Growing up Ukrainian
by Boris Lutskovsky
My first encounter with the Ukrainian language was violent. I got in a fight with another kid over a toy – after repeated inquisitions regarding the toy’s whereabouts, and his irritating responses in Ukrainian, I was convinced that he was mocking me and resorted to shoving. As far as I was concerned, he deserved to be punished for taking something from me, and worse yet, his brazen use of this savage language in contrast to my enlightened command of Russian language and fists.
Growing up in Kharkiv, in Eastern Ukraine, there was a general consensus that all civilized Soviet people should speak Russian; anyone who doesn’t probably lacks the mental capacity for it. Ideas that Ukrainian-speakers are stupid, greedy, and backwards were so common, they permeated culture. Jokes usually placed Ukrainians into the punchline, textbooks relegated the culture to a status worthy of historical preservation only. We had wings of museums dedicated to Ukrainian culture – it was something we kept around to remind us what we evolved from. We didn’t even deserve a whole museum. A block away from our apartment was a monument to Taras Shevchenko (more on him later), probably the most notable Ukrainian, and a block in the other direction was the KGB, which made sure he was the last notable Ukrainian.
After the USSR disintegrated and all the ex-Republics announced their independence from Moscow, nothing really changed, except a currency crisis every few years and a sudden influx of terrible knockoff products to create a farce of the “free market” – clothes with misspelled American slogans, pizza with ketchup as a primary ingredient, and pirated VHS movies. The KGB stayed (they were just a block away in a giant walled compound). So did the statue of Lenin on the main square, observing all of us, judging our shitty pizza and newly discovered bourgeois living standards. And so did the attitude that we’re all still counterfeit Russians, living a counterfeit life, clinging to a counterfeit culture.
At the time, I had no idea about a nearly 100-year old struggle for Ukrainian independence, Moscow’s attempts to put it down through pogroms, the genocide of the early 30s, political repression, forced dependence on Russian industry, or attempts at eradication of language and culture. And even if I was confronted with the wealth of proof that Moscow has been systematically destroying my cultural identity with popular media, education policies, and the state-controlled press, I wouldn’t have noticed. I was too busy being a typical 10-year old – getting into fights, cheating on tests at school, sneaking into movies, and scaring the hell out of my mother with dangerous antics.
We left Ukraine in the mid-90s, and very quickly settled into a new pattern of denial. Owing mostly to America’s abject failure at teaching geography, coupled with a view that the entire USSR is a drunk crowd of nuke-straddling enemies, my new American friends knew me as a Russian. I suppose it was something like living in the closet – so scared to admit reality that I even convinced myself that I was someone else. So, through my high-school years I was lumped in with all the Russian kids, as if we’re all a homogenous lump of smart-ass jokes and hard-to-understand frowning parents.
Still, lacking the constant reinforcement of anti-Ukrainian stereotypes: that Ukrainians are violent bumpkins who deserve to be eradicated, or that we’re to blame for the Russian Civil War, I softened up a bit. I was stirred by the Orange Revolution at least enough to make an orange scarf, and wear it at least once. It was inspiring to see Americans accept that we exist, that our country has a name, and it’s even worthy of being printed in a newspaper instead of a history book. Even as the Orange Revolution faded into a Kremlin-controlled kleptocracy, I started coming to grips with the fact that I am Ukrainian, and started correcting those who assumed I was Russian. Yeah, we may be a political failure, threatening the world with nuclear winter and economic collapse, but the world has accepted us as something unique finally, not just Russia’s garbage dump.
I met new people from all over the world, many of whom were proud of their culture, even if it had been hijacked by madmen or denied by politicians; I learned what it means when someone says “I’m Persian”, I worked with Yucatec Maya who refused to speak Spanish, and I met Zambians who insisted they were Bemba. In this liberal wonderland in the People’s Republic of Portland, it was perfectly acceptable to be myself, and there were bonus points for being from somewhere obscure, forgotten or downtrodden.
So, today, I’m a proud hyphenated American. I nervously watch Twitter for developments in Crimea, fumble my way through printed Ukrainian, and with every cell in my body want to bash Putin’s head in. But at the same time I realize that one of the trademarks of being a Ukrainian is enduring injustice and human cruelty with faith in a future resolution that is much more beautiful than what my revenge- fantasies can invent. After all, Ukraine’s national hero is Taras Shevechenko – an artist and a poet, who suffered as a slave and secured his freedom through painting and not armed struggle. This is why the Maidan had a piano. This is why the Ukrainian military hasn’t fired a shot against innumerable provocations in Crimea. This is why Ruslana, a Ukrainian singer, has been making the rounds in DC, meeting all sorts of American politicians.
To any of the talking heads on TV, or amateur social-media pundits it’s easy to misclassify the current events in Ukraine as an ethno-linguistic conflict. Pull out a map, point out where they speak Russian and not Ukrainian, draw some lines and make bold idiotic predictions. The more advanced commentators might see a glimpse of a political fight for independence. But neither of these attempts to frame the issue even begin to comprehend a fight for a cultural identity that’s been simmering for nearly 100 years – an identity that brings out the worst in a scared, brainwashed bully that desperately needs a victim in order to exist. The very same identity that I mistook for mockery the first time I encountered it too.
Boris Lutskovsky is a software developer, guitar-pedal manufacturer, and the frontman for the indie band Animal R&R. He lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon.