Do you speak Surzhyk?
Commentary on the turmoil in Ukraine often focuses on the division between a Russian-speaking east and a Ukrainian-speaking west. Ethnolinguistic lines, the argument goes, explain the pro-Moscow v. pro-EU camps, pro-protest v. pro-Yanukovich. But the situation is more nuanced than that. The closest thing Maidan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s. Its first martyrs are an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual.
The focus of the revolution is Kiev, and though the Kiev region is often defined as ‘largely Ukrainian speaking’, the same is not true of the city proper which, according to conservative estimates, is approximately 60 per cent Russian-speaking. Educational institutions and TV use Ukrainian (there are legal restrictions), but Russian is the language of the street, the bar, the home. Newspapers and magazines (which follow the market rather than the law) are mostly Russian. People will sometimes say Ukrainian is their first language as that is the language they work in, especially if they work for the state, but they will still communicate informally in Russian. The same goes for all the big cities, as opposed to rural areas, of central Ukraine: Russian dominates in interpersonal communication. But of course everyone speaks a bit of everything and often all of it badly (not so much ‘multi-cultured’, to quote the Odessan psychiatrist and poet Boris Khersonsky, as ‘multi-uncultured’).
Ukraine’s lingua franca is Surzhyk, a motley mix of Ukrainian and Russian (sometimes with bits of Hungarian, Romanian and Polish). In tsarist times it was the slang of Ukrainian-speaking peasants who took up Russian when they came to the big city. Under Stalin, certain Ukrainian words were banned for being nationalist and replaced with Russian ones. Now that Ukrainian is the official language, Russian-speaking officials sometimes have difficulty with it. Watching a session of the Ukrainian parliament can be like observing a secondary school foreign language class.
The west of the country is seen as more straightforwardly mono-Ukrainian than the centre, and it’s certainly true that Halichina, the region around Lviv, has been fighting for national (and linguistic) independence from Austro-Hungarians, Poles and Soviets for centuries: they’re not going to let anyone ruin their ambition now. But Lviv was largely a German and Polish-speaking city until the Second World War. And voting patterns don’t map simply onto the ethnolinguistic divide. Transcarpathia, in the south-west, which is in many ways the most ‘European’ part of the country, with its cross-Schengen trade and communities of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks, voted for Yanukovich in 2010, partly because of business connections and partly out of wariness of its more nationalist neighbours.
Over in Donetsk, in the eastern, ‘Russian’, ‘Yanukovich’ heartlands, the situation is no simpler. According to an 1897 census for Donbass, 24 per cent of the population were ‘Russian’ and 62.5 per cent ‘little Russian’: closer to what we now think of as Ukrainian. Over the next century, the Soviets urbanised and Russianised the region, turning it into the industrial foundry of the USSR, with peoples imported from throughout the empire. Rinat Akhmetov, Donetsk (and Ukraine’s) richest man, one of Yanukovich's backers and the owner of the most expensive flat in London, speaks Russian with a broad Tartar accent. Yanukovich speaks a form of Surzhyk. Thirty-two per cent of people in Donetsk define their cultural traditions as Soviet, and only 30 per cent as Russian.
Meanwhile, in another twist, football fans (of the more violent persuasion) in the ‘Russian’ east, including Donetsk, have pledged their loyalty to Euro-Maidan against Yanukovich. Their sworn enemies are the ‘titushki’, hoodlums paid by the government to attack activists. ‘Titushki’ is one of the neologisms of the Ukrainian revolt, now common in both Ukrainian and Russian, named after Vadim Titushko, a.k.a. ‘Vadik the Romanian’, who was identified attacking journalists in Kiev. The greatest insult you can throw at someone is not an ethnolinguistic slur, ‘Ukrainian’ or ‘Russian’, but to label them a ‘titushka’.
The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v. Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.