Monday, August 24, 2009

Window on Eurasia: With Regard to Ukraine, Medvedev Using Politically Incorrect Preposition

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 24 – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev uses the less politically correct preposition “na” when speaking about things in Ukraine than does his predecessors, Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin, who in almost all instances used “v,” an apparently small thing that many in Ukraine and elsewhere see as anything but.
In appointing Mikhail Zurabov as Russian ambassador to Kyiv, “Moskovsky komsomolets” reported last week, Medvedev has used the Russian formulation “na Ukraine” for “in Ukraine” instead of what has become the politically correct “v Ukraine,” something the Moscow paper says is another reason Ukrainians are unhappy with the current Kremlin leader.
Vladimir Lopatin, an expert on Russian linguistics at the Academy of Sciences, told the paper that he is a supporting of using “na” – or on – because “we lived with this preposition in o to Ukraine for centuries.” And that reflects that “the name ‘Ukraina’ originated in the word ‘okraina’” – meaning “borderland of Russia” (
“We do not say ‘in a borderland,’” Lopatin continued. And as for the foreign ministry’s use of “na” – which the ministry’s press office confirmed was from its point of view “the correct version” -- he said, “whatever we recommend, they will all the same write what is necessary from the point of view of international relations.”
While that may be the official position of the foreign ministry, “Moskovsky komsomolets” said, it is hardly a settled one within the Russian government. Putin, it pointed out, says “v,” as has Medvedev in the past. But now the Russian president as his letters to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko show seems to have settled on “na.”
For an explanation of this shift, the Moscow paper turned to Vladimir Zhirikhin, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of CIS countries. He said that the president’s use of “na” is “connected to a very simple thought. We have been living separately for almost 20 years. [And] there are now two different languages: Ukrainian Russian and Russian Russian.”
“Just like American English and British English,” Zhirikhin suggested. And in “Ukrainian Russian,” people say “v Ukraine,” while in Russian Russian, people continue to say “na Ukraine.” Using “v” if one is a Russian speaker of Russian “is simply incorrect. Here there is no politics,” and Ukrainians should not try to make something of it.
But if Ukrainians shouldn’t seek a political motive in the different usages of Medvedev, ought Russians to do the same? The paper asked. And it offered the following logic as a possible explanation: Putin “as a former intelligence officer is accustomed to communicate with people in ‘their own language’ in order to establish more confidential relations.”
Medvedev, on the other hand, “as a legal specialist and teacher,” “Moskovsky komsomolets” suggested, may be more inclined to believe that “a rule is a rule and one ought not to overlook that even in the pursuit of ‘good’ relations.” But in doing that, he is departing from the rules of the game that the Russian foreign ministry continues to play by.
For many English speakers, this may seem to be a tempest in a teapot, but any who think so should remember the rights a decade or more ago over whether the definite article “the” should be placed in front of Ukraine or not. In the past, most Americans of non-Ukrainian origin had spoken about “the Ukraine.”
But Ukrainian Americans and Ukrainians in other countries regularly insisted that using the article had the effect of reinforcing the notion that Ukraine was a borderland of Russia rather than a country in its own right. On this, the 18th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, their opinions on “the” and on “v” deserve to be decisive.

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