The Kremlin claims, falsely, that Ukraine is oppressing its Russophone citizens, trying to “Ukrainize” them, even perpetrating genocide against them. Talk about calling a kettle black. At the same time, Kremlin pundits keep pushing the narrative that Ukrainians are merely “Russians that forgot who they are”. Kremlin propagandists spewing conflicting narratives is one thing. But Russian actions in Ukraine have done more to “de-Russify” Ukraine than anything Kyiv could have done.
A significant minority of Ukrainians are Russophones. But likewise, a significant minority speaks exclusively Ukrainian. The vast majority are bilingual, fluent speakers of both languages. But over the past year of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the invaders have done everything they could to inspire hatred and disdain for all things Russian in the people of Ukraine. This is perfectly evidenced by Ian Birrell article for the Daily Mail, in which he interviewed several citizens of the country that was once broadly considered “fraternal” to Russia (and not just by their respective people, but by the global community), but where it is hard to nowadays find anyone with any warm feelings for the Russians. Even if they are one’s relatives.
Oh, the irony. When Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, claiming that he is liberating Ukrainians, he probably did not expect what he would achieve. The exact opposite of what he hoped for.
As Birrell writes, the invasion “smashed any lingering fraternal bonds that managed to survive both the Holodomor — Stalin’s famine that killed four million people in the early 1930s — and the long chill of Communism.”
Neither Ukraine nor Russia release official numbers of their own war dead. Estimates say that Ukraine suffered at least 60,000 KIA. Ukraine daily publishes an estimate of how many Russian soldiers they managed to “liquidate”, and the number is rapidly approaching 150,000. Estimates by various foreign intelligence agencies do not go as far, but neither are they far behind.
The Russians have managed to even the score by killing scores of Ukrainian civilians. Mostly in places like Mariupol, during the lengthy siege, or after capturing territory and enacting genocide on the local populace. Mass graves in liberated Bucha, Irpin, and Izium leave no doubt as to the nature of the Russian idea of how to “administer” the areas they control.
“Realists” calling for a swift peace settlement, even at the cost of Ukraine giving up the territory already under the control of the Russians, are exactly that. “Realists” in quotation marks.
A “peace” involving any territorial settlement that benefits Russia means Russia could with impunity continue with its genocidal practices.
Even worse, as soon as the Russian military licks its wounds and replenishes its nearly depleted ammunition stocks, be it a year or a decade, it would pounce at Ukraine again, trying to devour the country piecemeal. Unlike “realists”, Ukrainians and more sober Western leaders, like those of Poland or the Baltic States, whose countries have had more than sufficient experience with Russian imperialism, have no doubts about that.
The second great irony is that the parts of the country that have suffered the most from the Russian invasion, the east and the south, where Russian is the first language of most of the local residents, have been the ones that have suffered the most from the brutality of the invaders.
This was evident when Ukrainian forces liberated large swathes of the Kharkiv region, and later the northern part of the Kherson Region and the Kherson city itself. Elderly people, many of whom were unable or unwilling to evacuate when the Russians rolled in, came out to greet “their boys”, with tears in their eyes. Welcoming them with what little food they had, and thanking the Ukrainian servicemen for liberating them from the Russians. And the language they expressed their gratitude in? It was in their own native Russian.
For centuries, Ukraine, either in part or as a whole, has been a part of the Russian empire, whether its iteration was a tsarist or a Soviet one. Although Russian culture was dominant, the two influenced one another.
No more of that. Not after February 24.
“[Ukrainians] want to drive out any trace of Russian heritage that clings to their culture, demolish any reminders of their historic ties and do everything possible to ensure their future safety by destroying the bloodstained dictatorship over their border,” reads the Daily Mail’s article.
There was a point when nine in ten Ukrainians held a positive view of Russians. The Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the east of the country, where Russian-propped separatists established their so-called “People’s Republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions have somewhat dampened Ukraine’s love of its eastern neighbor. Yet, just before February 24, one-in-three Ukrainians still had a favorable view of Russia.
This plummeted to 2 percent three months later.
Any traces of “fraternity” between the Ukrainians and the Russians have been expunged by the war. If the invasion itself was not enough, the savage brutality of the Russian hordes was more than enough to seal the enmity.
One-in-ten. One-in-three. Two percent. These are mere statistics.
Here are the stories of the people behind these numbers.
East of Kyiv there is a cemetery, with rows upon rows of fresh graves, adorned with colorful wreaths and mourning-black ribbons. On each of them, a photo of a fallen Ukrainian soldier, a collection of visages ranging from fresh-faced high-school graduates to middle-aged and even elderly men. All fell in the defense of their country.
There are countless such cemeteries in Ukraine nowadays.
A young woman, Irina, or Ira, visits the grave of her fiance. On this day he would have turned 27 years old.
