Ukrainians Eschew Russian But One of Their Bestselling Authors Embraces It

How war and power can usurp language and the many ways that writers push back

Ukrainians Eschew Russian But One of Their Bestselling Authors Embraces It
People take Russian-language books from a pile to use as wastepaper in May 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. (Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Andrey Kurkov is a bestselling Ukrainian author who writes in Russian. In 2018, he gave a talk at the Ukrainian Institute in London on the place of Russian language and literature in Ukraine. He briefly discussed the history of the Russian language in his country and the permanent pressure by tsarist Russia and later the Soviet state to ban the Ukrainian language. He then described how he had suggested that the Russian spoken in Ukraine be wrested from Russian control by creating an official institute for Ukrainian Russian in Ukraine. The idea did not go over well, he said. In Ukraine, he was accused of trying to promote Russification. And in Russia, he added, his idea was called a “philological fantasy.”

Since the Maidan uprising in 2013, he joked, the Russian language is the most controversial topic you can discuss in Ukraine.

The subject of the Russian language in Ukraine is of course no joke, and even less so since the full-scale invasion began in 2022. It’s also a good example of how a language can be instrumentalized for political purposes. Kurkov, who uses the Russian language to write about Ukraine, is not alone as a writer. Nor is he alone in saying that it is a Ukrainian version of Russian, much as the Franco-Congolese author Alain Mabanckou has said, “I am an African writer who speaks to the world in French,” adding that he brings the Congolese way of speaking into his written French.

Speaking to New Lines from Kyiv, where musicians were playing in the street despite shelling the night before, Kurkov said he would continue writing fiction in Russian (he writes nonfiction and children’s books in Ukrainian) but that it would be translated directly into Ukrainian. His Ukrainian publisher has stopped publishing in Russian, he said, and bookshops refuse to sell books in Russian.

Ukraine is in a region that has seen many invasions in its history, especially from Russia. The most recent linguistic census in Ukraine took place in 2001. It showed that 29.6% of the Ukrainian population’s native language was Russian, though only 17.3% thought of themselves as ethnically Russian. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a native Russian speaker, but no one would dream of accusing him of identifying as Russian. In 2022, the Ukrainian government carried out a survey that found that 30% of people spoke Russian and Ukrainian interchangeably. In the past, Russian dominated as a lingua franca but was not indicative of ethnicity. Now, the situation is changing and many native Russian speakers in Ukraine, including writers, are rejecting their mother tongue.

From 2014, following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, a number of Ukrainian writers who had previously written in Russian, such as the poets Iya Kiva and Boris Khersonsky, made the decision to switch to writing in Ukrainian. The novelist Volodymyr Rafeyenko had also started making the change in 2014. In 2022, after he fled his Russian-occupied city of Donetsk for Kyiv, he explained in a moving op-ed in the French newspaper Le Monde that, after what he had been through, although he had spoken and written in Russian for 45 years, he would abandon the language.

Others, such as the poet Aleksandr Kabanov, continue to write in Russian. In 2017, Kabanov published a poetry collection relating to current events titled “In the Language of the Enemy.” Kabanov and writers such as Yuriy Serebriansky of Kazakhstan feel, like Mabanckou, that Russia does not own the Russian language. Kurkov told me simply, “Russian is my mother tongue; this is the best I can do.” Yet he understands the Ukrainian reaction. “It is a social phenomenon in times of war; it’s an emotional reaction that shows support for the other side.”

Kurkov said the war has made it impossible for Russian to find its place in Ukraine in the way he once envisioned. Back in 2018, in London’s Ukrainian Institute, Kurkov spoke of “Russophonie,” which can be defined in the same way as “Francophonie” — a community of people who share the same language. (The term “Francophonie” is problematic for some writers, as we’ll see later.) Kurkov said that “the story of Russian language repeats the story of the French language,” by which he meant that France lost its hold on French-language literature with writers in Belgium, Quebec and, in particular, the former French colonies of North and sub-Saharan Africa, who produce literature specific to their countries, using the French language as a tool. He quoted the Algerian writer, Kateb Yacine, who famously referred to the French language as Algeria’s “butin de guerre” (spoils of war).

