Grammar Nazis

Cultured conversation

Cultured conversation

A sign from a Lviv trolleybus window. Printed by the nationalist political party Svoboda, it is instructions in public transport etiquette: how to buy a ticket, ask the driver to stop and so on in polite, correct Ukrainian.

“This may be a case when the term ‘grammar Nazi’ isn’t exactly an exaggeration,” a non-Ukrainian friend commented when he saw it.

I saw this sign during a recent visit for the annual Lviv Publisher’s Forum. It made me think about the line between being proud of one’s language and heritage, and wanting to impose it on those from other heritages. Much of the Publisher’s Forum was about cultural exchange and translation, a celebration of how literature can bridge national divides. But this year, for the first time in 23 years, Russian publishers were not invited to attend.

Russian and Russian-language books, publishers and bookshops have dominated the Ukrainian literary market for two decades. But when does pride and protectionism become chauvinism and censorship? Does wanting to protect one’s own language, and encouraging people to speak it correctly and beautifully, make someone a ‘Nazi’?

Read the entire version of this post on ABBA

A letter from Slavyansk

slavyansk ya

From the sign at the entrance to the town of Славянск – Slavyansk.

This town was taken back by the Ukrainian army with its blue and yellow flag, from the  Donetsk People’s Republic – the ДНР. I don’t know who made the bullet holes: the ДНР or the Ukrainian army. I don’t know who left here the pink soft toy and the cemetery flowers for the dead of both sides.

Who am I – Кто Я? The whole conflict, the deep and awful and bloody identity crisis of East Ukraine is in this one letter from Slavyansk: Я, which means ‘I’.

slavyansk ya1

 

Journey

Three hours to travel what should be less than fifty kilometres, north of Donetsk. The main road is closed because of shelling; instead we drive along terrible roads through flat yellow and black fields; villages that no one ever usually drives through; mines and factories frozen by years of neglect, months of war. Autumn, already cold, everything dying. Smell of burning fields, leaves, houses.

“When we moved here from Russia, my father told me to say goodbye to hills,” my neighbour on the bus tells me as we look out at the giant, rose-coloured pyramids of slag heaps. “I remember that every time I see those heaps. Donbas hills”.

That was over forty years ago. Since then she married a local man, had children, put down roots. This is her landscape now; her land that she wanted to love and defend and improve when she voted for the DNR – the Donetsk People’s Republic – in May.

Now she and her husband are coming back from a two-day trip to transfer their pensions, unpaid for three months, out of DNR-held Makiivka to Ukraine-controlled Konstantinovka. The time they didn’t spend on the bus, they spent queuing at the post office, the bank, the local administration. “Forty years working, and for what?” she asks. For her to vote to live in a different country. For her to be secure in her old age. For her children to have better future.

One of her children upped sticks just before the war started, she tells me; sold his house and moved to Russia to try and make a new, successful life. Now he is on his way back to Makiivka, defeated yet again by too high prices, too little work, not being Russian enough.

She shows me photos on her phone, not of her children but of the flowers she grows in her garden. Dahlias, snapdragons, fat dewy roses. “When I get tired of human nature, I look at these and feel refreshed.”

It’s hard not to be tired of human nature, right now in Donbas. We stare out together at the strangely beautiful, defeated landscape. She points out to me a white heron fishing in a river. At a railway crossing, a man patiently waits with his cow. Destroyed electricity pylons are bowed over like weeping aliens, trailing wires through the acres of sodden sunflower stalks. The people on the bus look out at this land some of them took up arms to defend. They sigh and bow over like the pylons, waiting for this journey to be over.

“We are like an appendix that has been cut out and left to die”

There is supposed to be a ceasefire in Ukraine between government and rebel forces, but it means little in the battle-scarred town of Vuhlehirsk, where 8,000 inhabitants are stuck in no man’s land between the two sides.  Grad rockets from nearby Ukrainian artillery positions on one side, and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) on the other, regularly whistle overhead. The locals count each burst: one, two, three, four; and then go back to what has become their normal business – wondering how to survive the next few days or months or years without salaries or pensions, roofs or windows.

