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"Language Taliban"

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Photo: The language issue in Ukrainian society remains one of the most intensely debated topics, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: The language issue in Ukrainian society remains one of the most intensely debated topics, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

The language issue in Ukrainian society remains one of the most intensely debated topics. It's no secret that before the hybrid war in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, some Ukrainian regions, especially the eastern and southern areas, were predominantly Russian-speaking, at least within regional and district centres. After the Russians, led by dictator Putin, attacked Ukraine, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians consciously switched from Russian to Ukrainian. However, some of the Ukrainian population still resists this transition. Oleksandr Varlamov, a former Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer and head of a consulting company before the full-scale invasion, now serving as a soldier in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, reflects on the idea that language is also a weapon.

"Language Taliban" in My Life

For those not familiar with the term: Russian-speaking Ukrainian bloggers introduced this label in September last year. Now, it is easily applied to anyone who speaks out against the Russian language in Ukraine.

I dislike labels because they can be attached to people without delving into the issue, much like a couple of years ago when those who refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus were labelled "anti-vaxxers." But today, it's not about labels; it's about why I don't want to let the Russian language into my life.

This is a difficult issue for me because I only started supporting Ukrainian content a few years ago. Before that, I believed that "it doesn't matter what language you speak if it's Russian," because everyone understands it, and it's more convenient for me. Both of my business books were written in Russian.

Those were different times, one might say philosophically. Or a different level of understanding, not like now. Because back then, I didn't understand that language is a weapon. And the Russian language is a powerful weapon that Moscow has been honing for years, over a hundred years to be precise.

If I speak Russian in my daily life—at home with my wife and children, with my parents and friends—guess in three tries which language I'll watch films in: a) Ukrainian; b) English; c) Russian? Yes, I'll watch Hollywood films in Russian translation, where facts are distorted or Ukrainians are mocked. And I'll feel a bit sad because Russians are portrayed as cool, and Ukrainians as foolish. Anyone interested can find a YouTube video called "What's Wrong with Russian Dubbing."

Or I'll watch Russian classics like "Brother 2" (a popular Russian crime thriller with chauvinistic and anti-Ukrainian content): "You bastards will still answer for Sevastopol!" And again, I'll be in a bad mood, without even realizing why.

Even seemingly innocent shows like "The Nanny" ("My Fair Nanny," a Russian comedy series based on the American "The Nanny," where a Ukrainian woman is depicted as a simpleton working for an influential Moscow producer) will reinforce the stereotype that Russians are successful producers, while Ukrainians are only fit for servile positions.

If I'm an intellectual, I'll read a lot. And not just anything, but science fiction, because for the advanced, science fiction is the way to go. Let's think about which science fiction writers I'll read. Maybe Lukyanenko (Sergei Lukyanenko, a Russian science fiction writer and propagandist)? He's so cool, wrote "Night Watch" and much more. But even there, dialogues like this appear: 

"I understand," I said. "You're Ukrainian, right? Yes, you have..." 

"I'm Little Russian," said the witch. "Khokhol. Don't call me Ukrainian—it's offensive."

I nodded: 

"I understand." 

"What's happening now is awful, but in the nineteenth century under Simon Vasylych, it was even worse," said Khokhlenko." 

(Sergei Lukyanenko, "The Sixth Watch")

Lukyanenko is not the only one. In almost all Russian science fiction I've encountered since 2005, there was something negative about Ukraine and constant glorification of Russia and Russians. For more details, search for the YouTube video "What's Wrong with Russian Science Fiction and Fantasy."

Of course, I'll watch the news in Russian. And interesting bloggers who provide news content for Ukrainians in Russian are people like Shariy (Anatoliy Shariy, a pro-Russian video blogger of Ukrainian origin, suspected of treason) or Podolyaka (Yuriy Podolyaka, a Russian Z-blogger, military observer, propagandist), because they are so advanced and provide "honest" information—I'll think so. "Why listen to ours, they are all Nazis, only speak Ukrainian and spread propaganda"—these are the thoughts that will gradually appear in my mind. And it's just uncomfortable to watch the news in Ukrainian if I don't use it constantly; it always feels secondary to me.

Moreover, if I'm a progressive businessman, I'll attend business events and listen to interesting speakers. What language did those speakers use until recently? Russian, even if they were from Ukraine. I don't have many complaints because it's easier for them. I know, I was one of them. My transition to lecturing in Ukrainian was also not easy, it was painful. There were times when people would say: "Alexander, let's speak Russian. We don't want to listen in Ukrainian." Or they'd criticize my imperfect Ukrainian. And I was ashamed—those were the times. Now I speak with a fashionable Lviv accent, but there was a time when I said "ugol" instead of "kut."

But where are the most advanced speakers from? Oh, you know the answer without me—these are Russian speakers. They have such audiences, such fees, their books are published in hundreds of thousands of copies, they must be very wise—they trained Gazprom or Sberbank. What will such speakers say between business topics when they talk about life? Things I've heard or my friends have heard: 

— We are one people... 

— We need to unite... 

— The West doesn't want you... 

— In Europe, Ukrainians are only needed to wash old people's backsides, but in Russia...

— We need to be friends with Russia...

— Russia never starts wars...

— Russia has never lost a war... 

— Things are bad here, but good in Russia, let's unite...

I've heard many Russian speakers. And I don't remember any who didn't say something about great Russia and Ukraine. (While writing this, I remembered one speaker from whom I never heard anything bad about Ukraine—one out of dozens).

Then the Russian tsar decides to attack. Various Porechenkovs, Okhlobystins, and Lukyanenkos support this, and I, who was daily influenced by these figures, might think—maybe we are indeed one people, with one language and everything else. Why support this "language Taliban"?

Maybe I'm a strong personality and won't give in, and I'll join the army despite all this, waking up from this lethargy of Russian-speaking culture. But how many thousands of people, living in Ukraine and immersed in the Russian-speaking environment, will wait for the Russians to come?

That's why I consider language a weapon. And the Russian language is a powerful weapon. That's why I've finally thrown everything Russian out of my life. To avoid any emptiness, I've embraced Ukrainian and English instead. Films, books, plays, music. That's my "language Taliban."

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