Op-Ed: Learn Ukrainian, defeat Russia

In Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, Ukrainian language classes happen in one of many few intact rooms within the metropolis’s public library, broken earlier this yr when the Russians pummeled the town with missiles. With Ukraine’s utilities underneath assault, heating is scarce. So on a sub-freezing December day, the scholars put on winter coats, sipping tea poured from a thermos for added heat.

Irrespective of the discomfort, no one complains. Learning Ukrainian is handled as a patriotic responsibility for hundreds of thousands of Ukraine’s residents, one other approach of contributing to the warfare effort, particularly for older adults, who had been educated in Russian underneath the Soviet system.

“War is not only fought on the battlefield. Language is also a weapon,” is how Ukrainian instructor Olga Petrenko described their motivation.

One of many many idiosyncrasies of this warfare is that as many as half of all Ukrainians are extra fluent in Russian than their very own related-but-not-the-same nationwide tongue. This consists of many of the inhabitants of Kyiv (previously identified by its Russian identify, Kiev) in addition to Ukraine’s man of the yr, President Volodymyr Zelensky (as a well-liked actor he was also referred to as Vladimir).

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine reclaimed its language, which had been repressed for the reason that time of the czars, usually with brutality. However reworking the phrases its residents really select once they speak, write, assume and dream — basically rewiring brains and tongues — has been a slow-moving course of.

Now it has taken on new urgency. Russian President Vladimir Putin has fired not solely missiles however insults — disparaging Ukraine as merely a area of Russia, its language a dialect. These are preventing phrases which have spurred many extra Ukrainians to be taught and use their language.

“People understand there can be nothing in common with the enemy,’’ teacher Petrenko told me.

I traveled to Ukraine recently in a delegation of authors organized by PEN America. We toured damaged cultural centers, monuments and libraries. We met with writers, editors and librarians, and stumbled into the Ukrainian class in Chernihiv.

“Culture is not collateral damage in the war against Ukraine: It’s a target,’’ advised a report released this month by PEN America and its Ukrainian partner.

Putin, the report said, seeks “to erase Ukrainian identity and culture, and to impose Russian language, as well as a manipulated, chauvinistic, militaristic version of Russia’s culture, history, and worldview, on Ukrainian people.”

Whereas Zelensky is soliciting army help, Ukraine’s tradition ministry is making requests to restore broken theaters, museums and libraries and to interchange books, one of many greater casualties of the warfare.

The warfare has compelled the closing of greater than 2,400 libraries — some broken, others with out warmth or personnel. Based on the ministry, Russian troops have gone out of their technique to destroy Ukrainian-language books, particularly textbooks and historical past — even translated novels by Stephen King (an outspoken advocate for the Ukrainian trigger on social media).

Either side can play the purge sport. As a part of an ongoing “de-Russification” marketing campaign, statues of Pushkin, Tolstoy and different Russian cultural icons have been faraway from public areas.

Imports of books from Russia are banned — not solely Russian literature however translated books as properly. On condition that there are an estimated 200 million Russian audio system on the planet, in contrast with at most 40 million Ukrainians, there’s a wider number of books obtainable in Russian translation and at cheaper costs. Even many high Ukrainian authors till just lately wrote in Russian, looking for the bigger readership.

The Ukrainian Ebook Institute, established in 2016 by the tradition ministry, is making an attempt to compensate by encouraging translations of books into Ukrainian. Not the least of the issues: Most Ukrainian books are printed within the battleground metropolis of Kharkiv.

Writers and translators complain that Ukrainian dictionaries are woefully old-fashioned. Tetiana Savchynska, who has translated books by John le Carre and Kazuo Ishiguro into Ukrainian, instructed me that she struggles to seek out phrases for “privacy,” “commitment” and “resilience” in Ukrainian.

I’ve lined different conflicts which have impressed nationwide teams to change languages. When the previous Yugoslavia break up aside, the language as soon as often called Serbo-Croatian disappeared to get replaced by Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Macedonian. Tibetans, compelled to check in Chinese language in class, have instructed me they self-discipline themselves to talk their very own language by placing cash in a jar as punishment in the event that they unintentionally spit out a Chinese language phrase.

However Ukraine is an excessive case, a “linguistic laboratory,” as the web publication Ukrainska Pravda places it.

Language right here is just not merely politicized however weaponized: One in all Putin’s pretexts for the invasion is the safety of Russian language audio system.

No person appears to know the way many individuals in Ukraine converse Ukrainian as their first language, and even the idea of a mom tongue is murky. Ukrainian is the official language of instruction, but it surely might not be what college students converse with their households. Pre-1991, grandmothers spoke Ukrainian, and Russian was imposed by the academic system.

Within the final census in 2001, when Ukrainians had been requested about their native language, their solutions usually mirrored their patriotism.

“In Kyiv, 76% of the population indicated their native language was Ukrainian, but what they spoke at home was really Russian,’’ said Les Beley, a Ukrainian writer and linguist. “Russian was the language of success.… Ukrainian was the language of folklore and the village.”

Ukrainian predominates within the west of the nation. Russian is spoken principally within the east and south, particularly among the many pro-Russian separatists and Russians who relocated to Crimea after the occupation in 2014.

However the strains are usually not so cleanly drawn and the linguistic divide can run straight by way of households. It’s frequent to listen to a mishmash of language in a single dialog.

Though the languages are mutually intelligible, switching may be messy. “It took me several years to be able to speak normally, and another five years to master the language at a level that allows me to write fiction,’’ I was told by Ukrainian novelist Volodymyr Rafeyenko, who fled from Russian-speaking Donbas in 2014 after it was occupied by Putin-backed separatists. The difficulty is captured in his recent novel,Mondegreen,” a few middle-aged author who suffers a breakdown when altering languages.

Karyna Samokhvalova, a 46-year-old author from Kharkiv, instructed us that regardless of her finest efforts to stay to Ukrainian, she nonetheless curses in Russian.

“Russian has better swear words. Ukrainian is a peaceful language.”

Barbara Demick is a former Los Angeles Instances overseas correspondent. Her most up-to-date ebook is “Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town.”