Until now, I had never thought that the language spoken by a people was important enough to go to war over. But apparently one of the reasons Putin is bombing Ukraine is because they speak Ukrainian. Unfortunately it’s not the first time a Russian-speaking leader has tried to eliminate those who speak that other tongue.

I’m reading Anne Applebaum’s book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017), on the recommendation of my bilingual (Polish/English) friend Lillian Vallee. Knowing her personal connection to eastern Europe, I trusted her when she said, “Read this.”

Applebaum is a good writer, but my ignorance of this part of the world is so enormous, it’s slow going. The story is also tragic. Just looking at the photographs and reading the captions was enough to make me close the book’s covers and vow to come back later. But we can’t afford to ignore this critical history she so recently uncovered and published.

The story opens with the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917, a brief-lived attempt by the people who spoke Ukrainian to declare their independence from Russia, which had claimed Ukraine for 200 years. By 1917, the language spoken in the cities was Russian, especially by that empire’s government administrators, the elites educated in Russia, and the businessmen running Russia’s supply lines. One of the first acts of the Ukrainian revolutionaries was to replace all the Russian-language signs in Kyiv with signs written in Ukrainian. This act itself was enough to threaten the Russian-speaking bourgeoisie. By then, Ukrainian was the language spoken by the country people and so was considered inferior. Not only were Russian speakers suddenly threatened with having to learn a new language, they were also facing the prospect of having to talk like rural people, and perhaps—God forbid—be mistaken for one.

This may seem unimportant, but last week a news article floated across my computer screen that reported the partial retreat of Russian troops from Kyiv. It said they were going to focus on holding the “Russian-speaking” regions of Ukraine. So the importance of spoken language is still with us, somehow still a valid reason for destroying cities and land. It seems unbelievable—until I remember flaming controversies over the renaming of streets here for Cesar Chavez. Imagine what would happen if someone insisted all street signs be written only in Spanish. Or Yokut. Or Russian.

Applebaum’s book Red Famine ends with the destruction of Ukraine’s nation-building hope in 1932-1933 through the famine constructed by Stalin with the elimination of their small-farm system. The Soviet state destroyed the evidence for this famine and suppressed its history, which was not taught in Ukraine or elsewhere in the Soviet Union. But six decades later, in 1991, Ukrainians again declared their independence. “The Soviet Union did come to an end,” Applebaum writes, “partly as the result of Ukraine’s decision to leave it. A sovereign Ukraine came into being for the first time in history, along with a new generation of Ukrainian historians, archivists, journalists and publishers. Thanks to their efforts, the complete story of the (Soviet-instigated) famine of 1932-1933 can now be told.”

I still think the current war in Ukraine is over land, and who will get the products from it. But what the current conflict over Ukraine does reveal is the power of the Mother Tongue to reclaim and defend its territory. I think that’s one reason the Ukrainians are such inspiration to us now. May we here in the Valley borrow from their courage and stop listening to agribusiness speak. May we consider reclaiming the languages of this land.

Trudy Wischemann is a land researcher who writes in Lindsay. You can send her your stories of language trials and triumphs c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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