A Ukrainian Thesaurus in Russian

Photo 1
“East and West Together!” This photography project, popularized by hromadske.tv (an internet TV station) through its Facebook page, plays on common stereotypes: a girl in national dress represents the west of Ukraine, and a girl in working dress represents the east. Both, however, sport the colours of the country’s flag.


Much has been written about Ukraine lately, with commentators continuing to offer competing interpretations of the recent complex and gruelling events in this diverse and dynamic Eastern European country. Rather than recount the chronology of these events yet again, this piece discusses a new voice that has emerged within the country in response to its current realities, but has not yet received much international recognition. This manifold presence springs from a set of semantic changes to the thesaurus of the nation, which – over the course of several months – has expanded to encompass Russophone Ukrainians. In Ukraine’s new semantics, the Russian language has assumed an important position: at the forefront of the nation’s response to international discord.

This is not a role its carriers are used to. For years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russophone Ukrainians were regarded as ‘the other’ by some of the population of their own country,[i] particularly those who position themselves as the national intellectual elite. Likewise, some western commentators have consistently cast them as ‘something akin to the fifth column in Ukraine’.[ii] Now among the main players in the region’s political arena, Ukraine’s Russian-speakers are suddenly at the forefront of defining and voicing their country’s interaction with Russia – and they are doing so with an assertiveness quite unexpected by less perceptive observers. In the process, they shatter stereotype after stereotype: of Ukraine as a divided country; of equating language and geopolitical orientation; of a homogeneous Russophile ‘south-east’; and of a weak or non-existent national identity as a diagnostically usable concept, among others.[iii]

Across the border, in the Russian Federation, it has not been uncommon to describe Russian-speaking residents of nearby east Ukraine as ‘our own other’.[iv] And this view was mutual for quite a few east Ukrainians – until the moment troops entered their country in Crimea. In an intriguing turn of events, those closest to Russia – by virtue of language, culture, or both – now stood at the vanguard of formulating a response to its policies. Many of the Russophone voices that began to appear in mass media and on personal websites turned out to be fiercely protective of Ukraine’s independence.

As a reaction to – or perhaps as a part of – these profound changes to the nation’s sense of itself, as well as to the voices rising on its behalf, one of Ukraine’s top TV channels, Channel 5, diversified its Ukrainophone broadcasting by introducing a daily news hour in Russian. In early March it also joined the wider mass media trend of displaying a banner that rotates between Russian and Ukrainian words for ‘One Country’ (other participating TV channels include Inter Media Group, Starlight Media, 1+1 Media, and Media Gruppa Ukraina). In a classic case of silver lining, Ukraine is stubbornly pulling together at a time when other forces are pulling it apart.

Interestingly, some analysts pointed to the country’s diversity (including linguistic diversity) as a mediating and positive factor years before the current information war erupted. Historian Andriy Portnov, for instance, wrote back in 2010 in response to commentators who called (and continue to call) Ukraine’s cultural heterogeneity ‘feckless’: ‘The challenge facing Ukrainian society and elites nowadays is how to perceive regional diversity not in confrontational and mutually exclusive terms, but as a wealth of differences; how to recognize “the other” not as a threat, but as an opportunity.’[v] It appears that now, such voices are finally beginning to be heard. And with good reason: throughout recent developments, the feelings of many Russophone residents of Ukraine towards their home nation have been revealed to be nothing short of powerful.

Something important is happening in Ukraine in this regard. Or perhaps it happened a long time ago, but is revealing its shape and its voice just now. We are witnessing a phenomenon whose layers analysts have yet to address fully. When Russian writers from my hometown in east Ukraine enlisted me to help spread their call to keep Russia’s troops out of the country, their strong wording was unsurprising. Contrary to much of the recent media coverage, this winter’s Ukrainian uprising was not an either-or struggle between European and Russian allegiances. Rather, for the majority of participants the demonstrations had to do with the people’s growing sense of dignity – and its violation. A wide spectrum of society took part, and about a quarter of those on the Maidan identified Russian as the primary language they speak at home. These nuances appear to have surprised some observers (those wary of the perils of ‘multiculturalism’) more than they did others (those who have celebrated and continue to celebrate the complexity of Ukraine’s diverse population). It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no longer such thing as a Russophile south-east [iugo-vostok] of Ukraine. And thoughtful observers know that, in its imagined monochrome form, it never existed in the first place.

