The Corner

World

Naming Rights

In the center of Ukraine’s capital, December 2019 (Jay Nordlinger)

Today on the homepage, I begin a Ukraine journal, here. It has matters light and matters grave. Ukraine is an extremely important country right now — which is a little odd, given that it is a very poor country, clinging to the eastern edge of Europe. Not many could find it on a map, I wager. I myself have always been a little shaky as to its exact location. But Ukraine is at the heart of a great struggle, or, better, on the front line of it: Will the international order be upheld or not? Will the rule of law prevail or not? Can strongmen invade countries and change borders, just like that? Can empires be reestablished?

Two world wars were fought in Europe, barely 20 years apart. (The second one spread well beyond Europe, of course.) We have not had one in a while. But only the dense or naïve would rule out a third.

I begin my journal with a matter that may seem relatively light but is actually quite important: the spelling of the name of Ukraine’s capital. “Kiev,” right? As in “chicken Kiev” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” (the section that ends Mussorgsky’s great piano work — later orchestrated by others, most prominently Ravel — Pictures at an Exhibition). Yes, but “Kiev” comes from the Russian name for the city; “Kyiv” comes from the Ukrainian.

So, to many Ukrainians, “Kiev” is a fighting word, or a fighting spelling.

For the Atlantic Council, Peter Dickinson wrote a superb article on this subject, which I quote in my journal. I will quote some more here.

A number of global heavyweights have recently adopted the Ukrainian-language derived “Kyiv” as their official spelling for the country’s capital city, replacing the Russian-rooted “Kiev.” This trend began with the Associated Press in late August. Since then, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Telegraph, and the BBC have followed suit.

This rush to Ukrainianize spellings is not only a response to Kyiv’s sudden newsworthiness. [Think the American impeachment drama, among other things.] It represents the latest chapter in a long-running campaign to secure recognition for the Ukrainian-language versions of Ukrainian place names, and is part of a much broader post-Soviet drive to assert an independent Ukrainian identity.

In the past, “Kiev”-“Kyiv” may have been a trivial issue, of concern to specialists and few others. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. But, as Dickinson says, attitudes around the world “have undergone a radical transformation since 2014,” when Putin seized Crimea and launched a war in eastern Ukraine.

Like so many other aspects of Ukrainian identity politics, Russia’s attack has electrified the issue, infusing it with entirely new meaning among domestic audiences and encouraging the outside world to think again. With Russian tanks parked in the Donbas and Moscow propagandists denouncing Ukraine as an accident of history, the continued use of Russian-language transliterations for Ukrainian towns and cities became not only absurd but also grotesque.

Do you want to go way back? Let’s do, with Dickinson:

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.

Issues that may seem silly to one person are of vital importance to another. How about “the,” as in “the Ukraine”? This issue, too, appears in my journal today. I first heard “Ukraine,” without the “the,” in 1986, I believe. It was from the lips of Robert Conquest, a great friend of National Review, a great friend of mine — hell, a great friend to man.

Ukraine did not ask to be important — no country wants to be important, in this way; countries long for normality and stability — but it has no choice. Again, Part I of my journal is here.

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