Columns

Collateral Damage

Stephen Henighan

A sixty-five-year-old woman who lives in my friend Fedir’s apartment building in Kyiv went to work in the garden plot of her cottage on the edge of the city. Glancing up, she saw Russian soldiers approaching. She watched as young people came out to challenge the soldiers in Ukrainian and were shot dead in front of her. Speaking to the soldiers in Russian to give them the impression that she accepted Russian dominance, Fedir’s neighbour retreated to her cottage’s dirt-floored cellar. She lived there for two weeks, surviving on vegetables from her garden. By the time she was able to creep out at night and slip into the city centre, Russian soldiers had taken up residence in her cottage.

Fedir and I met twenty years ago, when we were roommates for a month while taking an advanced Romanian course in Baia Mare, Romania. We both became translators of the early twentieth-century writer Mihail Sebastian, I into English and Fedir into Ukrainian. For years we spoke of finding an excuse for Fedir to travel to Canada or me to travel to Kyiv. It never happened; our most recent in-person meeting, in 218, took place in Romania. A single man in his fifties, Fedir belongs to a generation that grew up as Russian-speaking citizens of the Soviet Union. Though his late mother was a nationalist poet who wrote verse in Ukrainian during the Soviet period, Fedir learned to be cautious in his assertions of Ukrainian identity. He applauded the young Ukrainians who fought for democracy and ties to the European Union during the crisis of 214, when Russia occupied Crimea, started a war on Ukraine’s eastern border and tried to install a puppet president in Kyiv. Yet, as much as he admired these young people, Fedir continued to distinguish between the Kremlin and the Russian language: between the colonizing apparatus and the cultural achievements of Russian writers and thinkers. His students, increasingly, did not. In 219 Fedir wrote to me that when teaching the history of ancient Greece and Rome, he could no longer assign secondary reading by the Russian scholars from whom he had learned about the subject. Though Ukrainian and Russian are mutually comprehensible, his students now replied to the assignment of Russian-language reading with, “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian.”

Ukraine has accelerated its transition towards nationhood with a speed that has outraged Russian assumptions and bewildered some Ukrainians. Much is gained in building a nation; riches can also be lost. I first entered Ukraine on a July morning in 1994, one of a busload of ESL teachers heading east. After a night driving through the Polish forest, we reached the Ukrainian border at 5 a.m. The border crossing took three and a half hours. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist two and a half years earlier, yet the scrappy paper forms we were obliged to fill in told us we were entering “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” and must present for inspection all “printed matter, manuscripts, films, sound recordings, postage stamps, graphics, etc.” The use of residual Soviet forms and bureaucracy, invoking the censorship of the past, made Ukraine feel as though it lacked the apparatus of a nation. The transition from Poland was chastening. The fields were smaller and scrubbier, the roads were cluttered with loose fowl, old women in scarves, children without shirts or shoes. The city of Lviv was wreathed in whitish smog. The country did not have a formal currency, only the Karbovanet, popularly known as a coupon, which traded at 45, to the US dollar. Behind the desolation rose the grandiose lines of Habsburg architecture, attesting that western Ukraine shared a history with Prague or Budapest rather than Moscow, or even Kyiv.

I was reminded of this cultural diversity on a later visit to the western part of the country in 28. In Suceava, in northern Romania, I innocently boarded a bus that served as a vehicle for a smuggling run. The driver and the women lugging huge bags of contraband on board were astonished to see a foreigner appear and hand the driver a ticket. This time my entry to Ukraine was effortless as the border officials had been paid off. I was visiting Chernivtsi, which Romanians call Cernăuţi. Due to the scrambling of borders in eastern Europe, this city—where Romania’s national poet, Mihai Eminescu, spent his childhood—is now inside Ukraine. The number of Romanians in Ukraine is disputed, with journalistic estimates running from 15, to 5, people, and staunch Romanian nationalists claiming that one million of their compatriots are marooned on the wrong side of the border. Though Romania has supported the Ukrainians during the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s curtailing of the rights of Romanian children to study in their own language remains a tense issue between the two countries. In 217, confronted by evidence that high school graduates from ethnic minority groups often lacked proficiency in Ukrainian, the government in Kyiv tightened up access to schooling in languages other than Ukrainian. In July 221, Ukrainian was declared the country’s “constitutional language,” in which all children must study. Schooling in Russian, Romanian, Slovak, Hungarian and other minority languages was terminated. This suppression of linguistic diversity is at the root of Hungarian president Viktor Orbán’s furtive support for Moscow. Orbán has boasted that Hungary’s reward for helping the Russians will be the restoration of Hungarian sovereignty to Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region, which contains an estimated 15, Hungarian speakers.

In Chernivtsi I found Viennese coffee houses, cobblestoned streets named after Jewish writers, Austro-Hungarian apartment blocks undergoing renovation. Presiding over a tentative economic stability were the statues of the national poets of Romania and Ukraine: Eminescu and Taras Shevchenko. The fact that both bards were present felt like evidence of a toleration of cultural multiplicity. On the morning of my departure, late for my bus back to Romania, I flagged down a taxi, and tried to explain where I was going in my non-existent Ukrainian. The driver interrupted me in native Romanian: “Are you going to get the bus to Romania?” Yes, I told him, delighted to find someone I could speak to. I had been rescued by cultural diversity.

Fourteen years later, Fedir’s most recent email message describes watching four Russian rockets skim low over his apartment building to destroy the factory at the end of his street. “People,” he writes, “have been transformed into savage beasts.” The factory was gone, he told me, and so was the Russian language, recently eliminated from his university’s curriculum alongside three subjects he used to teach: Greek, Latin and Romanian. Even Ukrainian literature is being cut to focus on teaching the Ukrainian language. “I won’t fare well if the Russians come,” Fedir writes. Ukraine’s struggle for national sovereignty must be won. But the victorious forces cannot allow cultural diversity to become collateral damage.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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