Ukraine, May 15, 1999
Even the Russians are confused by Ukrainian!
Now I'm getting so confused. Everywhere I look, from the advertisements, to the menus, to the visa in my passport, everything is written in Ukrainian. Whenever I listen to the radio, watch TV, or listen to anyone speak, it's always in Russian. This crazy dichotomy is driving me nuts!
After two hundred years of domination by Russia (with a few centuries of Polish or Latvian rule before), and with a 30% Russian population I can understand the influence of their northern neighbor. What I can't understand, or I don't want to hassle with, is the ubiquitous Ukrainian writing! My Russian reading skills are bad enough, pretty close to zero, and Ukrainian, though its not far from Russian, confuses the hell out of me!
Confused Ukrainians actually stand in a line for the bus!
I'm not the only one in this predicament. Those Russians living here are in the same boat. Though most were required to take Ukrainian in school, they never speak it, and can barley read it. Now, with Ukraine's independence, and its desire to form a Ukrainian state, those Russians are feeling a bit odd. This isn't the Baltics, mind you, where Russians are openly harassed, denied citizenship, and sometimes even deported. Ukraine and Russia are very close neighbors, with only the slightest document check when you cross the border by train, but it does want to be a unique nation. The first step in that direction is the language.
The Ukrainian language started many moons ago, as the root of all the Slavic languages from Russian, to Polish, to Serbian, with a period around 1000 AD being the glorious climax. Since then, with the Tartar invasion of 1240, the Lithuanian/Polish domination, and the outright ban by Tsar Alexander II in 1876, the Ukrainian language has been on the decline.
After Ukraine's absorption in 1795, Russian was the new language to know. Russian got you jobs, housing, and especially during Stalin's reign, maybe even saved your life! After WWII and the horrible Ukrainian famine (while Stalin was exporting grain), there weren't many Ukrainians left to keep the language going. With waves of Russian immigrants, and the obvious advantages of knowing Russian, the native tongue was subjugated until only those outside the government knew the language, and only those outside the city spoke it. That was until Ukrainian independence.
In 1990, Ukrainian was made the official language, and in 1998, all public signs were translated, so now the language is everywhere. Its everywhere just in writing though, as far as I can tell. Maybe I'm wrong, and people are speaking Ukrainian, and my Russian isn't good enough to recognize it, or I think its just an odd accent in someone's Russian, but I doubt it. Russians don't want, or can't speak Ukrainian. Since they were, and usually still are, the ones in powerful positions, the Ukrainians are forced to speak Russian.
I've been asking everyone, Russians and Ukrainians about this linguistic divide. Most Ukrainians are happy that their language is coming back and that kids are studying Ukrainian and English, not Russian in school. The Russians just laugh when I ask, and say that no matter what, Russian will always be spoken here. Somehow, I have to agree with them.