Keep your “the” away from my country. And learn some history
Keep your “the” away from my country. And learn some history

Suspilne.Culture is launching a new project – “No brotherhood – there wasn't one, isn't and will never be”. People from across Ukraine's creative and cultural industries explain in their columns, how Russia has been trying to destroy Ukrainian identity for years (or even centuries).

All materials will be published in both Ukrainian and English. Russia's informational aggression has been a part of the daily discourse in Ukraine for a long time, especially after Maidan in 2014. Now we need to make this context available abroad to show that we've been fighting this war for way more than just a month.

A strategic communications specialist Helgi Pakholok, based in Brooklyn, New York, for the last two years, wrote a column on how using articles forms an image of a country in the eyes of foreigners and why Ukrainians should be more ferocious in protecting their identity.

For the Ukrainian version click here.

I keep hearing how people in the US say "in the Ukraine". Lawyers, high-level managers, mere passersby on the street. For some reason, they don't say "in the Italy", "in the France", “in the Russia”. Why for f*ck's sake "in the Ukraine"? My knee-jerk reaction when I first encountered that linguistic twist was “it sounds weird but let me refer to the rules”. I specifically went to check how should “the” be used with countries. Apparently, with the names of countries and continents, we do not use the articles at all, BUT if the country is made up of different parts or if the name is taken from common nouns, for example, USA, UK, UAE, then we use the article the and say the USA, the UK, the UAE, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands. I’d say we should respect the rule and now apply to the Russia. It is made up of lies, cruelty, anger and degradation, which makes it a perfect candidate for “the”. Ukraine, on the contrary, is not made UP, it’s made OF. It’s made of freedom and strength, and beautiful culture and spirit, which keeps the world in awe for more than three weeks already. Here’s a simple example of how you can properly use “the Russia” and “Ukraine” in a sentence: “The Russia brought its crap to Ukraine but Ukraine will stop the Russia”. Grammar should be respected.

Thinking about this case of “the Ukraine” triggered something way bigger in me. It made me realize that for so many years Ukrainians, myself included, were too tolerant, too polite and too flexible about allowing others to think of Ukraine and the Russia as the “brotherly nations”. I’d say I’ve always been allergic to this concept of international brotherhood. It stems from a very soviet and artificial notion and smells like cheap propaganda. That’s why I find it quite disturbing to think of any nation as brothers at all. The better analogy for inter-national relations would be “neighbors”. And in this respect, yeah, Ukrainians are very unlucky to have had a very crappy, annoying and utterly dangerous neighbor. Neighborhood entails politics and finding some ways to live nearby, brotherhood entails playing with your identity. And, oh I am not identifying with that crap.

As an immigrant from Ukraine, it was very personal to me not to be confused with a Russian. I even did not want to sound like one. And, knowing that locals in the US don’t hear the difference between the Slavic accents, I spent quite some time working on my accent reduction, which landed my pronunciation in the sweet spot of hard-to-identify-exactly-but-somewhere-from-Europe. The way I sound in the US often got me in Uber dialogues like this one:

— Your English is very good, where are you from?

— I'm from Ukraine.

— Isn’t that a part of Russia?

As a polite and tolerant (too polite and too tolerant) person, I usually calmly explained that no, Ukraine is an independent country, with a distinct history, its own language, and identity that suffered a lot from having the Russia as a neighbor. That yes, Ukraine and Russia share the border, and many people in Ukraine, myself included, speak both Ukrainian and Russian, however, Ukrainians are just not Russians. We are different. Thinking of us as part of the Russia is offensive. Usually, at this point my Uber driver gets the instruction from the app “to drop off Helgi”, and I get out of the car with the sticky not-understanding how in the world can somebody not know that Ukraine is not part of Russia. With what kind of an ass did you read the history not to know that Moscow was a swamp at the time when Kyiv had churches, schools and laws? But then I kinda made my peace with that and allowed them to be. I understood that many Americans, being used to national acronyms like "the US" or "the UK”, didn't even notice the significance of the mistake of “the Ukraine” until corrected. Now I deeply regret my softness in that respect. Overnight (on the night between Feb 23 and 24 EST), I finally became angry. Words matter, I was born in Kyiv, not Kiev. My dad comes from a town close to Lviv from Lvov. And I am from Ukraine, not from the Ukraine. The west should learn to tell the difference. Very crappy things happen when ignorance is tolerated.

If you wanna learn some history, you can start with The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Suspilne.Culture.

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