Ukrainian Russians speak out on war, culture and the future

Opera singer

According to the laws of war, Ukraine is likely to reject both Russian culture in general and Russian personalities for years.

For many in the country, the February 24 invasion – and the atrocities that followed – shattered any possibility of engagement with Russia.

Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine were destroyed, while millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians defended Ukraine in trenches and volunteer centers.

In recent years, Ukraine has become home to political refugees from Russia, as journalists, politicians and others have fled Putin’s authoritarian regime.

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What will life be like for these Russians once the war is over? openDemocracy asked Russians living in Ukraine – a well-known opera singer, lawyer, publisher and journalist – what they thought the future held for them.

“Hearing Russian could trigger PTSD in people”

Yevgeny Kiselev

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Political commentator and journalist Evgeny Kiselyov has worked for Ukrainian television since 2008.

In the context of strong emotions and national tragedy in post-war Ukraine, the rejection of the Russians is of course possible.

We still remember our grandparents who survived World War II, who couldn’t even [stand to] hear the sound of the German language. So, in Ukraine, people will be shaken by the sound of Russian speech. This form of PTSD could spread across the country. And that makes sense for a nation that survived an aggressive war of annihilation.

On the other hand, well before the beginning of the war, Ukraine made a choice in favor of the category “Ukrainian” as a political and not an ethnic category. Moreover, the country has made this choice on many occasions, in particular by granting three quarters of the votes to Volodymyr Zelenskyi, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian with Jewish roots from the East. If you look at the electoral map of Ukraine in the spring of 2019, you will see that Zelenskyi’s electorate is almost evenly distributed throughout Ukraine, with the possible exception of the Lviv region. Zelenskyi won even in the homeland of [Ukrainian nationalist leader] Stepan Bandera, the village of Stary Uhriniv. That says a lot.

I am entirely on the side of Sergei Loznitsa, who spoke abruptly at the Cannes Film Festival [against the boycott of Russian culture]. But from the historical point of view, the weakening of the influence of Russian culture in Ukraine is natural. This process would have continued without the war. For a long time, teaching in schools and universities was done in Ukrainian. The Ukrainian language has gradually conquered new territories, new spheres for itself. Strengthening the positions of the state language is an important part of state building in general.

I haven’t recently had the opportunity to be on the sidelines of the president’s office. But until very recently I knew that in the office, when the cameras are off, people communicate with each other in Russian. Whether they have now switched to Ukrainian, I don’t know. All I can say is that during the three years of his presidential term, Volodymyr Zelenskyi has improved a lot in Ukrainian. At the same time, I think he will not deny the fact that by origin, by education, he belongs to the number of Ukrainians who, being Ukrainian citizens and convinced patriots, are used to speaking the Russian language.

I wonder who will be the object of possible anti-Russian feelings inside Ukraine? There are hardly any Russian citizens in Ukraine today. Those who are here, as a rule, have a certain status. These are people who worked in Ukraine, and all of them integrated a long time ago or left. A key question is the fate of that part of Ukrainian society which is to some extent connected with Russian culture – spiritual, literary, musical, historical. Ukraine is a bilingual country. And this bilingualism also applies to cultural heritage. I can hardly imagine that in post-war Ukraine, for example in Odessa, the total eradication of the Russian language or Russian culture will begin. It would be offensive to a significant part of the inhabitants of Odessa, bearers of Russian culture and ready to resist Russian aggression.