Our Man In Moscow
My watch had stopped at Conotop (the very first train stop in the Ukraine if you travel there like I did, departing from Moscow). Just a fact, nothing more -- a battery, that was replaced in Berlin, and did function three years instead of the two that it was meant to, had run out. And yet why had it run out at 4.30 A.M., right when the night-train called ‘Ukraine’ had slowed down at Conotop where Ukrainian Customs officers -- polite and rather liberal in contrast to what I was taught -- started their march through the cars? The watch stopped precisely at the moment when its arm had to be moved an hour back -- Kiev has been separated from Moscow not only in psychological Space, but in Time as well.
I hadn't been to Kiev for ten years, so my eyes were hungry to check for signs of Change. The Kreshatic (main street) walkways are covered by stones instead of bitumen, and that has stressed its domesticity, inherent even to its Stalinist decorum. The whole set of technical communications was replaced too. All of it - 1500 yards - for $34 million US dollars (compared to Moscow - next to nothing). Moscow prices at a redecorated restaurant - now named Chateau de Fleurs. Michael the Archangel on top of a modest column and a Classic Milestone with distances from Kiev to other Capital Cities engraved, stand side by side at the former October Square. A huge figure of Lenin that stood just opposite this brand new Centricity Signum disappeared, so its empty base does not close a beautiful lawn running down from the hotel that used to be named after Moscow.
Modest investment made it possible to arrange a pedestrian link between the St. Sophia Cathedral and the Mikhailovskaya Square: nice stone walk, well done cast-iron pillars and chains that make a charming loop along the Vladimir street; Bohdan Hmelnitsky on top of his horse (both in bronze) got liberated from traffic; the St.Michael church has been constructed anew; a sculptured group, now in marble instead of its concrete prototype that was dismantled by Communists - is in its historical place again: Olga the Duchess (the first Christian), Andrew the Apostle (by an old legend he was to bring the Word to Scythia) and some other Duke - either St.Vladimir or Yaroslav the Wise. A wall with a kind of spiritual painting (rather poor in quality) in front of the St.Michael, and a pathetic memorial sign dedicated to the Big Famine of 1932-33, brought here by the Communists rule.
Cars, shops, advertising - more modest in comparison with Moscow, I.E. up to local abilities. In front of the Golden Gate restored during the last Communist boss in a clumsy way, another Duke in bronze (they were too enthusiastic with the patina) who reminds one of the Cossacks in an overused painting by Ilya Repin. Opposite of it there is a ruin of a hotel with an advertising that a tender for investors is still on - this has been beaten by the wind and snow, so the tender seems not to have been a great success....
After changing some dollars to ‘grivnas’ (the Ruble to Grivna course is decisively too low), I am keenly looking at the bills and coins. 1 Grivna - St.Vladimir; 2 Grivnas - Yaroslav the Wise; 5 Grivnas - Bohdan Hmelnitsky, 10 Grivnas - Mazepa the Hetman (in Russian history - the Big Traitor); 50 Grivnas - Grushevsky (the independence leader before and of course during the First World War - the Soviet Cyclopedia called him ‘the President of the Counter-revolutionary Central Council’). So, simultaneously we’ve got: the Kiev Rus’ - prior to Ghengis Khan's invasion; the Cossack times; ephemeral independence moment. I made inquiries: why do the coins bear the ‘kopecks’ denomination instead of the ‘grosch’ which would fit better the tradition for the Poles dominated Right Bank Ukraine. If one writes "10 ęîďiéîę" instead of "10 ęîďĺĺę," the obvious Muscovite origin would not disappear. -- Nobody would know.
All that is but superficial, and yet...
As far back as I can remember I've always hated any kind of Nationalism. But, in Kiev I suddenly understood that even though I was always disgusted - this sounds almost indecent to say - that was a typical Imperial stance. Truly - just you scratch any of the Muscovites, and immediately five hundred years of tradition (not to mention the hurrah-patriots) would jump out at you. I visited Ukraine three years ago in its intermediary phase of the ‘Karbovantz’ (that replaced the Ruble prior to the Grivna), and frankly, at that time I had no doubt: "Well...they will play with independence for a while, they will mimic the Western (Galizia) Ukrainian nationalistic trend...but then: No way; they will come back to the ‘Elder Brother’ embrace." This thought was rather natural, because here in Moscow we were deep in illusionism: liberals felt better with the thought that ‘we’ were five years ahead of Ukraine in reforms while Communists and superpatriots were sure that ‘class solidarity’ would bring the runoffs back to the 'family.'