Photo 2
Russian writers from Kharkiv, Iuriĭ Tsaplin (left) and Andreĭ Krasniashchikh – editors of Russophone literary almanac Soiuz Pisateleĭ – present one of its volumes in Moscow on 13 April 2010. Both writers are among the signatories to the open letter protesting military intervention. Source: personal archive.


All these events hit close to home, both literally and figuratively speaking. I hail from east Ukraine, from the culturally vibrant city of Kharkov / Kharkiv, which became the centerpiece of my academic work as well. Having just completed a doctoral dissertation here at Cambridge on the topics of literature, memory and identity in the east Ukrainian borderlands, I had to take some time to process the developments at home and to separate these two challengingly different perspectives: that of a scholar and that of a local. Meanwhile, continually emerging analytic texts of various calibers proved helpful in pondering the changes Ukraine was undergoing. Nevertheless, for a while, I could not quite pinpoint the force behind these changes.

A recent column by young political scientist Ol’ga Mikhailova helped fit the puzzle together. Discussing the emergence of the group she calls ‘the Ukrainian Russians’ in Ukrains’ka Pravda on 26 March, Mikhailova dropped a key word to explain why many in this cohort are standing up for Ukraine’s territorial and cultural unity. That word was ‘betrayal’. A new animal in the existing thesaurus of analytical media coverage, it is key to much of the emotional reaction observable in the country today. Mikhailova’s claim that ‘in the historical narrative of the Ukrainian Russians, [supporting] the empire is […] a betrayal they refuse to commit’ illuminates the origin of the force that is sustaining Ukrainian society at this time: a sense of responsibility and loyalty. It is a community in the making – or, more precisely, in the awakening.

Scholars and journalists may continue to discuss recent events in the languages of nation, post-colonialism, politics, patriotism, and even cultural memory – my preferred approach. But is it the vocabulary of sentiment that hits closest to explaining developments in Ukraine today. Russian and Russophone Ukrainians alike (the former are ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, the latter are Ukrainians whose native language is Russian) are standing up to refuse military protection from the Russian Federation because the issue has adopted, and is now framed by, the discourse of dignity. A number of commentators have highlighted the term ‘dignity’ as central to the lexicon of the Maidan uprising.

In an apt illustration of Leonard Cohen’s line, ‘I love the country but I can’t stand the scene’, many – though, at this point, not all – Russophone Ukrainians will continue to appreciate Russia’s language and culture, viewing them as separate from the Russian Federation’s current politics. To such people, supporting these politics would mean turning their backs on those with whom for years they have shared streets, cities, a nation – even if they did not always share the same language, literally or figuratively. This conscious loyalty is what stands behind the country’s coming together at this time of crisis: a refusal to betray, no matter how sentimental it may sound, is observable among much of the Russian-speaking community today.

Meanwhile, some of those who used to question the Russian language in Ukraine as undesirable – a contaminating remnant to be rectified for the sake of nation-building – are seeing these processes, and are responding to them as well. As a result, things appear to be changing on all sides. Recent initiatives, such as Lviv choosing to speak Russian for a day in February and Donetsk responding by speaking Ukrainian, have shown that many Ukrainians have processed their revolution on terms different from the divisive rhetoric imposed on them by some international opinion.

This is not to paint a pastoral landscape where there is none. Shredding forces continue to test these uniting ones on a daily basis. They draw their strength not only from the grievances and hostility in the streets, but also from the commentators who still present Ukraine as a fatally divided nation, maintaining the outdated and prejudiced myth of the Two Ukraines. This fairly popular misconception, which portrays the country as a synthetic and flammable combination of irreconcilable halves, relies in part on the notion of ‘mentality’ – a vague and useless concept applied to a subset of population in order to shrink-wrap its motivations, feelings and perceptions into one general standardized psychological condition. If this sounds inaccurate and irresponsible, that’s because it is. But recent battles have, unfortunately, revived the Two Ukraines framework as a most accessible explanation for events taking place in the region. In line with this approach, for instance, international media has often wrongly painted the Maidan as two parts of the nation pulling into two directions.[vi] What could be easier? The western part is ‘fascist’ or ‘nationalist’ (also known as pro-European); the eastern part is ‘contaminated’ or ‘zombified’ by its Soviet past (also known as pro-Russian or pro-multicultural, depending on whom one asks). Who needs to know more?

