Saturday, May 04, 2013

The neurotic side of Ukrainian patriotism

This is probably hardly worth commenting on, but I nonetheless felt that I had to get it off my chest, and after all what are blogs for?

On 26th April the world, or part of it anyway, rightly chose to remember the Chernobyl catastrophe which, whilst on the territory of what is now Ukraine, contaminated a swathe of Belarus, parts of Russia and places as far away as Anglesey, North Wales.  It is in Ukraine that the catastrophe is most poignantly remembered. It doesn't help that in Belarus President Lukashenka has taken a policy of ambivalence towards the disaster. It must be remembered, along with other pivotal catastrophes that have shaped Ukraine as it is today.

However, one Ukrainian language page took its tribute to the absurd extent of claiming that Chernobyl was 'another stage of ethnic genocide against the Ukrainian people'. I considered letting this go, but clearly to claim any such thing is a travesty and grossly insulting to all those who've suffered, as the radioactive cloud knew no borders. Power stations of the very same type existed throughout the USSR, and one still operates close to Moscow itself. I've written on this blog before about the importance of remembering both the Holodomor and the 'shot renaissance' and the strong case for considering these genocidal acts, but to see a seamless link between this and Chernobyl invites that dreaded word pathological. It's actually a hideous comparison if you think about it, to somehow compare the engineers whose mistake lead to atomic meltdown to Stalin. How will Ukrainians be taken seriously if those that claim to represent Ukrainian patriotism come out with such careless and neurotic nonsense, well meaning or otherwise. It also doesn't help if, when pointing this out, one is simply dismissed as 'idiotic'. These things matter. Just witness what happens when the next western media outlet calls Auschwitz a 'Polish death camp'.

That same page a few weeks earlier carried a picture of one of the signs at Palats Sportu metro station which, as a complete anomaly on the Kiev metro which now exclusively uses Ukrainian, retains a single sign using the Russian name Dvarets Sporta. The fact is that, when the station was built, the policy of the Kiev metro was bilingualism, so signs in the same style can be found also in Ukrainian, and this is little more than a quirky survivor of its age and an attempt at something like art deco style. The said page seemed to be calling for its destruction irrespective of all other considerations, and most of the comments were vitriolic in condemning this poor little sign. Of course most Kievans aren't too bothered about it. What about all the Soviet symbols still to be found on numerous metro stations there? Isn't removing those a more noble cause than picking on a single sign in Russian?

Ukrainian is and should be Ukraine's national language, and with at least, for argument's sake, 25m odd first language speakers, more than many other national languages in Europe, it is not small beer. I personally prefer to use Ukrainian in the shops and cafes in Kiev and normally encounter no prejudice doing so.

What worries me is that if the Ukrainian language cause is dominated by nutjobs like this, the real cause of the Ukrainian language won't be taken seriously. Rather like those Kyiv campaigners who think that the best way to protect a language is to preach to the mother tongue speakers of another language about what words they should use. Some Ukrainian patriots clearly desire an eradication of other languages from Ukraine which is no better than the desire of others to marginalise Ukrainian. At this rate you have to wonder if the careless 'genocide' label might be applied in the other direction. Good intentions, but careless words.


Mr.Hack said...

Although I wholeheartedly agree with your criticism of those that try to depict the Chernobyl disaster as a form of Ukrainian genocide, I think that there may be more credence to the cause of removing the Russian language placard within the Kyivan metro system. As you point out, the vast majority of the signs there have already been supplanted by Ukrainian language ones. Also, by your own admission, many Kyivans (not necessariy professional elitist nationalist types) also expressed their disatisfaction with the current state of affairs. I do, however, see your point of view here, that incorporating the Russian language sign along with the art deco exterior of the facade, maintains more of a historical continuity. But then again, perhaps it was just this 'historical continuity' that the local citizenry wanted to escape? I can go back and forth on this one??.....

Jonathan Hibberd said...

I can see what you mean. Russian isn't an official language of Ukraine and it isn't the language in use on the metro system.

In terms of historical continuity, what concerns me far more is the indifference of the local citizenry to the Soviet symbols still found in many metro stations, or Teatralna which is still full of Leninist propaganda slogans. I'd love to see these removed and put in a museum somewhere rather than continuing to pervade everyday life. I'd love to see the end of street names like Heroiv Stalingrada too (how can we have a street name which includes the name of the biggest murderer of Ukrainian people). I don't expect it to happen any time soon but I think that is a more worthy cause than picking on the only sign in Russian on the whole metro.