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:

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Kateryna Handz­iuk

Kateryna Handz­iuk's op-ed piece on Kher­son in 2017

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.”

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.

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