Ready for the understatement of the last five years? Russia and Ukraine have been going through a bit of a rough patch. As a Russophile, you might have complicated feelings on the issue. Yet the reality is that you can be a good mutual friend of both Russia and Ukraine.
During my academic year in Russia, when I told locals that I was planning to spend both my winter and summer breaks in Ukraine I always got the same reaction. “That’s lovely,” these Russians would say, frequently with a wistful and slightly sad “I’ve always wanted to go see Kyiv.” (Although there is still no visa requirement for Russians to go to Ukraine, border guards can demand to see things like money, fingers, and a person who is not a male aged 18-60).
Then, their expression would turn serious. “Be careful, don’t speak Russian there, though. Speak English.”
This is ludicrous, according to any Ukrainian you ask, such as, for instance, the Ukrainian President, who recently introduced the new governor of Donetsk Oblast in Russian: “In recent years there has been a lot of talk: they say that in Donbass it’s forbidden to speak Russian, Russian is being crowded out. They even say that it is necessary to ride tanks in order to defend everyone. If you aren’t opposed to it, I will continue in Russian.”
Speaking of President Voldymyr Zelensky, if you need further convincing that one’s stance on Russia has nothing to do with the Russian language, you can use/improve your Russian language skills to watch his comedy Servant of the People (which became the name of his political party), about a character played by him becoming President.
Of course it doesn’t hurt to learn a little bit of Ukrainian. You can start with the toast “Слава Україні!” (“Glory to Ukraine”), to which the proper response is “Слава героям!” (“Glory to the heroes,” pronounced heroyam rather than geroyam).
However, if you’re a russophone, avoiding Russian in Ukraine will only create tension where there was none, because it plays into the Kremlin-backed narratives about the alleged need to defend Russian speakers. (And what does that even mean, really? Most Ukrainians I know are not just bilingual, but mix languages in the same conversation.)
Storytellers in villages of the Russian Far North, so remote you can only get to them by boat in the summer, know every one of Kyiv’s hills. My folklore professor, St. Petersburg State University scholar Inna Veselova, has observed on her research trips that standard word combinations referring to Kyiv’s geography have been passed down via traditional oral epic poems, despite hundreds of years of isolation.
Russian civilization was born in Ukraine. A Russophile will admire Kyiv’s ancient churches and the slavic-spirted villages alike. However, if you want to be a mutual friend of Ukraine, be careful to not believe the inverse: Ukrainian civilization did not get swallowed up and die in Russia.
Ancient Rus, for starters, wasn’t as united as the textbooks make it out to be. Kyiv was always a separate city-state, just like Novgorod and Vladimir; each had a distinct political structure and culture, and frequently fought with each other. The Mongols united Rus, sort of, except Kyiv left the party early, in 1362, to join Lithuania and Poland. For hundreds of years, Ukraine was ruled by its neighbors to the west, not the east. Kyiv was reannexed to the Russian empire in 1667 – but without anything further West attached for a while – and its autonomy was only fully abolished in 1775. When the 1917 revolution broke out, so did a long-festering independence movement; it was far from clear for several years that Ukraine would be ruled by Moscow.
It is tempting to believe in a grand narrative, a civilization that travels from Kyiv to Vladimir to Moscow to St. Petersburg to Moscow again. However, history’s plotlines are not as linear as the epics of the oral poets of the Far North.
Two things you might not know were Ukrainian: your favorite “Russian” beet soup, borshch, and the famous “Russian” writer, Nikolai Gogol. (And there are plenty of artists and leading cultural lights born in Ukraine that are normally thought of simply as Russians, like Prokofiev, Aivazovsky, Horowitz and Oistrakh, etc.)
Cultural exchange is wonderful. It is comforting for a Russophile to see similarities between the cultures of Russia and Ukraine (keep in mind that neither culture is singular: Russia also includes Siberian Tatars and Ukraine also includes Crimean Tatars). It is intellectually interesting to sniff out differences, and exciting to uncover surprising origin stories.
As a mutual friend of Russia and Ukraine, your job is to attach as much political significance to it as you do to the fact that “our” beloved Christmas song, “Carol of the Bells,” is also Ukrainian.
So, relax. It’s okay, even wonderful, to be a Russophile and also love Ukraine. But first and foremost, be yourself. English speakers, the West, and everyone can appreciate Ukraine directly, and not just through the lens of Russia. Be a true mutual friend, not just a friend of a friend.
The Poet of Laughter
Nabokov on Gogol
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