It’s getting lighter here in the evenings at last…literally, if not metaphorically.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been glued to the news sites and social media, following the horrific events in Ukraine.
I’ve also been in contact with some of Russian and Ukrainian friends I’ve made over the years.
When I first visited Russia and the Ukraine in 1990, they were both still part of the Soviet Union.
I spent several weeks in Leningrad and then I flew down to Kiev as the guest of my first Russian teacher and fellow grad-student, Alexei, whom I’d met in Oxford the year before. He speaks native Ukrainian as well and, at home, they spoke both languages.
I stayed a month with his parents, in their large flat in the centre of town. I remember them telling me about the destruction of Kiev that they experienced during WWII. His mother, now a 94-year old widow, is still there as I write this.
I next visited Kiev in 1992 when I was a working on my doctorate in Russian history and based in St Petersburg. After Kiev, I went on to visit another Russian-speaking friend in his home town, Kishinev, capital of Moldova.
From Moldova, we did a trip by train through the Transnistrian strip where there was a live fight going on between Russian soldiers and the newly-independent Moldova. Thirty years later, Transnistria is still occupied by Russian troops. The conflict is “frozen” but there must be a risk that it could now “unfreeze”.
We went on to Odessa. There we visited my Kishinev friend’s sister (then a student crammed into a dorm with four other 18-year olds, now a resident of Moscow).
Next on to the Crimea, where I remember the longest trolley-bus ride you can imagine, from the capital, Simferopol, to Yalta.
Fast forward to the mid noughties and I was an international lawyer working in Moscow.
I went back to the Ukrainian capital several times, including twice to spend Christmas with Alexei and his wife.
Now, thinking back, before Ukrainian independence, we in the UK generally spoke of “the Ukraine”, not “Ukraine”.
When I started grad school in 1989 another student under the same professor was a young Canadian-Ukrainian women.
She kept referring to the country as “Ukraine”.
It sounded like a very odd afffectation.
But to her, a fervent patriot, it was a political statement.
In English, we often use “the” in front of regions (the Mid West, the Black Forest) but don’t usually use “the” in front of the names of proper countries.
In Russian at that time, most people said na Ukraine (on Ukraine) not v Ukraine (in Ukraine). That’s an analogy with “na okraine” (on the edge, outskirts).
When talking about real countries in Russian, the type that have a “right to exist” (V. V. Putin), you usually say “v”.
With the end of the Soviet Union, prepositions got political.
If you say “na Ukraine” in Russian now, you may be implying that Ukraine is not a proper country, just a territory on the edge, the borderlands, of Russia.
Back in early 1990s, I discovered these places in Russian, with Russian speakers. I used the Russian names. After all, the common English versions of the names at that time followed the Russian.
But I also very quickly discovered the Ukrainian versions Kyiv and Odesa and the Romanian (or, as some said, “Moldovan”) version Chișinău.
Language is interwoven with history, identity, power.
It’s no surprise that it’s often a source of struggle, not least in post-independence Ukraine.
This is just a humble language learning newsletter, so I hope it’s not too trivial in these dark days to pull out two language learning conclusions from this trip down memory lane.
FIrst, learning a language, done seriously and over the long term, links you with places.
It adds a new dimension to your citizenship of the planet.
Second, those places have names and, very often, a place has a name in more than one language.
The name most commonly used today may not have been just a few years ago.
I’ve found it good to be inquisitive about the place names that people use and about why they sometimes change.
To get start off to an easy start with this, you can simply check the Wikipedia article for some of the main cities in territories where you target language is spoken.
So, we read that Crimea’s capital, Simfiropol, comes from the Greek Sympheropoli. That means “city of common good”. There’s also a name for the city in the Crimean Tartar language: Sympheropoli (“The White Mosque”).
Start to discover the history of Crimea and you’ll find that it’s no accident that the city has Greek and Tartar names too.
When we learn a new language, we often also come to understand that places are a lot more multi-layered than we maybe thought.
We connect better, get closer to the joy of all this complexity.
And closer to the pain.
Thinking of Ukraine, thinking of Russia…
(13 March 2022)