Compassionate Linguistics: Learning Ukrainian as Resistance to Russia’s War
Compassionate linguistics is the desire to learn another’s language out of a sense of empathy, support, and mutual respect. I came up with this term after three hours of talking with a group of academics, teachers and students from Ukraine and Lithuania who joined me online for a roundtable discussion on language, soft power, culture, and the historical connection between Lithuania and Ukraine.
The youngest participant in our discussion was Sofia Savystka (born 2004), an 18-year-old first year Biology students and volunteer Ukrainian teacher from Khmelnytski, Ukraine, and the eldest, 45-year-old Loic Boizou (born 1977) from Switzerland, a researcher who has made Kaunas, Lithuania his home. The others were Lilia Denikevych (born 1990), a refugee from Kyiv now living in Kaunas, Oksana Makarova (born 1984), who lives in the Kyiv region with her husband and two young children, Tetiana Ponomarkenko (born 1989), who came to Kaunas, Lithuania from her hometown of Kyiv seven years ago when she married her Lithuanian husband, Miglė Janušauskienė (born 1988), a Lithuanian primary school teacher and mother of two young children, and Teresė Ringalienė (born 1983), director of the Institute of Foreign Languages at Vytautas Magnus University, initiator and coordinator of the Ukrainian – Lithuanian language program.
“When the war started and the first refugees started coming to Lithuania,” Teresė explained, “many of the refugees said that they would like to learn to read Lithuanian and how to say at least a few words and phrases to get by. To fulfill this need, I gathered a few volunteers to teach Lithuanian to Ukrainian refugees. Then, Lithuanians started asking if they could learn Ukrainian because knowing some Ukrainian would help them better serve Ukrainian refugees, but also because they felt learning Ukrainian would be a way of showing their moral support for Ukrainians in this time of war.”
Teresė explained how the idea to teach Ukrainian to Lithuanians and Lithuanian to Ukrainian came into being: “We put out an announcement that the university would be offering free classes in Ukrainian. In just two and a half hours 120 people had signed up and registered. Even after every seat was filled, people kept calling and writing and asking if they could get into a Ukrainian language class somehow. The calls came in nonstop. At some point, we had no seats left in the program and we had to stop registering students. Then we wondered, what next?
“We needed more Ukrainian language teachers, so we gathered Ukrainian students and alumnus and asked them if they could help us by volunteering to teach Ukrainian. Many agreed. We formed seven groups of 20 students. Officially the classes are supposed to cap at 20, but we let in more than just 20 students into a class. All the teachers are volunteers and do not get paid. Some of the Lithuanian language classes are taught in person on campus, and some are taught online. All the Ukrainian language classes are taught online. For example, Oksana teaches online from a village outside of Kyiv where she is staying with her family during the war. The course is 30 academic hours, one academic hour at our university is 45 minutes.”
“Do you have a curriculum?” I asked.
“We have a very good Lithuanian language curriculum that is time tested, and we have plenty of books and materials to teach Lithuanian through English, but we have had to develop the Ukrainian language curriculum as we go along. Some of the Ukrainian language classes are taught through English and others through Lithuanian. Oksana is creating our teaching materials for the Ukrainian class right now. Teachers are creating their own materials and sharing what they have. We are all coordinated and constantly in touch. It is all very grassroots right now.”
“How many languages do you speak?” I asked Teresė.
“Lithuanian, English, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian,” she responded.
Now she is adding Ukrainian to that list.
My screen switched to the face of young woman with brown eyes and brown hair neatly braided into a plait in the Ukrainian style. This was Sofia – an ethnic Ukrainian who grew up speaking Ukrainian in her small city of Khmelnystki, with a population just shy of 300,000. Sofia arrived in Kaunas in September 2021 to study at Vytautas Magnus University. Although Sofia did not come to Lithuania as a refugee, because of the war, in a way, she has now become one.
“What was it like for you when the war began, being so far from home?” I asked.
