A tale of at least two languages

... in a city halfway between Kyiv and Lviv

Russian speakers in Ukraine are part of the “Russian World”, Vladimir Putin repeatedly claims; which is how he legitimizes Russia’s intervention in the country. That said, every third Ukrainian speaks Russian. According to current surveys, 15 per cent indicate Russian exclusively as their native language, and 22 per cent both Russian and Ukrainian. But what is the real significance of language? In order to find out, Irina Serdyuk made her way to Khmelnytskyi, a city of 300,000 residents halfway between Kyiv and Lviv.

On the train from Dnipro to Khmelnytskyi. The guard pours us tea. The clinking of teaspoons is no longer to be heard, following the recent introduction of tea stir sticks. Travellers talk quietly among themselves. A 14-year-old boy sits by the window and takes one piece of treasure out of his rucksack after another. A military packet of processed food, bullet casings and fragments of ammunition. Maxym explains how he spent the summer holidays with his father on the front in Donbas. He was even allowed to shoot a Kalashnikov on the drill ground and drive around with his father in an armoured car. Sometimes his voice falters. Then he continues speaking. Maxym wishes to attend school at a military academy, with a view to defending Ukraine like his father. Fellow travellers listen attentively, wanting to know how the soldiers on the front are doing. Maxym switches effortlessly from Ukrainian to Russian and then back to Ukrainian, depending on the language in which he is spoken to. Khmelnytskyi: the train terminates here.

The city is 800 km away from the front line. There is virtually nothing here to suggest that war continues to the east. The Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, after whom the city is named, assumes the pose of a victor astride a colossal horse on the city’s central square, where he is somewhat obscured by the treetops. As if the city’s residents were uncertain whether they should praise him as the founder of the first Ukrainian Cossack state or condemn him for his allegiance to the Russian Tsar. It was 1954 that the city assumed the hetman’s name, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, with which the Zaporozhian Cossacks declared their allegiance to tsar Alexis I. So who was Bohdan Khmelnytsky: hero or traitor? It remains an open question.

However, it is indisputable that the fortunes of Ukrainians have remained tightly bound up with the history of the Russian empire ever since. But not in a manner favourable to Ukrainians, as soon becomes apparent. In 1876, the tsarist censors, fearful of separatism, banned the Ukrainian language and it remained absent from public life until 1906. During Soviet times, Russian was ubiquitous in Ukraine, as the language of state and of prestige, a transnational language. Consequently, the Russification of the population of Soviet Ukraine was almost total, just as it was in neighbouring Belarus – certainly in the cities –with both countries having national languages that are similar to Russian. However, the process of Russification meant that when Ukraine declared independence 25 years ago, only three out of 30 schools in Khmelnytskyi were Ukrainian, with Russian being the official language at the rest. The complete opposite is true today. What do residents have to say about this reversal – and, above all, which language will they say it in?

Photo: Jewgenij Pedin

Khmelnytskyi is well-known for its theatre. There are even two monotheatres alone, one Russian and one Ukrainian. Theatre “Kut” (“The Corner”) in the centre of the inner city is one of them. It is the only permanent monotheatre in Ukraine. That is: a one-man theatre with its own building. There are only five or six of these in the whole of Europe. I speak to its initiator, director, manager and performer, Volodymyr Smotritel. His repertoire consists of 13 plays, more than any other monotheatre in the world. Performers from all around the world attend his international monotheatre festival. This summer, Volodymyr was pronounced an “artist of the Ukrainian people”. There is no higher accolade. Actually, there must be, counters Volodymyr. He feels like a pear tree that, year in and year out, grows and carries fruit.

The 60-year-old bundle of energy sits with his legs spread, gesticulating in his theatre office, and does not seem old and spent at all. It’s more like he’s just fallen in love. The telephone rings, people come by to look Volodymyr up. He’s a man who’s in demand.

For him, his monotheatre represents the rebirth of Ukrainian dramatic art. But above all, theatre is language. And language is his tool.

“I am not against Russian. Every language is to be treasured”. Occasionally, Russian-language authors also appear on Volodymyr’s stage. But Ukrainian is now the Ukrainians’ mother tongue, it is a gift of nature to the country’s people. It would be fatal to make Russian Ukraine’s second official language. Such an act would be instrumentalized and create conflict.

Volodymyr tells of meetings with the inhabitants of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, entities that are not internationally recognized. “Then I just ask them: ‘Who are you? Where are your roots? What songs and poetry do you have?'” He considers Russian-speakers in Ukraine to be Russified, with up to 90 per cent of them being victims of the totalitarian Muscovite empire.

Among the experiences that made the deepest impression on Volodymyr, is a performance he gave at a theatre festival in Russian Perm in 1989. “I heard how a real Russian performed Yesenin. At the time I swore to myself that Russian on stage remained taboo for me, for I could never manage to read the same way in Russian! It was as if the soul itself were singing. I would never be a Russian!”

