The Toothless Hag

6 March 2013, 16:00

The incident in which the Ukrainian language was missing from synchronized translations being offered at the Cabinet of Ministers Club provides an opportunity to shed light on a very important issue – how Ukrainians present the Ukrainian language to foreigners.

For the sake of this column, we will consider “Ukrainians” to be residents of the capital Kyiv, which at least in theory is a cross-section of Ukrainians from all corners of the country.

In which case, the Feb. 8 incident demonstrates how Kyiv residents present the Ukrainian language to foreigners – they don’t. It practically doesn’t exist, just like the button for the Ukrainian translation.

The majority of Kyiv residents approach the Ukrainian language like a hag in the family. You really don’t want to see her. She has a bed in the corner of the attic. Yes, she can be nice during the holidays, when we’re all seated at home around the table. But there’s no need for her to go outside.

However, it’s inevitable that once in a while, she’ll come out into view, in a restaurant menu or television commercial. When a foreigner tries to draw closer to the hag, get to know who she is and what her past is, the typical reaction of a Kyiv resident is to shamefully apologize for her. Sorry, she doesn’t come out often. And trust us, we won’t let her get in your way and inconvenience you.

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The notion that a foreigner would want to learn Ukrainian is beyond the comprehension of the majority of Kyiv residents. Why waste your time? Why stoop to such a level? After all, don’t you see that she’s a toothless hag !?!

Such shame, by the way, comes from the subconscious recognition that it’s partially their fault that she is a hag. From that comes the shame of recognizing that she’s become an inconvenient responsibility, placed on their shoulders by Ukraine’s difficult history, with generation after generation repeatedly denying responsibility for loving and caring for her.

But while some cringe over the hag, others see the beauty of a language that produced works of art known throughout the world, such as Mykola Leontovych’s “Shchedryk” (Carol of the Bells) and the sung Divine Liturgy that fills churches throughout the world.

Only a few Kyiv residents will take upon themselves the heavy burden of explaining just how the Ukrainian language exists – crippled and discriminated against – and how its pitiful existence came to be that way. (Of course, in order to offer such an explanation, you’d have to be conscious of its history in the first place.)

But for the majority of Kyiv residents, she doesn’t exist. At least, not in the present, and some of the Russian-speaking Tkachenkos and Samoylenkos will deny that the Ukrainian language was in their recent past. Of utmost importance is building a career, doing business, making money and enjoying the weekends. The Ukrainian language merely interferes with these goals, which is why many members of the Kyiv business class have mastered the English language instead.

This is especially true of the moneyed pseudo-elite in Kyiv. They are pragmatic and the Ukrainian language offers no pragmatic value (except when they need to speak in front of television cameras on behalf of the Fatherland and UDAR parties. In that case, it offers a benefit because they need the votes of the rabble.)

The reality is quite the opposite – many businessmen, specialists and professionals fear that the Ukrainian language will reduce their status. God forbid their colleagues consider them as someone recently emerged from a village, or a fascist.

I’ve observed how in various offices, when Ukrainian-speakers begin to form a majority in a certain department, then the “party organizers” act “justly” and switch to Russian to ensure “order.” Such “lawlessness” can’t be allowed, lest the company gain a bad reputation.

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And that’s why many representatives of the pseudo-elite speak English a lot better than Ukrainian, a tendency that began several years ago and has become standard practice. Managers, lawyers and accountants eagerly stab at the chance to speak English, but carefully keep Ukrainian in its appropriate place – at a fine distance.

It’s particularly interesting to watch the average Kyiv resident react to a foreigner who actually speaks Ukrainian. In 75 percent of cases, it’s someone who has Ukrainian ancestry, like myself (the majority of Kyiv residents can’t even imagine that there are millions of Ukrainian speakers who live beyond Ukraine’s borders). But in other cases, it’s simply a bright, talented person like Niko Lange, who returned to his native Germany after working in Ukraine.

In my eight years of speaking to Kyiv residents in the Ukrainian language, the reaction is quite positive in 40 percent of the cases. These are the so-called “svidomi” (ethnically conscious Ukrainians) that the Russian government and the Party of Regions would like to banish to the furthest margins of society.

By the way, they’re remarkably successful at this considering that the monthly salaries for academics and teachers are often lower than for a cleaning woman or bus driver.

For another 20 percent, the reaction is very much like, “Ekh! Foo! We’re modern and cosmopolitan and don’t want anything to do with a language that carries with it poverty, backwardness and a history of being oppressed. Why would a cool American lower yourself to such a level and speak that language?”

Of course, they don’t say this in so many words, but that’s what’s ultimately communicated to me through clear hints along the lines of, “Why don’t you look for work in Lviv?”

For example, I was at a translation agency where the manager, a citizen of Ukraine, spoke to me in English for five minutes as I, a U.S. citizen, responded and asked questions in Ukrainian.

Why didn’t I switch to my native English? (It’s even absurd that I’d have to explain myself.) Because I am in that Kyiv that votes for the Fatherland party and claims to support the Ukrainian language. It’s my right to learn and use Ukrainian. Where else can I learn it? Zimbabwe?

If the answer is Lviv, then tell me how can Kyiv be the capital of a country that calls itself “Ukraine.” And why does a Ukrainian state exist at all if the interests of Ukrainian-speakers aren’t protected in their own capital?

As to why the manager did not switch to Ukrainian – when the average German, Polish citizen or Frenchman would have been overjoyed that a foreigner is trying to learn and speak his language – then that’s a question for a sociologist. Though the reaction undoubtedly has its roots an inferiority complex on an individual level, which is too widespread for a healthy society.

By the way, there’s an entire subculture of Ukrainians in Kyiv that exclusively interact with English speakers. It’s evident that these people try to reaffirm themselves in this way. And knowing many such people, I would say that the absolute majority of them refrain from anything Ukrainian.

