Wednesday 26 January 2022 – La Minute Monocle
Opinion / Stephane Dalziel
What’s in a name?
When Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union, I spent a year as a student in the capital of Ukraine (illustrated). At the time, it was usually referred to by its Russian pronunciation, “Kiev”. Now we call it Kiev, as the Ukrainians say. These subtleties of language became very important in establishing Ukrainian identity, which was suppressed during the Soviet era.
The very name of the country has also changed slightly but significantly in Russian and English. Consciously or unconsciously, Russians see the word Krai (“edge”) on behalf of Ukraine; Vladimir Putin certainly sees it that way, believing that Ukraine is on the edge of what he still seems to view as the Russian empire. In the past, Russians referred to things that happened na Ukraine (literally “over Ukraine”); now good russian is v Ukraine (“in Ukraine”). And for the same reason, don’t make the mistake of saying “Ukraine” in English. It’s just Ukraine. It doesn’t sound like “England”, does it?
It’s not just semantics. How a country sees itself and how it wants to be viewed by others is vital to its sense of national identity. The Russian and Ukrainian languages are similar but no more identical than Spanish and Italian. There are also cultural similarities, as well as differences. In music, the Russians play the balalaika; Ukrainians play bandura. But perhaps the biggest difference now is that after the collapse of the USSR, Ukrainians discovered a vital concept that sets them apart from Russians: they now know what it means to live in a free and sovereign state. They certainly don’t want a return to the kind of Soviet serfdom that Putin has to offer.
Stephen Dalziel is a Russia expert, author and regular contributor to Monocle 24. You can hear more about him in the latest edition of “The Monocle Daily”. Read a dispatch from Kiev by novelist Artem Chekh in the February issue of Monocle, out tomorrow.