He reflected for a moment. “Fair enough, when on stage, I recite the letter that Gogol wrote on his deathbed in the original, in Russian of course, I’m no vandal”. After all, Volodymyr went to school in Moscow for three years. But if a Ukrainian speaks Russian to him, he’ll always answer in Ukrainian.

He talks about his sister, who was assigned a position in Riga after completing her university degree in 1985. She was terribly annoyed at the prospect of being forced to learn to learn Latvian there. “I said to her, quite right, the Latvian nation is on the brink of disaster! You are a nationalist just like Bandera, she then screamed at me. At the time I didn’t even know what this word meant! For five years, we didn’t exchange a single word with one another. Then she came and kneeled before me. How right I had been though, back then. Now she spoke Latvian, had made a career for herself and found friends. She had grown prosperous in every respect”.

Volodymyr’s self-declared mission is to confront people with the question: who am I, and what has happened to me? “So that they do not make a break for greener pastures, but get a hold on their life with their own hands.” Everything that he possesses, he’s had to fight for. He’s knocked on doors, written petitions, done a lot of persuading. Time and again, he fought his own corner. When nothing else worked, he camped outside the city council and went on hunger strike, long before the Maidan in Kyiv. If you don’t fight, says Volodymyr, you loose. There’s no alternative. Upon departing, he invites me to the opening of the season that evening. A premiere! Before which, there’s still a lot to do.

At the newspaper kiosk around the corner, there stands an elderly lady wearing a headscarf; she has a pleasing appearance. “I wrestled with myself for some time before I came here today from my village”, she says, while picking out a doll dressed in a traditional shirt. How can one be so exuberant though, she wonders, when our sons are dying in the East? Her Ukrainian sounds like a lament. “But I am still happy that I came here. Life goes on”.

The kiosk offers dozens of publications for every taste and age. The question as to which language is in the ascendency according to her experience, Russian or Ukrainian, perplexes the saleswoman. With each newspaper sold, she becomes yet more talkative. Fifty-fifty, she suggests. However, that’s not the case in terms of subscriptions. Regarding which, most people take regional Ukrainian newspapers. She knows this from a friend who works in the post office. “My other girl friend lives in Israel”, she explains. “One really has to think about this. In just a short time, the Israelis have brought back to life what was previously practically a dead language – Hebraic”. It may well be that there, many would like to see – her friend included by the way – Russian made the country’s official language, that would be all too convenient for some. The example shows just how important the will of the people is, she says.

She herself is against Russian as a second official language. Were it so, she may as well cancel her orders of Ukrainian newspapers. The saleswoman manages to switch languages three times within one long sentence, from Russian to Ukrainian and back again. Dzerkalo tyshdnja, the Ukrainian Spiegel? No, she doesn’t sell anything like that here, either in Russian or Ukrainian, too intellectual. But one street further along, there’s the youth library, one’s guaranteed to find something like that there.

The 40-year-old librarian Tetyana sits at the entrance. Above her head, a yellow-blue army flag bearing many signatures hangs on the wall. “In gratitude for our donations, from the boys on the front”, she says. Ukrainian is indeed her mother tongue, but she does not have a perfect command of the language, she repeatedly catches herself translating from the Russian. This is no longer the case regarding her children. They speak a nice clean Ukrainian.

Is Pushkin available in Ukrainian translation in the library? Of course, but “Pushkin doesn’t have to be in Ukrainian!” she says assuredly. Pushkin should continue to be taught in Russian in the school curriculum too, she continues, everyone would of course understand that in Ukraine. Today’s pupils are allowed to choose for themselves whether they read Pushkin in the original or in Ukrainian translation in class. Only the smallest minority would opt for Russian, the language is no longer in common usage for most. Which is a shame, because it’s always more beautiful in the original. “The Russians should really read our national poet Taras Shevchenko in Ukrainian too. If we understand Russian then it must be possible the other way round too, surely?”

Tetyana shows me a huge hall with a parquet floor and grand piano. It is here, she says, that the best literary evenings in Khmelnytskyi take place. This is where the regional branch of the Writer’s Union of Ukraine meets every Monday; the Russian equivalent meets every Sunday. “Just give Sergei Nikolaevich Troyanovsky a call. If you’re interested in Pushkin, he’s your man!”

Sergei Nikolaevich does not have a “corner” of his own in Khmelnytskyi. He has a “Voice” instead. That’s the name of his Russian-language monotheater. One can search for this theatre on the city map, but in vain. Where do you feel at home, Sergei Nikolaevich?

