toward one’s own choice.

Some of the Russian speakers are embarrassed by their own inability to adopt Ukrainian once and for all. Some, on the contrary, emphasize their use of Russian and, to a certain extent, take pride in it. They are convinced they have arrived at their Ukrainian nationalism not because of, but in spite of, their environment. And that is why they are even more conscious of it, and perhaps more hardened. Still, even these people admit their children will speak Ukrainian. And many view their own use of Russian as more transitional.

Away with the gang

Serhiy Zamilyukhin is one of the leaders of the Kyiv branch of the RUN organization–“Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalists.”

“We were not invented on the fly,” he laughs. “Regardless of whether RUN exists or if I do, this phenomenon exists — the Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalists. Whether we like it or not. Did you see this legendary grandfather who stood on Maidan with the sign “I’m a Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalist. Out with the gang!”? One day I went up to this elderly man and asked him: ‘how come you’re calling yourself that? Did you suddenly read about us on the Internet?’ No, he said he hadn’t read anything. This was simply the way he identified himself.”

Zamilyukhin notes that a lot has been written about them. One of the first articles on the theme of Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalism that came out back in 2008 simply “exploded” on the Internet. “It was very popular. Even based on the discussions of this material on the national blogs, it became evident that there are many people like that in Ukraine. Some of them, possibly, just by reading the article reached a new self-awareness of who they are. What is ‘this strange feeling’ called?” he asks.

Back to the basics

Is “this strange felling” a sufficient reason to unite under the banner of language, as does RUN, rather than under some symbol signifying support for this or another of the nationalistic political forces? Language is not really the unifying symbol here. Rather, it serves as the means to arrive at nationalism, Zamilyukhin believes. “We have people who have already transitioned to the Ukrainian language, but they still remain RUN members because that’s how they arrive at nationalism. They do so not because of their environment and not with their mother’s milk, but through awareness, by acquiring certain information that changes their entire world,” he says.

Serhiy Zamilyukhin admits that for him personally everything began with the research of Volodymyr Bilinsky in his book The Country of MokselMuscovy1. “Many people do not trust this source, especially in Russian. But the author lays everything out very logically, step by step. This person did a colossal work,” he says. “Actually, in my experience, 80% of people come to the realization they are Russian-speaking nationalists when they become aware that the history they were taught before — the Soviet version, the Russian version — is more myth than history.”

People arrive at this point despite the reality of the environment in which most still live, he says. “It’s like a flower that tries to break through asphalt. The nationalists in the South, the nationalists in the East, I can’t say, of course, that they are ‘stronger’ nationalists. But their views are set for the rest of their lives. They will never change. And the issue is not allegiance to some political party. Even the Russian language for a Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalist is not a determining factor. We are convinced that the Russian language for a Ukrainian nationalist is a temporary phenomenon, unless they simply cannot make the transition. And then, at a minimum, their children will be Ukrainian-speaking because we simply need to return the nation to its roots. We have to repair what outside forces did to our nation,” he says.

“I think that every year patriotism and even nationalism in the East will grow. We have already seen it after Putin’s attempts to enter Crimea and the events in the East. Putin is creating a real “banderization” (growth of nationalism ed.) in the regions. Each year this tendency will grow.”

He believes that under current circumstances it will be the Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalists who sooner or later will become the force that unites Ukraine. “Even the definition contains a unifying element within itself. Russian-speaking? It’s accepted for the South and East. Nationalist? It’s accepted, in our opinion, for the West of the country. Here already is a definite symbol of unification.”

But who will wipe the stars?

Myroslav, Kyiv

“My parents speak Ukrainian at home. I speak Ukrainian with them. But for historical reasons it happened that “in society” I speak Russian, even with Ukrainian-speaking friends. I went to a Russian school. I’m actually very embarrassed to speak Russian. I’ve even tried to transfer to Ukrainian completely. But somehow I come back to Russian almost automatically. It’s the “surroundings.”

Yuriy Prokopenko, Odesa

“If people around you speak Russian and understand Ukrainian very poorly, what’s the problem? Why not speak Russian? I grew up and live in a Russian-speaking environment. This is why I mostly speak Russian.”

“Should I speak Ukrainian as a matter of principle? But what is the principle? I suppose you could speak Ukrainian to English-speaking people on principle assuming they will understand you or learn your language. But, as experience shows, you must simply adjust to reality. I don’t see a problem here at all. I have no desire to create a problem with the language of communication.”

Dmytro Riznychenko, Kyiv (hometown, Kryvyy Rih)

“All my life I’ve spoken Russian. I was a Russian-speaking blogger. I converted to Ukrainian in 2012 when the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov language law2 was passed. Everything is very simple. As the hedgehog in the fog3 said ‘If I don’t wipe the stars, if the bear doesn’t wipe the stars, then who will wipe the stars?'”

If we don’t write and speak Ukrainian, then who will renew the language?


1 Popular 3-volume history of Russia that challenges many theories of Soviet and Russian historians on the origins of the country.

2 Controversial law passed in July 2012 granting Russian the status of a regional language, approving its use in courts, schools, and other government institutions in areas of Ukraine where the Russian minority exceeds 10%.

3 From the popular 1976 animated film “The hedgehog in the fog.” The hedgehog and his friend, the bear, keep watch over the stars.

Original Ukrainian:

By Valeriya Burlakova, The Ukrainian Week, April 22, 2014

Translated and edited by Anna Mostovych



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