Stranded on the frontline of the war, in Ukrainian hands and cut off from the nearby administrative centre, DNR-controlled Yenakiyeve, the people have been abandoned in a town where nothing works and no one is in charge anymore.

“We are like an appendix that has been cut out and left to die,” said Ira Litvin. “Now we don’t belong to anyone.”

From my story in yesterday’s Times.  The real picture is grimmer and more surreal than this piece -I didn’t have the word-space to describe it properly.

mortar burst

vuhlehirsk shoes

Donbas heroes

My story in Foreign Policy:

Volunteers have no official agreements with either the Ukrainian Army or with the DNR and its Luhansk equivalent, the LNR. There is no guarantee of safety from shelling, despite white flags or notices on windscreens declaring there are children on board. Every day, volunteers risk being turned back, robbed, or detained. They have been attacked by supporters of the rebel republics who want to charge extortionate fees to take families out of war zones. Those from Protestant churches are a special target for because of their faith. But still they go to besieged towns every day, doing a job that no one else will do.

 

 

 

Crimea, books, blues

It wasn’t just me trying to get away from Ukraine horrors and headaches at the Lviv Publisher’s Forum. Four days of books, books, books and more; jazz, verse, philosophy, fairytales…

I was there to present the Ukrainian translation of Dream Land. And of course,  to meet friends and fellow writers from all over Ukraine and from Crimea – Crimean Tatars who had come to read their poetry, play music, walk the cobbled streets listening to the jangle of Ukrainian and Russian and English and Polish – and feel like they could breathe again.

“The people here are beautiful,” one said as we walked round Lviv. She didn’t mean their features or their clothes; she meant the feeling of freedom they carry around inside them. The feeling the Crimean Tatars have had taken away from them in Crimea.

We talked about how hard it would be to go back to Crimea when the forum was over. But how hard – now the Crimean Tatar Mejlis building has been surrounded and searched today by armed police, now yet more Mejlis members’ houses have been searched – I for one did not guess that.

It’s been a good few days for Dream Land, which has been nominated for Ukrainian book of the year. It’s been a horrible few days for the Crimean Tatars.

Time to start writing that sequel at last…? I don’t know if I can. But someone has to.

Fascism is not sexy

I hold by what I wrote in this piece: the stereotype that  ‘Ukrainians are fascists’ is as incorrect and damaging as the stereotype it has replaced, that ‘Ukrainian women are prostitutes’.

Minutes after the piece was published I saw a  facebook post of photographs of pretty Ukrainian girls enrolling in the National Guard Institute in Kyiv, with the invitation to compare them to the ‘genetic material’ of Novorossiya. I saw that post had got over a thousand likes from Ukrainians. And I realised that putting sexist and fascist stereotypes together in one article about Ukraine was sadly, not at all a stretch.

I still hold by my opinion:

If the ‘prostitute’ label was extremely harmful for Ukrainian women, the ‘fascist’ label is harmful to the country as a whole, because it becomes not just a justification for open Russian aggression in Ukraine, but an excuse for other nations not to condemn that aggression. If ‘Ukrainian women are prostitutes’ then unfortunately in many people’s minds they ‘deserve’ rape, abuse and exploitation. These days, in thrall to a new stereotype, much of the world seems to assume that since ‘Ukrainians are fascists’, they ‘deserve’ the loss of Crimea and the Russian-supported war in the east in which thousands of entirely non-fascist civilians as well as soldiers from both Ukraine and Russia have died so far.

This matters too, because war reduces people to many desperate strategies to stay alive, and war encourages extremism. If the east Ukraine war continues, or is permitted to become a ‘frozen conflict’ sapping Ukrainian economic and civil development, those Ukraine stereotypes may edge towards becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. 

 

 

 

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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