The red and yellow flag of Catalonia hangs everywhere in the tiny village of El Bruc, 50 km outside of Barcelona, where I have been living and writing for the past three weeks. A virtually autonomous region of Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries it was annexed to Castile (the southern region of what is now Spain) in the 15th century. Soon enough, the Catalan language was banned, its land traded away. Then there were Franco's purges of the Catalonia in the 1940's, language and history further erased.
But the flags demonstrate a hardy resurgence. Catalan is now taught as first language in all schools in Catalonia. Students graduate with an equal knowledge of Catalan and Spanish. The Catalan linguistic model has been recognized by EU for its success in a multilingual community. Partly as a result, the majority of the population, and the ruling Catalan government, are in favour of secession. The other reason for independantiste politics: a rising wave of government suppression and police violence in Spain. Deja-vu. The Franco regime still exists within living memory here.
Why am I telling you this? Because it's time to shatter some myths about language and culture in Ukraine, which has suffered indignities similar to those of Catalonia. Seems like Putin's propagandists have been working overtime.
In Europe, the press is generally savvy about the Euromaidan and its aftermath: the ousting of Yanukovich earned pages and pages of coverage as opposed to one or two articles at a time in major Canadian newspapers. My friends in Berlin tell me that Germans are sympathetic to the plight of Ukraine. Having been the subjects of invasion and partition, they do no forget what it means to have a country artificially divided, or what it meant to live under the thumb of the Eastern Bloc.
I turn to progressive papers from my country and what I read dismays me. For some of it is uncannily close to the propaganda perpetuated by Putin's Kremlin. Here is a brief summary:
Myth #1: Ukrainians are organic Fascists. The new interim government is entirely anti-Semitic and the next one will be too -- unless the tolerant and evolved governments of the West show them the way.
I have written for years about the shameful history of anti- Semitism in Ukraine, as have many Ukrainian writers of my generation. Which is to say that we also remember our parents and grandparents' experience as prisoners of Nazi concentration camps or as slave labourers under the German Occupation. We remember the Stalinist famine that killed several million Ukrainians. That history is in the very bones of our people. The students and feminists and queers and Jews and Muslims who spent weeks and months on the Maidan did not do so as to repeat the mistakes of the past (which are, in fact, the mistakes of most of the West at that time). Further, we need only to look at Canada's hideous policies towards the Zionist occupation of Palestine to broaden our own sense of empathetic solidarity with the other that is Ukraine. It will take all of our solidarity to overcome the oily far-right-wing wave that slides lacross all of Europe.
Myth#2: Ukraine is clearly divided into a Ukrainian linguistic majority and a Russian linguistic minority. The Russian-speakers must be given their self-determination, especially after having had a fair and democratic referendum in the Crimea.
Ukrainian is my mother tongue. When I first traveled to Ukraine ten years ago, I was shocked at the fact of not being able to understand my language. People knew Ukrainian but either spoke entirely in Russian or in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. I had to quickly accept that: a) languages change and become hybrid and b) Russian had become the dominant language in Ukraine. This is due to centuries of suppression of Ukraine's linguistic heritage and culture. Crimea's so-called referendum was managed by thugs, and those who participated were not given the safety of any sort of international oversight. 97 per cent in favour! How Soviet is that? Tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian speakers live and work and pray together. Ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians (and Tatars, who have the most to lose under Russia) signed petitions, wrote letters and organized peaceful protests against the Russian annexation. They remember, too.
Andrei Kourkov, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer, says that the divisions in Ukraine are not so much linguistic or ethnic as cultural. There are those who prefer to live under the Soviet tradition of domination and hierarchy, and those who want democracy, diversity, and civil society.
Myth #3. Ukrainians are incapable of appropriately. deciding their own destiny.
Slovenian artist Anika Autour writes, "too often empathy slides into pity, especially when socially or politically privileged people express their concern for 'global others'." As East European migrants become the new underclass of Europe, I have watched empathy dwindle and scorn gather force. From the film Borat, to contemporary representations in the western press and its literature, images of East European sex workers, racist thugs and grinning, gap-toothed villagers predominate. While every stereotype holds a grain of truth, they are also the bearers of powerful cultural messages. And they obscure the complexities of actual lived lives.
Because here's another shock I received when first travelling through Ukraine ten years ago: people there are smart! Sophisticated! Producing stunning works of avant grade art and literature! Discussing their country's future in creative and deeply intellectual terms!
And, guess what? They wonder why we're not smarter and more sophisticated! Especially when it comes to Ukraine.
As I stroll through the village of El Bruc, I feel hope. That the rising and falling tides of history could produce dignity and pride, and ownership of language. In Catalonia, and perhaps in Ukraine, too.
Dr. Marusya Bociurkiw is Associate Professor of Media Theory at Ryerson University in Toronto and Co-Director of the Studio for Media Activism & Critical Thought.
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