Being a ‘Russian Russian’ I speak Polish freely, so I’ve been sure (and sure I am whatever Ukrainian Philologists would write) that nothing like an actual Ukrainian language has ever existed. Instead there is (rather there was) a typical dialect, with a lot of charm, that was naturally born at the border of Russia and Poland. And how could I think otherwise if - speaking both Polish and Russian - one would always understand that ‘mayno’ is similar to ‘majontek’ and both mean property or wealth, that ‘hutro’ is identical to ‘futro’ both meaning fir, that ‘dah’ is identical to ‘dah’, and both mean roof (not to mention those thousands of words identical in Russian and Ukrainian) etc.
I am positive that these are the facts, and yet they mean nothing!
The most meaningful thing is the fact that we are witnessing a very fast process of naturalizing an artifact that the Soviet Ukraine used to be, and the contemporary independent Ukraine is still under construction.
Here in Russia we were used to a concept for too long that had centuries ago identified the State and the Society. We were quick to ignore that each state is a man-made construction which often has managed to naturalize itself so that it looks like an organic entity. Assyria or Austro-Hungary were not exceptional at all.
Today Russian is spoken not only on the Dneper Left Bank, but in Kiev as well, and it is used at least as often as Ukrainian. I am still sure that bold concepts like translating the whole bulk of Philosophy into Ukrainian would rather stay dreams - not enough professional translators, not enough money, linguistic difficulties are immense (the Bulgarians have discovered it already - their language for other reasons was a peasant one through centuries too). And yet...when watching TV and seeing 2 or 3 people suffering as they try to speak Ukrainian, one feels compassion. And yet they are doing it! They are marching through the "wording-out" as if it were a field after the rain, and yet they are doing it.
Another two years and they will speak the language with ease - the more so because as the artificial Clercs’ Lingo is supported by each talk-show, typical ads, and the soap-operas. The more so, as there are people who speak in a way both sophisticated and beautiful. Another five years, when the schoolchildren of today will enter the wide world, almost everyone will speak with ease. Well, if they made it in Israel bringing the ’dead’ language back to life again, by making the language both spoken and written, in Ukraine where rural speech has never been destroyed, they will certainly be successful. And Russian will be familiar to those who need it -- the intellectuals. Just another second language, like English, but with better results. This stratum will use Russian, gaining on the duplication of mimics and phonetics that are closely linked to duplication of psychodynamic stereotypes. This is still more important because the Big Pump that had been sucking-in to Moscow all of those who are the most ambitious and most mobile, has stopped. Not completely yet - a number of people have been constantly resettling to Russia, or just working here. August 17th came, and crowds of Ukrainian ‘gustarbeitern’ started home with a sigh of farewell to higher wages.
One can not exclude a chance that due to its political elites’ lack of imagination Ukraine will not be able to preserve its Unitarian State, that it will be transformed into a Canadian-type Federation of four to five provinces. This is plausible, although this is far from being inevitable. It is possible that some of the Provinces, when self-assured enough, will bite every piece of authority from the National pie - otherwise the Regions will bite more with heavier losses to the Whole. And still it seems (and this feeling is strong) that the Ukrainian statehood is turning factual at the very moment when the rest of Europe seems to farewell the Nation concept.
And one thing strikes me most - the young intellectuals that are not Nationalistic at all but are ‘state-oriented’ for sure, like Sergey Datsiuk and Vladimir Granovsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) might be successful in persuading the Kiev establishment that it is far more reasonable to pick up the Urban Kiev Rus’ tradition instead of the Rural Cossacks archaic myth. Let’s take into consideration that Ukraine has got twice as many Orthodox parishes than Russia has; that the Rus’ had been christened in Kiev, not in Vladimir or in Moscow; that Kiev has got a stronger foundation to pronounce it the Constantinopolis Heir than Moscow has; that there are enough intellectuals in Kiev to verbalize this all into a Doctrine... To sum it all up, there's nothing funny about it.
This is serious.
Still more serious, because this background makes a sharp contrast to Russian elites’ stupidity: to lullaby oneself with Spaciousness and with crush-proof stability of Russian culture, while sitting upon an ethnic and cultural volcano.
Apropos, have you ever thought that Ukraine has a population of 52 million people, while the Russian Federation has less than 140 million people, and that no more than 100 million will consider Russian their natural born language in 10 years? That these 100 million have no unifying mythology to replace the outdated Imperial one? Not even something exotic like being sure that the Scythians are to be considered direct ancestors to contemporary Ukrainians. Not even something lyrical/poetical like the trinity composed of Andrew the Apostle, Olga the Duchess and St.Vladimir the Duke. Nothing comparable to a known fact that "Kiev - mother to all Russian cities," to cite the Chronicles.
Another ten years of somber Russian ‘doing nothing’ and - look: the 500 years pendulum starts its movement backwards, and Kiev might start to unite Russian lands around itself.
(And in this case my grandchildren will learn not only Baudrillard and the rest of the Postmodern philosophers, but Aristophanes alongside Euripides - in a former dialect that might manage to turn into a Novorussian State Language).
Slava Glazychev can be reached at email@example.com