“When we buried him, he was the last in this row, but now you can see there are lots of new ones,” she said.
“We hate Russians with all of our hearts,” said Ira as she stood by the grave of her beloved.
Is Ira unjustified in her sentiment? Are her hatred and grief a display of “Russophobia”?
Or maybe Ira is just an isolated incident?
Oleksandr and Olena
“I hate all Russians. My hatred goes from their children to their grandmothers,” said Olena.
Harsh words. Why would anyone hate children and grandmothers?
Well, why would anyone KILL children and grandmothers? Or are the Russians killing Ukrainian children and the elderly just for sport?
The Ukrainians have all the reasons to hate the Russians, all and any of them. At least their hate does not manifest in killing civilians. After all, it is the Russian soldiers and the Russian missiles that are killing Ukrainian civilians, not the other way around.
Olena is a cultural manager. Her partner, Oleksandr, is a writer.
Before the war, they hosted a New Year’s party for their friends.
One friend was killed in combat, fighting off the Russian invaders, leaving behind his wife and child.
Another is now in Russian captivity.
Three others are currently serving in the armed forces, while yet another fled the country together with her mother and are now refugees.
Olena and Oleksandr owned a house in Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv, which saw heavy fighting during the initial stages of the conflict.
That is where the party photo was taken.
The house no longer stands, it was destroyed in the fighting. Along with most of their possessions. Miraculously, their home library of 2,000 books had survived.
When they were recovering them, they threw away all volumes in Russian or by Russian authors, even a collection of costly art books.
“No Dostoevsky, no Nabokov, no Tolstoy,” said Oleksandr. A writer himself, mind you.
“This is how our society has gone. We do not want to read Russian books, listen to Russian music, drink Russian beer, or speak the Russian language,” he said.
Since the Russians invaded their land, Ukrainians have come to hate anything that is even remotely connected to Russia.
The municipal authorities of Odesa removed the monument dedicated to the Tsarina that had founded the city. In Kyiv, hundreds of street names were changed. And one bookshop in the capital organized the pulping of Russian works. 72 tonnes of them. Donating cash raised from recycling to charities.
Not just literary works connected to Russia are destroyed. So are familial connections.
“I have lost count of the painful stories I have heard of families straddling the border ripped apart after those members in Russia,” writes Birrell, in his Daily Mail article.
There are many families with relatives across the border. Or perhaps more aptly: across the frontlines.
But only on one side of the border are people fed Kremlin’s propaganda, portraying Ukraine as Nazis, while painting Russia as a “victim” [sic] of Western aggression. And they refuse to accept the reality befalling their own relatives.
Demonizing Ukraine was drip-fed in the media, entwined with a narrative about the glory of the World War II victory over fascists and how Russia today faces similar threats from the West.
Birrell interviewed one soldier. His cousin is fighting on the other side, convinced that he is fighting “fascists”. They are related through their mothers. His mother now refuses to speak to her sister.
Another Ukrainian, Oleg Zhdanov, once an army colonel, and now a defense analyst, also has relatives in Russia.
Specifically, his own brother.
“He tells me I’m brainwashed by Americans,” said Zhdanov. “But it’s difficult to love a country that is shelling you”
Who’s brainwashed again?
In a cemetery in Kyiv, a family was visiting a grave of a recently fallen Ukrainian defender, Anton.
His weeping mother, shaking with grief, was in no state to be interviewed. Unlike his sister, Anastasia.
Anastasia came to her brother’s gravesite with her little child, a daughter. Who holds a Russian passport on account of her father, who is a Muscovite. The girl’s stepfather is now in Bakhmut, fighting to keep the Russian invaders at bay.
“I told my ex-husband: you killed my brother,” Anastasia said.
She also said something that is the perfect example of the massive shift in the way in which Ukrainians see themselves in relation to their former Russian “Big Brother”.
“Look at our history — Russia was always suppressing us,” she said. “Now we are unstoppable.”
“In Iran, people are being hanged but still they protest,” said one security source, comparing the determination of the Iranians to the sheepish apathy of the Russians.
Ukrainians, even those who before never spoke a word of Ukrainian, are now making a stand.
Birrell ran into two women on a train, one of whom was learning to switch from Russian to Ukrainian, while the other described how her middle-aged mother and herself were both trying to switch.
“The war has made us stronger as a country, binding us together, but also stronger as individuals. We have discovered our own strength as Ukrainians,” said the latter.
The Russian occupiers are imposing Russian culture, education, language, and passports in the territories they occupy.
In Ukraine, people are discarding any connection to Russia. Going so far as abandoning the native language they have spoken at home since childhood.
Ukrainian victory in the war, however distant it may seem, appears inevitable. The fate of the Russian language and “culture” in the area, in spite of Putin’s grandiose plans, seems to be likewise sealed.