Algeria, Morocco to a lesser extent and the former Soviet-bloc countries went through similar experiences of reviving their local languages. In Algeria and Morocco, there was an active policy of “Arabization” following independence from France, and when the Soviet Union collapsed there was a desire for “de-Russification” in most of the former Soviet satellite states.

Yet in Algeria, many writers continue to write in French, such as the poet Samira Negrouche. She was warned by her late friend, the poet Djamel Amrani, that she would be criticized for it. Amrani wrote in French despite having been tortured by the occupying French colonial force in the 1950s.

In a previous conversation, Negrouche told me that, unlike in Tunisia and Morocco, where French was the language of the bourgeoisie, “in Algeria it had penetrated all levels of society very deeply. It was also the language that enabled people to get ahead, to have access to higher education.” In a country where people are living “great injustice” daily, she feels that language is something of a nonissue, since most people read and speak French. Furthermore, some Amazigh peoples in Algeria consider Arabic a colonial language that was imposed on them, so why would French be any different?

If French continues to be the fifth-most spoken language in the world, it’s thanks to the African continent. The Quebec-based demographic and statistical observatory of the Francophone world counts more than 327 million French speakers on the planet and estimates that, by 2050, 90% of young adults speaking French will be living on the African continent.

But there is also the Kenyan writer and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s seminal text “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature,” in which he advocates for linguistic decolonization, suggesting that literature written by African writers in European languages is not truly African literature but a hybrid Afro-European literature. Ngugi switched from writing in English to writing creative work in his native Kikuyu after he was imprisoned by the postcolonial Kenyan government for his politics and language. In “Decolonising the Mind,” he writes that language can be a means of communication but only a “carrier of the culture of those people to whom it is a mother-tongue.”

But authors from former French colonies who write in French often grow up speaking several local languages and have always been fairly sure-footed about the language in which they are expressing themselves. Still, they don’t like the term “Francophone,” which they feel is both linked to a hegemonic France and differentiates them from “Franco-French” writers. It’s always interesting to note how fiction is organized in French bookshops. Approximately 30% of fiction in France is translated from other languages and is separated from French literature on the shelves. Some bookshops will have all fiction written in French grouped together and simply in alphabetical order, while others will place authors like Mabanckou in a special “Francophone literature” section. The latter section sometimes houses authors born and raised in France, such as Faiza Guene, whose parents are from former French colonies.

Mabanckou, who has spoken about “breaking” the French language and has said that French does not belong to France, signed a manifesto over 15 years ago along with 44 other well-known authors from countries such as Lebanon, Mauritius, Haiti, Djibouti, Algeria and Morocco. The manifesto called for a “world literature in French.” The French language should be liberated, they wrote, from its “exclusive pact with the [French] nation.” Later that year, the manifesto was expanded, edited and published as a 300-page essay.

The Lebanese author Charif Majdalani made clear his feelings about writing in French in an interview in 2017: “A language becomes your own when you speak it. I don’t think French necessarily reflects French culture. … Language is an instrument for each writer who uses it as he or she feels. I take French and use it how I want to use it.”

As Greek and Latin were once lingua francas, Arabic was too, and still is, albeit no longer among scholars in Spain. With the spread of Islam over a vast territory from east to west in the seventh and eighth centuries, the language greatly modified over time, depending on the region. The majority of Arabic-language writers today use classical Arabic in its written form, while in everyday life they speak a local dialect. There has been much debate around the fact that classical Arabic is not the language used for daily communication and, more importantly, that it is the opposite of user-friendly when it comes to teaching children how to read. But there is another matter, too: In literature, there is an unquestioned acceptance of a cultural dominance that is situated in the east, whether formerly in Baghdad or Damascus, or more currently in Cairo, Beirut and increasingly in the Gulf. While Arabic-language literature from the Maghreb does travel east, writers from sub-Saharan Africa feel they are overlooked in the Middle East.

Ahmed Isselmou is an author from Mauritania — as far west as you can get in the Arab world. He grew up in Nema, near the Malian border, where he spoke Hassaniya Arabic. His generation, he told New Lines, began studying classical Arabic in preschool. By the time he began school, he could already read in Arabic. A top student in high school, he was given a government grant to study communications at a university in Algeria. “When I arrived in Algeria it was a big challenge,” he said. “When I heard Algerian Arabic, it took me one month to understand it.”

