When Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union, I spent a year as a student in the capital of Ukraine (pictured). At the time it was usually referred to with its Russian pronunciation, “Kiev”. Now we call it Kyiv, the way Ukrainians say it. Such subtleties of language have become very important in the establishment of the Ukrainian identity, which was suppressed in Soviet times.
The very name of the country has also changed slightly but significantly in Russian and in English. Consciously or unconsciously, Russians see the word krai (“edge”) in the name Ukraine; Vladimir Putin certainly sees it that way, believing that Ukraine is the edge of what he still seems to regard as the Russian empire. In the past, Russians referred to things taking place na Ukrainye (literally “on Ukraine”); now the correct Russian is v Ukrainye (“in Ukraine”). And for the same reason, please don’t make the mistake of saying in English “the Ukraine”. It’s just Ukraine. We wouldn’t say “the England”, would we?
This is not mere semantics. How a country sees itself and how it wants to be regarded by others is vital to its sense of nationhood. The Russian and Ukrainian languages are similar but no more the same than are Spanish and Italian. There are also cultural similarities, as well as differences. In music, Russians play the balalaika; Ukrainians play the bandura. But perhaps the biggest difference now is that, after the collapse of the USSR, Ukrainians have discovered a vital concept that distinguishes them from Russians: they now know what it means to live in a free, 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 from him on the latest edition of ‘The Monocle Daily’. Read a dispatch from Kyiv by novelist Artem Chekh in the February issue of Monocle, which is out tomorrow.