“I checked my messages and read about the war. I was in a complete state of shock. Those first days of the war I found it hard to focus on my lectures. But then when I saw Lithuanians coming together to protest the war, and when I saw people waving the Ukrainian flag, I began to feel better. So many people from the community here at the university reached out and offered to help me. I felt so much support from the Lithuanians.”
“Are you learning Lithuanian?”
“Yes, I will be studying in Lithuania for four years and I need to know how to say basic words and phrases. Besides, learning Lithuanian is compulsory for foreign students. When I came in September, I felt the lack of language. Many of the other students from Ukraine who are studying here are from East Ukraine and speak Russian. I can speak Russian, but I speak it poorly, and I don’t really want to speak Russian, so I felt isolated. I felt as though I couldn’t speak with anyone, except in English. I never heard Ukrainian spoken while in Lithuania.”
“Will you return to Ukraine when you complete your studies?”
“Yes, of course. I am going back for the summer.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“No, I’m not afraid. I talk with my parents every night over FaceTime. My entire family has remained in Ukraine.”
“How are your parents doing in Ukraine?”
“As good as they can under conditions of war. The war has not reached our city, so they are helping with refugees.”
Sofia’s deep brown eyes gaze at me through my cell phone screen. “The Ukrainian language,” she continues, “is an essential part of being Ukrainian. Now is the time to find your language. People now must make their choice whether to speak Ukrainian or not. It is not required to speak perfectly.”
“In Ireland, after years of English colonialism,” I said, “only in small villages in Western Ireland people spoke Irish, the indigenous language. In recent decades, the Irish government has sought to bring back Irish by making it mandatory in schools, by sponsoring an Irish TV channel, and yet Irish has not flourished. Is the situation with Ukrainian similar?”
“No, it is different,” Sophia said. “People still use Ukrainian in everyday life. During the years of the Soviet Union, they tried to change the Ukrainian language to make its grammar more similar to Russian grammar. But they could not destroy Ukrainian. 2014 was a pivotal year.
Ukrainian became the state language and high school students must now take a Ukrainian state level language exam to graduate. Five years ago, Ukrainian television started.”
“How is it teaching Ukrainian to Lithuanians?”
“They are great students. Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and that is hard for people who speak a language like Lithuanian that uses the Latin alphabet, but they have adjusted and can now read well. They connect the sounds. They find many similar words between Lithuanian and Ukrainian. The declensions can be problematic though.”
“Who are your students?” I asked.
“My students are teachers who are working in schools and want to be able to better help Ukrainian refugee children. They are volunteers in humanitarian aid organizations. Some work for the Red Cross. Some are just interested in languages.”
“You must be so busy with your studies,” I asked Sofia, “why have you taken on the extra work of volunteering to teach Ukrainian?”
“My language is important to me,” Sofia responded firmly. “There is a presumption that all people in Ukraine speak Russian, but that’s not quite true,” Sofia said. “Only in the industrial cities is Russian predominant. Also, the Russian language has been imposed on Ukrainians. It is imposed through persecution. A few years ago, all Ukrainian television was in Russian, all the cartoons, all the movies, the news,” Sofia said. “After 2014, I made the conscious choice to no longer speak Russian, not watch Russian media, not to listen to Russian pop music. I do not wish to be connected to Russian culture.”
“Russia is the culture of murderers,” Sofia said simply. “They are a people who have destroyed my nation.”
Sofia’s student, Miglė Janušauskienė, tuned in next. She teaches preschool and early elementary school in Kaunas and is raising two children.
“Every Monday and Friday I come to Sofia’s class to learn Ukrainian,” Miglė said. “She is so calm and patient. She creates an entirely different world in her classroom. She is dignified. I’ve never heard her complain or say an angry word about the war.”
Miglė does not have students from Ukraine in any of her classes, but she still wishes to learn Ukrainian. I asked her why.