“Why in Germany, where else?” Sergei Nikolaevich sits in the newly opened branch of the high-end “Lviv Chocolate Studio” chain and laughs. “But seriously now, I was born in Beelitz near Berlin, my father was in Germany with the army”. He shows me a yellowed photograph from 1954, his father has him on his arm, in the background there’s the ruined Reichstag. His father hails from Ukraine, his mother was a Russian from Lithuania.

He came to Khmelnytskyi in his youth. He already had his first role behind him, that of Prince Yelisei in a fairy tale by Pushkin, which he played in the school theatre. He wanted to study theatre in Moscow. And narrowly missed the cut. It was his father’s dream for Sergei Nikolaevich to follow in his footsteps and make a career for himself in the military; but “the idea of viewing the world through bars horrified me. Like animals in a cage!” There were not many opportunities in Khmelnytskyi at the time.

Thus he became a teacher of Russian literature. He opened the door for his pupils into the fascinating world of books. Those of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. He played theatre with the pupils and was the only teacher far and wide to use the polite form of address with them. Then came the bad old noughties. When the old order finally collapsed and the new one didn’t want to come along. And the nomenklatura appointed themselves mafia bosses. Teachers no longer enjoyed any authority and school directors became wheelers and dealers. It was then that he threw in the towel.

He now had a lot of time for doing theatre. His monotheater is the Russian “Voice” of the Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi. This is no contradiction for him. Ten years ago, Sergei Nikolaevich produced a film called “The Russian Proskurov” – as the city was known until 1954 – for the local television broadcaster. The film was in part about the famous Russian writer Kuprin, who completed his military service here and immortalized what was then a provincial town in his novels. When it comes to Anna Akhmatova, whose mother lived in the area, the second largest museum (after the one in St Petersburg) dedicated to the poet is to be found today in this village. The film brought Sergei Nikolaevich much praise but also prompted some consternation. However, there is nothing he could do about the fact that Russian influences had shaped the city just as Polish or Jewish ones had. Today, the Russian language has degenerated into a political issue. More’s the pity!

“Before, my phone never stopped ringing. Every school wanted to get me in for every special occasion. It was overwhelming, reciting true poetry to the children!” The last time he was invited was 2014. Then came the war and his phone fell silent.

After declaring independence in 1991, continues Sergei Nikolaevich, there was euphoria for a short time as many Russian-speakers in Ukraine were prepared to learn Ukrainian. “Those in possession of power ruined everything. They wanted everything and they wanted it immediately. If you can’t speak Ukrainian on the spot, you’re a bastard!” People therefore began to speak Russian in protest. After the Orange Revolution, the rejection of all things Russian took on a new severity. Sergei Nikolaevich felt like a potential enemy in the country, just because he was a representative of Russian culture. No one would ever openly say so. But that was the state’s official policy, he says.

“When I began to learn Ukrainian, my jaw began to ache. The tongue position is completely different. You constantly have to monitor the hard and soft consonants”. PAL-YA-NY-TSYA – Sergei Nikolaevich demonstrates what he’s talking about with reference to the “unpronounceable Ukrainian word” for “loaf of bread”. “Today I can say it correctly, during my studies, fellow students laughed themselves to death over my pronunciation”. He smiles.

And suddenly, he begins to speak Ukrainian. Sophisticated, literary Ukrainian. And amuses himself at the effect it produces. In 1999 – he still remembers precisely how it was – someone insisted during the course of a literary evening that he read the poem of a local poet who had died aged 48. “I associated the mention of ‘local poet’ with mediocrity. I read and could not believe my eyes. His poetry really hit the mark for me. I said to myself, now you will travel all over the place and recite these poems. In Ukrainian. Thus I began. I read in Kolomyya to the west, the poet’s place of birth. Some imposing fellows wearing Hutsul jackets sat in the hall. I was introduced as the chairperson of the Russian movement. Something sinister flashed across their eyes. One of them stood – I thought my last hour had come – and said in an emotional voice: this Russian deserves our deepest thanks for bringing us back our poet! Since then, I speak Ukrainian”.

A young man greets the group and takes a place at the table next to Sergei Nikolaevich. Pawel is a former pupil. He wishes to take him to a private view at an art gallery later on. Sergei Nikolaevich is supposed to deliver a laudatory speech there. “Gradually, I have also discovered for myself other Ukrainian authors”. Ukrainian is a universe, just as Russian is, he says. However, it is really of no significance, which language you speak. You just need to have a perfect command of it. “But if I hear this awful Surzhyk [a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, Ger. ed.] on the street, I really feel as if I shall be sick…”

“Only, don’t let Sergei Nikolaevich talk about Surzhyk, otherwise we’ll still be sitting here tomorrow”, remarks Pawel. Then a classic joke occurs to him. “What do you call someone who only speaks one language? A Muskovite. And how about someone who speaks three? That’s right, a Ukrainian! And specifically, Ukrainian, Russian and Surzhyk”. Both burst into laughter. “And if you want to hear my opinion…”, Pawel continues. His native language is Russian. Earlier on, he had vociferously campaigned for Russian as a second official language, as had Sergei Nikolaevich.

