In my work with Ukrainian refugees, I am often asked why I interact with them in Russian – the language of the aggressor.
The reality in Ukraine, in fact, is much more complex. Strong linguistic, religious, cultural and family ties with Russia have contributed to numerous political contradictions within Ukraine. These contradictions made themselves evident, for example, in the election of alternating pro-European and pro- Russian presidents in the country’s past. Tensions between pro-European and pro-Russian protesters flared up in 2014 following the Maidan Revolution. More generally, contradictions are reflected in the use of language: most Ukrainians are bilingual and especially in the south and the east, the everyday language is Russian.
In this context, Vladimir Putin’s idea that the Russian- speaking population of Ukraine would welcome an “all-Russian” nation does not seem too far-fetched. His narrative, outlined in his 2021 article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” assumes that Ukrainian national identity is an artificial creation fomented by external forces in geopolitical competition with Russia. He claims that the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians together form a triune nation and possess a common history rooted in Kyivan Rus, and it is therefore necessary to re-orient Ukrainian society towards Russia.
However, Putin grossly miscalculated.
The stories below are an attempt to capture the intricacies of Ukrainian identity, seen through the eyes of three young Ukrainians from Russian- speaking parts of the country. It is an attempt to show that a complex national identity does not mean it is fragile – especially when it is forced to fight for its existence.
“Maybe I am simply not yet ready to accept this new reality”
Maia, 25, Kharkiv
Maia is based in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city located in the northeast of the country – only 40 km to the Russian border. She is currently working from home – the public transport in her city has not been running since the war started. It puzzles me how she seems to have adapted to the bombardment and constant air raid sirens. By now, she can tell when the bombardment is far away, even though it seems close. However, when rockets get close and are accompanied by a whistle, it’s impossible to say how close it really is – two houses away, or ten. During an ongoing bombardment, the internet is not a reliable source of information to locate the explosions. This is because uploading pictures, videos or positions is forbidden in order to prevent the enemy from honing in on their attacks. In some districts, living became impossible – flattened buildings, no communication, destroyed infrastructure.
Many of her friends have left the city and fled to western Ukraine or abroad. Her close friend who lived in a five-floor residential building that was bombed and completely destroyed back in February was forced to seek refuge in one of the city’s underground subway stations for days. One night in mid-April, a shell hit the house of her mother and grandmother in the suburbs of Kharkiv. Luckily, her family survived. Maia gets angry when she hears the Russians claiming that they are not targeting civilian objects. Hearing those claims, she says, is mind- numbing: “how can people live in such a different reality – and do they really believe what they say?”
When I ask her why she didn’t leave Kharkiv she tells me it is a sensitive question. Her family, her boyfriend, her friends and her job are all there. She doesn’t have the capacity to leave her whole life behind. Maybe, she admits, she is simply not yet ready to accept this new reality.
When she reads about what happens in the occupied zones, Mariupol or Kherson, fear creeps in. The Russians were planning to occupy Kharkiv, but they failed. They expected Kharkiv to welcome them with open arms because the residents are Russian- speaking. “But nobody was waiting for them,” she says, “no matter what language we speak.”
Growing up in a family who cherished the Soviet period, she has always felt very close to Russia. However, studying law later at university, she began to understand the importance of Ukraine as an independent state. And an independent state has the legitimacy to follow its own path of international relations, to have its own official language for its laws and public documents. This stance very much challenged her grandmother’s view, and they had a lot of fights, especially on the matter of the Ukrainian language.
Now, Maia feels sorry for her grandmother. Having oriented herself to Russia ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, her grandmother cannot believe that Russia is doing this to Ukraine. Everything her grandmother has relied on for her whole life, her worldview, her beliefs – it just fell apart.
“Russian, Ukrainian – it has never played a role in my life before”
Tima, 18, Odesa – Vienna
Tima is the only interviewee I have been able to meet in person. Sitting across from me in a Viennese coffee shop, he was in Odesa less than two months ago. His story is incredible. In the first days of March, his family sent him off to the Ukrainian-Moldovian border right before he turned eighteen – the age at which he might have been conscripted into the army. His journey to Vienna lasted six days. It included hours upon hours of waiting at the border, after which he had to find accommodation in Chisinau’s overcrowded emergency centres. After a few days, he finally boarded a train heading west. On the way, he met two Ukrainians roughly his age who accompanied him. He did not have Austria in mind as his final destination, but one of his two new friends had a brother here, so he decided to tag along with him.
In Austria, he spent his first weeks in sports halls in Freistadt and later in Steyr – two small towns more than two hours away from Vienna. His online school classes started in mid-March. The sports hall of Steyr, with hundreds of sleeping spots, was an uncomfortable environment for attending online classes. But he was lucky: a volunteer in Steyr quickly found him a host family in Vienna. The family helped him to get settled in Vienna with all his necessary documentation. He has his own room now and three host siblings aged seven, twelve and sixteen.