“I decided to learn Ukrainian because I saw it as my own form of resistance. I have small children at home, so I can’t take the time to volunteer anywhere, and we don’t have the space at home to take in any refugees to live with our family, so I thought I could show my support by learning Ukrainian. I’m also learning Ukrainian out of a sense of respect and solidarity with Ukrainians, and to set a good example for my children. I feel that the foundation of a nation is its language and therefore it is necessary to learn the language if you want to know the nation. I wanted to learn more about Ukraine’s history. This nation is not foreign to us Lithuanians. When I studied our shared history, I realized that Lithuania and Ukraine are like one nation together.”
Miglė continued, “When you see the brutality and genocide of this war, it is impossible to remain neutral. Ukraine is so close to us. A country like France, which is geographically far from Ukraine, can remain indifferent to the plight of the Ukrainians, but we cannot. Learning Ukrainian makes me proud. I share what I am doing with my colleagues at the school where I work. I have colleagues who are afraid to speak about the war in Ukraine. It is as though they are superstitious. They fear that if they talk about the war, the war will come here to us. My generation had no idea what war is. Now we know. I have this fear of this war never ending. I read the news in Ukrainian now.”
“How is it going?”
“Ukrainian is not an easy language to earn.”
“But if you speak Russian, isn’t it easier to learn Ukrainian?” I asked.
“I know Russian well but emotionally I block Russian out of my consciousness,” Miglė admitted.
“Before World War II Lithuania was a multicultural and multilingual state,” I said. “Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German was all commonly spoken in Lithuania. The Nazi and the Soviet occupations changed the multicultural nature of the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Now this plurality of languages and cultures is coming back with Lithuanians embracing Ukrainian.”
“Empathy comes through language,” Miglė said. “You see the suffering of the Ukrainian people on the news, and you wish to learn their language to better help them.”
“What was it like for you when the war started?”
“When the war started, my school director told the staff that we would hang up a Ukrainian flag to show our school’s solidarity with Ukraine. But we didn’t have a Ukrainian flag to hang up. I ran around the building searching for a Ukrainian flag and finally found a rumpled flag in the storage room. As I ironed that flag, I felt this tremendous sense of respect for the Ukrainian nation. I intuited the courageous strength of this nation, which was resisting Russian occupation.”
“How old are your children? Do they understand about the war?” I asked.
“My daughter is in the 6th grade. My children never let me forget what war means. The children realize how important our actions are right now. Whenever we have any money left beyond our basic needs, whether its 10 euro or a 100 euro, we buy food for Ukrainians and donate. It is a shame that it has taken this brutal war for us to finally realize what is most important. All our lives we were still influenced by Russian propaganda. I always thought of the German nation as fascists and could not shake this perception. Now, this is how I think of the Russian nation.”
“I’d like to say a few words about Russia,” Teresė interjected. “I was born in the Soviet Union. All the cartoons and movies were in Russian. As a kid, I could understand everything in Russian. My grandfather had been deported to Siberia for ten years and my grandmother escaped, so she remained in Lithuania. My mother only met her father when she was 10 years old, when he returned from Siberia. I heard stories about Siberia, the war, the postwar period from my grandfather. I heard about how cruel the Russians were towards Lithuanians and it created an unconscious mental block in my mind against the Russian language. Logically, I know that Russian is just a language, but I had heard all the stories and subconsciously I began to associate the language with the terrors and horrors Russia inflicted on others.”
“I have an interesting story to tell about the Russian and Ukrainian languages,” Lilia said. My screen switched to her face, framed by long wavy dark blonde hair cascading down her shoulders.
Lilia is a refugee from Kyiv. She has been living in Kaunas since March 8th. She left Ukraine when her husband explained to her that he would be free to fight and defend his nation if he knew that Lilia was somewhere safe where he did not need to worry about her. Her other concern was her mother, who lives in the United Kingdom and has a heart condition. The couple worried that Lilia’s mother could suffer a heart attack from anxiety if Lilia stayed behind in Kyiv.
