Tongue of the Enemy: East Ukrainians Reject their Russian-Birth Language | Ukraine

JAmelet Zinkivsky was raised speaking Russian in the city of Kharkiv, just like his parents. But when Vladimir Putin launched an invasion Ukraine On February 24, it was the last push for him to fully convert to Ukrainian.

“Unfortunately, I grew up speaking Russian, but it is not good for me to speak the same language as the army that is destroying entire regions of our country,” said Zinkevsky, a 35-year-old street artist widely known among Kharkiv residents. Refer to him by his first name.

The language switch is part of a broader journey toward a more visible Ukrainian identity for Zinkivskyi, something many in the largely Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southern Ukraine share. It’s a process that has become more and more evident in the past three months, but has been brewing for several years.

As a young artist, Zinkivskyi had a long-standing dream: an exhibition in Moscow. Kharkiv It is a few dozen miles from the border with Russia and has long been fully Russian speaking. Culturally, Moscow felt like the center of the universe. But when Zinkivskyi finally made it to an exhibition there in 2012, he was horrified. “They were obnoxious and involved with Kharkiv and Ukraine, and frankly I thought: damn them,” he said. He returned to Kharkiv and became more focused on the Ukrainian art scene.

distance The annexation of Crimea in 2014Zinkivskyi started trying to speak some Ukrainian with a few friends. He has now completely transformed, and for the first time is also introducing political and patriotic themes into his art.

The issue of language is something that comes up again and again in Kharkiv. Oleksandra Panchenko, a 22-year-old interior designer, said that since 2014 she has been trying hard to improve her Ukrainian, but admitted that she still speaks Russian a lot with friends.

However, she is adamant that by the time she has children, she will be fluent enough to only speak Ukrainian at home. “I grew up in a Russian-speaking family, and my children will grow up in a Ukrainian-speaking family,” she said.

Back in 2014, there was a separatist grumble in Kharkiv, with some people looking forward to the rapid annexation of Crimea and wondering if all of eastern Ukraine might not be better off inside Russia. But eight years of observing miserable conditions in the Russian proxy states of Donetsk and Luhansk dampened those sentiments, and the Russian invasion almost completely wiped them out.

Black and white artwork of a man sitting on the floor with his leg extended, looking down toward the ground at an origami bird next to him
One of the Gamlet murals in the center of Kharkiv, entitled “I Work Without Nobody”. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

Panchenko, who painted her nails blue and yellow and described herself as a strong patriot, guessed the political loyalties of the pre-war Kharkiv residents, based on her extensive circle of acquaintances. About 10% of the city was known lightly VATNiki – Strongly pro-Russian – she said. She described 30% as like her, “Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine”, and 50% were “neutral – they felt Ukrainian but not that strong”.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed people in this neutral category more forcefully into the patriotic camp, creating a broader and more enthusiastic pro-Ukrainian base than ever before, particularly in the east of the country.

said Vsevolod Kozymyako, a businessman who runs an agricultural company and once appeared in the Forbes list of the 100 richest Ukrainians.

Kuzimiako was skating indoors Europe When the war began, he left his family to return to Ukraine and form a volunteer battalion. His unit is stationed near the front line outside Kharkiv, in settlements that have come under relentless Russian fire.

Three out of four of Kozymiako’s grandparents were Russian, and during the Soviet era his passport registered his citizenship as Russian. However, he said that since The Orange Revolution of 2004 He was a staunch Ukrainian patriot and rejected Russia’s influence in Ukraine.

“Russians and Ukrainians are completely different. I speak Russian, I think Russian and I have three-quarters of Russian blood, but the part of Ukrainian blood inside me had its mark,” he said in an interview in downtown Kharkiv, where he now sometimes allows himself away from his loneliness.