Refreshingly, many do. A number of respected historians and commentators, both inside and outside of Ukraine, have done much to topple this inept interpretation of what are actually multi-layered social processes that unequivocally lack homogeneity. Nevertheless, heavy-handed and uncompromising verdicts continue to appear in media coverage of the Ukrainian situation. They are fairly easy to recognize: any nationally framed argument that relies on variations of the notion of mentality is uncompromising by nature, because it lacks nuance. Among these rigid verdicts, one that continues to hit hard is that of bydlo, a curious word that comes from the Polish term for cattle (bydło).

Having travelled from Polish to Ukrainian and Russian, bydlo gained a heavily pejorative meaning and is currently used to describe those who are purportedly cattle-like – backward and unrefined – in terms of their mental and spiritual development (or rather, the lack thereof). In recent discussions, this word has been revitalized and repowered to refer to a certain type of east Ukrainian, particularly those hailing from the country’s easternmost region, the long-suffering Donbas (Donets Basin). On the map of stereotypes, this area is renowned for its coal mining, industrialization, and (thus) workers. Even in an attempt to illuminate the genuine hardship that shaped these lands over the past century, a Donbas-born commentator last month depicted her fellow residents as ‘a quivering biomass’. Some of the so-called intellectual elite have also fallen victim to this judgmental stance, which Portnov described recently as a dangerous kind of ‘reductionism’:

Let’s get rid of the country’s ‘far east’ (where the people are ‘completely different’, meaning: worse) and have us a nice life in European Ukraine… And such arrogant, generalizing, isolationist, orientalist and narcissistic ideas come from those who are so impressed with ‘multicultural Austria’ and ‘lost diversity’. Of course, inventing a nice past while looking like an enlightened and tolerant intellectual is much easier than to put at least some effort into comprehending and accepting the heterogeneity and complexity of contemporary Ukraine.[vii]

Indeed, it is easier. A well-known Ukrainian historian and an equally well-known writer have both recently come up with offensive texts reducing their eastern neighbours to brainless homo sovieticus. This unfortunate and myopic cycle of self-perpetuating discrimination involves similarly uncompromising verdicts on ‘pro-Ukrainian’ activists as neo-Nazis – a technique particularly favoured by Vladimir Putin’s informational war machinery.

The reductive approach maintains, among other things, that those who stand to protect Lenin monuments are standing up for Putin’s Russia. However, the gap between these two causes may be wider than usually acknowledged. The alternate view is that such persons are trying to defend a sense of self and a narrative of their past that, they feel, is being wrenched from them without adequate replacement. A closer look at video footage of such demonstrations suggests that the majority of participants are elderly. For them, the gap created with the collapse of the country they knew as home was never quite filled by anything else. In response, they may be defending old monuments to Lenin as a symbol of their youth (which they now perceive as negated, re-narrated as meaningless existence under an oppressive regime) rather than a genuinely political symbol of any kind, much less a Putin-related one. Serhiĭ Zhadan, a brilliant Ukrainophone writer who lives and works in Kharkiv (and who hails, incidentally, from Donbas)[viii], describes their ordeal as follows:

Stonemasons of the new world […] returned as heroes and victors, and all they could do in that bizarre situation was to erect their plaster Holy Grail in a park of culture and leisure, hoping for the ultimate victory of communist ideas and for the good memory of their offspring, who instead will stone you to death, toppling all your monuments, having no faith in your past, having no past of their own.[ix]

As I have previously argued, there is a fine line between denouncing a regime and denouncing the human lives affected by that regime’s existence.[x] Some people may misperceive this line as warped or absent. The resulting anxiety, erroneous or not, provides prime grounds for abuse and misuse by a whole slew of political forces and players, and such manipulation is happening as we speak. But there is yet another way to see the troubles gripping Donbas: some of its people, who have become targets of both condescension (from within the country) and manipulation (from without), simply did not luck out, the way I did, with a mother who kept collections of Ukrainian poetry in our Russophone household, and who made sure I could recite Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Oles’ (1878-1944) as soon as I started to recite his contemporary – Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). They possibly were less fortunate also in encountering a language tutor passionate about Ukrainian and interested in helping people speak it with confidence. What they know of the rest of Ukraine instead, and face on a daily basis, is precisely the ‘reductionism’ that says the country would be better off without them – the zombified bydlo incapable of anything other than having ridiculous feelings about obsolete monuments. In this light, their frustration appears far less surprising. And President Putin’s willingness to manipulate this frustration – even more despicable.

