By: Elisa Bailey
Rory Finnin has been running the Ukrainian Studies programme at the University of Cambridge for the past six years. He is University Senior Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies and Chair of the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies. His key research interest is the relationship between nationalism and literature in Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.
How did you get started with Ukrainian? I assume the path would have been through Russian?
I actually started with Ukrainian itself. I had been a Classics and English major as an undergraduate in the States, so I had been considering post-grad study in Classics for a time. But I could not shake my interest in and fascination with Ukraine, which began during my experience as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine in the 90s. I was initially supposed to go to Fiji with the Peace Corps, but instead I was sent to Ukraine, which involved a change of clothing! The Peace Corps gives you three months of intensive language training, so I was with about forty-five other volunteers, mainly teachers, learning Ukrainian in a city called Luts'k. After that I lived in a village in central Ukraine for over two years, working as a teacher and social worker. There I tended to speak what I later understood was a heavily Ukrainian-inflected surzhyk, a Russian-Ukrainian patois spoken in places across the country.
Was it very difficult to differentiate between the Russian influences and the Ukrainian ones within surzhyk? Is it easy to confuse Russian and Ukrainian, especially when this patois exists so strongly?
As a foreigner with no previous knowledge of a Slavic language, I could not always tease out what was standard Russian or what was standard Ukrainian when hearing and speaking surzhyk. New expressions are new expressions. I just tended to replicate and use whatever I heard. To an extent, as Slavic languages, Russian and Ukrainian are fairly syntactically compatible. They also have a 62% lexical similarity, which is about the same as the relationship between Portuguese and French. But there is much greater lexical similarity between Ukrainian and Belorussian and Polish, which makes sense given that much of the territory of today's Ukraine was a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the seventeenth century. Ideologues at the Kremlin who speak of 'eternal' Ukrainian-Russian fraternal relations conveniently ignore this fact, by the way.
Are most Ukrainians bilingual, and do Russians just as easily (at least try to-) understand Ukrainian?
Literary Russian and Ukrainian are quite different - more different from one another than Spanish and Portuguese, for instance - although it is extremely common for educated Ukrainians to flip casually between the two languages. Young Ukrainians are a good case in point. On MTV programmes, for instance, there are often two co-hosts: one who speaks in Ukrainian and the other who speaks in Russian. They can undoubtedly speak both languages perfectly well, but they nonetheless commit to their designated language on the show. Callers who phone into the programme usually try to keep to this linguistic arrangement, accommodating the Russian-speaking host with Russian and the Ukrainian-speaking host with Ukrainian! All Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians can speak Russian, but not all Russian-speaking Ukrainians can speak Ukrainian, which is the state language. Some frankly cannot be bothered to learn Ukrainian, which is sad. This is due, I think, to a legacy of colonialism and imperial chauvinism in Ukraine. But the situation is changing all the time. When I taught in the US, I worked with a number of Russian students from Moscow's best universities who took a lot of time and effort to learn Ukrainian.
So is there any sense in the info-graphics and reports that suggest divides between areas that are pro- union with Russia and those that want to retain an independent Ukraine, on the basis of language?
Language has never been anything that truly divides people in Ukraine; it is a manufactured issue that politicians and the media tend to dust off around election time to stand for other social cleavages: class and economic standing, in particular. Even in the south and east of the country, where Ukrainian may not be commonly spoken on the street, large numbers identify Ukrainian as their ridna mova or 'mother tongue' in polls and in the most recent census. In Britain we tend to confuse language use with ethnicity in Ukraine, and I cannot tell you how many times I have had to correct journalists who sometimes assert that the majority of Ukraine's east and south is 'ethnic Russian' simply because the majority speak Russian! Such lazy errors play into the Kremlin's propaganda, which is now legitimating irredentist land grabs with such thinking. For 23 years, Ukraine never had a problem with separatism, and even now polls of Ukrainians in today's hotspots in the east and south show that separatism is a very marginal phenomenon. What we are seeing today in Ukraine is not organic to the country. It is being orchestrated from Moscow and Rostov-on-Don.
Do you think this highlights a need for Ukrainian to be studied more â€” as Russian already is â€” abroad, so that foreign representations and interactions with the country can become more accurate and natural?
Absolutely. Ukraine is the largest country within the European continent, and Ukrainian is the second most widely spoken Slavic language in existence, with around 45 million speakers. But sadly institutions of higher education have been slow to acknowledge this empirical reality. Generally in the academy we have a hard time distinguishing intellectual merit from perceptions of political power. For much of their history, Ukrainians did not have a state of their own, so we in Europe and North America have largely avoided studying them as subjects of history, on their own terms. This is a common problem with stateless peoples around the world. For years, this situation troubled me as an intellectual matter. Now I fear that our ignorance of places like Ukraine will lead to very poor policy decisions on our part as outright war between Ukraine and Russia becomes a very real possibility. Russia has amassed forces on Ukraine's eastern border, and for most people in Britain, it may as well be poised to invade a black hole.
The continuation of this ignorance is what Cambridge and your own work has been trying to avoid, though, so at least something is being done!
