Last weekend Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most famous of Russia’s political prisoners, spoke to tens of thousands of Ukrainians on the main square in Kiev, the Maidan. Khodorkovsky told them what they already knew: that Ukrainian citiznes from all walks of life, of all ethnicities, had suffered for and won their freedom in a revolution for dignity and decency.
What language did Khodorkovsky speak in Kiev? Russian, of course, his native language, and a language most Ukrainians speak. Most Ukrainians are bilingual and many Ukrainians in Kiev speak Russian rather than Ukrainian at home. Ukrainians are cosmopolitan in a way that most of us are not. Unfortunately, we reward them for it by not noticing that they are bilingual, dividing them into groups of Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, drawing the conclusion that there are two nations instead of one — and thereby preparing ourselves for Putin’s war propaganda.
Putin claims that he is defending the rights of speakers of Russian in Ukraine. He has used this argument to justify his invasion of Crimea and the electoral theatre of yesterday, a “referendum” in which there was no way to vote against union with Russia.
Among the speakers of Russian in Crimea are the Crimean Tatars, whose historical memory is dominated by their murderous deportation by Stalin in the Forties, and who boycotted the “referendum”. It makes no reference to their minority rights, nor to their assembly, the Mejlis, which was permitted by Ukrainian law. Crimean Tatars are now fleeing the peninsula for mainland Ukraine. Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jews have also made it clear to Putin that they do not want Russian intervention.
If speakers of Russian were suffering discrimination, that would give rise to concern, though not justify invasion. In fact, Russian is a completely normal language of interchange in Ukraine. There, tens of millions of Russian-speakers read a free press, watch uncontrolled television and learn from an uncensored internet, in either Ukrainian or in Russian, as they prefer.
In Russia, the major social media have been brought under state control, television has been almost completely subdued and several of the remaining free-thinking blogs and internet news sites have been shut down or pressured. This leaves Ukraine as an island of free speech for people who use the Russian language.
There is a country where millions of Russian-speakers lack basic rights. That country is the Russian Federation. There is a neighbouring country where tens of millions of Russian-speakers enjoy basic rights — despite the disruptions of a revolution and Russian invasion. That country is Ukraine. As the joke goes, Ukraine is a country where people speak Russian, while Russia is a country where people stay quiet in Russian.
During his remarks, Khodorkovsky was interrupted by the masses on the Maidan. Ukrainians chanted over and over: “Glory to Russia! Glory to Russia! Glory to Russia!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you”. They pronounced these words of respect to their Russian guest in the Russian language. Such Ukrainians represent Putin’s real Ukrainian problem: free people who speak freely in Russian, and might set an example one day for Russians themselves.
Timothy Snyder is visiting London as Roman Professor of History at the LSE. He is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
Source: London Evening Standart