Helping Ukraine requires remedy for Cold War rhetorical hangover



Monuments to dead Ukrainian heroes like this dot the landscape in Ukrainian cities. This one commemorates a 1941 bombing. Here’s hoping they don’t have to erect more


Two weeks ago now, I got this message from a friend in L’viv, Ukraine: “They are shooting the protesters on Independence Square. I don’t know what to do!” As the death toll in Kyiv rose, as Putin postures, the political opposition to ousted Yanukovych stands resolute. Ukrainians are reaching out to the West by taking to FaceBook, Twitter, e-mail—all available media platforms. The West is slowly responding.

At my house, when we see images of violence in Ukraine, we do not see generic protesters in a far away land; rather, we see our friends on fire. They are friends we made during my 2011-2012 Fulbright in L’viv, a gem of a city located an overnight train-ride west of Kyiv. My son’s friend Vlad was in Kyiv’s Independence Square. So were families in whose homes we celebrated Christmas and Easter. They are professors and students; authors and booksellers; musicians and reporters; parents and children. Our friends speak of a country unable to move forward and unwilling to move back.

The name “Ukraine” means “borderland.” The region has been overrun by waves of invaders for much of its recorded history, starting with the Vikings. I first visited in 1998, when stores were open but empty of merchandise, people trembled as they walked by the police (until independence, the KGB), and meeting foreigners on the street was rare. What a change in 2011! Stores were bustling, streets full of families and lovers, and the country busy preparing to host foreigners for the 2012 European soccer championship.  Yanukovych had even agreed to negotiate membership in the European Union. But at the last minute, he succumbed to Putin’s economic threats, and sold Ukraine to Russia.

The hopeful Ukrainian public, however, proved neither as fickle as Yanukovych, nor as feeble as he would have liked. Taking to social media, people organized massive protests in the public squares or maydens around the country. They called their movement “Euromayden” and paired the blue-and-yellow flag Ukraine yellow-on-blue flag of the European Union. The patchwork coalition of Yanukovych’s opponents represents the far right, the far left and just plain folks in between. They populated Kyiv’s mayden through snow and ice since November. After spending New Year’s Eve there with her family, one friend called it the most exhilarating time of her life—she felt the kind of hope she believed would carry Ukraine closer to Europe and to intellectual and economic freedom. But with this week’s violence comes the desperate fear that hope is lost.

Western governments have called for dialogue– first between Yanukovych and his opposition, and now between Ukraine and Russia– but dialogue is impossible without committed Western support. True dialogue can occur only when the two parties command equal power, and respect each other. The power difference between bullying Russia and the bullied Ukrainian government can equalize only if the West stands behind Ukraine. Then the equal-power requirement for dialogue may be met.

Still, the requirement for respect remains elusive. Part of that problem lies with the way we talk about the parties in conflict. It’s about the choices we make when we use names. Whether we admit it or not, English-speakers suffer from a Cold War hangover. Evidence appears daily that North Americans still think of Eastern Europe in terms of the Cold War. For example, since this crisis began in November, I have heard television and radio reporters in both the U.S. and Canada refer to Ukraine as “The Ukraine.” I heard it on NPR on Sunday. Yesterday, when I appeared on Time Warner Cable’s News14Carolina, the anchor who introduced the piece referred to Ukraine the same way. I’ve got news for them: The Ukraine was a Soviet republic; Ukraine is a European country east of Poland. Similarly, newspaper style guides that dictate spelling in the news we read continue to use the Russian version of Kiev rather than the Ukrainian, Kyiv. The Soviet Union influences our thinking, even from the grave.

During Soviet times, some Soviets referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia,” and many pro-Soviet Russians still do–including Putin. The terminology rhetorically links the histories and identities of the two countries in a way that helps Putin justify his complaints about Western “meddling” in the independent Ukraine, as if his interest in Ukrainian state affairs were an extension of his work in Big Russia.

Contrary to our mothers’ counsel that names will never hurt us, names do hurt us. Names can assign power, for example, giving power to some and taking power away from others. The way it works can be as obvious as the way verbal abuse builds up the power of abuser while tearing down the power of the abused, and as subtle as the creation of an attitude that encourages one country to come to the aid of another–or invade it. When we identify a country as a “former Soviet republic,” we perpetuate the attitude that Moscow still dominates it. We do the same by preferring the Russian-language spelling conventions for Ukrainian names. This Cold War attitude encourages us to interpret the crisis in Ukraine as a domestic dispute over in the Russia house, and so it plays into Putin’s plan for EurAsian domination and his seeming denial that Russia has lost any geopolitical power since 1991.

While names can hurt, they can also help. Using specific terms that demonstrate we care about the power of naming can help Ukraine shed its problematic past associations. When we abandon the outdated attitudes about the opposition between Western and Eastern Europe that we still reveal in our language, then we encourage the kind of attitude that encourages our governments to respect Ukraine as an independent nation and behave accordingly. It will allow Western governments to provide the support the Ukrainian opposition needs to participate in true dialogue with the government to achieve the dignity and freedom citizens of an independent country deserve.


1 Comment

Filed under Politics, Ukraine, Visual rhetoric

One response to “Helping Ukraine requires remedy for Cold War rhetorical hangover

  1. Chris McGinnis

    Fantastic Leanne! Thank you!!!

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