The War That Russia Already Lost

Vladimir Putin tried to crush Ukraine. Instead, he made its cultural identity even stronger.

A crowd waving Ukrainian flags in front of sunset sky.
Julien De Rosa / AFP / Getty

The war in Ukraine isn’t only over territory. And as Ukrainian soldiers beat back Russian invaders far to the south and the east, a different kind of fight has been raging on one of central Kyiv’s most picturesque streets.

Located at 13 Andriivsky Descent, the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum celebrates a 20th-century author who lived much of his life in my country’s capital but wrote in Russian—and consistently portrayed Ukraine and its people in a negative light. In works such as the 1925 novel White Guard, Ukrainians are violent savages whose language irritates the ears of educated people. One major character describes pro-independence Ukrainians as “scum with tails on their heads”—a disparaging reference to Ukrainian Cossacks’ traditional haircut.

The museum, along with an adjacent sculpture showing the author seated on a bench, is a major landmark in central Kyiv. I pass it regularly while on assignment. This summer, as Russia’s invasion dragged on, the National Writers’ Union of Ukraine called for closing it. In a statement, the group argued that the writer, who died in 1940, no longer deserved the honor and that the exhibits should be passed to the National Museum of Literature. Bulgakov was one of those who laid pillars for Russia’s expansionist ideology, the statement declared. His Ukrainian detractors view the museum much as many Americans view statues of Confederate generals—that is, as an endorsement of a hostile and repugnant value system. “A son of a Russian censor, Bulgakov hated Ukraine as an idea and developed his views in his writing,” the Ukrainian literature scholar Bohdana Neborak, a supporter of the anti-Bulgakov campaign, told me by email. “He jeers [at the] Ukrainian language and disregards the right of Ukrainians to a national state.”

The campaign to cancel Bulgakov stalled only when Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko weighed in on the writer’s behalf last month, declaring, “You should definitely not touch the museum.”

Ukrainian culture, the authorities believe, is rich enough to withstand a dismissive, long-dead literary figure. But the intensity of the debate over Bulgakov underscores how a decade of Russian aggression has made people in Ukraine—including me—far more suspicious of our neighbor’s cultural influence. The current invasion, which began in February, has turned many of us into fierce advocates of our own language, literature, and music.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently accused us of becoming an anti-Russian enclave. I now believe that he is right. What he fails to mention is that he is the one who made us anti-Russian.

Just as Bulgakov did in the 20th century, many Russian commentators cast aspersions on Ukrainian independence and scoff at the Ukrainian language. Supporters of Putin’s invasion keep claiming that Russia is fighting Nazis and preventing Ukraine from oppressing ethnic Russians in the Donbas and elsewhere. To liberate us from ourselves, the Kremlin’s forces started shelling our major cities, where Russian speakers remain the majority.

Like Bulgakov, I was born in Kyiv—in my case in 1991, the year Ukraine gained independence. Unlike in the west of Ukraine, almost nobody around me spoke Ukrainian. My Russian-speaking parents had grown up in Soviet Ukraine. My grandparents viewed the fall of the U.S.S.R. as a major tragedy. At home, my mother and father would discuss the flourishing culture of Moscow and St. Petersburg. They knew most of the major Russian composers, yet never took the time to look for Ukrainian ones. They thought that Ukrainian literature would never be able to compete with world-famous work of writers such as Dostoyevsky or Bulgakov. They were never taught in school about how the Soviet authorities executed members of the Ukrainian resistance during and after World War II, and they viewed residents of rural Ukraine as forever whining about past miseries.

At school, my underpaid and unenthusiastic teachers murmured about the heroic periods of Ukrainian history and begged us to read tragic masterpieces of Ukrainian literature. But as soon as I left the classroom, I dove into a Russian world. Before 2013, if you wanted to have a good job in journalism, you had to know, speak, and write in Russian, which created opportunities to address a relatively wide audience. Speaking Ukrainian as your primary language meant significant career limits.

In my childhood and early adult years, Ukraine was awash in movies that consistently portrayed my country and its citizens in negative ways. In the crime drama Brat 2, the hero is a Russian chauvinist. Ukrainians are portrayed as gangsters. In Kandagar, a war drama about Russian pilots smuggling arms to Afghanistan, a Ukrainian team member is a coward. On TV shows, Russians were our older brothers—smarter, more urbane, and superior in general. They were the ones who prevailed in World War II and saved all of Europe. Ukrainians were funny younger brothers with a silly language and a primitive culture.

In that era, commentators who urged the Ukrainian public to embrace our genius writers and historical figures fighting for independence from Russia throughout our common history were portrayed as nationalists or even Nazi collaborators.

