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23 July, 2012

Musings Over an AK-47

Contemporary Ukrainians reject the imperial civilisation that is identified by the Russian language

Do you want to see friends you haven’t seen for a long time? Then come to the Ukrainian House. At least, that was where many friends gathered the first three to four days of the language protest.

The modest scale of the protest marathon against the language bill – from 500-600 to several thousand people at the most on some days – can be misleading. The initiators – the hunger strikers – and the always-present core of activists were joined by many who had escaped from their offices or cut their sleep short to be there at least a few hours. They did not come waving flags or chanting slogans. Sometimes they didn’t even know what they were supposed to do. But they simply could not stand aside and came, raising the total number of people involved in the protest.

The protest rallied both known bright-eyed, eager activists and regular, concerned citizens not in the habit of joining mass protests even just six months ago. But here is what I noticed: nearly half of my friends and acquaintances who came to European Square use Russian in their everyday communication. The protesters included not only people who are Ukrainian in their last name, mother language and nationality, but also those I'd call political Ukrainians: Ukrainian Russians, Ukrainian Jews, Ukrainian Poles and even one Ukrainian Afghani. All of them are at least bilingual or even exclusively Russian-speaking. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why are they protecting the Ukrainian language? Is it a misunderstanding on their part? Insincerity? Opportunism? Schizophrenia?

I have already written about scores of Russian-speaking Ukrainians flatly rejecting attempts to “protect their rights”. This is not surprising, because the draft bill sponsored by the Party of Regions is symbolical, similar to the way a dog marks its territory. And that is exactly how many rather intelligent people saw it. As one blogger aptly remarked, the language issue is not linguistic but political: it is a marker of whether you are for Ukraine or against it. I could not have said it any better.

For or against Ukraine? This is a question of civilisational choice. It emerged in 1991, was debated in 2004 and became topical again in 2012. Ukraine, no doubt, is about continuity above other things: the language, culture, history and everyday way of life – all the things that define a people, their special melody of life. But Ukraine is also an alternative to the much-hated Soviet Union or, more precisely, the Evil Empire in its various incarnations. This is how it is viewed by many contemporary Ukrainian patriots (in the true sense of the word) who were seemingly indifferent to the national idea as such a while ago. In other words, Ukraine is to them not so much the past as it is the future, the potential, the chance.

They reject the imperial civilisational project whose marker is still the Russian language. One might even cite the linguistic relativity hypothesis put forward by Americans Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf who claim linguistic structure shapes thought and how speakers comprehend reality. There is nothing exotic or mysterious about that: language is the sum of texts previously written in it. It is psychological inertia and a mental routine.

Furthermore, there is nothing you can do about it: the Russian language and, more broadly, Russian culture gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Pasternak and Shostakovich, Brodsky and Tarkovsky. But it also produced Nicholas I, Lenin, Stalin, Andropov and Putin. It generated a powerful humanitarian tradition but also brought forth an opposing political tradition of neo-feudalism which Russian society has not been able to overcome all these years. The current Russian regime is a vivid example: the decorations may be new, but the essence has been the same since Peter I – all-powerful elites, theft sanctioned from above, indifferent and rude bureaucrats, total ideological control and external expansion with aspirations for messianism. Despite the generally timid but sometimes courageous and even heroic resistance of individual intellectuals, this order rests on the obedient and even aggressive consensus of the majority. Let’s face it: Russian mentality in its past and present form is incapable of anything else in the way of organising everyday life. (Can it change tomorrow?) It is like that worker from the old Soviet joke who stole parts from his plant hoping to build a cart but who ended up with an AK-47 every time.

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