It was a chilly midsummer’s morning as I exited the sterile train station and found myself in the country where I was born but never returned to in more than twenty-two years: Ukraine.
I was in the city of Lvov (Lviv in Ukrainian), arguably the most scenic of all Ukrainian cities. Lvov doesn’t look much like the rest of Ukraine – it’s clean, lacks the Communist-era housing blocks, and has more of a Central European feel. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from the Polish towns across the border, not far away.
After taking a shower and freshening up, I sent my friend, who was in Kiev, a quick text notifying him that I was already in Lvov and would be in Kiev soon. He welcomed me to Ukraine and, not wanting me to spend my time alone, mentioned that he might know someone in Lvov to show me around.
I went out for a scroll to the main park not far from the hotel. I took in the fresh Ukrainian air, looked at families enjoying a beautiful summer’s day, and felt completely at ease.
And what an ecstatic feeling it was.
After visiting over fifty-five countries and trying very hard to blend in as a local by living in six more, I was ready to just enjoy myself in the country of my birth.
There was no need to learn a new culture, a new language, and new customs. I can just be myself for the first time in many years. Or so I thought.
An hour into my leisurely stroll, I received a text message. It was Andrei, my buddy’s friend. He was born and raised here, and had time to meet me and show me around for few hours.
We arranged to meet in front of a well-known monument, a statue dedicated to an important Ukrainian writer, Taras Shevchenko.
Andrei, who was 24 years old, was already waiting for me when I arrived.
I went up to him and greeted him in Russian. Andrei studied me carefully before finally responding in Ukrainian.
This was the first time in my life that I heard the Ukrainian language.
I shrugged and told him that I don’t speak Ukrainian and didn’t understand what he said.
And that’s where the problems began.
But, first, allow me to give you a little introduction to my country.
When Ukraine was incorporated into Soviet Union, Russian language became the main language in all spheres of public life. Russian became a prerequisite for admission to higher education and better job occupations. It was also made a compulsory subject in all Ukrainian schools.
Ukrainian language, like all primary languages of the republics, was relegated to a secondary status. After Soviet Union collapsed, former republics became independent countries and their own languages became official again: Lithuanian became the official language of Lithuania; Latvian in Latvia; and, unsurprisingly, Estonian in Estonia.
In Ukraine, however, things weren’t so simple.
Because Ukraine was heavily Russified, Russian is still – even today — the de facto language in all major cities. Russian is spoken everywhere: in restaurants, stores, businesses, even inside homes. Aside from a minor accent, you’d be hard pressed to realize that you’re not in Russia, but in another country with its own official language.
Take me, for example: even though I was born in Ukraine, in the region where I was born Russian was the only spoken language. In many ways I’m more Russian than Ukrainian: I read Dostoyevsky instead of Shevchenko, and enjoy Russian TV more than Ukrainian.
During my stay in Kiev the only times I heard Ukrainian was when they announced the next stop on the metro; the people on the trains always spoke in Russian.
“I’m Ukrainian and don’t want to speak the language of the enemy,” Andrei condescendingly answered in English.
I knew that he — like everyone else in Ukraine — spoke fluent Russian, but it seemed that avoiding the language of “the enemy” was more important than effortless communication with another Ukrainian.
Also, like all Ukrainians, his English was poor but bearable. In order to be understood, I had to slow down my speech and use simple phrases and words, avoiding slang where possible.
“I understand, but I’m sure it’s easier for us to communicate in Russian rather than in English,” I threw in some logic in an attempt to sway his mind.
Suddenly he stopped, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Are you Ukrainian?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Yes, I was born here.”
“In the South.”
Even though I didn’t need to be putting up with interrogation, he was a friend of a friend, so I felt obliged to at least see this through.
“And your parents?”
“Same. And my grandparents too.”
“Then, why don’t you speak Ukrainian?”
“Because when I lived there the only spoken language was Russian. Anything else you need to know?”
“Just remember that you’re in Ukraine — not Russia — so don’t speak Russian here,” he seemed satisfied with my answers but still needed to reinforce his point.
Long before deciding to visit Ukraine, others warned me about people like this, especially from this region.
During Soviet times it was common for Russian speakers to be flatly ignored, but ever since the collapse things have greatly improved. Money was more important than petty nationalism, and most of it came from rich Russian tourists or Ukrainians from predominantly Russian-speaking parts.
Where else in the world can one’s identity be scrutinized so much? A Colombian returning to Colombia after living abroad would be greeted with open arms. Same for Brazilian or pretty much any nationality.
Not in Ukraine.
An hour into the tour we passed another stature of Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most famous writer and poet.
After explaining a bit about the statue he switched topics and decided to tell me a story.
“Once there was a young woman and she fell in love with a Russian soldier. Then she had a baby. But the soldier didn’t want to do anything with her, so he left her. That’s why I hate Russians and will never speak Russian.”
Andrei probably used up all his English knowledge telling the story.
“How do you know this?” I was curious who was feeding him this propaganda.
“Shevchenko wrote about this and besides everyone says it’s true,” Andrei confidently answered in his broken English.
I stood there speechless. I froze, my mind was utterly blank. I was face to face with prejudice on a level that I haven’t really experienced during my travels.
I’ve seen rivalries between Argentinians and Brazilians; between Mexicans and Guatemalans; between French and English. Oh, and maybe Colombians don’t like Venezuelans. But I’ve never met a Brazilian who hated Argentinians so hard it made his blood boil. Those were all trivial compared with what I was dealing here.
I also didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t know whether to be angry or have pity for this poor excuse for a human being who possessed so much hate for the mighty neighbor in the north and heck knows whom else.
I understood that I was in Ukraine and relations with Russia weren’t always the best.
75-year-old bitter old man who had to fight the Russians? Sure, that’s understandable.
24-year-old seemingly normal and intelligent young man? Didn’t make much sense.
I had come face-to-face with such hate not in USA, not in some random South American country, but in my own homeland. Maybe it wasn’t my country anymore. I sure didn’t feel welcome.
For the rest of my stay in Lvov, I made sure to speak Russian everywhere – in restaurants, cafes, and bars. I enjoyed it; it made me feel superior on some superficial level.
But the real gratification came when I left this unwelcoming region for the capital.
At last, things were how I imagined them to be: the people were courteous and intelligent, and the only thing that mattered was finding a common language for interaction – regardless whether it was Ukrainian, Russian, or even, in some rare cases, English.
Oh, and the women aren’t even that pretty in Western Ukraine – the best looking ones come from the South, not very far from where this “Ukrainian” was born.BTW, have you seen my new Facebook page? Click here to check it out, and click Like :)
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