“But now it’s war. Russian has become the language of the enemy, as terrible as that may sound”. That is the reality, he continues. Many from among their circle of friends have changed their attitude to the Ukrainian language. “We now consciously speak Ukrainian, in order to show our true colours”. Before the war, Pawel hadn’t given such things a thought. Now he recognizes Ukrainian as a symbol of Ukraine, just like the Ukrainian flag or anthem. “And if you support Ukraine, then you support everything that the country symbolizes”. The last three years have seen many things being shaken up. Almost every family he knows has mourned the death of relations or friends, or had to take care of refugees from Donbas or Crimea. Some friends have left for Russia, but he also knows of people who have left Russia to move here. These are hard, but also exciting, times. “For the first time in Ukraine’s history, a political nation is now taking shape here”.

The fact is that Russian has lost the dominant status it possessed during Soviet times in Ukraine. It is currently a foreign language in this country, just like English or German. But no one will stop you from acquiring a perfect command of this language. By the way, one should take Georgia as an example, Pawel continues. After the Russian invasion of 2008, Russian was dropped completely in schools. Now young people can speak perfect English and are no longer susceptible to Russian propaganda.

Admittedly, it is rather excessive if everything Russian is totally rejected, whether films or goods that are “made in Russia”. Russia embodies the idea of an imperium, the idea of the Soviet Union. It is precisely against this that people in Ukraine wish to defend themselves. If the war comes to an end, everything will level itself out again. In Pawel’s family, Russian too is still spoken today. “We still read Pushkin’s fairy tales to children, just like we did before. In the same way we read Ukrainian fairy tales in Ukrainian. Or English ones in English.”

Sergei Nikolaevich gets up. “There can be no surprises, not even the slightest surprise, when it comes to acquiring a language. It is a long and painful process”. It is not entirely clear, to whom he wishes to direct these words.

The new season is opening at monotheater “Kut”. “Poems are for wives, but songs are for everyone!” says Volodymyr Smotritel and plays a ballad that he’s compose himself on his guitar. He sits on the well-lit stage in an overcrowded theatre. His ten-year-old son, who has just rung the theatre bell to signal that the proceedings are about to commence, wears an embroidered Vyshyvanka shirt.

The poems were penned by a famous poet. A CD is presented that may never have been produced, where it not for the sponsorship found through the theatre, says Volodymyr, beaming at the audience for a short while. The author of the poetry acknowledges Volodymyr’s introduction as an invitation. He rises from his seat in the first row and allows himself to be heaved up onto the stage by eager helpers.

“It is so refreshing to be here in this theatre, a place where we can remain silent together, after all, there are more and more chatterboxes all around us”. The audience snigger. In addition, he apologizes for not being completely sober. He has just returned from a funeral. Not that this disrupts the spirited atmosphere in the theatre. The audience sing along, laugh, applaud. At the end, there are a lot of flowers. The largest bouquet consists exclusively of chrysanthemums in the national colours of yellow and blue. “Dobroho wetschora! Enjoy the rest of your evening”, remarks Volodymyr’s son as he bids the audience farewell. And “Slawa Ukrajini! Glory to Ukraine!”

The theatregoers leave the theatre hall in small groups and join the people all dressed up to party, who stroll through the pedestrianized streets. It is a mild evening. “This ‘Corner’, this theatre here, is the spiritual centre for us”, says Maria, 51 years of age, who introduces herself as the chairperson of the regional branch of the Writer’s Union of Ukraine.

Maria says that she writes her poems in Russian and Ukrainian. Recently, she even received a prize for lyric poetry from Russia. She’s not able to explain when or why she feels like speaking one or the other language. Like many others in the city, she completed school in Russian and spoke only Russian. Until in 2004 the Orange Revolution broke out. At which point, she simply poured forth in Ukrainian. She discovered the beauty of the language and her own roots.

Now Maria says she feels a need to recite something from her lyrics, and spontaneously commences on the spot: “The grand boulevard here is a ballroom, where the chestnut trees dance…” A couple of passers-by stop and stand beside her, listening. A young man holds a slip of paper and a phone in his hand. He asks a woman to tap in a number for him. The woman doesn’t immediately understand what he means. Then the man shows her his hands, which have curled-up fingers. They look like claws. “Sorry, sister! I’ve come from the goddamn front. And my fingers don’t do what I want them to anymore”. The woman’s hands tremble as she types the number in.

Published 9 December 2016
Original in German
Translated by Ben Tendler
First published by First published in Eurozine (English and German versions)

© Irina Serdyuk / Eurozine

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