Kozhemyako and Zinkivskyi are old friends, and when the artist told the businessman that he wanted to register, Kozhemyako welcomed him into the battalion, but told him that he should fight with a paintbrush, not a gun. Since then, Zinkevsky has been busy painting graffiti on buildings destroyed by Russian missiles. He has also written off street signs on Pushkin Street and renamed it English Street, which he says is an acknowledgment of British military support for Ukraine.

“Gamlet is very patriotic and his works are quite philosophical,” said Kozimiako. They are making people think about the direction of a new Ukraine. This is very important, especially now.”

Geographical and cultural differences within Ukraine were one of the reasons why Putin and other Russian leaders tried to claim that the country was an artificial construct. Instead, they now find that their bloody conquest has done more than anything to unite the different parts of Ukraine together under a common identity, opposing Moscow.

The Russian conquest at the same time gave those who might be neutral in their loyalties a stark choice about what kind of country they wanted to identify with, and provided a rallying point that allowed a broad and comprehensive idea of ​​what it meant to be a Ukrainian patriot. .

Pro-Russian Viktor Medvedchuk, arrested in the early days of the war.
Pro-Russian Viktor Medvedchuk, arrested in the early days of the war. Photograph: Serhiy Nozhenko/Reuters

In the early days of the war, the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, issued a decree banning the activities of a number of pro-Russian parties, the most famous pro-Russian politician in the country, Victor Medvedchuk has been arrested.

Medvedchuk, whose daughter is Putin’s granddaughter, has long been seen as Putin’s man in Kyiv. But even some of his close associates rebranded themselves as patriots in the wake of the invasion.

Yuri Zagorodny, a member of parliament, has been on Medvedchuk’s side since both worked in the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma in the early 2000s. However, he said that he made a decision in the early days of the war that his relationship with Medvedchuk was over. “Ukraine is my patriot, Russia is an aggressor and Putin is the main criminal of the 21st century,” he said in an interview in Kyiv, using very different rhetoric from what he used during a previous interview in mid-February.

Zagorodny said he joined the regional defense unit in his hometown, south of Kyiv, in the early days of the war. He had spent some nights at a checkpoint and other days supervising the construction of trenches.

He said he spent hours checking the documents of passing motorists; Then when he had to travel to Kyiv for parliament sessions, he was stopped at another checkpoint, where the men took him out of the car and insulted him when they saw that he was a deputy from Medvedchuk’s party. He assured the men that he was a strong patriot. I feel guilty, but what we wanted was peaceful coexistence between the two countries. “Of course, it’s all over now,” said Zagorodny.

“Changing shoes in the air” is the Ukrainian expression for this kind of rapid shift in views to fit the prevailing climate, but for all the irony that may be given for self-preservation at work, there is also a feeling that people have had to choose: either To come down on the side of Ukraine, which is fighting for the right to exist, or on the side of Russia, which is firing missiles and bombs at sleepy cities, and where freedom of speech is no longer legal.

For many, this is an easy choice, and by attacking Ukraine the way he did, Putin has deprived Russia of many of its natural supporters in the country.

“My 11-year-old nephew talks about ‘Butler’ – a mixture of Putin and Hitler. He will spend his whole life hating Russia, and his sons will too. Perhaps that will change in several generations, but not sooner,” Zagorodny said.

In the port of Odessa, the mayor, Henady Trukhanov, who is widely seen as pro-Russian, released an angry video in the early days of the war in response to the Kremlin’s allegations that it was defending the country’s Russian speakers. “Who the hell are you planning to defend here?” Asked. In the center of Kryvyi Rih, the mayor, Oleksandr Velkol, who was previously seen as pro-Russian, renamed himself a patriot and defended the city.

In addition to enhancing a sense of Ukrainian identity among politicians and the general population in the south and east of the country, the war also helped increase respect for these regions in the patriotic strongholds of western and central Ukraine, with some questioning the loyalty of these regions. parts of the East, especially after 2014.

Any doubts about these areas should now be considered settled, Kozymiako said: “A lot of people in western Ukraine have seen how Kharkiv is fighting,” he said.