DONBAS UNFILTERED: Just don’t Call it “the Ukraine”

DRAFT EXCERPT

I am, as promised, in the midst of writing a book on media perceptions of the separatist territories – the myths, the legends and how they compare to the reality. I spend a lot of time talking about legal definitions, working definitions and law (with the help and input of people much smarter and more qualified than I am). 

This was a rather painfully written bit about names of places since my last book was criticized for misspelling place names – and this explains why spell things a little “weird”. 


The officially accepted origins for the name “Ukraine” can be traced to a derivative of the proto-slavic word, krajь, or border, making Ukraine the borderland. It could also be derived from the Russian word okraina, which could mean outskirts. This is especially accepted among Russians how see Ukraine as the very edge of the historic Russian lands.

Another interpretation is that Ukraine was derived from the world Krajina, the Belarusian Kraina, and Polish word kraj, which simply means “country”, parcel of land or territory. When Kievan Rus disintegrated in the 12th century, the lands in modern Ukraine would disintegrate into multiple territories. Lands that would become Lithuania during that time would be known as Lithuanian Ukraina, and those that became Polish would be Polish Ukraina.

Which theory one subscribes to often has to do with how one sees the country itself – is it a principality of it’s own or just a border of Russia that somehow escaped the clutches of the motherland?

One’s accepted etymology of the word likely indicates how one feels about the Ukrainian conflict that’s been ongoing since 2014 which is an existential question as to the origins of Ukraine – does it have what it takes to be it’s own country or is it truly just an artificial country like the many middle eastern and Asian nation-states carved on physical geography, as opposed to a human one? Like the existence of Afghanistan, which carved multiple warring tribes within a border because of the Durand Line?

Ukrainian nationalists insist that it was a nation and culture separate from all the ones around it – neither Russian, Polish, Belarussian or Baltic. Indeed, though many of their residents speak Russia, most of the youth speak Ukrainian. The two languages are mutually intelligible, but often likened to the difference between Spanish and Portuguese – similar, but different enough to not be the same thing. In fact, to the ignorant traveler through eastern Europe, one might hear the similarity between the Czech language, and Ukrainian.

Many people cringe when they read the words “THE Ukraine”. Like a mispronunciation of a country name, it sends some people into a neck-aching spasm as though they were listening to nails on a chalkboard.

In English the Ukraine started falling out of use in 1991. The Associated Press officially dropped “the” and simply called it “Ukraine”. In 1993, the Ukrainian government formally requested it to be dropped. Nowadays, when it comes to diplomacy and journalism it is proper to use “Ukraine” without the article. After all, we don’t say “the France”, we simply say “France” or Germany, Spain, Italy… The only time “the” precedes a name of a nation state is if the proper long-form name includes it; such as the United States of America, which is shortened to the U.S.

This was a semantic, but important, sign of Ukrainian independence. They ceased to be “the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic”, or “the Ukraine” for short. Calling it the Ukraine could also imply that it was the borderland of Russia (based on the Russian version of the name origin).

In spite of how widely publicized this 25-year old change was, the English-speaking population is still largely ignorant of the difference because Ukraine, until 2013’s Euromaidan, had largely stayed out of headline news. How ‘behind’ the layman was on the happenings of Ukraine suddenly became apparent as journalists and anchors continuously referred to “the Ukraine”, only to be politely corrected.

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, who gave a speech via satellite into a pro-Ukrainian Conference on 11 September 2015, displayed an embarrassing amount of ignorance when it came to Ukrainian politics when he stepped onto this particular landmine.

In fact, everything about Trumps speech to the Yalta European Strategy conference via satellite was strange[1]. At first, he took long pauses between each sentence ostensibly to wait for a translator to interpret for the audience and was corrected by a conference moderator. Then he complained of several technical difficulties with the sound that kept cutting in and out on his end. He also called a Ukrainian oligarch tied to some corrupt practices[2] as a very good friend. Trump was likely unaware that the main grievances of Ukraine and the very heart of the Euromaidan protests was anti-corruption and standing up to oligarchs who were bleeding the nation dry with institutional corruption. Likewise, twitter was set on fire when Trump continually said “the Ukraine”. I suppose he never got the 1993 request, and the many Ukrainian friends he continuously referred to as “good people” probably didn’t warn him before he dialed in. After all, it’s fairly bad form to speak to a national conference then get the name of the country wrong.

The French language, of course, get to continue calling it “the” Ukraine , or l’Ukraine, because they must have an article for all countries, except for minor ones like Israel. As does German, die Ukraine, who requires an article for all non-neuter words.

There have been other movements to try to push alternative spellings. While Ukraine uses a Cyrillic alphabet, it differentiates from the Russian alphabet[3]. Likewise Ukrainian patriots and supporters have been kindly been emailing media outlets to ask them to use “Kyiv” as the name for their nation’s capital instead of “Kiev”.

The reason was simple – as with the eliminating of “the” from their national name, they are establishing their own identity by distancing themselves from the Russian one. In the Ukrainian language, it is spelled “Київ” which would be similar to Kyiv. The Russian spelling is “Киев” which is where the Kiev spelling is derived. This same problem can extend to other cities. Is it харькiв (Kharkiv) or харьков (Kharkov)?

The same can be said of the title of this book. Is it the Ukrainian Донбас (Donbas) or the Russian Донбасс (Donbass)? Entire flame-threads on social media can be found where people blast each other for their chosen spelling of city names.

Whichever spelling you choose will be considered a political choice, much like the etymology of Ukraine – do you believe in Ukrainian independence or do you believe that it was just a breakaway from Russia?

Transliteration is a complicated and bizarre thing. And in the case of Ukraine, it’s also highly political.

For my part, I have to make a decision which spelling I will use for the rest of the book. I’m going to allow myself a bit of license and go with the Ukrainian spellings – they’re less prevalent, to the point where a lot of people think I’m just misspelling or mis-transliterating. I’ll mention the Russian place a few times, but will finish this book out in the Ukrainian form.

Ultimately, the conflict is in Ukraine, not in Russia. The conflict might be a clash of Russian vs. Ukrainian ethnicities, but it ultimately still occurs within the borders of Ukraine – a nation that has existed in its current form for 25 years. The locals travel on Ukrainian passports, and they hold Ukrainian citizenship. Ethnicity aside, if the rebel held territories still fall within the borders of Ukraine and, at this moment, are seeking autonomous status within their nation of origin, and not annexation to Russia.


[1] http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/donald-trump-ukraine-foreign-policy-2016-213561
[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/oligarchs-at-war-claims-of-murder-among-ukrainian-billionaires-in-high-court-case-10107612.html
[3] Some people think it’s ridiculous, but look at how many languages use the latin alphabet but can’t agree on whether using a “c” makes an “s”, “k” or “ch” sound.

One Comment

  1. Indy says:

    “Ethnicity aside, if the rebel held territories still fall within the borders of Ukraine and, at this moment, are seeking autonomous status within their nation of origin, and not annexation to Russia.”

    With the strong help of Russian army, without which the minority would have long lost its fight. So it’s not a civil war. It’s an hybrid war by Russia with local (and international) proxies…

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