From talking to many Ukrainians during my trips both in Ukraine and in Germany, it has become clear to me just how important language is to identity in Ukraine. It should come as no surprise that the largest European country should have linguistic variation and differing ideas of identity like any other region, however, the issue of identity is tied up not only with one's family history, but also with the war and great losses that the country has faced over the past few years and indeed for its entire history.
If you ask Ukrainian Russian speakers for their native language, they may well tell you that it is Ukrainian, because it is their 'cultural' language even if it is not their true native language. But of course, this depends largely on the region. When visiting Lviv, on the Western border with Poland, I was told that Russian really was considered a foreign language, whereas on the Eastern border with Russian, Ukrainian is considered a foreign language, not necessarily incorporated into the Russian-speaking everyday. In Kiev I hear both around me constantly, and everyone seems capable of both, flitting between the two as is necessary. But it seems that an association with the use of Russian exclusively instead of Ukrainian can suggest that someone supports the Russian-sponsored aggression in the east of Ukraine.
Needless to say, I haven't found anyone who is in favour of the conflict. No one wants their country to be at war, and no one wants their country to be threatened by another, especially when the two countries have a long history of exchange and of cooperation. Many people in Ukraine have their roots partially elsewhere across the former Soviet Union, and I have heard how this has created tensions between parts of the same family, split across different countries. The part that settled in Ukraine live their lives here and have access to certain information about the conflict, and the part that settled in Russia have different information. It seems that during the Soviet time this would have led to an unavoidable conflict of opinion, seeing as the official party line was the only information available to the people, but in the modern day, even though there is still to some extent a heavy political influence in the media, it seems implausible that people are unable to find information that contradicts popular opinion. One anecdote that really made an impact on me was that of a family who now refuse to talk at all, because the 'Russian' half of the family refuse to accept that Russian aggression played its part in the conflict.
While in St Petersburg I did hear positive things about Putin: mainly that, while he wasn't the best president one could wish for, he had brought a lot of stability and prosperity to a country that desperately needed it. Of course, Putin is not at all popular here in Kiev, and I am yet to meet a single person who has a nice thing to say about him. This extends to shopping habits – I am told that over the past few years it has become expected that people will avoid Russian-owned shops in favour of the Ukrainian equivalents, because Russian profits mean more funding for the war. I recently saw a protest at a branch of the Russian bank Sberbank, where graffiti was being sprayed liberally, music played loudly and smoke filling the busy street. Most notably, the police were not present, even approximately half an hour in. I am left wondering how deliberate this was.
I have no doubts that my stay in Russia next year will give me plenty of opportunity to hear the story from the other side, though I am finding it hard to imagine any version of events that would cause me to stop sympathising with the Ukrainian people. One thing is certain: we mustn't confuse the regime and the people living under it.