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16 November, 2018

The Ukrainian language as a protest

In the summer of 2017, Kateryna Handziuk wrote an op-ed piece for The Ukrainian Week, which we are republishing here

In the mid-1990s, I was the only one in my class that had books by Ukrainian writers. And although the school was Ukrainian, for instance, I was the only one who had the works of Mykola Trublaini (Trublayevskiy). For the rest of the kids, it was some kind of reader, but no one had read all of his works.

In 2000, my best mate at school moved to Kherson from Western Ukraine and, for a long time, he was the only person with whom I was able to talk in Ukrainian outside my immediate family. He recalls that period in amazement to this day, the way people of all ages would look at him like some strange creature and ask whether he wasn’t from the village.

At university, every new course started with the question, in Russian, of course, “What language are we going to do our lectures in?” and in 100% of cases, the class would insist on Russian, effectively denying some students the guaranteed right to study in Ukrainian.

More recently, Ukrainian can be heard more and more frequently on the streets of Kherson, in daily life and at official events. Politicians who allow themselves to speak in Russian publicly are likely to find themselves trolled by colleagues and activist. Some local councillors and officials who did not speak Ukrainian — and this I know for sure — even hired tutors.

When and how this positive change took place is something that interests me in the first place. I have to note that, in Kherson, people thought of Ukrainian as something very unintelligent, countrified. As writer Anton Sanchenko says, in the times when he travelled on the Kherson-Horodniy Veleten bus, every one would switch to Ukrainian somewhere around Komyshany, a suburb of Kherson. Everyone wanted to not seem provincial and speaking with others in Russian for some reason was thought to be the simplest way to do this. 

Of course, the language issue was always determined by policy. In 2003, the process of eradicating everything Ukrainian from the region’s history began. With the support of the local government, Potemkin was introduced into the cultural life of the city, along with everything that was connected to him. 

At that time, officials, especially then-mayor Volodymyr Saldo personally, seemed to think that glorifying Potemkin, Yekaterina II (Catherine the Great) and other imperial figures would somehow bring him and the rest of us closer to some kind of aristocratic existence. Later it became clear that this process was anything but accidental, but was part of the information war for “Russki Mir,” which continues to this day. Pro-Ukrainian organizations were marginalized as much as possible and any attempts to ukrainianize were received with great hostility. Even the Orange Revolution and the humanitarian policies of Viktor Yushchenko failed to change the situation in Kherson significantly because the local powers that be did not belong to pro-Ukrainian parties but mostly to Party of the Regions.

A major role in popularizing the Ukrainian language was — completely unexpectedly to the Regionals at the time — played by their own party when it voted to make the Russian language a regional language. In August 2012, the Kherson Oblast and Municipal Councils voted on Russian’s status as a regional language. And although this did not lead to protests in the streets at that point, but it set up the underpinnings of internal protest which, I’m convinced, was the start of the Maidan. People were so dissatisfied with President Yanukovych and the governing of Party of the Regions that they began to support everything Ukrainian, including the language. Speaking Ukrainian with friends and at work, wearing embroidered shirts on special days, listening to Ukrainian music, and finding out about the history of Kherson country without Potemkin and other Russian personalities — all this became the simplest way of distinguishing “one of us” from “one of them.”

By the time the Revolution of Dignity was underway and, of course, after Moscow’s attack, the question of language simply disappeared from the agenda. Today, Ukrainian is fashionable and popular, and using it no longer pegs someone as “from the village.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The death of Kateryna

Of course, those who spent all those years working to preserve the Ukrainian history of Kherson and its region despite the opposition of those in power also played a big role. The Heroika Foundation was an example of a community initiative to place monuments and memorial panels reminding the public of those who fought for a free Ukraine. Also important was the pro-Ukrainian activity of various political parties and thousands of teachers in public schools and post-secondary institutions. In the battle for the Ukrainian language on air, the Skifia oblast broadcasting company played an especially important role. Although its content was not very contemporary and they were unable to avoid government censorship during the Maidan, their broadcasts were always in the Ukrainian language. 

Decommunization had a major impact as well. In Kherson, the mayor made a timely decision sign off on the renaming of streets. And so the city now has streets named after General Almazov and Kedrovskiy, Heaven’s Hundred and the Heroes of Kruty. Unlike many of our neighbor, we did not shamefully hide behind neutral streets like Merry and Apricot, but allowed Ukrainian history to come alive in the daily lives of Khersonites.

Of course, I don’t want to sound overly optimistic: parties in power have changed time and again, shifting vectors radically in social policy from pro-Ukrainian to pro-Russian. Still, I now feel easy: no matter how bad ours are, theirs aren’t going to be around.

By Kateryna Handziuk


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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