A Name of One’s Own: Ukraine Journal, Part I

In the center of Ukraine’s capital, December 2019 (Jay Nordlinger)
On Kiev/Kyiv, an American political drama, a Russo-Ukrainian war, and more

I have always written “Kiev.” But that is a fighting word — a fighting spelling — for Ukrainians. They do “Kyiv.” It is not a matter of fussiness. It is actually a matter of importance.

For an excellent article on this subject, try Peter Dickinson, here.

In brief, “Kiev” is a transliteration of the Russian name for the capital; “Kyiv” is from the Ukrainian.

I will persist, however, in writing “chicken Kiev” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” (the section that ends Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition). (Increasingly, I see the composer’s name spelled “Musorgsky,” by the way.)

• Have a taste of Dickinson’s article:

No single document captures the Russian denial of Ukrainian identity quite as succinctly as the 1863 “Valuev Circular.” A Tsarist decree banning Ukrainian-language publications, it states matter-of-factly, “A separate Ukrainian language has never existed, does not exist, and cannot exist.”

This relentless russification succeeded in robbing Ukraine of an independent identity, both at home and abroad.

There’s a lot more, of course.

• “The,” too, sends a shiver down Ukrainian spines: “the Ukraine.” Lots of people say it, including President Trump, from time to time. You can forgive it, or at least I can: We grew up with it. But today, more than ever, “the” is a fighting word — because “the Ukraine” implies a region, not a country.

It was in 1986, I believe, that I first heard “Ukraine,” without a “the.” It came from the lips of Robert Conquest, the great historian. He had come to campus to talk about his new book, The Harvest of Sorrow, about the terror-famine (1932–33). He explained that “Ukraine” was used by people asserting a separate identity for the place.

It sounded so weird to me. Of course, so would “Sudan,” for a while: I grew up with “the Sudan.” Paul Johnson once sent in a piece to National Review speaking of “the Lebanon” — which was perfectly natural to him.

“Germany” sounded so strange to me, when the two sides were reunified. I had grown up with “West Germany” and “East Germany.” “Germany” was a historical term — obsolete in my little world . . .

• Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 is nicknamed “the Little Russian.” This does not refer to a short Muscovite, as I often say: It refers to Ukraine, for Ukraine was known as “Little Russia,” meaning “Russia Minor.” The symphony contains several Ukrainian folk songs. (It is a masterpiece, by the way — an underrated Tchaikovsky symphony.)

• In the fourth grade — at Pattengill Elementary in Ann Arbor, Michigan — I had a Ukrainian teacher. A man from Ukraine. We called him “Mr. K.” I can’t remember his full name, or maybe never knew it: It was judged too long and complicated for us to pronounce. I remember his talking about war and occupation, in horrified tones, with horror on his face.

Also, he and his family staged Ukrainian folk performances: dance and music, and maybe stories. I can see these people, in my mind’s eye, dressed in native costume. I can see them dancing.

I suppose that’s the first I knew there was something like Ukrainian identity: Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian-ness. This was in the mid-1970s, well before 1991, and 2004, and 2014 (big years for Ukraine).

• I arrive at the airport in Kyiv from New York. There is no immigration card to fill out. And I am asked no questions. I just show my passport and am waltzed through. I have never had it so easy.

• “You’re on the Dnieper,” I think. The Dnieper is the river on which this capital lies. Prokofiev wrote a ballet, On the Dnieper — not as famous as Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella, not nearly. But damn good.

• It is hilly, Kyiv is — very hilly, which adds to its attractiveness, I think (and to the strenuousness of its walks).

• Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist, came from Kiev. (I think of it as “Kiev,” in those days. I would have a hard time writing that little Horowitz went to the “Kyiv Conservatory.”) Golda Meir came from this city, too. (She did not attend the conservatory.) Each made his fame elsewhere in the world . . .

• The sun starts slanting downward, it seems to me, before noon. It is December. I am not speaking in precise astronomical or meteorological terms, mind you. I am more like giving an impression. When it gets to be 1 or 2, I think of a phrase: “the afternoon sun.” It is the title of one of David Pryce-Jones’s novels, an extraordinarily beautiful and intelligent book. At not much past 4, it is pitch black.

• The weather, I’m happy to say, is mild — like mid-30s. I have lucked out. I am told that Kyiv is about like Toronto, weather-wise . . .

• A birch tree is a hallmark of eastern Europe, or so I think. Care for a birch?

• Care for a yellow church?

• Care for a blue one?

