Ukraine, Kyiv, December 6, 2014. Maidan, Revolution of Dignity. Image credit: Valeriya Anufriyeva / Shutterstock.com
“You speak Russian? What part of Russia are you from?” Since moving to the United States a decade ago, I have been asked these questions time and again.
At first, I was more than willing to explain that the Russian language had been spoken in all 15 republics that for decades were part of the Soviet Union. But as the years passed, I felt increasingly frustrated.
I was born in Ukraine when it was still part of the USSR. Like many children in the USSR, I was bilingual: I grew up speaking Ukrainian and Russian. My hometown, Cherkasy, where I was raised and educated, is located just a few hours away from Kyiv. It is known for being the birthplace of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet whose works were essential to the development of Ukrainian literature and identity.
In the United States, I would always mention Ukrainian and Russian when asked what languages I spoke, and always clarify that I was nevertheless a citizen of Ukraine, not Russia. When my nationality was clarified, I was often asked how different the Russian and Ukrainian languages are. Quite naturally, the two languages share a portion of similarities as they belong to the East Slavic group, but Ukrainian was always put in an inferior position—it was compared to Russian, not the other way around, as something less “interesting” and attractive and, of course, less known.
Even in the United States, I discovered, the language question was fraught and inextricably bound up in the question of Ukraine as a sovereign nation. This was not accidental. Due to the language decrees introduced by the Russian Empire to ban Ukrainian (the 1863 Valuev Circular and the 1876 Ems Ukase), the Russian Empire had deliberately constructed a false narrative about the Ukrainian language: not only was it “inferior” to the Russian language, but, in fact, it “did not exist.” According to the rhetoric of the Russian Empire, it was merely a “corrupt” version of Russian and Polish. This false narrative survived the collapse of the USSR and shaped the perception of Americans into the twenty-first century.
In 2008, when I first arrived in the United States, Ukraine had been independent for nearly 20 years. Yet in the minds of many people, it was still dominated by the presence of the country which was located right next door—the Russian Federation. Countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova were, by and large, considered cultural and linguistic satellites of Russia.
From my perspective, things slowly began to change five years later. In November 2013, the Maidan protests against President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union escalated into the Revolution of Dignity. Yanukovych, supported by Russia, commanded his forces to use weapons against the protesters. Today in Ukraine, the activists killed in the protests are commemorated as the Heavenly Hundred Heroes. Yanukovych fled the country and ended up in Russia.
Shortly after the Revolution of Dignity, Russia began its assault on Ukraine. Using the justification of an illegal referendum conducted at gunpoint, in March 2014 the Russian Federation occupied Crimea. In Russian rhetoric this was presented as the “reunification” of Russia and Crimea. Alongside these developments, Russia also supported financially and politically what later became two quasi-republics in the Donbas region, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
I was in Maine when the events of 2014 unfolded. After the Kremlin officially declared the illegal “reunification” of Crimea with Russia, I had the opportunity of attending a discussion that was meant to shed light on what was taking place in Ukraine and Russia. The discussion was lively, the main focus being the political tactics and ambitions of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
A few hours of the discussion flew by quickly and, as the convention approached the end, one of the organizers again was asked a question about the Russian actions in occupying Crimea. The speaker, a specialist on Russia, quite unambiguously concluded that Crimea is and was Russian, but Russia should have applied less brazen actions to “take it back.”
The same year, I had another opportunity to participate in another discussion of the “Russo-Ukrainian crisis.” A high-profile speaker used the leitmotif that if you “poke the bear” it will respond sooner or later. An eloquent image depicting a bear—a symbol of Russia—was shown to entertain the audience. Ukraine was barely mentioned.
When I stood up to ask the speaker to elaborate on the political context of what was developing not in Russia but first of all in Ukraine, my inquiry was brushed off: “I hope your country someday will also get to its feet just like you did right now.”
On February 24, 2022, Russian aggression against Ukraine entered a brutal new phase. In his notorious article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Vladimir Putin reinforced the false narrative about Ukrainians and Russians being “one people,” denying the Ukrainians’ right to exist as an independent nation with its language and culture distinct from Russian. In response, many Russian speakers switched to Ukrainian or started learning Ukrainian, a political statement that defied Putin’s false narrative and resisted Russia’s attempt to occupy and then annex Ukraine.
For many in Ukraine, the war is not simply about the territory: it is about freedom and democracy, about the memory of identity eradication perpetrated by Russia, and about remembering Ukraine as distinct from Russia. The Kremlin propaganda claims that Ukraine is not a real state, but a “creation” of Lenin, of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, fight for their right to be and to exist and have their right to be different and distinct from the Russians.
Since 2014, I have been teaching in university programs on Slavic cultures, usually teaching Russian language courses. Most of these programs have long focused on Russian literature and language. I am sure, in time, this will change and audiences will appreciate the voice of Ukraine. At the moment, I only hope my classes can be a small and humble contribution to opening a different, non-Russocentric perspective not just on Russia and the Russian language, but on Ukraine and the Ukrainian language.
These days, I sometimes wear a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian awareness ribbon as a reminder of the terrifying genocidal atrocities which are being committed daily by Russian troops in Ukraine.
Ukraine has always had a language of its own; and since its declaration of independence in 1991, Ukrainian people have had a sovereign state of their own.
The voice of Ukraine is the voice of resistance against the unjust, unprovoked, and genocidal war initiated by Russia. It is also the voice of Ukraine’s national bard, Taras Shevchenko:
When I am dead, bury me—Taras Shevchenko, “Testament” (1845)
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes … then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields—
I’ll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I’ll pray … But till that day
I nothing know of God.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.
Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is currently a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University. Her research interests include contested memory with a focus on Ukraine and Russia.