“My mother is from a village near Lviv,” Lilia explained, “she is a native Ukrainian speaker. My father is from Luhansk, which is a Russian speaking region, and he is a Russian speaker. In fact, whenever we spoke Ukrainian at home, my father would yell, ‘Speak in a human language!’
I was born in Luhansk, but when I was small my grandmother took me to live with her in Lviv for four years. So, my mother tongue is Ukrainian. That is the only language I spoke and understood as a small child. When I was four, I returned to Luhansk to live with my parents. I didn’t know Russian at all. When I was six years old, I was hospitalized. I still could not speak Russian and I had a hard time in the hospital. We were often subjected to unkind remarks and bad words from Russian speakers in Luhansk whenever we went out because we spoke Ukrainian. Many times, when we were out on the street, speaking Ukrainian as a family, Russian-speaking passers-by would shout at us: “Fascists! Bandits! Banderovskys” (followers of World War II era Ukrainian ultranationalist Stepan Bandera).
For Russians, especially during the years of the Soviet Union, any peoples of the occupied territories incorporated into the Soviet Union, like Ukraine and the Baltic States, were considered German Nazis and Fascists.
Lilia was born in 1990. Although Ukraine had declared independence in 1991, growing up attending the Luhansk region schools she was taught a Russian curriculum.
“When I was growing up in Luhansk, in school I had Russian language and literature class four to five hours a week and only two hours of Ukrainian class. In 2007, I left Luhansk to study in Kyiv, and I stayed there, marrying my husband. Now, I live in Kaunas. But I plan to return to Kyiv after the war. When I went to Kyiv, I left Luhansk behind. I disassociated myself. My mom’s relatives are all in Lviv. I have, however, kept up with my friends from school in Luhansk. When I call them in the Russian-occupied territory and try to speak with them they tell me they could care less if they belong to Russia or Ukraine. Many people in that region feel that way. All they care about is which government can give them more money and a higher standard of living. They are materialistic people. They chose to be a part of Russia because Russia gave them money.”
“Do you miss your childhood home in Luhansk?”
“The only thing that I miss in the Luhansk region is the nature. I would like to show the nature of Eastern Ukraine to my husband. There are fields, mines, mountains. It is a vast space.”
“And the people?” I asked.
“The people in Luhansk are mainly Russians, but they are Soviet-minded Russians. I grew up in a small city on the border with Russia, but I think it would be bad for Ukraine to let Luhansk go. Luhansk belongs to Ukraine. We are now developing a Ukrainian consciousness. If those people don’t like Ukraine, then they are free to move elsewhere.
“I spoke on the phone with two childhood friends. One felt that Ukraine is not safe. She thought Ukrainian soldiers would kill non-Ukrainian speakers. My other friend said he just wants a good life, and it doesn’t matter who will provide him that good life, whether it is the Ukrainian government or the Russian government. But now, after living a few months under Russian occupation, he said to me that he wishes he could have ‘normal Ukrainian beer and sausage.’ He said they only have Russian products now and the quality is not as good.”
“Eastern Ukraine is the region where millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers died in the 1930s during the Holodomor. Russian colonists were brought in to repopulate the region,” I noted.
“During the Holodomor trainloads of grain were taken to Moscow as the people starved.”
“When we learned about the Holodomor in school in Luhansk,” Lilia said, “we were taught that everyone in Eastern Ukraine loved and respected the Soviet army so much that they voluntarily sent all their food to Russia.”
“Has it been difficult to watch what is happening in Eastern Ukraine?” I asked.
“It’s not difficult for me because of the loss of territory, but because of the people of Donetsk and Luhansk and how they have behaved. Ukraine will win this war because of the people.
There is so much Russian propaganda in Luhansk and Donetsk. There is the pro-Russian party, called Prorosia. For a long time, these were very powerful regions. This is not a new story in these regions. This has been going on for the last 20 years. All my life I’ve lived with this conflict between Russians undermining Ukrainian statehood in Donetsk and Luhansk.”
“Why have you decided to study Lithuanian?” I asked.
