I lived in a rough neighborhood, so you had to know all of the troublemakers to stay free of trouble. But these new kids came out literally from nowhere after national independence. They made all of us uneasy.
Most peculiar was that, despite their thuggish looks, they didn’t care about your money or the typical “where-do-you-live, and who-do-you-know?” routine. Having met these guys, you had to pass a Ukrainian language exam, or risk being beaten up. If you got off lightly, you still ended up getting into a heated up conversation about who does and does not belong in Ukraine.
Their questions – and usually they asked you to translate from Russian a few words – started with easy ones. The real challenge came later, as the “examiners” would start asking tricky questions, demanding that we answer in western Ukrainian dialect, and not in the Ukrainian we learned at schools. The trickiest thing was to translate into Ukrainian skovoroda (the frying pan), which all of us were taught sounded the same in Russian and Ukrainian. Yet, saying this aloud meant to get in trouble. The correct answer was patel’nia.