In 2009 I published my monograph on the history of nationalisms and language politics in modern central Europe. Four years later, in 2013 Andrea Graziosi invited me to the international conference on ‘States, Peoples, Languages: A Comparative Political History of Ukrainian, 1863‒2013,’ held at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like earlier I had done in my book, we were now to have a synoptic look at the 19th and 20th-century history of central and eastern Europe, which was unprecedentedly tragic mainly due to the imperial-cum-nationalist-cum-totalitarian project of fitting linguistically defined groups of people (‘nations’) to ‘their’ territories (‘nation-states’). The process also entailed constructing, unmaking or re-fashioning ‘languages’ so that they would serve ‘more appropriately’ the national projects at hand. As a result, a person moved between countries without ever leaving one’s village. In the morning after another declaration of independence, a subject of a suddenly defunct empire discovered she lived in a state that was not hers. Even worse, because of some half-remembered religion her husband was declared an ‘alien,’ though his family had lived in their home town for centuries. Another unexpected border change, and a civil servant found out that he was actually illiterate, because now the administration was to be conducted in a language and script of which he had no command. In this new brave modern world all and sundry were compelled to finish elementary school. A peasant daughter came back home crying, because the teacher had derided her that she was speaking her national language incorrectly. At the same time, in the distant capital the government commissioned a team of besuited professors to work out yet another sweeping reform, this time to rid the national language of ‘ugly foreign’ words, phrases, pronunciations, syntactical constructs and spellings that were ‘totally alien’ to the ‘true character’ of ‘our’ national language.
However, Andrea, the conference’s organizers, and I silently assumed that this national-cum-linguistic madness of imagining polities in line with equally imagined languages and nations had been over after the fall of communism in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union three years later. The wars of Yugoslav succession, rounded up with the split of the Serbo-Croatian language, appeared to be just an anomaly that would soon be consigned to the yellowing pages of historical monographs on the ‘dark 20th century.’ The highly destructive post-Soviet Armenian-Azeri, Chechen or Tajik wars were seen as non-European conflicts. They took place too far away from Tallinn, Warsaw or Berlin. In the West (meaning Europe and North America) history seemed to have reached its ideological end. A widespread consensus emerged that democracy is the ultimate system of governance and statehood organization, while capitalism is democracy’s counterpart in the sphere of economy. Nothing better could be ever invented in this regard. And after the long centuries of unceasing warfare and conflicts in search of an ideal system of economic and political organization, now at long last people could just go on with their lives without fearing that another conflagration is just lurking round the corner.
All of us were brutally shaken out of this daydreaming and our sheer complacency at the turn of 2014. History caught up with us, again. In November 2013 a popular movement began swelling in Kyiv and across Ukraine against President Viktor Ianukovych. Without consultations, first he imposed on Ukraine Russian as an auxiliary language in such a fashion (known well from neighboring Belarus) that made it de facto the country’s most important official language, to the immediate diminishment of Ukrainian. But the decisive turning point arrived when at Moscow’s insistence Ianukovych radically reversed the country’s integration course away from the European Union and toward Russia’s Eurasian Economic Community (upgraded in 2014 to a Eurasian Economic Union) . Despite the government’s use of special forces and live ammunition against them, the protesters prevailed (Serediuk 2015). In February 2014 the discredited Ianukovych administration collapsed, while the President and many members of his government sought refuge in Russia.
Immediately afterward, Russia’s ‘little green man’ (or Russian soldiers without any distinctive army insignia on their uniforms and equipment) appeared in Ukraine’s Crime. They harassed the Ukrainian police and the soldiers in the Ukrainian military bases either to join them or to leave the peninsula. The Russian annexation of Crimea conducted on stealth (now known as ‘hybrid war’) was swiftly completed in March 2014. An accession treaty was signed between Crimea and the Russian Federation to lend some legitimacy to the incorporation of the former by the latter. With this act one of the foundations of stability and peace in postwar Europe was laid to rest, namely Article III of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which provides that no international borders in Europe may be changed unilaterally. After breaching this crucial principle of the inviolability of international borders in Europe, no one really paid attention to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Britain, Russia and the United States guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, alongside that of Belarus and Kazakhstan, in exchange for the three post-Soviet countries’ decision to give up their stockpiles of nuclear warheads inherited from the Soviet Union. In April 2014 a Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine commenced and continues to this day in a form of simmering trench warfare between the Ukrainian army and ‘separatists’ under the repeatedly denied control of the Russian military. At the same time, also in April 2014 a fast-track citizenship law was promulgated in Russia, which makes it possible for any Russian-speaker to apply for the document. The fear is that in this manner Moscow silently usurps for itself the ‘right of intervention’ in the border areas of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Kazakhstan with substantial numbers of Russian-speakers, should the interests of these ‘Russian minorities’ be endangered. What has happened to Ukraine may be repeated in the case of other neighboring countries if the Russian leadership decides that they crossed the ‘red thin line.’ In 2007 the post-Soviet Russian concept of ‘near abroad’ was replaced with (or joined by) the ‘soft power’ geopolitical idea of the Russkii Mir (‘Russian World’) that consists of the globe’s all Russian-speaking territories. So language is back as the litmus test of belonging to a nation and an instrument of furthering imperial and territorial ambitions.
