How do you know that you love your homeland properly? Why would a war draw you back to the place you tried to escape in peacetime? What does it mean to inhabit a language that comes with political baggage?
Three women authors who were born just before their country’s rebirth reflect on belonging, identity, and displacement. Olesya Khromeychuk, Sasha Dovzhyk, and Iryna Shuvalova come from different parts of Ukraine – west, southeast, and center – but their texts are replete with shared experiences. All three left Ukraine to live elsewhere, but their essays are declarations of uneasy love for the country they left behind.
This essay was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
I vividly remember my best friend bursting into tears in the middle of the World Literature lesson.
We must have been around 14. The class was doing 20th-century Russian poetry, and our teacher assumed we should read it in Russian. This was in the early 2000s – barely a decade since the Soviet Union cracked open like an ugly Russian doll, and Ukraine, along with the rest of the former ‘brotherly nations’, sped off on its own. No wonder that almost everyone at our school in Kyiv spoke and read reasonably good Russian. After all, it was once the lingua franca of the big red motherland, even if we had few recollections of the latter.
That was, however, not the case for my friend Ksenia. Born to a family of second-generation Ukrainian immigrants in the UK, she had at that point just recently come to live in her half-mythical ancestral homeland for the first time in her life. She knew no Russian. Not a word of it. Standing in front of the class and struggling through Sergei Yesenin’s descriptions of birch trees, Ksenia kept trying to harness the words of an unfamiliar tongue, albeit one written in a familiar Cyrillic script. She was not doing well at all. Her Russian sounded funny: consonants too soft, vowels all wrong. Some kids snickered.
Ksenia, not even half-way through the poem and tears already shimmering in her eyes, glanced pleadingly in our teacher’s direction. There was no response. Our teacher was completely dumbstruck by the unheard-of spectacle of a Ukrainian child not proficient in Russian.
Language is a complicated matter in Ukraine, as anyone will tell you. We make a big deal out of it – we, the Ukrainian speakers, we, the Russian speakers, and we (a likely majority), the speakers of both. We, who mix the two languages into a delightful (or horrible, depending on whom you ask) mishmash known as surzhyk. We, who speak Ukrainian to our parents and Russian to our friends, or the other way around. We, who switch effortlessly between the two, and we, who stick to a preferred one. We who manage to have perfectly civil conversations where each party speaks a different language, and also we, who argue bitterly when speaking the same tongue.
We will all agree that language matters in Ukraine, before we disagree on the which and the why and the how of the issue.
As a child, I shared our crammed family apartment with my mom, my maternal grandparents, and an assortment of languages.
There was my grandpa, a shy, taciturn man from a small village in the Kyiv region. When he did choose to speak, he was a speaker of Ukrainian. I loved my grandpa’s silences even before I loved his language. An introverted and precocious child, I found his shyness relatable. When in the summer we would travel back to his native village, he would spend days on end lost somewhere in the depths of our old overgrown orchard. From the house, I would only hear the rhythmic whooshing of his scythe – a strangely reassuring sound that would confirm that all was well with the world, and the tall summer grasses, once cut down, would eventually grow back again.
Then, there was my grandma: a diminutive but fierce woman from the region of Sumy close to the border with Russia. When she was still a teen in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, they forced her onto a cargo train along with hundreds of other terrified youngsters and packed her off to Poland, where she was forced to work on a German farm. Even in her 90s, she still remembered a couple of phrases in German; among them was ‘Mein Gott, Anna!’ – the jokingly exasperated exclamation of the German farm owner, who, my grandmother said, was a kindly man. He was clearly having trouble handling my grandma’s feisty character, just like we would one day. Later in life, her spoken language was a mix of Russian and Ukrainian, mostly delivered in an uncompromising, commanding tone.
Finally, there was my mother. When she started school in Kyiv in 1964, Russian was the language of instruction. Her classmates hardly ever spoke Ukrainian, even though, after class, many went home to their Ukrainian-speaking families. Generally, Russian was the language that would at least get you somewhere in life – to a university or to a good job, or even to a more fortunate part of the vast Soviet terra firma. While Russian failed to secure my mom a fancy posting, her monotonous role at a state-run plant was still far better than pulling the heavy levers of the excavator all day, like my grandpa did, or alternating between cleaning and sewing jobs like my grandma. My mom spoke Russian to her friends and colleagues. Then, at home, she would switch to my grandfather’s Ukrainian or to my grandmother’s surzhyk, or to whichever language she and I would happen to speak on that particular day.
