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Quirk of history

Moscow’s war on words

A statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the town of Borodyanka. Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Ukraine is a country “dreamed into existence by a poet”, says Askold Melnyczuk in LitHub. In the 18th century, Taras Shevchenko’s nationalist poetry had the effect of “solidifying and fortifying the indigenous people’s sense of themselves”, and ever since poets have held a “singular importance” culturally. That’s why Russia has long been waging war on the Ukrainian language. In 1863, Moscow introduced a ban on Ukrainian poetry. In 1876, Emperor Alexander II outlawed all publications in Ukrainian, including imported books, theatre productions and songs. In 1930, Ukraine had 260 active writers; by 1938, only 36 remained – the rest had mostly been shot, arrested, or disappeared without a trace.

Russia’s “psychosis” over the Ukrainian language betrays a paranoia about cultural independence. It’s underpinned by the imperial-age fear that long-buried crimes against indigenous communities might finally see the light of day when hegemony wavers. Modern Ukraine is a cosmopolitan nation, no longer unified solely by dialect. But the current conflict proves Russia’s persistence in using language as an “instrument of oppression”. Last month, Russia’s state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published what has been labelled a “genocide handbook”. The document declared that Ukrainians who survive the war need a “re-education”, that children should be raised in Russian, and that the name Ukraine must disappear. There’s a line in a Cornish poem by Tony Harrison that translates: “The tongueless man gets his land took.” It’s this wisdom that’s behind Russia’s assault on the Ukrainian native tongue.