“I respect Lithuania because Lithuanians have done so much to help us Ukrainians. They are a different country and culture, and yet they help us. Here in Kaunas, I am studying Lithuanian and making camouflage nets for the army.”
“Is learning Lithuanian difficult?
“It is difficult like any language, but at times I can be lazy. I need lots of practice. I know that I need this language to survive here. I can get by in Kaunas with Russian and English, but if I want to put down some roots, I need Lithuanian. I’ve learned to say, ‘ačiū’ and I can order coffee in a café in Lithuanian.”
Oksana is a Ukrainian from Kyiv. Her husband has not yet been drafted into the army. He is on the reserves list. They have two children, a daughter, age 13 and a son, age 10.
“Why haven’t you left Ukraine?”
Oksana explained, “My mom refuses to leave Kyiv. The missile strike that happened yesterday took place not far from where my mom lives. She is very stoic.”
“How is life for you there in Ukraine?”
“Everything has been calm so far. There are air raids, but where I live in the village there is nowhere to hide, so we just stay home.”
“How are your children doing?”
“My daughter is 13 and will soon be 14 and my son is 10 and will soon be 11. We spent the two first weeks of the war in Kyiv. We often had to spend nights huddled in the corridor because of the shelling. Finally, we left to a small village outside of Kyiv. My children became calmer. In my daughter’s class, all her classmates have left Ukraine. She chats with them online. But she is missing out on her teenage years, on doing the normal things a teenager does.
They continue to ask me: Why do we have this war? When will it finish? What if it doesn’t end, what will happen to us then? My husband is working online. He is not in any army. There are waves of mobilization, and if one day he is called up, he will need to go and join the fight. Every man in Ukraine is obliged to protect the country.”
“How did you get involved teaching Ukrainian to Lithuanians?” I asked.
“Teaching Ukrainian for me is a form of cultural diplomacy. Besides, I am not a fighter. I have two children to protect. I’m not a doctor. I work to support the economy of my country.
“What are your teaching methods?”
“I teach Ukrainian to Lithuanians online. I teach through English and I use more practical exercises. We read a lot. We work on family relationships. We learn basic conversation. They don’t need deep language skills, but just the basics. I prepare each lesson with textbooks. I teach every Tuesday and Friday at 18:30 Ukrainian time. My current class is halfway through the semester, and I will begin a new class in June. All the students read at once. We work with Google meet up.”
“Why have your students committed to learning Lithuanian?” I asked.
“When we started, I asked my students why they were learning Ukrainian? What was their aim. Many of the responses were practical. They are teachers, people who work in charities, people who help with gathering the news. And then there were those who were just curious to discover a new language. The first lessons were hard, but then we eased into the rhythm of the class. The group is tolerant and supportive. There is a core group who never miss a class. The students are motivated. If anyone can’t make it, they write a note.”
“Are you trained as a language teacher?”
“I studied French and English and planned to teach, but I ended up not working in a school.
This opportunity to teach Ukrainian to Lithuanians is a revival of my ‘inner teacher,’” Oksana says and laughs. “These classes satisfy my inner need to teach,” she adds with a sincere smile.
“What are your challenges teaching online?”
“In the live classroom it’s easier to build that connection with the students. It’s easier to perceive the students’ emotions. But we make up for that the best we can. We sometimes work in pairs. I don’t have strict rules. In terms of methodology, I am always looking for tips on the internet. I’m inventing my methods.”
Listening to Oksana, I decided to join Oksana’s Ukrainian language course, although I’d had no previous plans to learn Ukrainian. She agreed to allow me to join the class.
Oksana signed off. She had to prepare to meet her Lithuanian Ukrainian language learners on another Zoom session.
The face of a congenial man appeared on my screen. This was Loic. He was born in Switzerland but has spent more time in France than in Switzerland. He is a passport holder in both countries. He is a French speaker who learned Lithuanian and Ukrainian and now lives full time in Kaunas and works as a researcher.
