Staunton, July 28 – For most people in most countries most of the time, language is a tool; but for some people in some countries because of events, language is an existential issue, one that defines who people are and how they see the world. Such is the case in Ukraine especially after Putin expanded his war against that country on February 24.
Capturing such shifts is never easy, but an article by a Ukrainian poet and novelist who began his life speaking Russian and writing poetry and novels in that language but who now writes and speaks exclusively in Ukrainian captures this evolution better than almost any other source.
In an article for the LitHub portal, Volodymyr Rafeenko recounts that he “once wrote – and spoke and thought – in Russian.” But because of what Russians have done to his country, he will do his best never to do so again and urges his fellow countrymen to do likewise (lithub.com/i-once-wrote-and-spoke-and-thought-in-russian-no-more).
The product of a Russian-speaking Ukrainian family in Donetsk, the future poet and novelist grew up and studied Russian philology, gaining only passing acquaintance with Ukrainian language and literature. “I am still ashamed whenever I recall this, even though it wasn’t my fault,” he says.
“Looking back, I am surprised by the attitudes of our Ukrainian language and literature teachers towards their own field. It remains difficult for me to understand how a person who does not value Ukrainian cultural heritage at the highest level could somehow make it their life’s work,” Rafeenko continues.
Then in 2014, the Russians occupied his eastern Ukrainian city and fled to Kyiv, committed to learning Ukrainian well enough to write in it but also prepared to continue to write in Russian as well. But when Putin launched his latest invasion on February 24, that changed. And he has no intention of using Russian except when he has no other choice.
After 2014, he says, it took him some time to “master the Ukrainian language at a level sufficient for writing.” But he persevered and in 2019, published a novel in Ukrainian, Mondegreen: Songs about Death and Love, that since then has been translated into English and published by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard.
(The term “mondegreen” in the novel’s title is fundamental to understanding what Rafeenko is talking about. A mondegreen is something an individual mishears but then remains attached to as fact, something that has a lot to do with who Ukrainians and Russians hear each other’s languages.)
After February 24, he continues, he decided that “never again in my life would I write or publish any of my work in Russian. I no longer want anything to do with a culture of murderers and rapists” and am saddened to think that “someone might now mistake me for a Russian writer based on my command of the Russian language.”
“At this moment, language has ceased to be perceived by me as something secondary to the main topic of life. Language has become a powerful identifier of who one truly is. And that is why, in my opinion, Ukrainians should use the Ukrainian language exclusively, at least in the public sphere, regarding socially significant actions.
“The language of Z is a forbidden language for anyone who has been even slightly affected by the hell that those Russian scum have inflicted on our land. They are shooting at us “in Russian”: Russian speakers from across the territory of Russia are killing us. For me, the image of a murderer is now first and foremost associated with Russians.
“Genocide, the murders of children and adults, rapes, torture, the destruction of churches and museums, kindergartends and schools—beastly, ungodly cruelty—all of this will be closely connected with the Russian language. And nothing can be done about it.
“The Russian language in its entirety has become obscene, speech outside the bounds of decent human discourse. And these days, if I have to use it in some private communication, I always feel something like disgust mixed with shame, guilt and physical pain,” Rafeenko concludes.