Another 20 percent can’t even grasp or accept a foreigner who speaks Ukrainian, which is why they react simply in denial. That happened when I, as a journalist, visited the language protest last year and began to speak with one of the hunger strikers.

I told him in Ukrainian that I’m an American journalist and began to ask questions. And he answered my questions in English, very loudly and slowly, as if I not only don’t speak Ukrainian but also suffer from limited intellectual capacities.

Imagine the irony of this picture – a person is starving in protest against the marginalization of the Ukrainian language, explaining this in English to a foreigner, who is speaking to him in Ukrainian.

Yes, I understand why someone would want to speak to me in English, even if I addressed him in Ukrainian. Maybe he wanted to show politeness. Maybe he wanted to impress me with his education. Maybe he wanted to impress his starving friends.

But the hunger-striker acted as if he didn’t notice that I spoke to him in Ukrainian, a practice that’s very widespread among Kyiv’s Russian-speaking majority.

They continue speaking Russian with Ukrainian-speaking foreigners, perhaps thinking that during the many years spent studying Ukrainian, we also found time to master Russian. Again, it’s not possible that a foreign would choose to learn Ukrainian instead of Russian. How could someone have acted so unwisely?

Certainly, there are millions throughout the world who speak Ukrainian without knowing Russian. And all their efforts in learning the Ukrainian language are often reduced to zero when they visit “the capital of worldwide Ukrainianhood” because the majority of Kyiv residents consider it an offense, even a humiliation, to be asked to speak Ukrainian.

The reaction of the remaining 20 percent can be characterized as, “Awesome dude. I’m happy for you. But there’s no way in hell that I’ll reply to you in Ukrainian so let’s speak in English.”

That way, they kill two birds with one stone. Not only do they avoid speaking the “peasant language,” but they also gain the chance to flaunt their knowledge of English in front of others.

Indeed there were occasions when people got offended with me that I greeted them in Ukrainian, or continued to speak with them in Ukrainian instead of English. Imagine – the rude American deprived them of the chance to improve their status! Moreover, he had the nerve to place that yoke of the Ukrainian language upon our relations.

Kyiv’s young professionals have even begun to speak with each other in English, which has gained more popularity in the last five years – a tendency that I would call the “Swissification” of Kyiv.

Just as a German-speaking Swiss will switch to English to communicate with a French-speaking Swiss, a growing number of Russian-speakers are switching to English to communicate with Ukrainian-speakers.

By that logic, the English language could easily replace Russian in business, which would remove a large part of the current language mess.

I worked with someone who answered me daily, “Good morning” when I greeted him, “Dobrohoranku” in Ukrainian. That’s an example of what I’d call the “sovokization” (sovietization) of the English language in Ukraine, in which one person speaks one language, while the other continues speaking another.

Very rarely is that practiced in the countries of the First World except Quebec, the province of Canada where English and French coexist. (By the way, Russian chauvinists, they coexist there, instead of one language submitting to the other, as in Kyiv.)

Nevertheless, even there people will more often than not agree to switch to one of the two languages, rather than continue the strange ping pong between two languages.

Ukrainians often explain their switch to English or Russian as a demonstration of their exceptional hospitality that’s unparalleled in the world. But in my view, that’s like calling a bribe a charitable contribution to the economy.

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What Ukrainians call “hospitality” is truly an excuse to avoid the Ukrainian language – not only with foreigners, but amongst each other. I would more accurately characterize this as an unabashed, unregretful “national accommodation complex.”

If Ukrainians are always being so “hospitable,” then how is a foreigner going to learn anything about the Ukrainian language or culture? From books and the Internet? He’ll leave Kyiv knowing only “Pozhaluysta,” having swigged down a mug of Obolon beer and visited the striptease bars of Chervonoarmiyska Street.

But then again, who will show him the culture if few Ukrainians know it themselves, and even fewer see something enchanting about it?

As a former editor at the Kyiv Post, I read letters from foreigners complaining about the remnants of the Ukrainian language in the few corners of society where it’s barely surviving, namely the movie theatres (no other form of mass media has an adequate representation of the Ukrainian language).

They would not dare beso arrogant and disrespectful towards the Ukrainian language if they hadn’t seen the same attitude among their Ukrainian acquaintances. Simply put, if you don’t respect yourself, don’t expect others will.

Ukrainians ignore the Ukrainian language in their communication with foreigners as a result of a deep inferiority complex on an individual level that manifests itself into a сultural cringe complex on a collective level.

But the second factor is even more critical – it’s the complete ignorance and indifference of many people to the history of their own country and even their own family.

It’s that lack of consciousness about one’s own past, and who you are now, that influences all aspects of the dysfunction of Ukrainian society – the impolite store clerks, thieving bureaucrats, brutal police officers, corrupt politicians and the millions of people who encourage them by voting for them. It’s all interconnected and you can’t claim that the language issue is unrelated to all this.

Kyiv’s residents ought to realize the Euro-integration inevitably will require priority status for the Ukrainian language in all spheres of life, including government institutions and private offices. And there’ll be not hundreds, but thousands of “troublemakers” like myself, and those diplomats in the Cabinet of Ministers Club, who will make sure that that happens even if Ukrainians don’t do it themselves.

Those who are trying to ignore the Ukrainian language will be made to realize that they’ll never escape it, so long as the name of this country is “Ukraine.”

And while your fellow citizens must bear your disrespect towards Ukrainian – as a result of the absence of rule of law and the accumulation of capital among Russian-speakers – there are many of us in the Western world who won’t allow you to hide your hag in the attic.

We will demand that you buy her a new pair of shoes and celebrate her birthday. Outdoors. Because hiding your hag hurts you more than it hurts anyone else.

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