“I am a full-time resident of Lithuania,” Loic said, “Kaunas is a comfortable city to live in.”
“What brought you to Lithuania?” I asked.
“As a teenager, I became interested in Central and Eastern Europe,” Loic explained. “I was particularly interested in the Baltic States, and then later in Ukraine as well. As a university student, I became intensively interested in geography, history, politics, and language.
I’ve always advocated for Central and East European countries in France. I became friends with a Ukrainian dissident, Leonid Plyushch, who was an opponent of Soviet Russia. He fled to France. I received a good understanding of the issues through him. He shared a few stories from his life that helped me understand the attitude of Russians towards Ukrainian speakers. Plyushch was a native Russian speaker who later learned Ukrainian. Having made the switch to conversing in Ukrainian, for the first time he began to experience the linguistic discrimination that Ukrainians routinely experience in their own country. Once, he was speaking with a friend in Ukrainian and walked into a library and naturally requested a book in Ukrainian. The librarian barked back at him: “Ask for the book in a human language and I will give it to you.” Then, another time he was standing in line to see a movie and was speaking with a friend in Ukrainian. Two Russian speaking girls standing in front of him turned around and snarled at him in Russian for daring to speak Ukrainian. He understood then that real oppression against the Ukrainian language and Ukrainians was taking place in Soviet Ukraine, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union the discrimination against Ukrainian speakers continued in some parts of the country.
“The rhetoric of the Soviet Union pretended to defend all languages, but this was not true,” Loic explained.
Loic referred to Russian author Ivan Dzyuba’s book Internationalism or Russification, which criticized Soviet politics promoting the Russian language and closing Ukrainian schools.
This was my chance to hear an explanation from an actual French speaker as to why Macron, and so many French, have been so clueless about Putin’s true imperialist motives, occupying Ukraine and threatening to invade other independent European nations, like the Baltic States.
Loic responded, “In the French understanding when you have one country, you have one nation, so for the USSR you had a Soviet - or Russian - nationality. It was not absolutely clear that separate nations broke away from the Soviet Union. Attitudes in France have gotten a bit better since Lithuania joined the European Union. They are beginning to understand that the Baltic States are separate nations. There is a growing sense of solidarity for Ukraine. The pro-Russian parties have had to lower their rhetoric on Putin since the war began. But there is a lot of anti-American feeling in France among liberal groups. They perceive Americans as competitors. So, the far left supports Russia to oppose America. The far right also has links with Russia. They feel that Russia is a good example of what they’d like to do in France. The far left are socialists, so they just think, ‘an enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ meaning that they support Russia’s opposition to America. Now that the world has seen the shocking images coming out of Ukraine, these groups have had to tone down their stance and admit that Putin is not such a nice guy after all.”
Well, it’s about time, I thought. In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion, during Putin’s staged diplomatic talks, before he emerged with his fanatical and despotic rant that “rationalized” (at least for the Russian nation) his brutal invasion of Ukraine, a popular joke was circulating on Lithuanian Facebook: Would someone please take away Macron’s cell phone…
“I was sure that Russia would invade Ukraine,” Loic continued. “On December 18th I wrote to President Macron and said, ‘war is coming.’ Putin was never ready to look weak. When he voiced publicly his claims against NATO and Ukraine, I understood there would be war. Putin only understands the language of war, not diplomacy. When Grozny was destroyed, Putin saw that the world did not respond and that emboldened him. Then, it’s like a domino effect, he just keeps going. I have a student from Donetsk. He told me that right now all the men there are being conscripted to fight for Russia.”
“Are you afraid that the war will come to Lithuania?” I asked.
“The risk is low,” Loic said rationally, “but it does exist. Being part of the EU and NATO makes it more difficult for Russia to invade. The Baltic States don’t have a very big place in Russia’s imperialist vision, but Ukraine and Belarus do. Under the Russian sense of imperialism, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are all one nation.”