• I have come here to ask a question: What do Ukrainians, of various types, think about the current political drama in America? What do they think about Ukraine’s being front and center? Of course, other questions arise, too, and are answered. I will do a magazine piece and a journal — this one, which has started today — which will consist of matters sundry.

If you don’t like an item, skip to the next one — or skip the journal altogether, it’s a free country . . .

• At the entrance of my hotel, there is a black doorman. This surprises me. Of course, there are many ethnicities in this country: Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Moldovan, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Tatar . . . As it happens, I will not see another black person for the rest of my stay.

I wish I had asked him about himself, the whys and the wherefores. Shyness is a lousy quality in a journalist. (I figure I make up for it in other ways, and shyness — or discretion — afflicts me only occasionally.)

• There are many Turkish eateries around town. And lots of Georgian restaurants. I eat in one that is excellent.

• Georgiy Gongadze was half Georgian, half Ukrainian. As the name indicates, his father was Georgian, his mother Ukrainian. He was a muckraking journalist and filmmaker here. The regime of Leonid Kuchma did not like him very much. Gongadze was murdered in 2000.

His wife — his widow — is Myroslava Gongadze. Remarkable human being. She is the head of the Ukrainian service at the Voice of America. I wrote about her and the VOA in 2016. Part I is here and the second here.

• Ukraine has not been permitted to join NATO and not been permitted to join the European Union. This is a sore subject and a long story. It need not detain us now. Near the center of town, there are banners saying “NATO 70.” It is the 70th anniversary of the alliance. There is also this, in the earth:

I think of a saying, or a phrase: “on the outside looking in.”

• How do Ukrainians feel about the starring role, so to speak, of their country in America’s political drama? “Shocked,” says one prominent citizen. Many people are simply shocked.

Others deny that Ukraine has any role at all. “It’s your problem, your drama!” they say, indignant. (They are right, fundamentally, of course.)

Those attuned to politics knew about U.S. diplomats and other personnel assigned to Kyiv: Marie Yovanovitch, George Kent, Alexander Vindman, William Taylor — and here they were, in the spotlight on Capitol Hill!

So strange.

Ukraine is a very out-of-the-way place, on the eastern edge of Europe. It is the poorest country in Europe, or tied with Moldova. (Think Alabama–Mississippi.) Ukraine is not an obvious candidate for all this attention.

Bill Taylor? The now-famous, or semi-famous, Bill Taylor? He’s the guy on the exercise bike next to you at the gym!

Ordinarily, few Americans would know who the president of Ukraine was — even if he had been poisoned nearly to death (as Viktor Yushchenko had been, in 2004). And yet, “Zelensky” is a name all over the U.S. media.

In Ukraine, they knew about Paul Manafort before he was notorious in America. He was notorious here — at the elbow of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin president, who had to hightail it to Russia. The ex-president is wanted in Ukraine for high treason; Manafort is doing time in America.

The great danger, says Myroslava Luzina, is that Ukraine will become “toxic” in American politics. Luzina is a wide-ranging intellectual in Kyiv. The Ukrainian government has to be very, very careful in navigating this mess, she says. You don’t want to alienate the Republicans; you don’t want to alienate the Democrats. You have to have U.S. support, because your position in the world is precarious: Russia is making war on you (literally, not figuratively).

The last thing Ukraine wanted was to be an American political football. It is dangerous as hell, for Ukraine.

Are people across the country absorbed in the impeachment drama? No, not at all. They are going about their lives. They are subsisting. I think of an old expression: “People don’t make history, they make a living.” Ukrainians are watching entertainment television, as people all over the world do. Plus, they have their own political issues, and scandals, and dramas – they don’t need Washington’s.

And don’t forget: There is a war on. That’s what people are concerned about, understandably.

But the politically attuned? They have at least one eye on Washington, and that, too, is understandable.

I’ll have more about all this in due course . . .

• The opera house in this town is named after Taras Shevchenko, a writer, and not just a writer, the writer: the bard of Ukraine, if you will. He lived from 1814 to 1861. A giant bust of him looks out from the house. Have a picture.

On one night, the house hosts Carmen Suite and Scheherazade. The next night, Romeo and Juliet. I am not talking about operas, concerts, or plays, but ballets. For a post of mine at The New Criterion, go here.

• There was an opera singer, Vasyl Slipak. A Ukrainian baritone. He worked mainly in France. He came home, volunteering for the war in the east. He was killed in June 2016 — one of the 14,000 or so dead. Quite a story: Slipak, yes, and the war at large.

Thank you for joining me, ladies and gentlemen. Part II will appear tomorrow.

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