Photo 3
“We are not bydlo. East and west together” – reads this sign on a monument to poet Taras Shevchenko in Donetsk during the earliest days of the Maidan (November 2013). Source: NGO.donetsk.ua


In one of his works Zhadan describes the ageing post-Soviet generation as ‘exhausted and seasoned, who carry within themselves, like an ailing heart, the entire experience of their country, of their infinite daily struggle that eventually ends, yet brings them no solace’.[xi] For this part of Ukraine’s population, the need today is rooted in what Tamara Hundorova aptly identifies as ‘an alternative paradigm to parting with the totalitarian past, rather than rupture and oblivion’. In my attempts at addressing this topic, I have referred to a ‘recalibrated architecture of separation’ in hopes of emphasizing that it’s not the separation from the Soviet Union that some people continue to struggle with; it’s the totality of negation that comes with its commonly imposed framework.

The complexity of the post-catastrophic ordeal, in fact, is one of the key reasons behind Zhadan’s overwhelming success as a writer (and one of the key reasons why working with Ukrainian literature is such a fruitful approach to studying the country). Using Ukrainian, a language that is not easily accused of imperialism, he breaks through the simple dichotomy of imperial Russia and colonial Ukraine with captivating characters whose feelings about the fallen empire are anything but simple. One of his lines has become a static element of my blog:

Will they be able to tell their own children and grandchildren how in their peaceful sky, right above their heads, one could still behold the majestic fading flashes of history; this history was distant and inaccessible and had a bloodred hue – like tulips, like blood, like coca-cola.[xii]

What will ‘they’ – first-hand witnesses to imperial collapse – be able to tell their children? And even more importantly: what will we be able to tell ours? As revolution and aggression exploded around us, did we turn against ‘the other’ in our own nation – be it the Westerner we’ve dubbed ‘banderite’ or the Easterner we’ve dubbed ‘bydlo’ (or even, in fact, vice versa)? In his thoughtful piece on Odessa / Odesa, Blair Ruble maintains: ‘The port city represents a Russia that always has been open to the world, with a wry smile that scoffs at the sort of ruffians and thugs dispatched by Russian President Vladimir Putin to “liberate”’ it. Ruble picks up on an important tendency among Russophone Ukrainians: that of habitual subversion of official narratives, and strong local loyalties. Now that Odessa, known for its humorous and laid-back disposition, has become a site of violence and death, amplifying resentment and anguish on all sides, these loyalties will require courage. And now that a portion of the population of Donbas has declared it independent, the people of Ukraine face another fundamental challenge: not giving up on the region’s inhabitants – and refraining from sweeping them all under the rug of the cliché image of the east as a ‘nature reserve of all things foreign’.[xiii]

Like in the south, many of the Russophone residents of east Ukraine have nurtured a distinctive regional identity that provides ‘an alternative to the ethnically and linguistically determined “national idea”.’[xiv] Now, this regional identity is decisive to Ukraine’s next steps as a country. A writer from Donetsk, the largest city in Donbas, articulated it eloquently this spring in Moscow, where she travelled to receive an award for her Russian prose on 22 April. At the microphone, Elena (Olena) Stiazhkina recited her piece called ‘About Love’: ‘I want to talk about love, a realization that was a surprise for me. There was once a country; then it turned out to be motherland.’ She continued:

There is a problem of hearing in our countries these days. But to those who do hear I’d like to say this: the only language of love I know is Russian, and it certainly does not need military protection. […] The Russian language does not need blood. […] You cannot kill Ukraine in the south and the east, because killing Ukraine would mean murdering me, a Russian, and others, also Russians.

When in 1996 Paul Pirie took issue with ‘an unfortunate tendency to assume the national consciousness and homogeneity of the Russian minority and the Ukrainian majority’, and argued that ‘the national orientation of individuals officially classified as Russians in different parts of the country is often only tenuously so’,[xv] he hit the nail on the head, as such voices have made exceedingly clear.

Today, the intricate relationship between Russia and Ukraine is, as ever, decisive for the future of this part of the world. And, as ever, it remains largely simplified as either antagonistic or fraternal. Russian‐speakers in Ukraine effectively topple this dichotomy. They are the new soldiers of sentiment in a war of calculation. Whether they refer to motherland as Rodina (in Russian) or as Bat’kivshchyna (in Ukrainian) is secondary. And, importantly, there are also people who do not use any version of the term ‘motherland’ for any nation – for a wide array of reasons – but still refuse to let down those who do.