Tetiana Ponomarkenko has lived in Lithuania for seven years and speaks Lithuanian fluently. She is teaching Ukrainian to Lithuanians, and unlike Oksana’s and Sofia’s classes, which teach Ukrainian through English, she teaches through Lithuanian. Tetiana has earned a Master Degree in Management of Education and is working on her PhD at VMU while she teaches at a primary school.
“My husband was my reason to move to Lithuania, but at home, unfortunately, we spoke Russian, as this language was mutual for both of us. Now I am trying to switch to Ukrainian and Lithuanian in our routine talks. In the beginning, the biggest motivation to learn Lithuanian for me was to prove to myself that I’m able to learn the language and show my respect to the country. Later I had more pragmatic aims, like finding a job and PhD studies in Lithuanian.”
“Are there similarities between Ukrainian and Lithuanian?” I asked.
“The languages are very similar in grammar and in spirit,” Tetiana said. “I just needed to replace Ukrainian words with Lithuanian words, and 80 percent of the grammar is the same.
The great Lithuanian founder of linguistics, Jablonskis, borrowed his grammar from Polish, and Ukrainian and Polish are similar. Speaking Lithuanian all day does not make me tired, but speaking English does.”
“How has the war affected you as a Ukrainian?” I asked.
“It was a shock. I needed to pull out my family, my sister and her two children and my mother. Immediately, when the war began, my sister took them all to hide near the Kyiv airport. I knew that was a very bad idea because it would be the first target to be bombed by the Russians. I had to convince them to come to Lithuania. They resisted, but finally agreed. They lived through the bombings in Kyiv. Then, they made a very difficult journey by train from Kyiv to Lviv. The train took 11 hours, and they could not sit down the entire time. My mother has a disability, so it was very hard for her. In Lviv there were ten thousand people in the railway station. It was zero degrees outside. They had to spend the night outdoors and wait for the train to Poland. They stood outside, overnight, for 12 hours in the freezing cold, waiting for the train to Poland. Then, a train ride that normally takes 2 hours took 12 hours. There was nowhere to sit. They waited for hours at the Polish Migration. But Polish volunteers made it easier for them, distributing water, tea, food. My husband and I drove 11 hours across Poland to meet my sister, mother, and the children. We brought them back to Kaunas with us and now they are safe. My sister has found a job as a teacher at a private school organized for Ukrainian children. The Lithuanian state, along with regular people, parents, small business owners are financing this school. She also teaches Ukrainian to Lithuanian students in a primary school. A kind Lithuanian principal started this program. At the same time, she teaches English to Ukrainian children.”
“I read a Lithuanian article about how people in Lithuania were upset that Ukrainian children were being put in Russian-language schools after escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” I commented.
“Parents had a choice whether or not to send their children to a Russian-language school. They also had the option of sending their children to a Lithuanian-language school. But Russian is native for many children in Ukraine, so for those parents the Russian language school was an appropriate choice. When the Ukrainian language private school was organized not everyone brought their children there.
“Honestly, I will not allow my sister’s children to go to Russian school. I said to my sister, ‘You escaped the ‘Rusky Mir’ (Russian World) and now you want to expose your children to Russian culture? By the way, some of the Russian schools here are financed by Russia and they are not so nice. So, my niece and nephew are now enrolled in Lithuanian school. However, many of the older teachers, the ones in their upper forties and fifties, the ones who are more “Soviet-minded,” are out of their comfort zone when confronted with Ukrainian children. They just give them busy work and don’t want to bother taking that extra step to teach them.”
“How old are your niece nephew?”
“My nephew is ten and my niece is 7.”
"You were born in 1989. You are a baby of the revolution,” I mused.
“Your revolution in Lithuania started in 1989, but in Ukraine we were not taught that the Soviet Union was an oppressor. It was only when I came to Lithuania as an adult that I learned that the Soviet Union was an oppressor. I remember when I naively said to my husband, ‘Why don’t the Lithuanians celebrate May 9th” and he explained the history to me. Lithuania had 20 years of independence from Russia between the two world wars and that made a huge difference. In Ukraine we were independent for only one year after World War I. There was constant in-fighting and then we were occupied by the Soviet Union. People were raised with a Soviet consciousness. They were all communists. My Ukrainian grandma to this day will swear that she loves Lenin and Stalin.”
