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In Ukraine, Russian is now “the language of the enemy”

The linguistic migration away from Russian that has been happening for decades has a new urgency in the wake of war.

By Andrey Kurkov

KYIV – Volodymyr Rafeenko is one of the many Russian-language authors in Ukraine whose lives have been changed by Russian tanks.   

Until 2014 Rafeenko lived in Donetsk, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. His work was published mainly in Russia, where he received three prestigious literary awards. He did not speak Ukrainian, but it was easy then to live in Donetsk without it.

However, when the war in the Donbas broke out in the spring of 2014, he and his wife left their two apartments and their jobs in Donetsk and moved west. There Andriy Bondar, a Ukrainian-speaking writer and translator, settled them in his dacha near Bucha. So Rafeenko became a resident of the Kyiv region. He learned Ukrainian and even began to write in Ukrainian. His first novel in his new language, Mondengrin, required some serious editing, and once more Bondar stepped in to help. After the release of the novel in 2019, Rafeenko promised to write his future novels in both Russian and Ukrainian, alternating between the two languages. However, on 31 May, after surviving a month under the Russian occupation of Bucha, he publicly renounced the Russian language and said that he would never write another text in Russian – and would never again even speak Russian. “I don’t want to have anything to do with this language,” he said in an interview on Ukrainian television.

During my childhood in the 1960s, Kyiv was almost entirely Russian-speaking. Most schools also taught in Russian. If someone on the street spoke Ukrainian, people thought they were from the village, or some strange intellectual, or maybe even a Ukrainian nationalist. Growing up, I read books in Russian, and half of my favorite writers belonged to Russian literature: Andrei Platonov, Daniil Kharms, Boris Pilnyak, Maxim Gorky. The Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol was and still is one of my favorite authors. At that time having Ukrainian as your first language was considered by many as a handicap. The Soviet state policy was to prevent Ukrainian from overcoming the perception that it was a peasant language.

The linguistic migration from Russian to Ukrainian has taken on new urgency since 24 February but it began in the early 1990s, in the first years of Ukrainian independence. At that time the well-known novelist Irene Razdobudko moved from Donetsk to Kyiv and began to work in Ukrainian. She already knew the language, so the transition was not so difficult for her. Also, at that time, Russia had not yet started “defending” the Russian language and Russian speakers in Ukraine. Books in Russian were outselling books in Ukrainian. The glossy magazines and newspapers would publish reviews mostly of Russian-language books (which were mostly published in Russia). In fact, at that time probably up to 80 per cent of books in any bookshop would be written in Russian. The future of Ukrainian literature was definitely uncertain.

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So Razdobudko’s gesture was symbolic. An ethnic Ukrainian, she wanted to support Ukrainian-language literature, which was just beginning to be revived. Following her, the popular author of detective novels Andriy Kokotyukha, who grew up in the central Poltava region – Nikolai Gogol’s homeland – also switched to Ukrainian. Like Razdobudko’s, Kokotyukha’s decision was a deliberate move to support the development of mass Ukrainian-language literature.   

Gradually the trend gathered pace, but it happened quietly with little commentary in the press and even less reaction from readers and the public in general. For most young, aspiring writers, which language to choose was no longer an issue – they immediately started writing in Ukrainian. This movement was supported by diaspora foundations in Canada and the United States that gave grants to publishing houses that issued books in Ukrainian. Yet, economically, publishing books in Ukrainian remained unprofitable during the first ten to 15 years of independence.

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In those years, many intellectuals and critics assumed that authors who continued to write in Russian were oriented towards the Russian book market and, therefore, they were not considered Ukrainian writers. At the time, I was considered by many to be one of these “not Ukrainian” writers. In the late 1990s my novels were more successful in Russia than in Ukraine and I was even receiving requests from Russian publishers to set my books in Russia, not Ukraine. I ignored those requests.

It wasn’t long before there were many bilingual authors who wrote and published books in both Russian and Ukrainian. Often, Russian-speaking writers held up their Ukrainian books as proof of their loyalty to Ukrainian culture. Examples of these gestures can be found in the works of the poets Boris Khersonskiy, from Odesa, and Olga Ilnytska, who divided her time between Odesa and Moscow (she’s now in Moscow writing and dreaming about Odesa).

Yet Russian-speaking readers in Ukraine never had much respect for Russian-language literature that was produced locally. They tended to prefer the “genuine” Russian literature that came out of Moscow or St Petersburg. If a Ukrainian author was published in Russia it was a sign of quality – a seal of approval from the “keeper of Russian literature”, as Russia saw itself. Nonetheless, Russian-language authors from outside the country were generally treated with a degree of condescension in Russia, even by their publishers. Such projects were often depicted as an act of humanitarian aid rather than an endorsement of an author’s talent. Writers held the a priori belief that a Russian-speaking author who wanted to achieve success and recognition must move to Russia.