When I think of Ukraine outside of an academic framework these days, I see it as a conglomeration of hands, stretching towards each other from all its centres and peripheries. Beneath those hands, dirty stones fly in all directions, swung from every centre and periphery as well. Some of the stones hit hard, or hit a wound (Ukraine comes with many), and the hand above it trembles. As academics, we are responsible for fair coverage, but as citizens of Ukraine, I would say we answer for the clasp of those hands on each other. And it is up to foreign observers to support those who are still reaching out: to ensure they have a place to write for, and a platform to speak from.

In the commentary on Ukraine these days, it seems, if no one is offended, you have not been heard. A gifted Russian rock-bard, Alexander Bashlachev (1960-1988), sang on the verge of the Soviet Union’s collapse: ‘I am most ashamed when you cannot see that I have heard what I listened to.’ At this time Ukrainians are making a choice: in a large country with a mosaic of histories, there is much to mutually resent; there is also much to admire. This choice and its aftermaths are generating a crucial set of processes. It remains to be seen whether the centrifugal forces surrounding these processes can be countered, and at what cost. At the moment, this much is clear: despite adversity, despite a sustained assault on the very possibility of a whole Ukraine, Ukrainians of all kinds – and there are, indeed, many kinds – continue to demonstrate, to each other and to external observers, in all their existing tongues, that they have listened, and that they have heard.

Photo 4
Artwork by Alyona Lazarenko. Source: http://www.behance.net/alyonafranz


Unless otherwise noted, all Ukrainian-language and Russian-language sources cited in this piece are my translations. I am thus responsible for any imperfections.

[i] Volodymyr Kulyk, ‘Shschyri ukraïntsi ta ïkhniĭ “othering”’, Krytyka, 12 (2000), 28-31. ^

[ii] Paul S. Pirie, ‘National Identity and Politics in Southern and Eastern Ukraine’, Europe-Asia Studies, 48 (1996), 1079-104 (p. 1080). ^

[iii] For a more detailed discussion of these stereotypes, please see Tanya Zaharchenko, ‘Polyphonic Dichotomies: Memory and Identity in Today’s Ukraine’, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Demokratization, 21 (2013), 241-69. ^

[iv] Mykhailo Karasikov, ‘Slobozhans’ka mental’nist’: myf chy real’nist’?’ Kul’tura ta etno-etika, 3 (1994), 19-20. ^

[v] Andreĭ Portnov, Uprazhneniia s istorieĭ po-ukrainski (Moscow: Memorial, 2010), p. 103. ^

[vi] For one of numerous examples, see ‘Press says Ukraine torn between EU and Russia’, BBC News Europe, 14 November 2013. ^

[vii] Translated from Facebook with the author’s permission. ^

[viii] Other Donbas Ukrainians who topple the Ukrainian west / Russian east stereotype include Volodymyr Sosyura, Vasyl Stus, and Ivan Dziuba. In the nearby region of Sloboda, also known as the east, the city of Kharkiv is one of the country’s key cultural hubs. With its University as the centre of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century, Kharkiv gave birth to the modern Ukrainian national idea, and was decisive for its future. These examples, which do not fit the stereotypical delineation, are just some of many – in both eastern and western regions of the country. ^

[ix] Serhiĭ Zhadan, Anarchy in the UKR (Kharkiv: Folio, 2011), p. 26. ^

[x] Tanya Zaharchenko, ‘While the Ox is Still Alive: Memory and Emptiness in Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshylovhrad’, Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, 55 (2013), 45-70. ^

[xi] Zhadan, Anarchy, p. 65. ^

[xii] Zhadan, Anarchy, p. 76. ^

[xiii] Tamara Hundorova, ‘Voroshylovhrad i porozhnecha’, LitAktsent, 8 February 2011. ^

[xiv] Tatiana Zhurzhenko, ‘Cross-border Cooperation and Transformation of Regional Identities in the Ukrainian-Russian Borderlands: Towards a Euroregion “Slobozhanshschyna”? Part 2’, Nationalities Papers, 32 (2004), 497-514 (p. 508). ^

[xv] Pirie, ‘National Identity’, p. 1080. ^


Tanya Zaharchenko (BA Bard College 2003 – MSc University of Oxford 2007 – PhD University of Cambridge 2014) is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ukrainian studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. Her book, "Where Currents Meet: Frontiers in Post-Soviet Fiction of Kharkiv, Ukraine," was published in 2016 by Central European University Press. She blogs at http://memoryidentity.wordpress.com. This piece is a result of research conducted as part of her 2015 Albert Einstein Fellowship at the Einstein Forum in Germany.