Yes, and in general at Cambridge we have been trying to look at Ukraine and Eastern Europe in new ways. At the moment there is an understandably common tendency for us to focus on the dark and difficult pages of the twentieth-century histories of Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, for instance - their occupations under two totalitarian regimes, the purges, the man-made famines. What we often fail to acknowledge, though, is the remarkable fact that these countries survived this tragic past. Ideals of freedom, independence and democracy ultimately triumphed in these places. Yes, there are problems and challenges and inconsistencies, but the very existence of some of the countries of Eastern Europe is testament to the promise and strength of European ideals. The very idea of modern Ukraine, for example, was born out of a concern for justice and equality in nineteenth-century lyric poetry, out of an ethics and aesthetics of inclusion, not exclusion. That is extraordinary.
Yes, please tell me more about this, as I know it is your specialism.
I have always been fascinated with the ways language and literature do things in the world, how they can effect political and social change. Ukraine offers us an extraordinary case of a country born from art, against great odds - of a country to a significant degree born out of the poetry of one man, Taras Shevchenko, whose bicentenary we are celebrating this year. The Ukrainian language was for all intents and purposes banned by the Russian Empire in 1863 and again in 1876; this prohibition took a hugely significant toll, which still resonates today. But ultimately, the tsar's prohibition was an implicit recognition of the political and social potency of this language and its literature, which helped forge a unique national identity, particularly after Shevchenko.
How would you describe the current Ukrainian national identity?
Imperial peripheries are meant to gravitate towards established geopolitical centres, not coalesce with other peripheries and found a new centre entirely. But that is exactly what Ukraine has done in its history: defy geopolitical gravity. It is composed of various historical imperial peripheries - Russian, Polish-Lithuanian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman - and centred in Kiev. Neither common ethnicity, nor common faith, nor common language causes the country to cohere. So what does? National identity. This identity is expressed in many ways throughout the country, some more explicitly and conventionally than others. It is contested and diverse, certainly. But it has been a major factor in the history of Eastern Europe. Ukraine's history has ultimately been a story of a politics of inclusion; its national movement simply had to be open to many ethnicities to develop and move forward. Look at its massive territory, and it tells the tale: only a civic national movement - which invited ethnic Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Jews, Tatars, etc. to become Ukrainian national subjects - could have prevailed in such a region. Look at its more recent history as well: the protesters who died in the EuroMaidan movement, called the 'Heavenly Hundred' in Ukraine, included Armenians, Belarusians, Georgians, Russians, Jews. The Maidan was a powerful manifestation of the multi-ethnic, multicultural European ideal.
What else is happening in Cambridge to extend beyond the traditional language set on offer?
In recent years the German Department has begun offering open classes in Yiddish to members of the university, which is a wonderful development. We should ensure it continues. In our Department of Slavonic Studies, we are launching a pilot project in Polish Studies modelled after our Ukrainian Studies programme next year. This is incredibly exciting. It means that beginning in 2014-15 students at Cambridge can study, in addition to our offerings in Ukrainian and Russian, a Tripos paper dedicated to the language, literature and culture of Poland.
Our Ukrainian Studies programme offers open language courses in Ukrainian and two undergraduate Tripos papers available to all MML students: Uk 1, which began in 2008, and Uk 2, which began in 2010. Both papers can be taken with no prior formal study of Ukrainian, although for Uk 2 some Ukrainian is strongly encouraged. Public knowledge of Ukraine and Ukrainian is not where it should be, so we also complement our undergraduate and postgraduate lectures with a series of public events, which we of course post on Facebook and on our website, www.CambridgeUkrainianStudies.org. One of our popular spring events is an evening of literary readings across various languages in celebration of the Ukrainian journal of translation Vsesvit (The Universe). In May 2013, for example, we read texts in Georgian, Armenian, Ukrainian and Russian in honour of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, who was a fascinating character: an ethnic Armenian born in Georgia and jailed for Ukrainian nationalism!
So do you think the future for Ukrainian studies is bright in Cambridge?
Definitely. We received a permanent endowment in 2010, so students will be studying Ukrainian at Cambridge for another 800+ years. We are hoping to endow Polish permanently as well and appealing to various communities for financial support. The truth is, external funding is critical for the study of the languages and cultures of Eastern Europe. We simply cannot rely on internal UK state funding, which can ebb and flow on a political whim. In Britain, as elsewhere, we are in grave danger of abandoning the study of Europe as a linguistically diverse and vibrant continent. Cambridge needs to lead the way in turning the tide.
Finally, in your opinion, what does it mean to 'be fluent' in a language or to 'know' a language?
This is always a difficult question to answer, primarily because of the various popular uses of 'fluency' and 'proficiency' etc. Knowledge of a language does not always mean fluency, and vice versa. I sometimes speak to my students about acquiring the three 'c's: command, confidence, and comfort. Command: this is a knowledge of mechanics, of syntax, grammar and lexis. Confidence: this is our open disposition to communication with others. Comfort: this is our ability and willingness to linger and 'hang out' in the language, to explore its different registers. Some of us start with command and try to master syntax, grammar and lexicon before opening our mouths. Others jump right in and try to use the language with comfort, with little regard for errors. Wherever we begin, we need to end up at a point where we demonstrate command, confidence and comfort in equal measure.