Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of Good Citizens Need Not Fear, a novel-in-stories set in an apartment building in Ukraine.
In a televised address on Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin deemed Ukraine as “wholly and fully created by Russia.” That week Russian state TV had been running maps showing Ukraine as a patchwork of territories “gifted” from Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and the Russian czars. The conclusion to be drawn: Ukraine has never existed, and never will. Of course, this rhetoric is untrue – Ukrainian culture and language date back to the Middle Ages, to Kyivan Rus’ – but it isn’t entirely surprising. Russian erasure of Ukraine began long ago, with the (attempted) suppression of its language. For example, when Bolshevik forces seized control of Ukraine in 1918, they executed nationalists in eastern and central Ukraine, shot locals for carrying Ukrainian-written documents. This is a typical occupying tactic. Take away a people’s language, and you thwart their power to organize in secret, to rebel.
As a result I grew up speaking Russian. It’s a Ukrainian version of Russian, with its own accent and idioms, and speaking it doesn’t automatically signify affiliation to Russia. Nevertheless, I used to be proud to speak this language. I’d absorbed it as the more “sophisticated,” “intellectual” language. When I immigrated to Canada as a child, it was my lifeline to family back in Ukraine, to my childhood summers at my grandparents’ swampy dacha. I’d also been charmed by the convenience of getting by in Russian when travelling to other former Eastern bloc countries. A lingua franca – how efficient, right? One language to unite all.
I remember watching Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s 2020 New Year’s address. I stared emptily at my laptop screen, my comprehension dimming in and out. Ukrainian and Russian share Proto-Slavic origins, some grammatic structure and most of the Cyrillic alphabet, but the languages are distinct. The two languages are about as similar as English and Dutch. (English and Dutch share a lexical similarity of 63 per cent, while Russian and Ukrainian share 62 per cent.)
Out of morbid curiosity, I switched to Mr. Putin’s own New Year’s address. Stone-faced as ever, he evoked Russia’s past military glory. The speech sounded more like a warning than well wishes, yet I couldn’t help smiling at his words, how seamlessly they entered my mind and found their place. I could feel their shapes in my own mouth, familiar as childhood candy. I’d never stepped foot on Russian soil but, with queasy recognition, I knew what he wanted me and millions of other Russian speakers across the globe to feel: the call of home.
Now I watch Ukraine, my first home, being bombed. I watch from New Westminster, B.C., where the crocuses are in full bloom, as Russian military forces close in on my relatives in Kyiv and Kherson. My cousin tells me that the bridge we used to cross to our family dacha is strewn with soldiers’ mangled bodies. When I try to go to sleep, I wonder if those I love will survive the night – or day, for them. All this destruction, under the guise of “protecting” Russian-speaking Ukrainians from their own supposedly Nazi government. Such is the power of linguistic imperialism: a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, its influence still transcends borders, ever ready to lay claim on those who speak its tongue.
Last week, when our friends in Kyiv responded to my sister’s frantic texts, saying that they were about to hide out in a neighbour’s basement, it was the first time they spoke to us in Ukrainian. A few other friends in Ukraine and Canada had already begun making the switch after Mr. Putin’s “little green men” occupied the Crimea in 2014. I came to Canada at the age of seven, and the scant Ukrainian I’d been able to absorb back home has faded away. At last, at 32, I am pushing myself to (re)learn the language, too. The Duolingo owl hunts me day and night, pinging my phone when I lose momentum. I can now say, “This is a cat, not an aunt.” At least, it’s a start.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on another imperialist language I speak – that even more widely spread lingua franca: English. I think of that pang of discomfort we settlers might feel, in the land now known as Canada, when we see Indigenous place names restored. Unfamiliar words stare back at us from road signs, making us feel the foreigners, reminding us we didn’t get here first. We may not admit it aloud, or even to ourselves, but do we feel threatened, inept? Does it hurt to lose that little bit of power?
In Odesa, a majority Russian speaking city, local news reports that residents are deliberately switching to Ukrainian to identify and confuse Russian saboteurs. Kyiv authorities have also called on residents to keep speaking (or switch to) Ukrainian in the streets. The language has become not only a symbol of solidarity, but a weapon against Russian invaders.
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