LVIV, Ukraine – Here’s a recipe for overnight international fame if you happen to be an obscure local politician: Come to a kindergarten class unannounced, and tell a group of 5-year-old kids that their names are all wrong because they sound too Russian, then try to teach them how to say them in Ukrainian. Tell those who disagree to pack their suitcases and go to Moscow. Oh, and make sure you have a TV crew with you, so that the video ends up on YouTube quite soon.
This recipe was invented recently by Iryna Farion, a Lviv Oblast lawmaker from the right-wing Svoboda Party, and made international headlines, causing a firestorm in Russia.
But Farion doesn’t see what the fuss is about.
“I’m a politician and I have the right to go anywhere where I’m needed. I’m going to Ukrainian children. I’m not interested in Russian children, not German, not Polish. I’m interested in Ukrainian authenticity and Ukrainian identity. And I will defend this Ukrainian identity in all acceptable ways,” she said in an interview.
“In the Ukrainian language, such uncharacteristic forms of names such as Misha, Styopa, Fedya, Vova, all this is Moscow rubbish which makes young people zombies and alienates them from their own culture.” The diminutive names she mentioned are shorter Russian versions of the names Mykhailo (Michael), Stepan (Steven), Fedir and Volodymyr, respectively.
The tempest surrounding Farion, an award-winning Ukrainian language professor, began when she appeared before schoolchildren on Feb. 19 to commemorate International Mother Language Day. Celebrated annually on Feb. 21, the day is meant to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
With cameras rolling – her appearance was shown on regional television – Farion pulled out a small chart that listed the right and wrong ways for ethnic Ukrainians to say their names. With the Svoboda-sponsored graphic in hand, the lawmaker walked around the classroom, asking children their names.
“Olenka,” responded one girl.
“Pretty girl! What is your name?” Farion inquired, turning to another child.
“Misha,” the boy answered.
“About Misha, we will still talk! And really, children, Misha – who is this? Really Misha is Mykhailyk (the traditional Ukrainian diminutive). And if Misha lived in England, then he would be Michael, right? And if Misha lived in France, then he would be Michel. But if he is in Ukraine, then certainly he is to be Mykhailyk. Which do you like more?” Farion asked.
The children yelled in unison “Misha!”
“Catastrophe!” Farion responded.
What grabbed headlines, however, was an exchange seconds later, when the lawmaker asked yet another girl her name.
“Olenka,” the child responded.
“Olenka,” Farion repeated. “What a beauty! Never be an Alyona. Because if you become Alyona, dear child, you’ll have to pack your suitcases and move to Moscow.”
Within days, Vadym Kolesnichenko, a lawmaker within President Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which supports granting Russian official status as a state language along with Ukrainian, said Farion had humiliated and discriminated against children and called on Ukraine’s general prosecutor to press charges. Ukraine’s Helsinki Human Rights group also condemned Farion.
The country’s blogosphere went wild with many attacking Farion, as well as delving into the idiosyncrasies of the origins and use of names and diminutives that often confuse those who don’t know Ukrainian and other Slavic languages. Russian television ran a lengthy piece about the furor. The video of Farion’s lesson quickly became a YouTube hit.
Local officials, in the meantime, swiftly determined Farion’s classroom visit was unsanctioned, but said they could take no disciplinary action against her.
Svoboda, Farion’s political party, meanwhile defended their member, saying in a statement that “in Ukraine there is only one type of xenophobia – Ukrainian phobia.” Oleh Tiahnybok, Svoboda’s leader, claimed that Kolesnichenko’s declarations were nothing more than a new stage in the fight against Ukrainians that were sure to come now that the Party of Regions leader, Yanukovych, was president.
During the presidential campaign, Yanukovych had argued that Russian, used by much of the population, should become a second official language in Ukraine and one of his priorities when taking office would be to ensure linguistic parity.
“We are all aware that the painful attempts of those with Ukrainian phobia to condemn the language specialist (Farion) are only in the first stage of their attack on the Ukrainian language and the Ukrainian nation,” Tiahnybok said, warning that “an avalanche of anti-Ukrainian acts” should be expected next.
But apart from Tiahnybok, few have come out in Farion’s defense publically. “I won’t comment on Farion,” said Andriy Ben, head of a non-profit group called the Youth Nationalist Congress. He preferred to discuss the problem of “the state being ruined from the top.”
When Victor Yushchenko was president, there was a sentiment that a Kyiv-Lviv axis could influence eastern Ukraine with its largely dominant Russian language and culture and make it more Ukrainian, said Anatoliy Romaniuk, who is a political science professor at Lviv’s Ivan Franko National University and one of the region’s leading analysts.
Many here are now worried that the eastern Ukrainian political forces who have come to power in Kyiv – including Yanukovych – will try to do the same and strong arm a regional world view that is alien to the west, including making Russian the second official language in Ukraine.
The incident at the school is one example of that fear and shows many people are still intolerant, he said.
“Yanukovych’s election was a critical blow to Lviv and western Ukraine,” said Romaniuk. “Still, Western Ukraine isn’t the Ukraine of Farion.”
As an example, he noted that last year, Svoboda tried to have a school teacher fired because she didn’t want to exhibit in her classroom one of the charts the party had supplied which promoted correct Ukrainian-language terminology. Svoboda has sponsored charts encouraging the proper use of Ukrainian-language terms since 2006. Those charts are often seen on buses and other places throughout Lviv.
Parents successfully rallied around the teacher and she kept her job.
“Such measures are a tendency of authoritarian forces, but these are forces of the past,” Romaniuk said.
For her part, Farion remained unapologetic and promised to take her fight to Kyiv if the new president tries to give Russian an official status.
“I believe I gave the nation a wonderful master-class on the Ukrainian language,” she said of the lesson with school children. “The question of language is the question of spiritual independence…To look at it from any other view than the independence of a nation, then we automatically lose the nation. In other words, (language) is the spiritual border of a nation.”
Natalia A. Feduschak is the Kyiv Post’s correspondent in western Ukraine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.