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In Ukraine, Divisions Not Necessarily About Language

  • Al Pessin

From the outside, the crisis in Ukraine appears to be drawn along ethnic and linguistic lines - between Russian-speakers who identify with Russia and Ukrainian-speakers who identify with Ukraine. But it’s not so simple.

The complexity of Ukraine’s political divide is particularly easy to see in the southern city of Odessa.

In a building at Kulikova Field, dozens of pro-Russian protesters died in early May after a pitched battle with a pro-western group and an intense fire. But even here, those mourning the dead declare their loyalty to Ukraine - in Russian.

“The people who died here weren’t separatists. They were standing for Ukraine, a cohesive Ukraine. But they just wanted federalism,” said Lila, a saleswoman.

“People in the east are more absolutist and radical. Here, we are more tolerant,” said Vladimir, an activist.

Across town, supporters of Ukraine’s increasing ties with Europe finished a rally and posed for a photo.

“I’ve had lots of negotiations with people from Kulikova Field. They are mostly okay. But radicals manipulate them if they don’t really know what’s going on,” said Yevgeny, an activist leader.

The language is really a non-issue, explained Sergey, a seaman.

“They [those perceived to be pro-Russia] just historically [are] speaking [the] Russian language. But they don’t like to be in Russia," he said. "We like our freedom, and it doesn’t matter which language we speak.”

Local journalist Oksana Butuk is not surprised by the lack of hostility among her fellow-Odessans.

“Language is not the thing that divides in Ukraine. I, for example, grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking family but I don’t feel any aggression or pressure,” said Oksana.

And she said that in Russian.

To help explain, regional vice governor Zoya Kazanzhy offered this:

“There’s a poem in Russian that says you can’t understand Russia with your brain. Odessa is not a monolith. There are lots of small Odessas inside Odessa.”

Kazanzhy said supporters and opponents of the pro-western revolution used to get along in Odessa, and she blames provocateurs for stirring up the violence and trying to stoke ethnic tensions that she says never really existed before.

The vice governor says her main focus now is on restoring what she calls Odessa’s “easy-going” and multi-lingual lifestyle.

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