From Kara: I’m excited to have a guest post by my friend Emily this week, because it brings back some of the cross-cultural flavor that was a strong part of this blog’s origins but has been largely absent in the last year. (Of course, if you’re from outside the U.S. reading this blog, my accounts of life and work in rural Pennsylvania are cross-cultural to you!) Emily is doing her Ph.D. in anthropology at City University of New York and focusing her research on youth political movements in Ukraine. Happy reading!
I’m working on a ten-year relationship with Ukraine, and I regularly face confusion about exactly where I mean when I talk about it. Here are my responses to the most common questions and misconceptions I encounter.
1. Ukraine is not Russia.
Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Historically, pieces of Ukraine belonged to Russia, the Soviet Union, Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — and that’s just in modern history! Ukraine has a long tradition of independence and nationalism, which included the declaration of an independent state from 1918-1921, before most of the country was overtaken by the USSR (although some regions of Western Ukraine didn’t become Soviet until 1945!). Much of the Ukrainian historical tradition draws from Cossack history before the 17th century, when nomadic bands of warriors controlled nearly all of the Ukrainian territory, establishing strongholds called “sich” that are still recognized as Ukrainian pre-state formations. Just find a translation of the current Ukrainian national anthem — it’s full of references to a shared Cossack history being what unites Ukrainians now!
2. “Why do some people say ‘the Ukraine’?”
When you say “the Ukraine” in English, you’re actually denoting a geographic territory, rather than an independent country — it’s preferable to say Ukraine! But this isn’t just a problem in English: when speaking Russian, there are two prepositions that translate to “in” in English. “Na” is usually used for islands or territories, whereas “v” is used for countries. Russians commonly say “na Ukraini” — in the Ukraine — rather than “v Ukraini” — in Ukraine. In Ukraine, it’s considered correct to say “v Ukraini,” because it denotes an independent country, so it’s only appropriate that the English translation reflects the Ukrainian version.
3. “Can’t you just speak Russian there?”
This is a contentious question. Both are Slavic languages, and they share similar grammatical structures. However, their vocabularies are pretty distinct from one another, which partly reflects the influence of Polish on Ukrainian and is partly an indigenous Ukrainian phenomenon. Theoretically, you can get away with only speaking Russian in Ukraine; however, depending on where you go, people respond differently. When I was in Kyiv (the capital) in 2004, almost everyone spoke Russian exclusively. When I spent a month there this summer, I only spoke in Ukrainian, and I heard both languages almost equally from both younger and older people! I don’t recommend speaking Russian in Lviv, in Western Ukraine — it’s considered the most Ukrainian city in the world, and people tend to look down upon Russian-speakers (especially if they are Ukrainian). However, in some cities (like Donetsk or Kharkiv), Russian is considered the language of everyday life, although some people speak Ukrainian intentionally as a political, nationalist move.
First of all, it’s Chornobyl (in Ukrainian)! Last year was the 25th anniversary of the disaster at Chornobyl, which continues to influence life in Ukraine. A lot of scholars have thought about the continuing impact of the nuclear disaster, and the current government is trying to fund a large coffin-like covering for the area to protect people from ongoing radiation. I’ve both read and heard that eating plants like mushrooms still isn’t a great idea, because they can be affected by radiation, but otherwise it doesn’t seem like people’s lives are defined by Chornobyl. My impression is that there are much more important problems that people are dealing with: lack of employment, a corrupt government and failing economy, and less access to free education.
5. Ukraine is good for more than beautiful women and cheap alcohol.
How many of you watched this ad that suggested Dutch women keep their husbands from going to Ukraine to watch soccer this summer because they’d just have sex with prostitutes? Both sex work/trafficking and alcoholism are huge issues in Ukraine now. Ukraine holds a marginal position in the world economy, so not only is alcohol cheap, but almost everything is cheap in Ukraine — if you’re not Ukrainian! Unemployment and underemployment are major problems for Ukrainians, which is one of the reasons women turn to sex work in order to finance their education, feed themselves, and pay rent. Rather than condemning Ukrainians for the government’s inability to rectify these ongoing economic problems, it’s important to contextualize them within the changes processes in the post-Soviet period in which Ukraine’s relationships with Russia, the EU, and the US are being completely reshaped.
All photos are by Emily Channell.