The yellow leaves swirled under my tan, leather loafers as I stood in Lenin’s Park in Odesa, Ukraine, the city where I was born. It was November 2013, two weeks before the first Euromaidan protests started in Kyiv, a precursor of the Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. Down the street, a rusty old swing set creaked as a little boy in a bright yellow coat tried to push himself on it. Fifteen years before, when that swing set was freshly painted, my grandpa used to push me on it.
Odesa is the third-largest city in Ukraine, with a population of about a million people. It’s a port city in the south that sits on the coast of the Black Sea, and my family has lived there for four generations.
Days after I flew home, peaceful protests broke out in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, as thousands stood together and demanded a new government with less Russian interference. Two months later, Molotov cocktails were thrown, cars were burned, and shots were fired at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the Independence Square in Kyiv.
Last week marked the second anniversary of the start of the Ukraine conflict. Jan. 22 was the first day that people were killed in Kyiv as a result of violent clashes. Though it was two years ago, I haven’t forgotten the terror my family and I felt as we watched the news and wondered what would happen to our homeland.
Although I left Odesa for Canada exactly 15 years ago, I have a lot of fond memories of growing up there. One of them is of my grandparents’ apartment, which is frozen in time. My family has lived in it for nearly 70 years. It was originally given to my great-grandmother during the Soviet era, and now she lives next door. Persian rugs that are twice as old as me coat the floors. The apartment hasn’t changed since the 1980s.
As a child, my grandmother would make tea and put biscuits on the little kitchen table. And when I visited in 2013, there we were, sitting in a Ukrainian apartment, speaking Russian.
“Kak tvoye polyet?” How was your flight?
“On bill haroshim, bila vkusnoya yeda.” It was good, they gave us tasty food.
“Hochesh konyak?” Want some cognac?
Although I’m from Ukraine, I don’t speak a word of Ukrainian. Neither do my parents, who grew up in Ukraine and lived there until the age of 30. About a third of citizens in Odesa identify as Russian. I’m half-Russian and half-Ukrainian, and most of my relatives are of mixed descent.
While over one-third of Ukrainian citizens speak Russian, it has never been acknowledged as an official second language. The Ukrainian constitution said that local governments in Russian regions could speak Russian in their towns and in their governing bodies. But that changed when Petro Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine in early 2014.
His pro-Ukrainian government tried to repeal the Russian language minorities bill, sparking violent protests in the East that eventually escalated into war. Many Russians felt their status was being overlooked.
It wasn’t long before Russian-speaking regions fought back and that cities like Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol declared themselves independent states. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, stepped in, saying the rights of his people were under attack. In the following weeks, Russian tanks rolled down the streets in Crimea, as Putin sought to annex the Ukrainian region. Ukrainian soldiers were sent to regions bordering Russia, where they clashed with Russian separatists.
Today, the fight is still raging. As of late February 2014, Crimea has unofficially proclaimed itself a part of Russia, and cities like Donetsk have seen heavy fighting and even bombing.
The Ukrainian conflict has shaken my identity. Since having arrived in Canada as a little girl, I have always identified myself as Russian. I found it a lot easier than explaining that I was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. But since the war started, I’ve been saying that I’m Ukrainian. I don’t want to be blamed for Ukraine’s shaky sovereignty, and I don’t want to be associated with Putin. As a Russian-Ukrainian, I’m often accused of both.
When I first arrived at Ryerson, several months before the conflict erupted, I tried to look for a niche, to carve out a little spot for myself among 38,000 other students. I noticed that Ryerson had both Ukrainian and Russian cultural clubs. But after much internal debate, I decided not to join either one. I feared that the first would reject me for not being Ukrainian enough, the other for not being Russian enough.
One of my past co-workers was a Ukrainian from Lviv, a western city about 70 kilometres from the Polish border.
“Are you Russian?” he asked as soon as he met me, instantly reading my facial structure and Slavic name.
“Yes,” I said. His face fell. I noticed the Ukrainian tryzub, the trident, on a chain around his neck and realized why — he’s a Ukrainian nationalist.
“I don’t like working with Putin sympathizers,” he said.
“I’m not pro-Putin,” I said. “I’m from Ukraine too and Putin invaded my country.”
But no matter what I said, he was always cold to me.
I wish he’d known that I’m as angry at Putin as he is. I love my Russian heritage, but the fighting has hurt my family. I wanted to tell him that the Russian separatists have killed over 7,000 of my people over the last two years. I wanted to tell him that my cousin, who worked at the Donetsk water station, went missing this year for three months and was thankfully found alive. I wanted to tell him that my cousin’s wife and son were just two of the thousands of displaced people who fled the warzone when their street near the airport got bombed, and that they now live in a tiny apartment in Odesa. But I decided I couldn’t change his ignorance, and just avoided him after that.
Russian has always been a very influential language and culture in Ukraine. Like close siblings, the two cultures grew up hand in hand. About 30 per cent of Ukrainian citizens identify as Russian, particularly near the borders, in cities like Donetsk, Mariupol, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Sevastopol. Over half of Ukrainians speak Russian regularly and many are partially Russian in ethnicity.
Although I’m trilingual, Russian was the first language I learned, and one I never forgot. I’ve seen many family friends who are my age lose their Russian entirely, dissolving into the English language and culture. Many people tell me it’s remarkable that I still speak Russian so clearly and barely have an accent.
To me, a Russian speaker who has spent most of her life in Canada, speaking the language feels like a precious gift, one I want to pass on to my children someday. I remember the pains my parents went through to keep me fluent. My dad would drive me to Russian school every Saturday despite my protests about sleeping in on weekends and made sure I did my homework for the classes. My mom would ask me, “A po Russki?” (what about Russian?) when I switched to English during dinner. It felt annoying when I was a child, but I’m grateful for it.
I can understand the people’s desire for revolution and change. The old government, headed by Viktor Yanukovych, had its faults, but at least our cultural identities remained intact. Following his impeachment, the country quickly became unstable. Now, along with millions of others, I can’t decide who I am anymore. Am I Russian, or Ukrainian? I don’t want to be associated with Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine, but I want to celebrate and embrace my beautiful culture. I want to speak Russian freely without fear of being judged.
As a Russian-Ukrainian-Canadian I have a hard time sitting by and watching Ukraine’s current government alienate its Russian population. I just want my people to live peacefully together. Ukraine is like me — caught between itself and Russia in past and present. It’s impossible to separate these two identities.
The Western media and the Ukrainian government don’t realize they’re tearing people and culture apart when they try to separate the two. Some things are not meant to be separated. Ukraine can be a sovereign nation without revoking the civil rights of the many Russians who live there.
Russians aren’t bad people, and neither are Ukrainians. Most of us are ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives. I shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about who I am: I am Russian, I am Ukrainian, and I am Canadian. I just want what’s best for my country and my people. And this isn’t it.
Featured image by Sumi Siddiqa