The mother tongue is alive

The following news popped up in my Facebook feed today. A group of unidentified vandals heavily damaged a train car, breaking windows and smashing tables and chairs.

Coming across news like that—which happens much more often than I’d like—I always ask myself one question that does not seem to have a clear-cut answer: what kind of need do these hooligans satisfy by damaging train cars, wreaking park benches, or—I’m sorry, but it’s true—shoving kittens into an oven? They obviously do this with some purpose in mind. They pursue a particular goal, to be sure. I guess the problem is rooted in the standards of and civilization as a whole. Vandals like that must have missed a significant milestone on their path toward education and socialization. This brings to mind a famous statement: to cut public support of culture means to support the war effort.

To support culture is a good thing to do. Hardly anyone would take issue with this statement—it would just be absurd. The forms and methods of this support is another matter altogether, though. An old psychology textbook says, “It is not a need per se, but the socially acceptable ways to satisfy it that dictate the rules of behavior.” So, forms and methods are key here. Forms and methods. Come to think of it, this issue is much more problematic, than it might appear at first sight.

In the mid-1990s, the high school literature curriculum, or rather the way it was designed, made me hate the Ukrainian classic writers with all my guts. When I was in the ninth grade, we spent six months studying Taras Shevchenko’s poetry. “Three Years” by Taras Shevchenko, “The Plundered Grave” by Taras Shevchenko, “To the Dead, the Living, and to Those Yet Unborn” by Taras Shevchenko, “The Caucasus” by Taras Shevchenko—and so on and so forth for half a year. It takes two weeks for a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old teenager to lock the gate to Great Kobzar’s poetry—and a few months of endless tedium and rote learning for that gate to become rusty and forever shut. It took me over fifteen years to rediscover Shevchenko and many of his fellow writers.

It is known for a fact that the Ukrainian textbooks for primary schools create a make-believe Ukraine: a Ukraine as a large bucolic village where smiling little boys and girls putter around their vegetable patches and pick apples in picture-perfect gardens, mothers carry bowls of varenyky, fathers tend cows and tinker with archaic agricultural tools, and grandparents sit outside their whitewashed huts and hand-feed their chickens. This approach is especially striking given that nowadays almost every child has a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer where they can learn completely different facts of life. What associations will these children have with Ukraine? Will they associate it with the things they see around them or with that school whitewash? You never know, but if you count how many times the word “Ukraine” and its derivatives are mentioned on each page of a primary school reader, well, the conclusions are obvious.

My mother spent her entire life talking in Ukrainian with her family, colleagues, friends, parents, and passers-by. At the same time, she read and wrote only in Russian! A while ago, I tried to get through to her, to get a definite answer, to understand her reasoning. Why would anyone read Panas Myrny, a classic Ukrainian author, in the Russian translation? She did it, though, brushing my questions off with her evasive “I can’t read Ukrainian.” The pages of her recipe books are covered in her neat handwriting. “Take two kilos of cucumbers and add three tablespoons of salt,” the recipe instructs in Russian. I didn’t realize until much later that the Soviet school deliberately educated my mother this way so that she considered all things Ukrainian rural and outdated, while all things Russian—elegant, high-brow, and advanced.

To be sure, even nowadays I often hear well-educated people say that everything in Russia is first-class, whereas everything in Ukraine—second-rate, mediocre, and backward. You just cannot shatter these assumptions easily, or at least not in one go.

There’s an ongoing battle over the Ukrainian language that involves all kinds of techniques. It’s the same old story about forms and methods, only this time in the legislative arena. The parliament has recently debated the law on state language. Some people say it’s reasonable, others claim that it’s too weak or even treacherous in present-day circumstances. Personally, I’ll let the professionals weigh in on this issue since I’m not qualified to evaluate the laws.

Some warriors use other tactics to fight for their mother tongue. For instance, a famous Ukrainian children’s author Larysa Nitsoi has been waging this battle wherever she can and for God knows how long. She’s got the right message—and I do support it overall—but the form she chose for it is a disaster. A few years ago, a Facebook post about Nitsoi tossing a handful of coins at a supermarket cashier who refused to speak Ukrainian to her got several thousands of likes. It must have been a spectacular scene, I must admit, but what about the result? What are the chances of that cashier embracing the Ukrainian language after that incident? Can you force someone to love this or that thing? Hardly. That cashier—or anyone who was forced into speaking Ukrainian by people brandishing law books—are highly unlikely to take a liking to that language. Nothing good ever comes out of aggression. You just cannot turn anyone into a Ukrainian speaker by forcing or threatening them. The battle for culture can be waged only through culture.

I’m glad that nowadays my feed shows me not just the news about the damaged train cars, but also more and more posts in Ukrainian written by former Russian speakers. In their touching, enlightened comments and posts, these people admit in broken Ukrainian that they never imagined that the Ukrainian literature could have so many well-written texts. I feel like a “real” Ukrainian, they say. I’ll buy a copy and read this book to my daughter at bedtime, they promise.

For some reason, I do believe that they’ll act on their promises. Reading those bedtime stories, they’ll cover their children with an invisible blanket that another Ukrainian author Lina Kostenko called “the humanitarian aura of the nation.” This blanket will keep their children from damaging train cars or smashing park benches. It will show them other ideas, solutions, methods, and ways out. Without a blanket like that, we’ll slide into chaos, bigotry, and backwater.

Serhiy Osoka

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