After independence some well-known Russian-language writers did make the move in search of fame and fortune. For example, the best-known Ukrainian authors of fantasy novels, Marina and the late Sergiy Dyachenko, were among the first “literary migrants”. They did not like Moscow, and they probably expected much more success. Very soon they left for New York. For many of those who remained in Ukraine, however, Moscow remained a kind of cultural fulcrum until quite recently. Even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of the war in the Donbas, some Ukrainian authors continued to publish their books in Moscow and participated in book events there. At the beginning of this year – just before the new phase of the Russian aggression – one of the best-known Russian-speaking Ukrainian poets, Oleksandr Kabanov, published two books in Moscow and took part in online presentations of his books for Russian readers. 

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It’s hard to imagine that would be so easy to do now. Online and in casual conversations Ukrainian patriots increasingly refer to Russian as the “language of the enemy”. Those who endorse this rhetoric would prefer to ignore the fact that up to 40 per cent of Ukrainians speak Russian as their mother tongue. However, if some of them no longer want to speak Russian, many more no longer want to talk about it. They have gone quiet – not that Russian-speaking Ukrainians have ever made much noise about the right to speak their mother tongue, despite what Kremlin propaganda says. Though the supposed suppression of the Russian language was used by Moscow as a partial justification of the war in the Donbas, it was nonsense; this was a region where the Ukrainian-speaking town of Kremenna peacefully coexisted for decades with Russian-speaking Rubizhne.

Yet Russian has long ceased to be the language of culture in Ukraine. It was and remains simply a convenient language for daily communication with a rather poor vocabulary. Up until 2014 Russian popular culture was still prevalent in the east and south-east of Ukraine but since then Russian TV channels have been switched off and the local population, like other Russian-speaking Ukrainians, have become less and less interested in Russian culture. They might not even be able to understand some contemporary books by Russian writers. Russian reality has become so far removed from Ukrainian reality, the Russian world from the Ukrainian world.     

And it was they, the Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine, who were the first victims of Russia’s latest aggression. Mariupol, Melitopol, Okhtyrka and the other destroyed or captured cities in the east and south of Ukraine were almost entirely Russian-speaking. When refugees from those south-eastern areas arrived in the west of Ukraine it might have been the first time in their lives that they were forced to think about the role of the Russian language in this war. I have often heard refugees from the Donbas and other regions admit that they were ashamed that they had not learned to speak Ukrainian earlier. They are learning now, in droves. 

Until late February this year you could comfortably live in Kyiv without knowing Ukrainian. The younger generation of Kyivites switch easily from Russian to Ukrainian to English. But the Ukrainian language has returned to the service sector, from where it was forced out by Russian a hundred years ago. Ukrainian has become fashionable among young musicians. Ukrainian rock and rap dominate Ukrainian youth culture.  

Each time Ukraine has had to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the idea of losing Russian – the idea of the language disappearing from the cultural landscape – has become more acceptable to a greater number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. We saw a shift after the Orange Revolution in 2006, after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and many more times subsequently as Russia annexed Crimea and orchestrated the separatist surge in the east. The killing of tens of thousands of Ukrainians by Russia since the invasion is a strong argument against the presence of the Russian language and culture in Ukraine. The number of Russian-speaking writers and readers is bound to decrease dramatically.

I started using Ukrainian to write non-fiction some years ago, but I continue to write fiction in Russian. My books are published in Russian and in Ukrainian translations, but I know that my books in Ukrainian sell better. Ukrainian speakers read much more than Russian speakers in Ukraine. This is a new reality that no one can ignore. And the state buys only books in Ukrainian for libraries.   

All this calls into question the rationality of publishing books in Russian in Ukraine. They will continue to be published but the print runs in Russian will be smaller. And lately I have been thinking that I should not publish books in Russian at all, at least not until the end of the war. Later, once Russia has left Ukraine in peace and Ukraine can follow its chosen European path, we will be able to think again about the language question and make a final decision. I haven’t had a readership in Russia for a long time; my books have not been published there for almost 15 years. For some time, Ukrainian-speaking readers have been more important to me than Russian-speaking ones.

Yet the Russian language may turn out to be my “internal” language, the language of my dreams and thoughts, my working language. An internal language does not require an official status. And of course the mother tongue is a status that cannot be cancelled, even if people around you continue to call it “the language of the enemy”. Yes, it is the language of my enemy, but the language is not an enemy to me.

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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down