In mid-2014 when I embarked on my transatlantic voyage to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the momentous shifts in the geopolitical landscape of central and eastern Europe were still sinking in. The organizers, rightly fearful of any politically-motivated meltdown of the conference, emphasized that the recent events should not be discussed. We as scholars ought to squarely focus on the conference’s topic, that is, language politics and engineering as pursued in the past, be it in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, or elsewhere in Europe. With only limited forays into the post-Soviet period, not beyond the 1990s.
I was flying to the United States via Shannon Airport in Ireland. In order to lessen the distinctly unwelcoming impact of immigration checkup awaiting passengers in the United States, Aer Lingus moved this onerous process to Shannon. In this way passengers can face up to the indignity before boarding the flight, when they are still full of energy. The virtual US border checkup was set up at the Irish airport. Passengers were swiftly processed. I handed my passport to the US border officer on duty. He flipped through it dexterously, finding my US visa in no time. Then the officer requested the conference invitation and program. When he read the conference’s title he asked, ‘Do you know, Sir, that Russian is Crimea’s main language?’
Feigning indifference, I replied in a non-committal fashion, ‘Well, I have never been to this place.’
‘You’re going to talk about language and Ukraine at the conference, won’t you?’ the officer would not let his pet line of investigation die.
‘Indeed, that’s the topic, but we’ll talk about the 19th and 20th centuries,’ I genuinely became apprehensive that for some reason he might turn me away from the flight.
‘People in Crimea are Russians, and exercised their democratic right in the recent referendum to join Russia,’ the officer opined. I quickly glanced at his shoulder badge, the officer’s surname was Azov. Was I mistakenly taking a flight to Moscow? But not, his uniform was positively American, there was nothing Russian or post-Soviet about it. However, his English was shaky and heavily accented. I took a risk and proposed, ‘Mozhemy gavarit’ na russkom, kak Vam luchshe – we may speak in Russian, if that is easier for you, Sir.’
It was as though the officer had just been waiting for such an offer, and he continued in fluent Russian with his lecture on Russia’s long-standing right to Crimea. That the vast majority of the peninsula’s population were always Russians, and Nikita Khrushchev had committed a terrible mistake by gifting Crimea to the Ukrainians in 1954. The leader’s political instinct had failed him, because ‘you just may not trust these Ukrainians.’ It fell to Vladimir Putin to correct his predecessor’s glaring error, to put things right, as they should be.
I was nodding and uttering some friendly noises. I just wanted the border officer to move on and let me off the hook, so the surreal situation would come to an end. If he wanted to stop me in my tracks that was fine with me, only let the harangue be over. I thought no one would ever believe me that a US border officer scolded me in Russian for not endorsing the Kremlin’s stance on the annexation of Crimea. And indeed, few did. I still wonder who this Mr Azov was. A Russian who won a green card in a US visa lottery? Or maybe a Soviet Jew whose family had left for Israel after 1989, but then had had a change of heart and moved to the United States. Another possibility could be that the US border force outsourced the service in Shannon to local private contractors. Then Mr Azov might be a disgruntled ethnic Russian, for instance, on a Latvian passport, who had landed gainful employment in Ireland, courtesy of his EU citizenship.
Perhaps, I will never know, but the US border officer made sure that I would never forget this Kafkesque moment. He let me know the truth. It happened at the moment when after taking most of Ukraine’s littoral of the Sea of Azov no one was sure whether the Russian forces and the pro-Russian insurgents would press farther westward with an eye to seizing all the intervening Black Sea littoral between the Azov port of Mauriapol’ and the annexed Crimea. The Ukrainian army was demoralized and in disarray. Volunteers began coming to its aid, among others, the Azov Battalion, named after its first military objective, namely, to win back for Ukraine the occupied Azov littoral. On the last day of our conference, Friday 13 June 2014, this battalion participated in the successful Ukrainian operation to recapture Mauriapol’. Fittingly, the Azov Battalion made the city port its seat. Suddenly, the name ‘Azov’ became pregnant with so many conflicting meanings.