He calls his family every day. However, when there are air raid sirens in Ukraine the connection often breaks and he can’t reach his family for hours. He says that they didn’t expect the war to happen until the very last day. His father is Ukrainian, his mother is Russian. Russian, Ukrainian – it has never played a role in his life before. In Odesa everybody speaks Russian, just as in most of the major cities, he explains.
Unfortunately, his grandmother in Russia does not believe that the Russian army is shelling civilian targets. Tima stopped talking with her about that topic – “it doesn’t lead anywhere,” he says.
He often reads the news, including Russian sources. In April, a missile struck a railway station in Kramatorsk and killed people leaving the city. Kramatorsk is a bottleneck for ongoing evacuations in the Ukrainian- controlled part of Donbas, the very east of the country. Tima says the Russian media claimed that the Ukrainian army was responsible for the missile. He is astounded that people actually believe this. When he left a user comment on RIA Novosti, a major Russian state-owned news agency, – “Read more than one news source” – the site blocked him.
“We are disappointed by Europe’s reaction to Russia’s invasion”
Arthur, 30, Kyiv
Formerly Russian-speaking, Arthur completely ceased using the Russian language as a result of Russia’s aggression in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. For this interview, he agreed to make an exemption – for the first time in three years.
When I ask him if people around him expected an invasion to happen, he says it was in the air. He lives close to a gun store and remembers that a few weeks before the invasion people were lining up to buy guns, even women. Some people already had emergency suitcases packed. Yet at the same time, he adds, one simply doesn’t want to believe that in 2022, in the twenty-first century, something like this could happen. Most people didn’t believe it would amount to an all-out invasion.
He tells me extensively about the atmosphere in the first days of the invasion. “When the President addressed the country and asked us to fight, we understood that the time had come to take up arms and fight,” he says. So, ten days into the war he decided to join the army. However, the army doesn’t take people who have not yet completed basic military service. Arthur was exempted back in school and would now be conscripted into the army only in the fourth wave of mobilization, which has not yet happened. Since 2014, the Ukrainian army has gained more soldiers than they had expected, and they are overstaffed.
He continues: his euphoria to fight lasted for a few days. Then, he realized that not everybody is built for battle – hunting and fighting in a war are two different things. He started to understand that some people were of more use here in Kyiv as volunteers – or simply at work. Because apart from the frontline, there is also the economy that needs manpower. He works from home, creating 3D-models for design furniture. His company moved to western Ukraine shortly before the war.
At the moment, things in Kyiv have become quieter. One hears air raid sirens much less frequently than the first month of war. People who fled the city are coming back – nobody really believes Kyiv will again be in danger of being captured. His parents, however, live in one of the newly occupied zones, in Kalanchak, a village located on one of the only two streets running from Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland. His mother has left the occupied zone by now with the help of volunteers who bribed Russian soldiers at the checkpoint. Kalanchak belongs to the region of Kherson, the first major city that fell to Russian forces. Similar to Kharkiv, both Russians and Ukrainians expected the city of Kherson to welcome the Russian army, because its residents mostly speak Russian. More so because Kherson voted pro-Russian politicians into the Ukrainian Parliament in the 2019 elections. Even to the surprise of many Ukrainians, many inhabitants took to the streets holding up the Ukrainian flag. The message was clear: “Kherson is Ukraine,” “Russians – go home.” When the world found out about the horrors in Bucha, his mother was still in the occupied zone. She told Arthur that some of the Russian soldiers there took down the Russian flags as a result of the Bucha killings. Of course, that doesn’t acquit them of anything, he adds.
The reaction of the European leaders to Russia’s invasion disappoints him. He describes that in 2014, when Crimea was annexed by the Russians, all the European leaders were “deeply concerned,” but none of them took any actions. Back then people were laughing and making memes out of their inaction. “But now it is different,” he says, “now it makes us angry.” Tolerance is a virtue – but now is not the right time for it.
Ukrainian civic identity indeed is complex. However, Putin’s myopic view of Ukraine backfired in its most crucial point: both he and other Russian officials were blind to the Ukrainization that has taken place since 2014. They were blind to the fact that the driver of this process has not merely been the implementation of new laws by pro-Western governments, but a growing civic consciousness among Ukrainians. Not only has the Russian invasion in Ukraine further consolidated Ukrainian civic identity, it has also brought Ukrainians from different religious, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds closer together in their hopes to build a better future for themselves and their families.
Written by Sabrina Kaschowitz; Edited by Christine Uhlig
Photo Credit to Maximilian Müller