Ukraine Stories and Tips

Across the Great Divide

"Happy Constitution Day!" I wished the students who'd turned up despite the bank holiday. "Constitution Day?" snorted one, waving his hand dismissively in the air, "It's something for people in the west of Ukraine."

It was the answer I'd expected to get. For most Odessits, their city is a country of its own, a state within a state that, barring a few brief months in 1919, didn't even exist until the Soviet invasion of September 1939.

The fault lines run deep. "For us (in the west) the Second World War didn't end until the 1950s when the last of the anti-Communists was killed," a Ukrainian-speaker from Lviv told me on the bus from Yalta. "Don't listen to this thing," a man in a Russia baseball cap interrupted, "his grandfather was probably a Nazi." The controversial Education and Science Minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, was hardly any more reasoned, dismissing Ukainian as a "dialect of Polish" and accusing "Halychany" (western Ukrainians) of "practically (not having) anything in common with the people of Great Ukraine, not in mentality, not in religion, not in linguistics, not in the political arena". People in Lviv (or Lvov if you speak Russian) took to the streets in protest at his appointment. Not that it made any difference: their candidate had already lost.

Politically and linguistically, the divide is between the west and the centre, where Ukrainian is spoken, and the Russian-speaking east and south. Culturally, Kiev looks west - "The problem with Ukraine is the lazy attitude of people in Donetsk and Odessa," two separate people told me last time I was in the capital. "Odessa? There are too many Jews," added someone who'd recently travelled forward in time from 1936 - but the language you hear on the streets is usually the same as in Odessa.

Like the Belgians and the British, Ukrainians stick together in spite of their differences. "There is hope for this country," said the man on the bus from Yalta. "When you go to Donetsk you notice there are no Russian businesses there. They realise that Russia is the biggest threat to their economy." Most of my students call themselves Odessit first but Ukrainian, not Russian, second. Still, there are dissenters. "I realised that I didn't like the people in west Ukraine," said one, returning from Lviv. "Their humour is different."

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