As the first public impeachment hearings transfixed the country last week with revelations on a recalled ambassador and quid pro quos, America’s collective mind was blown by another bombshell.
“Wait, so Kiev is pronounced KEEVE (rhymes with Steve)?!?,” star political forecaster Nate Silver wondered as many others online marveled that they had been pronouncing the Ukrainian capital wrong their whole lives. I made a 30-second video explaining the lesson in post-Soviet politics: Kiev is a transliteration from Russian, Kyiv is the preferred Ukrainian transliteration, and after simplifying Ukrainian’s guttural vowels for American speakers, the proper pronunciation is “Keeve.” It’s now my most popular tweet ever; apparently, this is the content Impeachment Twitter craves.
Beneath this quirky language lesson, however, lies a battle over the pages of history that Ukrainians in the era after their Maidan revolution – which began six years ago Thursday – have been struggling to rewrite.
Throughout its existence, the Ukrainian nation had been dominated by nearby powers, including Russia, Poland and Austria-Hungary. Before 1991, when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, it had never existed as an independent state. The lens through which the modern world saw Ukraine was undeniably Russian. The language of higher education, of government and of privilege was Russian.
Ukrainian speakers were often ridiculed as provincial, or even politically, professionally and criminally chastised for their use of their native language. Taras Shevchenko, an artist, poet and Ukrainian national hero whose statue stands near Dupont Circle in Washington and in hundreds of locations across Ukraine, was exiled and sentenced to compulsory military service for promoting Ukrainian independence and writing poetry in Ukrainian, which the authorities referred to as “little Russian.”
Since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fomented a war in the country’s eastern Donbas region, authorities in Kyiv have made a concerted effort at re-Ukrainianization, even down to the name of the capital city itself. It is not just a difference of transliteration but one of history, Ukrainians argue. The legendary founder of Kyiv, from whom the city gets its name is Prince Kyi, not Prince Kie.
The name also has political implications. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the #KyivNotKiev campaign last year to gain recognition for the Ukrainian spelling of the country’s cities. “Under the Russian empire and later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR),” the ministry wrote, “Russification was actively used as a tool to extinguish each constituent country’s national identity, culture and language. In light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, including its illegal occupation of Crimea, we are once again experiencing Russification as a tactic that attempts to destabilize and delegitimize our country.”
Kyiv has gone to great lengths to protect its information space, undertaking domestic measures that have been criticized as anti-democratic, including blocking Russian social media platforms and establishing quotas for the usage of Ukrainian in print and on the radio and television.
Ukrainians aren’t exaggerating when they describe Russian language as a cudgel of Kremlin influence. Putin has claimed that his aggressive foreign policy in places such as the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has been in defense of Russian speakers and their rights. The Russian government funds a Russian cultural and language organization, called “Russki Mir” or “Russian World,” which acts as an arm of Russian influence and soft power around the world. Russian-language media outlets posing as local media have peddled disinformation and targeted Russian-speaking populations across the former communist space.
Despite this background, embassies, media outlets and airports worldwide have been slow to correct their style guides and flight monitors; the capital’s official transliteration has been Kyiv since 1995, but mentions of “Kiev” are still common. The very fact that so many Americans were puzzled by the official pronunciation of Kyiv shows how effective the Kremlin has been in promoting its worldview.
Though Ukrainians may not expect Americans to master the guttural first syllable, they are rightfully offended when they see a spelling of their capital that has been defunct for nearly 25 years bandied about in print and on the international stage. And as inaccuracies abound, their country is once again thrust into the limelight, perceived as a football, or worse – a casualty in a battle between great powers. But Ukrainians have agency. The least we can do is refer to their capital by its official name.
Since the quid pro quo drama began, at least, both the Washington Post and the New York Times finally announced they would use the Ukrainian spelling. For Kyiv, perhaps there is a silver lining, however thin, in the impeachment cloud.
Nina Jankowicz is the disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and the author of the forthcoming book “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict.”
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