‘The’ Ukraine?!

July 22, 2023

A dinner-table conversation this week turned to the question of whether it is correct to talk about ‘the Ukraine’ or just ‘Ukraine’

That seemingly-innocent three-letter definite article – ‘the’ –  upsets a lot of Ukrainians when Westerners unwittingly add it before the name of their country. For good reason.  It represents a view of their country which denies its independence, sovereignty and legitimacy. It’s the Russian view, and Putin’s view. 

For many Westerners, Ukrainian insistence on leaving out the ‘the’ seem a little nit-picking. After all, we talk about the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands.  

But for Ukrainians, this is more than a minor issue of grammar. It involves the whole reason why Putin launched his misguided ‘special military operation’ in the first place and why Ukrainians are fighting tooth and nail to defend their right to exist as an independent nation. 

Putin does not accept that Ukraine is a legitimate, independent nation, a bounded territory distinct from Russia. He argues that Ukraine’s sovereignty is a historical fiction. So he, and most Russians with him, use a Russian construction – equivalent to the English ‘the Ukraine’ – that implies Ukraine is an undefined, unbounded territory, part of the larger defined entity of Russia. 

Ukraine’s name comes from the Slavic word for borderlands. Within the Soviet Union, the official name was ‘the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’ , with the definite article. It was the borderland region within a larger defined political entity, the USSR. One refers to ‘the Caucasus’, ‘the Urals’, ‘the Crimea’  or ‘the Donbas’ as regions within a defined nation state. So talk of ‘the Ukraine’ implies it is still a region of Russia with amorphous borders. 

Unheeded request

In the official declaration of independence adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of 24 August 1991,  the new state’s name was declared as ‘Ukraine’, a name that dates back to the 12th century. A majority of Ukrainians in all regions of the land affirmed the declaration in an independence referendum on 1 December that year. The next day, Boris Yeltsin – as President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic – recognised Ukraine’s independence, along wth Poland and Canada, the first of 66 other states by the year’s end.  Ukrainian independence led to the dissolution of the USSR on 26 December.

Two years after the implosion of the Soviet Union, the newly-independent Ukrainian government officially asked Russia’s government to stop the old practice of referring to their country as the Russian equivalent of ‘the Ukraine’. The request went largely unheeded. Hence when Putin sent the ‘little green men’ into the Crimea to take over the ariport, the parliament and the military bases, initially denying they were Russian military forces, Russians generally viewed the move as simply reclaiming one of ‘their’ provinces.

So it’s understandable why Ukrainians get upset when they hear friendly Westerners talking in Putin’s terms about their country as ‘the Ukraine’, implying it is part of a Greater Russia.

The same is true when Westerners refer to the name of their capital city, as Kiev (the Russian version) rather than Kyiv, the official Ukrainian name. ‘Kiev’ was the name traditionally used by western media until the Crimea invasion and the Russian occupation of sections of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. With a population of three million, Kyiv is the seventh biggest city in Europe, bigger than Rome, Paris, Barcelona and Warsaw. Founded six centuries before Moscow, it is one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. The name derives from one of its four legendary sibling-founders, Kyi. Situated on the trade route between Scandanavia and Byzantine Constantinople, Kyiv existed as a commercial center as early as the fifth century. 

Street concerts

As Ukrainians continue to resist the brutal efforts of their neighbours to wipe out their identity as a nation and a people, stories of continued courage and initiative bring hope amidst the despair. One such story from our YWAM colleague Ira Kapitonova in Kyiv, sent on the 500th day of the war, is about a nine-year-old member of the Lviv State Academic male choir Dudaryk. He and his father have been giving street concerts to fundraise for the Ukrainian Army. They have raised over 2.5 million UAH (over €60,000) in the past year. Ira writes that there is no age limit for helping your country. 

The Dudaryk was the only international choir invited to the annual Latvia Song and Dance Festival this year, where they performed the Ukrainian national anthem before 15,000 Latvians. Song and Dance festivals held annually in each of the Baltic nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, aroused aspirations for the rebirth of their nations over thirty years ago, as I have written before in Weekly Word. These festivals were the first manifestations of national identity for the Baltic nations who, like Ukraine today, were seeking freedom from imperial domination. One Estonian conductor said: “By singing, we kept ourselves alive as a nation. Without singing, there would be no Estonia. The song celebration was one of those few places where we, Estonians, could feel like one – not part of the Soviet Union, but part of our own nation.”

Keep singing your way to freedom, Ukraine!

Till next week,

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