Whom you gonna call?

On August 17, 1995, the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation issued Executive Order 1495 (“On Writing the Names of the Former Republics of the USSR and Their Capitals”). (http://zakonbase.ru/content/base/15656)  In the scheme of things, this would be an easy executive order to miss (by Trump standards, it wouldn’t even warrant an angry tweet). It is blessedly brief —probably two pages printed out, and one of them is a table of names.  But it signaled an important shift in the Russian government’s attitude towards its neighbors, or at least, it was a recognition of an attitude that may have prevailed but was left unspoken.  

In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Russians not only had to adjust to new borders and new neighbors, but also to novel, often unlovely names.  On television, broadcasters dutifully began referring to four different former Soviet Republics according to the preferences of their government. Thus Moldavia became Moldova, Belorussia became Belarus, Turkmenia became Turkmenistan,  and Kirghizia became Kyrgyzstan (breaking two fundamental rules of Russian spelling and pronunciation along the way). The rest of the world quickly followed suit, though not without confusion—I remember a lot of anxiety in the US Embassy in Moscow in 1992 over whether or not the former Belorussia’s capital was now Mensk (with nary a Google or a Yahoo to consult). Were cities and countries truly reverting to their traditional, national names, or was someone just trolling diplomats and journalists? (“Let’s see how many consonants in a row we can make them say before throwing in an unpronounceable vowel or two.”) 

Barely five years later, the novelty of the nomenclature must have worn off,  yet the Russian government reversed itself.  The change fits into the evolving narrative of resistance to linguistic policing (the Orwellian PC menace discussed in the previous chapter), but there is much more at work here. One of the tenets of progressive attitudes towards language is that all groups have the right to determined how they should (and should not) be addressed—a power traditionally wielded by the majority is now yielded to the minority. In this case, Russia, the juridical heir to the Soviet Union, reclaims an imperial right to determine identity and to ignore the apparently trivial claims of its former subjects.  

On the surface, Ukraine was a simpler case, since its name never changed (although many of its cities, such as Kyiv, are now called by their Ukrainian names in the West instead of their Russian ones).  But the country’s name can encode an attitude that Ukrainian patriots reject:  its root “krai” suggests a region or an edge, rather than a full-fledged country (like “Krajina” in Croatia). In English, this sense of Ukraine as a territory was facilitated by the use of the definite article, which is why Ukrainians and their allies have fought against calling the country “the Ukraine” (an argument that must be easier to make in English, since Ukrainian doesn’t even have definite articles). 

In recent years, however, a comparable distinction in usage can suggest Russian speakers’ attitudes towards their Western neighbor.  Traditionally, being “in” or going “to” Ukraine required the preposition “na” (“on”), which is used for islands and territories rather than countries, but now Ukrainians and their supporters are more likely to say “v” (“in”), the same preposition used for most other countries.  On state television one hears “na”; on the liberal TV-Rain channel, the anchors say “v.”  For the overwhelming majority of Russian speakers, usage is surely a question of habit; in journalism and diplomacy, it is a political choice. 

Prepositions will tear us apart

Prepositions will tear us apart

At issue is not simply a denial of Ukrainian statehood, but a denial of Ukrainian selfhood.  And where poststructuralists dismiss the self as an illusion created by the confluence of various discourses, anti-Ukrainian propagandists lay blame for Ukrainian selfhood with the usual suspects:  the State Department, Russophobes, and Nazis. 

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