Isselmou’s classes were supposed to have been in classical Arabic but the professors spoke either Algerian Arabic or French. Needless to say, he learned Algerian Arabic. Then he was hired by RT Arabic and moved to Moscow to join an Arabic-language media team. “I thought if I could speak Algerian Arabic, they would understand me better. I didn’t speak English and had only a little French. But most people came from Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and I had to go back to speaking fusha (classical).”

Isselmou currently works at Al Jazeera, where he learned Levantine Arabic, but he says his classical Arabic is generally much better than that of his colleagues. Still, “in the Middle East they think of us as being on the margins. They ask if we can understand Arabic; they think we live in tents and on camels. We struggle to introduce ourselves, our culture, our point of view, and our community.”

It’s important to Isselmou to write about an African reality and Mauritanian culture and society in particular. In his storiesو he’ll describe how a Mauritanian woman will wear her “milhafa” (veil) or daily life in the city of Nouakchott. When his stories were first published, Isselmou found that a lot of people in the Middle East area had never heard about Mauritania, which spurred him to continue writing about his culture. Isselmou is now published in Egypt and Lebanon, and when one of his books sold out at an event in Morocco, he said his publisher was surprised.

Other poets and authors writing in Arabic from Senegal, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, South Sudan or Chad struggle to have their work published and read in the Middle East, but translators of Arabic to French or Arabic to English, such as Sawad Hussain, are striving to bring them to a wider audience. Hussain has translated Isselmou, the South Sudanese author Stella Gaitano and the Eritrean Haji Jaber in co-translation with Marcia Lynx Qualey.

In Ukraine, the Russian aggression has also affected translators. Boris Dralyuk, who grew up in a Jewish, largely Russian-speaking community in Odesa before moving to the U.S. as a child, is a poet, editor and literary translator from Russian to English. He is also one of Kurkov’s translators. Dralyuk told New Lines that he has always gravitated toward Ukrainian voices, even if they were writing in Russian. He said he wasn’t sure if Russian had any future in Ukraine, but he believes that “Ukrainians can and should be proud of what some of their authors have accomplished in Russian — these authors are world-class, and they bring honor to their nation.”

Dralyuk feels that language and culture are profoundly interwoven in complex ways. “In the case of the former Soviet republics, Russian is the language of a hostile imperial neighbor, the leaders — and even the citizens — of which insist not only on the superiority of Russian to Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Qazaq, Uzbek, etc., but also upon the fact that everyone who speaks Russian is Russian,” he said. “And so, no matter how robust the local Russophone cultures in Ukraine, Latvia or Uzbekistan are, no matter how distinct they are from the culture of Russia itself, the Russian state’s ideology of the ‘Russian world’ undermines their legitimacy. It co-opts them, gobbles them up against their will. In a sense, though some of them surely wouldn’t agree with this, Russophone authors in these nations have no greater long-term enemy than Russian culture.” As long as Russia has “violent imperial aspirations,” Dralyuk suggested, the Russian language cannot be free.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, Kurkov has achieved a status, at least in the U.S. library system, that he didn’t have before — he is no longer filed under Russian but Ukrainian literature. In a recent video posted on the X social media platform, Will Evans, a publisher and translator of Russian to English, films himself in a university library showing what he calls “politics in action”: The Russian and Ukrainian literature sections are next to each other on the bookshelf. He pulls down a book from the top shelf in the Russian section. It’s Kurkov’s 2004 “Penguin Lost,” the sequel to his “Death and the Penguin.” Evans then goes to the Ukrainian section, where he finds Kurkov’s most recent novel, “Grey Bees,” translated by Dralyuk and published by Evans. “Something has happened in the Library of Congress and the way books are tagged in the system in the past 10 years since ‘Penguin Lost’ was published,” Evans says excitedly. “Andrey Kurkov went from being a Russian writer to a Ukrainian writer. He has always been a Ukrainian writer, but now for the first time, the library system knows he’s a Ukrainian writer.”

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