Friday, May 25, 2007

"Ukraina" is literally translated as 'on the edge' or 'borderland'...

I just finished reading a great book on Ukrainian history, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine.

Author Anna Reid, who was a Kyiv correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995, tells the story of Ukraine by dedicating each chapter to a different city or region. For example, in the first chapter, entitled "The New Jerusalem: Kyiv," Reid traces the great Slav civilisation of the tenth century that created and maintained Kyiv.

I found Borderland to be a very readable book because Reid mixed personal anecdotes and literary references with her (extensive) historical research. Ukraine is a vast country with a complex history, but Reid was able to successfully summarize its past by creating a "quilt" of sorts, constructed with patchwork stories about all of Ukraine's diverse inhabitants.

From the first page:

Flat, fertile, and fatally tempting to invaders, Ukraine was split between Russia and Poland from the mid 17th century to the end of the 18th, between Russia and Austria through the 19th, and between Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania between the two world wars. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it had never been an independent state.

Being a borderland meant two things for Ukraine. First, it inherited a legacy of violence, and second, it was left with a tenuous sense of national identity. I think the issue of language helps to elucidate the latter point. In the eastern part of the country, almost everyone speaks Russian. In fact, in the Crimea (a south-eastern region on the Black Sea,) many residents refuse to accept that Ukraine is an independent nation at all - they still consider themselves Russian citizens. However, in the western part of the country, nearly everyone speaks Ukrainian. Indeed, Lviv (a large city near the Polish border) became the birthplace of the Ukrainian independence movement. Also, Ukrainian is a more rural language associated with the peasantry, while Russian is spoken in most big cities.

I think the cultural dynamic between Russia and Ukraine is fascinating. It will be very interesting to see how it plays out in Kyiv and Chernobyl, the places where I will be spending most of my time. I hope I made the right choice when I decided to learn the Ukrainian language this summer instead of Russian...From what I've read, most Kyiv residents are bi-lingual, but I have no idea what language is dominant in the north-central region of Ukraine, where Chernoybl and Pripyat are located. Fortunately, Russian and Ukrainian share some vocabulary, so there is a chance that I will be able to understand one by knowing the other.

This post is getting long, but before I stop writing I want to share with you an interesting map that shows the Ukrainian-speaking world:

There appears to be a significant Ukrainian community in Canada. Who knew!


Anonymous said...

Interesting map at the end. I spent a few years in Calgary, Canada, as a teenager (in the early 80s), and probably about a third of the kids in my school were from Ukranian backgrounds (3rd or 4th generation Canadians - I don't think any spoke the mother tongue). I guess when Ukranians emigrated to North America they looked for land and climate they were familiar with, and the great plains of Canada fit the bill. From the map it looks like those who wanted a big city went to Chicago, and the rest went to Alberta and Saskatchewan...

Christian Student Scientist said...

Great blog and what a wonderful daring idea for a research! I am looking forward to reading about your adventures, research, findings, experiences... I am not sure you will be able to understand Russian, even somewhat, by taking only 6-week Ukranian class. Russian and Ukranian languages are very much alike but even native Russian speakers have trouble following Ukranian speech, especially since there are words that sound the same but have different meanings. However, you might be successful with basic tasks (like understanding simple directions). Plus English is getting ever more popular, so some natives will be happy to practice their English with you :)

Where did you get the map, by the way? Are there similar maps for other nationalities?


I got the map from Wikipedia, of all places. If you search for any language - French, Russian, Belorussian, Spanish, anything! - one of these maps will pop up in the right hand margin. It's so interesting to see the distribution of different languages around the world. I think I spent two hours on Wikipedia after I discovered that feature, lol.

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