03 October 2012

Memory and Language in Ukraine: some reflections on a recent journey

It is hard to underestimate the usefulness of physically visiting landscapes of memory. This simple act can be just as instructive as hours spent in libraries or trawling the internet. As well as affording the opportunity to learn things that one would otherwise miss, it allows one to connect to the memories that one studies practically, rather than simply theoretically. It can also challenge many of the assumptions we make as we approach our subject, and many of the conclusions we draw as we study from afar.

Symbols of Soviet and Greek-Catholic memory co-exist in L'viv (photo: U. Blacker)
One assumption that falls apart as one walks through Ukraine’s memoryscapes is that of the ‘two Ukraines’. That is, two different territories, two different cultures, two different memories, and of course, two different languages. Observing Ukraine from a distance, through the media, it is easy to concur. East versus West, Russian versus Ukrainian, Stalin versus Bandera, etc. Ukraine’s ‘split personality’ has been sharply underlined by the recent political conflict over the language bill. Russian tries to squeeze out Ukrainian, and Ukrainian tries valiantly to resist linguistic colonization. The two languages fight each other, like deputies in the parliament, like partisans against insurgents.
Yet language is not war. One does not have to choose a side to fight for. In this case, it is quite possible to inhabit two camps at once. Languages are not ideologies, and can be combined, can co-exist. This is the case in Ukraine, as is evident to anyone who visits the country. And just as language is not unitary, neither is that other important constituent of identity, memory. Both language and memory diverge, re-converge, overlap, quarrel and even engage in dialogue. The one thing they do not do is separate out cleanly, simply and irrevocably.