The Kremlin’s Quest to Destroy Ukrainian Language and Culture
University of St Andrews
Storm is Brewing
During the initial two months of 2022 Russia’s angry rhetoric grew angrier by the day. The country’s armies and the Belarusian forces amassed around the Ukrainian frontiers: in the north, east and south. Western commentators still saw these ‘exercises’ as ‘posturing.’ According to them, Moscow was just flexing its military muscle for a show. A show for what? Yet, a major war in the 21st-century Europe still appeared an absurdity, a throwback from an earlier, altogether darker age of the cold war.
Moscow took in the crosshairs Ukraine, its culture and language. In the Russian president’s words the Ukrainian state was artificial, while the Ukrainian language a sham, none of them worth preserving. This situation plunged me into the quiet depths of despair. I research cultures, languages and history of Central and Eastern Europe for a living and enjoy reading books in the region’s languages. My latest plan was to go there on a research trip this very coming spring of 2022. I hoped to do a bit of city hopping from Lviv to Ivano-Frankivsk to Chernivtsi, and then across the border to the Moldovan capital of Chișinău. The aim was to visit bookshops and to buy books in a variety of languages and scripts.
The prepared itinerary, almost literally, was vanishing in front of my eyes. I cancelled tentative reservations that still remained to be reconfirmed. War appeared round the corner, despite Moscow’s protestations to the contrary. A string of Western leaders continued arriving to Moscow to appease the wrathful Russian president. Most preferred not to believe the US intelligence on Russia’s imminent war plans, which Washington declassified in an unprecedented move.
I feared that once again an entire culture and language would be wiped out. There was no time to lose. This realization made me dizzy and nauseous. I am distrustful of e-books, but ordering paper copies of the titles I am interested in from Ukraine is almost an impossibility. On 23 February 2022, I set myself to the task and on Yakaboo I bought a dozen Ukrainian-language books. Among others, the upcoming literary star Andriy Liubka’s V poshukakh varvariv (In Search of Barbarians), the acclaimed Kharkiv writer Serhiy Zhadan’s Internat (The Orphanage), Ukraine’s beloved popular writer Yuriy Vynnychuk’s Tanho smerti (Tango of Death), or the Ukrainian translation of the Austrian writer of Belarusian-Polish origin Carolina Schutti’s Kolysʹ ya bihala bosonizh po m’yakiy travi (I Used to Run Barefoot on the Soft Grass).
The following day I woke up to my wife’s gentle kiss. I saw sadness in her eyes. She told me what had happened. That at 4 in the morning the Russian tanks started rolling by the hundreds from Belarus to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. I was disconsolate. For the first week, I emailed and talked to my friends and contacts in Ukraine. Some fled westward, others braved Russian shelling and rockets in besieged towns. When I urged them to run for safety, they calmed me down that Kyiv would not fall. I was not so sure. No one really was. The mass media were full of news about Russian black lists of Ukrainian elites to be liquidated first, among them writers and scholars.
Colleagues to whom I confided in Scotland, brushed off my alarm by saying that it is impossible to liquidate a culture and language. Sadly, I knew better than that, due to my decades-long research on the subject of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Isn’t it so that the European empires wiped out indigenous cultures outside Eurasia? People there now read and write in the languages of European conquerors and colonialists. In the Americas and Australia some indigenous ethnic groups survive, but their members in most cases lost their languages. The situation is better in Africa. Most speak their indigenous languages, but they tend to see them as inferior, so all official business and education is conducted through the medium of this or that European colonial language.
This example shook my colleagues but failed to convince. After all, aren’t we in Europe? Such things like that do not happen here. Really? Prior to World War II, 13 million of the world’s 17 million Jews spoke Yiddish. Since the mid-19th century a vibrant modern Yiddish-language culture, literature, education, theater, music, press, or book publishing had developed with its main centers in New York, Vilnius and Warsaw. It was a great Central European culture, numerically on a par with Dutch language, culture and literature. Yet, the Yiddish counterpart was more global and outgoing, thanks to the Jewish diaspora.
We all know about the Holocaust, this unceasingly shocking crimen criminum. As a consolation, we repeat the worn out slogan ‘Never again!,’ and point to the fact that nazi Germany did not manage to attain its ultimate goal. However few, Jews still live in Europe, Germany included. And above all, after 1948, the world’s Jews won for themselves their own state of Israel.
But the half-full glass is always half-empty. Yiddish culture and language vanished. Yes, some religious communities of Hassidim speak Yiddish, but they do not continue with the prewar secular Yiddish culture. Today there is no popular Yiddish television, radio, stand-up comedians or pop stars. Even more shockingly, not a single Yiddish-language library survives in Europe, which used to be the heartland of Yiddish culture prior to the Holocaust. Hundreds of millions of copies of Yiddish books and periodicals that were in circulation across Europe prior to World War II vanished in the thin air. They are nowhere to be spotted in Europe’s numerous bookstores and second-hand bookshops. Such a highly cultural continent!
