KYIV – Last week Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted not to recognize elections to Russia’s State Duma because Crimea was an election district.
Urging the international community to follow suit, a strong majority of 264 lawmakers called the vote on the illegally annexed territory “illegitimate,” concluding that the entire election was thus invalid.
It underscored rising feelings of national pride in the face of military aggression, an economic embargo and persistent informational warfare waged by Russia. Across the city, car owners have attached adhesive decals of Ukrainian embroidery on their vehicles, T-shirts adorned with Ukraine’s national symbol, the trident, are frequently worn, and the Ukrainian language is heard more often on Kyiv’s streets.
Patriotism also transcends linguistic and ethnic lines. Many Russian-language speakers with pro-Ukrainian views have changed their attitudes towards their belligerent northeastern neighbor, once considered a brotherly nation.
Katya Gorchinskaya, CEO of the Hromadske TV network and a Russian speaker, said her views have changed since Russia invaded Crimea in late February 2014.
“I had a very neutral view of Russia prior to the war… now they are an enemy,” she told The Ukrainian Weekly in an e-mailed note. “Someone who breaks into your house and kills your family at night, and then pretends it never happened.”
Protecting Russian speakers outside the country’s borders has been a constant theme that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has often invoked for intervention. Pro-Russian protests erupted in Crimea following the Euro-Maidan Revolution when the Verkhovna Rada on February 23, 2014, repealed a language law adopted two years earlier that had given Russian special status.
Exposed mostly to biased Russian media and, at times, propaganda, the peninsula’s ethnic Russian population unjustifiably and ostensibly feared repression. Then on March 1, 2014, Russia’s Parliament – two days after armed men with unmarked military fatigues took over key government buildings on the peninsula – authorized Mr. Putin to use military force to “protect… Russian citizens, our fellow countrymen and the personnel of the military contingent… deployed on the territory of Ukraine.”
In fact, the Russian speakers with whom The Ukrainian Weekly spoke said they feel comfortable speaking their native language and can easily access Russian-language literature and other media.
“I don’t need protection, thank you very much,” Ms. Gorchinskaya said. “I have felt elements of discrimination. But I know that Ukrainian speakers sometimes get the same treatment in Ukraine. My working language is Ukrainian at the moment, and I am perfectly alright with that too.”
Public opinion surveys have consistently and historically found that economic welfare, access to justice, corruption and quality health care are greater concerns than other issues like language and religion.
Oleksandr Moskalenko, the head of an information technology department at Ukraine’s largest telecommunications company, Ukrtelecom, thinks language is an issue that politicians use to disenfranchise Ukrainians.
“It’s continuously advertised by some powers for whom it is convenient to use during elections,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly while laughing. “They say there are ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ who will not let you speak Russian at all.”
A native Russian speaker who only began learning Ukrainian in the seventh grade, Mr. Moskalenko, 34, raises his three children age 10 to 2 in Russian, Ukrainian and English by designating specific days to each language at home.
Speaking in fluent English, he maintains that Ukrainian should be the official language, however.
“I was really stressed with our previous government, the officials who weren’t able to speak the Ukrainian language. I mean the Yanukovych administration, including [Viktor] Yanukovych himself,” he said.
Mr. Moskalenko compared Russia to a “bully” who “punched Ukraine in the back” when it was in a weakened position following the Euro-Maidan Revolution.
Public opinion polls show similar views regarding national identity and language.
A nationwide study on identity conducted in June by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center found that 56 percent of respondents think Ukrainian should be the only official language, with Russian and other minority languages used in everyday life.
The same study found that 68 percent of the public is proud to be Ukrainian – 12 percent more than in 2005. And 93 percent consider Ukraine to be their homeland.
Russia’s aggression has done much to unite the country and ignite feelings of national pride, according to Maxym Zhukovets, the director of photography for a local television station.
The 33-year-old media professional now stands when he hears Ukraine’s national anthem, something he hadn’t noticed doing before.
“I’ve become more of a Ukrainian patriot and feel we’re on the right path,” Mr. Zhukovets said.
Events during the Euro-Maidan Revolution and in the Donbas war zone have “strongly consolidated the people,” he added. “We immediately saw who is who after such events. I believe that through pain, blood and tears everything is crystalizing and that’s positive. But it’s bad that this has come at such a [high] price.”
Apart from respecting one’s country or its national symbols, mutual respect also is a defining factor for this diverse nation. Alex Mazuka, chief editor of the Russian-language Novosti Donbassa news website, said civic duty is important.
In an e-mailed note, he said being Ukrainian means being a “citizen of Ukraine and I have no other form of identity except for this – I wasn’t a citizen of the USSR.”
Now based in Sloviansk in the Donetsk Oblast after being forced to flee his native city of Donetsk, Mr. Mazuka also emphasized tolerance.
“But one must learn to respect all Ukrainians regardless of language or other features,” he said.
Mr. Zhukovets also downplayed the significance of language in Ukraine.
“A large number of people fighting in the east in the so-called anti-terrorist operation zone speak Russian while defending the lives of peaceful civilians in this country to the best of their ability, while dying each day no matter what language they speak,” he said.
For Ms. Gorchinskaya, her identity is tied to the country’s growth as a nation.
“I am a Ukrainian with very strong feelings for my nation and a huge desire for and personal investment into this country’s success,” she said. “I just happen to have been born into a Russian-speaking family with a massive complex history.”