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1 Feb, 2021 09:28

Ukraine’s purge of its past ties to Moscow picks up pace as waiters face fines for saying ‘thank you’ in Russian

Ukraine’s purge of its past ties to Moscow picks up pace as waiters face fines for saying ‘thank you’ in Russian

Driven by nationalist zeal in the wake of the 2014 Maidan and continuing political tensions with Russia, Ukrainian authorities are moving to erase more and more of the long shared history between the two East European countries.

It appears the Russian language is now top of the target list. Earlier this month, a new law proclaiming Ukrainian as the state language came into force after being passed by the country’s parliament. As a result, employees of service sector businesses such as supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and barbershops are required to greet and serve customers in Ukrainian alone.

Only at the request of a client can they switch to another language for the sake of convenience and breaking the law will carry a fine of up to 6.8 thousand Hryvnia (almost $250) from next year. Given the average official salary is around $370 - but often far less outside the capital - this is a significant sum. 

Almost one in three people living in Ukraine describe themselves as native Russian speakers, with entire cities in the east and south of the country conducting daily life in the language. Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, is well-known for its unique dialect of Russian, inspired by the Yiddish of its historical Jewish population. Only a small proportion of Odessans speak Ukrainian at home and it is unclear how well-enforced the new directive will be there.

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Additionally, with their attempt to mandate how local communities express themselves, lawmakers in Kiev risk falling foul of a United Nations resolution that calls on governments to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.” Ukraine has previously depended on support from friendly states in the UN over issues like Russia’s reabsorption of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and there are no signs yet as to whether the international body will take it to task over its campaign to marginalize the use of other languages.

If linguistic diversity is seen by some in the country as a challenge to their national identity, which is increasingly being defined in opposition to Russia, few areas of life in the country are free of politicization in this way. Ukraine, much of which historically fell under the Russian Empire, and later was a constituent member of the Soviet Union, has spent recent years working to purge symbols of that shared history in an effort to differentiate itself.

In December, a teenager was detained by an ‘anti-terror’ operative in the Western city of Lvov after buying a traditional shanks winter hat, emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle, to keep his ears warm. A Russian-speaker from the East of the country, he told authorities he was unaware that Kiev had introduced tough laws banning the displaying of symbols of the USSR and the singing of its one-time national anthem, along with supposedly equivalent Nazi icons.

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His confusion was understandable, given the rules appear to be selectively enforced. As recently as 2018, a notoriously murderous Waffen SS division was celebrated in Lvov, marking the 75th anniversary of the formation of the local Nazi-aligned partisan unit in WWII. Nationalists, dressed in SS attire and exhibiting swastikas, marched through the streets with no police response.

Many nationalists continue to glorify the Ukrainian partisans who fought alongside the Nazis against the Soviet Red Army in the name of forming an independent state aligned with the Third Reich. For them, figures like Stepan Bandera were the founding fathers of the movement for Ukrainian nationhood. Others, however, point out the far-right leader’s links to massacres of ethnic Poles and hold him responsible in part for the wartime Holocaust in the country.

Last October, nationalist campaigners in the predominately Russian-speaking city of Odessa launched a series of protests aimed at toppling a statue to Catherine the Great, the Russian empress under whose reign the city had been built. In her place, they said, they wanted to install a monument to Bandera. 

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A spokesperson for the protesters told the local newspaper Public that “our initiative has the goal of getting rid of all the manifestations of Russian influence that remained after the colonial period in our history. In order to look to the future, we need to break all these ties and move our own way.”

Of course, the close historical ties between Russia and Ukraine can’t simply be expunged for political convenience. In the case of the statue in Odessa, funds had been raised to restore it by the local business community in honor of the founding of the city. Likewise, as well as a large Russian-speaking population, much of the country’s history is closely intertwined with that of its vast Eastern neighbor, first under Imperial rule from Moscow and then as prosperous part of the Soviet Union. To divorce themselves from Russian history, the nationalists must entirely rewrite that of their own country.

As much as Russia has shaped Ukraine’s history, prominent Ukrainians once played a leading role in setting the course for the whole USSR. Former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, born in modern-day Ukraine, and who self-identified as a Ukrainian, led the union for close to two decades. His predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, was born near the present-day border and moved as a child to Donetsk, in an example of how the current borders are often out of step with historical and cultural realities. That, however, does not stop them being the subject of fierce fighting between those who seek closer ties once again with Russia, and others whose politics is defined by the Ukrainian nationalist movements.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, while not personally linked to nationalist groups, in the past, has increasingly made plays for their support to shore up his tentative hold on power. Faced with regional rebellions over coronavirus lockdown laws and a burgeoning constitutional crisis over corruption rules, taking shots at Russia has proved a popular tactic.

However, it now appears that millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians are in the firing line.

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