So, Germany’s nazis might not fully succeed at the destruction of the Jews as a people, but they did in the case of Yiddish language and culture. Europe’s antisemites carry on with the hush-hush legacy of this forgotten cultural genocide to this day. They disparage Yiddish language and culture, and discourage any efforts at reviving or even commemorating them. As a result, a Yiddish-language book in a neighborhood bookstore or corner shop is an utterly out-of-place impossibility. If this happens, no one believes their eyes, and immediate steps are taken to revert to the status quo ante, but not ante (before) the Holocaust.
I feared the worst. That to outright genocide Moscow may prefer turning the Ukrainians ‘just’ into docile Russians of second class. However, the Russian powers that be would make sure to carry out the full destruction of Ukrainian language and culture. In the first days following the invasion, many Ukrainian online bookstores’ websites became unavailable. The Russian invaders were targeting the vital infrastructure. Thankfully, on 1 March, Elon Musk’s Starlink internet arrived in Ukraine, thwarting Moscow’s stranglehold on communication in the country. On 3 March, I managed to purchase ten more Ukrainian e-books from Yakaboo, among them Ukraina, 1933 rik. Holodomor (Ukraine in 1933: The Holodomor) and ‘Svitlii Shliakh.’ Istoriia odnoho kontstaboru (The ‘Shining Path:’ The History of a Concentration Camp). The former is on the Soviet genocide of the Ukrainians, while the latter on the present-day concentration camp in eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation since 2014. Continuities between Stalin’s and Putin’s murderous policies are striking.
Exactly a month later after this purchase of more Ukrainian e-books, on 3 April 2022, the Kremlin published its quarter-of-a-century plan for subjugating the Ukrainians. The current war’s goal is to make Ukraine an indistinct part of Russia’s run-down colonial peripheries, and to erase the very name ‘Ukraine’ from the map and people’s consciousness. The basics of the cultural genocide of the Ukrainians were set out in open for all the world to see and for the Ukrainians to tremble. Now, from Moscow’s point of view, the knowledge is sure to make most Ukrainians start pretending that they are already good and obedient Russians.
As though to show its resolve, the Russian armies pulled off Kyiv, but made sure to leave the extent of their brutal genocidal rule visible to everyone. During the first week of April 2022, the full extent of the Bucha massacre came to light, with more than 1,000 innocent civilians arbitrarily killed. Their bodies were unceremoniously dumped around. The mass murder was carried out in the industrialized fashion, typical of nazi einsatzgruppen (‘task forces’) that during World War II had been dispatched east to exterminate Jews. To spite the Bucha victims more, the Kremlin denies its responsibility and grotesquely accuses British undercover operatives for perpetrating this mass killing.
Subsequently, with many millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Central and Western Europe, in May 2022, Yakaboo began offering the sale and delivery of paper books to outside Ukraine. What a logistic breakthrough in the midst of war! Until then the best way to obtain such books was to go to Ukraine yourself, as I had originally planned before the Russian invasion. On 17 May, I decided to give this novel service a try. It worked just fine. After a fortnight the ordered books arrived at my doorstep in Scotland. Another small victory for Ukrainian language and culture.
With the Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv and Ukrainian books now sold worldwide, a battle might be won, but the war continues and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Tyranny and darkness may still triumph over democracy and human rights. With planned abandon, Russian troops destroy and loot Ukrainian museums, schools, theaters, archives, in a nutshell, Ukrainian culture. Under such circumstances, Ukrainian authors and figures of culture have no choice but to fight, help war effort or busy themselves with rebuilding their lives destroyed in a second by the Russian president. This megalomaniac sees himself an incarnation of Peter the Great on a ‘holy mission’ to reconstruct an Orthodox empire.
Does Europe Have a Future?
Ukrainian writers, composers, musicians, or actors have no time and space to write novels, compose and perform music, or stage plays. They know that ‘if Russia wins, there will be no [Ukrainian] literature, no culture, nothing,’ as Serhiy Zhadan solemnly reminded Europe on 10 June 2022. Yet, despite numerous statements of unwavering support and multiplying promises of weapons to Ukraine, Germany increased imports from Russia by 60% only during the first four months of 2022. What is more, on 12 June, Berlin stopped Spain from delivering the country’s German-made tanks to Ukraine.
Some ridicule the German government by saying that ‘to “Scholz” is now an accepted term in Ukraine meaning to continually promise something without ever actually having any intention of doing it.’ Europe’s help for Ukraine begins to appear as effective as the ritualized and oft-repeated incantation of the slogan ‘Never again’ at stopping another European genocide. Meanwhile, while Europeans passively or pensively look on, Ukrainian writers are dying on the front, the Russians are incinerating Ukrainian books, keep flattening whole Ukrainian cities, and have long-term plans for erasing the very name ‘Ukraine’ from the face of earth. The cultural genocide of Ukraine is in full swing, in accordance with the vainglorious Russian president’s war aims.
After all, the Kremlin’s smooth-talking press secretary Dmitry Peskov keeps smiling and emphasizes that in Ukraine the ‘special military operation […] is going on strictly in accordance with the plans.’
 Patrick Desbois. 2008. Porteur de mémoires. Sur les traces de la Shoah par balles. Neuilly-sur-Seine: Michel Lafon.