On pirated copies of American and French movies, I saw people proudly embracing their own heritage, not somebody else’s. But I ignored my nationality, because I thought it was irrelevant in the modern world.

The Euromaidan Revolution of 2013–14 changed that. Many Ukrainians craved closer ties to the West. But our president back then, Viktor Yanukovych, was pro-Moscow to the point of refusing to sign an association agreement with the European Union that our Parliament had approved; instead, he favored closer integration with Russia. His regime beat, illegally jailed, and even killed people protesting his usurpation of power. Street protests forced Yanukovych out. Russia’s subsequent occupation of Crimea and fueling of pro-Russian uprisings in Ukraine’s east and south was a revelation of how far we were from being brothers with Russians. Witnessing all of this, I felt as if I had been struck by lightning.

In this period, I started reading Ukrainian authors and paying more attention to Ukrainian artists. From the historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, I learned that Russia has always treated Ukraine not as an equal or even as a little brother, but as a colony. In the novels and plays of Serhiy Zhadan, I read about how pro-Russian forces had corrupted eastern Ukraine. The electronic folk band Onuka brought traditional Ukrainian instruments back into our popular culture. A decade ago, voices challenging Russian narratives were still hard to find in the Ukrainian media, but that is no longer true. Under a 2016 law passed by our Parliament, a quarter of the songs played on radio stations had to be in Ukrainian; that quota has ratcheted up since then, and stations have typically exceeded it.

Still, in 2020, six years after the start of the Russian invasion, the Russian language still prevailed on Ukrainian television and in the streets of the biggest cities, the civil-society group Prostir Svobody has reported. Like most people I know, I wanted to believe that language has nothing to do with politics. Why couldn’t you speak both Russian and Ukrainian and love both cultures?

Yet even among many of us who grew up speaking primarily Russian, Russia’s aggression has boosted support for a 2019 law enshrining Ukrainian as our country’s only official language. According to an August survey by the Rating Group, a think tank, 86 percent of respondents supported such a rule—more than 20 points higher than before the most recent invasion. By comparison, only half of the respondents said they speak Ukrainian exclusively. Most people realize, as I do, that even if all government business is conducted in Ukrainian, the Russian language will still be spoken widely in Ukraine after more than 200 years of domination by Russia.

The official-language law is less popular in the east and the south of Ukraine, where residents are more likely to speak Russian and where pro-Russian television channels have tried to convince viewers that they are under attack. Protecting these people from Ukrainian nationalists has been one of Putin’s pretexts for war. Yet his invasions have made Ukraine more Ukrainian.

Back in 2012, according to the Rating Group, 57 percent of respondents said Ukrainian was their native language. After the start of the full-scale invasion in February, that number grew to 76. In the past decade, the proportion of Ukrainians who claimed to be native Russian speakers fell by half, from 42 percent to 19. Especially in the east and south, more people are regularly speaking Ukrainian than before this year’s invasion. I decided to switch to Ukrainian as my default language around 2016, after traveling abroad. Hearing me speak to my husband, a woman in Montenegro asked me if I was Russian. I corrected her. Recognizing that I was offended, she responded, “So why do you speak Russian, then?” I had no answer. Who would want to be associated with an invading nation?

Poll data show that Ukrainians have cut back sharply on the number of Russian songs and television shows that they consume. Popular performers have changed their repertoire accordingly. The classically trained pop star Olya Polyakova, Ukraine’s answer to Lady Gaga, used to sing primarily in Russian but is now performing more material in Ukrainian and English. “Nobody forced me to not speak Russian,” she told an interviewer. But, she added, performing in a language connected with the army invading her country was “very painful.”

All of this is a natural reaction to what Russia has done to us. We have seen our supposedly superior brothers killing civilians, ruining our cities, and stealing our washing machines. More and more of my fellow citizens have come to realize that embracing our Ukrainian identity is a matter of survival.

Language and music have proved to be powerful weapons on the home front, just as High Mobility Artillery Rocket System equipment has on the war front. Still more important to today’s Ukraine are shared values. Arrayed against the Kremlin’s army, which erases individual hopes and imposes authoritarian rule from Moscow, are Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers; Christians, Jews, and Muslims; and people from a variety of ethnic groups—all of whom want a society where differences of opinion are tolerated and even celebrated.

The Bulgakov Museum remains open on Andriivsky Descent. The sculpture commemorating the author still stands nearby. And although some called for his cancellation, other Ukrainians—heirs to a nation that he used to despise so much—covered him with sandbags, to protect him from Russian shelling.