In a country where language was and remains an intensely political matter, my family, like many others, sleepwalked through the minefield. We navigated languages like a city dweller navigates a complex subway system – without thinking. While plenty of people fought and died in defense of Ukraine’s cultural, historical, and linguistic identity, people like us were the passengers of language, just like we were the passengers of history, carried by its massive chuffing and clanking vehicles in an unknown direction. We were too preoccupied with the sheer daily business of survival.
Once I started school in the newly independent Ukraine of the early 1990s, I was suddenly faced with the fact that language was, indeed, something very political.
Rarely did the word referring to Ukrainian language (mova) appear in our textbooks without a string of poignant and poetic attributes attached to it. While Russian was simply what one spoke without thinking when buying gum at the kiosk, Ukrainian, for some reason, was never simply ‘a language’, but rather ‘a guelder rose tongue’, ‘a nightingales’ tongue’, ‘a song-like tongue’, and so on, and so forth. Like some pale and frail grandee, it came burdened with the weight of its titles. We repeated them automatically and learned them by heart, but the more we recited them, over and over, the less meaning they carried.
As we got older, we were made to understand that ours was not the language one simply used. Ukrainian was the language one loved – preferably, to the point of being ready to die for it. Or at least so some poets said. At 16 I too was a fledgling poet, but unlike my illustrious peers, I was disturbed by the idea of dying for anything, even for the beautiful, powerful, irresistible thing that was my language. While I was aware of the bitter history that led people to put it on the pedestal and guard it so very vigilantly, I could not deny that at certain points the whole thing began to look excessive.
The history was indeed ugly. Ukrainian dismissed as a dialect of Russian. Ukrainian banned from schools. Ukrainian the language of village bums. Ukrainian the clumsy speech of Russia’s ‘younger brother’. Ukrainian the hilarious mumbling for comic relief. Ukrainian not what one would use to write serious literature. Ukrainian the ramblings of crazy dissidents. Ukrainian the ravings of Nazi collaborators. Ukrainian that, some said, never existed at all.
Yet, knowing all this, I could not bring myself to accept the tired vocabulary that tied a living, breathing, writhing, bursting language to its painful history. It felt like in order to fully come into its own my language had to rewrite itself once again – skin itself alive, shed its lizard tail, get rid of the sodden nightingales, regrow two heads in place of each one it lost, like a hydra. Perhaps, I thought, this is where I could help. Perhaps, this is what poetry does, after all.
Sometimes, I want my language to be just language. Not a weapon, not a treasure, not the tongue of guelder rose. Not a thing to fight for. Not a thing to fight with. A thing one uses mindlessly, like when we scratch our head with our hand.
Sometimes, I want to finally stop explaining the differences between Ukrainian and Russian. I want to speak to the people in the streets of my hometown without a second thought, without second-guessing which language they might choose to reply in and how that should colour our conversation.
Occasionally, I no longer want for my language to be political: banned, sanctified, denounced, revered, mocked, risen like a phoenix from the ashes. I no longer want its heavy history and complicated past. I want its lovely vowels and its jagged consonants. Its multisyllabic words. Its intricate, maddening grammar. Sometimes, I want it to be just language.
But as a poet, I should know better, really. Martin Heidegger once said that language was the house of Being. Yet it is also the home of beings – smaller, usually non-capitalised creatures who, with their tongues and hands, build up walls of words around their soft vulnerable bodies, shielding themselves against the gods and monsters of the turbulent universe.
While the latter drops shooting stars straight on our heads and hits our homes with artillery shells, we fend them off as best we can, shouting our rage at the skies from the only home left to us: a shaky, precarious structure made of words.
Language is many things, but it is never just language. The mova I write in is the history I live in. It’s a burned house, blood-soaked mud, but it is also my grandfather’s orchard where I can come to lie down under the old, twisted apple trees. Framed by their branches, the sky looks less like a menace and more like a thing capable of love.
Iryna Shuvalova is a poet, translator, and scholar from Ukraine. She is the author of five award-winning books of poetry, including the bilingual Pray to the Empty Wells published in the US in 2019, as well as her most recent collection in Ukrainian, stoneorchardwoods (kamin’sadlis, 2020), which was named poetry book of the year by Ukraine’s Litakcent Prize for Literature. Her new poetry collection, The Ending Songs (Kinechni pisni), is forthcoming in 2022. Her poems have been translated into nine languages. She holds a PhD in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. She is a member of PEN Ukraine. Originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, she has lived in Greece, the UK, and the US. She now lives and works between Ukraine and China.
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