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On Being a Russian-Speaking Ukrainian and Being 'Protected' by Putin

Viktor Drachev/AFP

On March 18th, Russian forces in Crimea killed Sergey Kokurin, a 37-year old Ukrainian warrant officer from the Simferopol military unit. He was on the observation tower, and was shot in the heart by a sniper. Kokurin was born in Simferopol and enrolled in the Ukrainian army in 1997, “and since that time never gave up on the idea of serving the Ukrainian nation,” the Defense Ministry of Ukraine wrote on its Facebook page. Kokurin has a four-year-old son. His wife is pregnant with their second child. She is due in May.

Sergey Kokurin was a Ukrainian citizen serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. Like many Ukrainian citizens, about seventeen percent of us, he was Russian by nationality. The first Ukrainian soldier killed in the Russian invasion was a Russian. This will give no pause to Russia’s leaders, who of course do not take seriously their own propaganda that invading Ukraine is necessary to help Russians.

Do not expect us to remark upon the irony, either. Ukraine is a multinational country. Our armed forces, our public services, our universities, everything in this country is multinational. Thousands of people at the Maidan in Kiev were injured during the Ukrainian revolution, of whom at least 104 people were killed. More than two hundred people are still missing (most likely killed too). No one in Ukraine pays much attention to the nationality of the citizens who risked everything for a better future for their Ukrainian homeland. But of course some were Russians, and many more were speakers of Russian.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has interesting ideas about what it means to protect people. On March 4th, he articulated a doctrine of hiding Russian forces, future invaders of more of Ukraine, behind women and children: “Listen carefully. I want you to understand me clearly: if we make that decision it will only be to protect Ukrainian citizens. And let’s see those troops try to shoot their own people, with us behind them – not in the front, but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children! I would like to see those who would give that order in Ukraine.”

It was that particular passage of Putin’s speech that made people in Ukraine nervous. No one in Ukraine doubted that those words would transform into actions. On March 20th, two days after the killing of Sergei Kokurin, heavily armed Russian forces took over another Ukrainian military base in Crimea, in the Yevpatoria region. This time, however, Russians did not use their weapons. But rumors circulated that they surrounded the kindergarten attended by the children of the Ukrainian soldiers and threatened to storm it if the Ukrainian soldiers did not abandon their posts. As soldiers, these men had told the Russians that they would not surrender. But as fathers they did.

Ukrainians know that the creation of hatred is a political process, and we know that some Russians oppose it and resist it. During his address at Maidan in Kiev earlier in March, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s most famous political prisoners, said “there is another Russia,” one that understands the mendacity of official propaganda. He was proved correct on 15 March when a  ‘March for Peace’ against Russian intervention in Ukraine took place in central Moscow. The anti-war demonstration gathered more than fifty thousand people.

One of the major voices of “another Russia” is that of Andrey Makarevich, a Soviet and Russian bard, founder of the rock band Time Machine. One of their lyrics: “How easy is to decide that you are too weak/To change the world.”

Here’s what Makarevich recently wrote about television propaganda in Russia:

“How to fool a nation? First you want to breed hatred. Start with frustration and anger. Calm, self-sufficient people are not that easy to frustrate. You have to explain them who to hate and why. But it’s much easier with the ones who have long been frustrated. They are ready to go. Then cultivate an image of the external enemy (imperialists, neo-Nazis, banderites) and the internal one (fifth column, rootless cosmopolitans), names don’t really matter here. Then do your best to methodically zombify target audience with propaganda directing their anger and frustration where you need them to hit. Zombify hard, rhythmically, non-stop.”

Here is how Makarevich concluded: “Guys, we are their neighbors. We always will be. It’s preferable that we stay friends with them, just like we used to be. How they’re going to live is their own choice.” 

We Ukrainians hear Makarevich, we hear Khodorkovsky, we hear the other Russia. Remember, we all know Russian. Many of us worry in Russian about a Russian invasion of our country, many of us joke in Russian to relieve the tension. Speaking of jokes, here is the latest from Odessa:

“I stopped speaking Russian.”

“Why? Afraid that Ukrainians will beat you?”

“No, that Russians will come to protect me.”

Like most good jokes, this one gives us something to think about. I for one am thinking seriously of taking the option it proposes. I am what people call a Russian speaker. But then again I speak very good Ukrainian, too.