In early April, Ukraine marked a somber anniversary. Six years had passed since war broke out in its easternmost provinces, tying up the fate of one of Europe’s largest countries in a bloody conflict with no end in sight. Two days later, an even more tragic milestone was passed. The War in the Donbass has now lasted longer than the Second World War.
The Reality of Daily Life in Ukraine
Far from the guns and mortars of the frontlines, Ukrainians go about their day to day lives as normally as they can in a country at war. But the same conflicts and contradictions that led to war in the east still play out in day to day life for millions of Ukrainians as the country struggles to unify its sense of identity and its sense of place in the world. The most striking example of the division in Ukraine is found in the languages spoken by its people.
Ukraine’s Powerful Cultural Divide
Nearly every Ukrainian is proficient – if not fluent – in both Russian and Ukrainian, with many mixing the two seamlessly in everyday speech to create third language – Surzhyk. Ukraine’s divide appears linguistic, but is it really? What the ambiguous linguistic divide conceals, is a far deeper and more powerful cultural divide. One that runs not just through every Ukrainian, but through their memory and the memories of their parents and grandparents as well.
Ukrainians are constantly forced to reconcile the complexities of their identity with the simplifications of politics and nation-building under the pressure of the great civilizations lying to their East and West. It is no easy task, nor is it one most people care to engage in anyway. Language is the most symbolic aspect of this straddling, a symbolism which takes physical form in two vastly different Ukrainian cities – Lviv and Odessa.
Lviv and Odessa
Ukrainian is almost exclusively the language heard on the grand cobbled streets of Lviv. The city is – and for centuries has been – the cultural capital of the Ukrainian nation. Long part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later to become one of the Habsburg Empire’s largest cities, it is unmistakably Central European. Russian meanwhile, is met with odd – in many cases hostile – looks. As I was told by a student from Lviv “I don’t get it when people speak to me in Russian, you are in Ukraine. Speak Ukrainian!”
Fair enough. It is Ukraine after all, why should people expect to be spoken to in Russian? But a few hundred kilometers away, perched on the sunny shores of the Black Sea, a completely different kind of Ukrainian resides. Odessa is a city founded by the “enlightened” Catherine the Great in what was then called Novorossija, or “New Russia.” It is the same name used by Ukraine’s separatists in the East for their breakaway federation. For centuries the city was a refuge for Russian nobles and intellectuals alike, keen on escaping the freezing Russian winters for warm sunny beaches. But not just for Russians. Ukrainians too found a home here along with scores of Jews, Romanians, Bulgarians, Poles, Frenchmen and countless other nationalities.
Russian – not Ukrainian – is the language that dominates the city to this day. Street signs, billboards, schools and government buildings are all Ukrainian domains, but on streets and beaches, in bars and streetcars, Russian is the language in use. “Do you feel more Ukrainian or Russian?” – a question which may warrant a smack in the face in Lviv, will be met with a pensive look in Odessa. “It’s complicated” I would hear from generations young and old alike in Odessa. They are Ukrainian, to be sure, but they cannot escape some identification with Russian culture and the Russian world. It surrounds them their entire lives.
So too does Ukrainian though. With schooling now entirely in Ukrainian, Russian speakers are faced with a strange reality. My Odessan host of several weeks held no animosity towards Ukrainian, and even treated the language with more respect than many Russian-speakers do but objected strongly to the change. Her young son agreed. Even for his generation Russian was the lingua franca, while Ukrainian the language of the teachers. This family, like millions of others, finds itself a minor victim of Ukraine’s political and cultural divide.
The Deep Roots of Identity
But identities stretch back further than the present, and the cultural memory of the two cities stand in stark contrast to one another. Odessa still clings proudly to its legacy as a Hero City, a Soviet designation for cities that put up exceptional resistance to the Nazis while the main square is graced by a statue of a Russian Empress. Two symbols that could not be more anathema in Lviv, which instead memorializes the anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army while tearing down old Soviet monuments.
These two conflicting Ukrainian identities were on full display in 2014, as the anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian Maidan Revolution ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, to which Russia responded by annexing Crimea and provoking a separatist war in the East. Six years on that war rages on, and so too does Ukraine’s struggle for national unity between two views of itself, two dejected faces of Ukraine.
Hope for a Better Future
What unity Ukrainians lack in identity they make up for in solidarity. Solidarity in the face of a dysfunctional political system corrupted by oligarchs. An economy ravaged by war and decades of mismanagement and corruption. Ukraine may be divided by language, by nationhood and identity, but it is united in one respect. It is united in its desperate hope for a better future, perhaps an attitude the rest of Europe will soon come to know.