“Did you speak Ukrainian at home growing up?” I asked.
“When I was growing up, we spoke a type of sloppy mixture of Ukrainian and Russian that is called Surzhyk. Except for the western regions, few Ukrainians speak pure literary Ukrainian anymore. Surzhyk is my native language. It is my home language. It is the language I speak with my mom and grandma. When I was growing up in the Kyiv region, people felt ashamed to speak pure Ukrainian. We would always switch to Russian, and especially when we were in the city center in Kyiv. I did not know correct Ukrainian.”
I was curious about Surzhyk, so I looked online and learned that Surzhyk is a Ukrainian word that refers to any mix of languages, not necessarily including Ukrainian or Russian. When used in Russian, Surzhyk almost always specifically refers to a Ukrainian-Russian language mix. Surzhyk, it turns out, is not a recent invention, but a language with roots in the pre-Soviet era. In 1721, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great prohibited the publication of books in Ukraine, except for Russian-language religious works, and decreed that Ukrainian language books and records were to be burned. Surzhyk originated at the end of the 18th century, when Ukrainian peasants started to have greater contact with the Russian language as Ukrainian society modernized. Industrialization resulted in workers migrating from Central Russia to Ukrainian cities and the urbanization of the Ukrainian peasantry. However, because their schooling in the Russian language was inadequate, most Ukrainian peasants who strove to speak it ended up blending it with their native Ukrainian; this was how Surzhyk was born.
“Growing up in independent Ukraine, our teachers in Kyiv were required to teach all our lessons in Ukrainian. But they spoke a stiff, formal, antiquated Ukrainian. Then, during the breaks, the teachers would switch to Russian and suddenly they appeared cool, fun, hip to us kids. We grew up learning to hate Ukrainian as something boring and formal imposed on us and loving Russian as a natural and fun language. All our cartoons and movies were in Russian. All the pop music was in Russian. We were saturated with Russian culture. Now I know it was all Russian propaganda, soft power.”
“There is an ongoing debate between Russians and Ukrainians. Some argue that culture is neutral, and language does not matter, while others say that Russian culture must be boycotted. What do you think?”
“I side with the camp that says language and culture has been used by Russia as soft power and that we should now oppose it. So, in Ukraine, before 2014, Ukraine was the stiff formal state language, and everyone hated it. Meanwhile, Russian was the language of cool, hip, culture. After 2014, all of that changed. That was when I decided that Ukrainian was not shameful. My consciousness changed. I blame my teachers for the years I lost when I resisted speaking Ukrainian. Culture is soft power and acts the same as military power because it changes and shapes our minds. Teachers in Ukraine are now banned from speaking Russian during breaks and I support this policy.
“In the 1990s, when Ukraine first became independent, people had the opportunity to choose between becoming Ukrainians or Russians. Many chose Russia because they perceived access to Russia as power and money and opportunity. When I first came to Lithuania, I felt that being able to speak to people in Russian somehow gave me an advantage, but now I am ashamed. I feel that Russian is dirt in my mouth.”
After three hours of intense discussion in both Lithuanian and English, the group is tired. Besides, it is eight o’clock on a Friday night, time for all these teachers and students to go home and rest. I thank Teresė, Miglė, Loic, Lilia, Oksana, and Tetiana and sign off, my head filled with thoughts on language, compassion, and empathy expressed through the effort to learn another’s language, no matter how imperfectly. What a renaissance for all the culturally rich and diverse small languages out there in the world!
I also reflected on how the Russian language is now perceived by many Ukrainians and Balts as the language of murderers, as dirt in one’s mouth, a psychological block and trauma. A nation that for centuries has been imposing its language on smaller nations now has to contend with its own language and culture being marginalized by those who were once forced to speak it.