While battles rage in the East and South against the invading Russian Armed Forces, “internal wars” are being waged among Ukrainians over support for the arts and which language to speak outside the home, a particularly divisive topic.

Artists battle to keep their studios

Last winter, in his studio on Lukyanivska Street, Matvey Waisberg – one of Kyiv’s best-known artists – began work on his painting “Blackout.” He worked by candlelight because attacks by Russian missiles left Kyiv without electricity. The painting is still in his workshop, but it no longer reminds him of last winter. Rather, it reflects a new reality.

Waisberg’s workshop is in a nine-story building of artists’ studios that was designed as a creative space in the Soviet era. The building is now administered by the National Ukrainian Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture and recently, its president – an artist who worked in the same building on Lukyanivska Street for 10 years – gave the order to disconnect the electricity supply, saying that a number of occupants owe money for utilities and that he was responsible for his students and not for the debts of professional artists.

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However, some of the artists send earnings from the sale of their work to the Ukrainian military. Waisberg recently donated 20 thousand euros. Now he has to “fight” on two fronts, continuing to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) while battling for a decent place to work.

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It remains impossible to predict how this “internal” war will end. Ukraine is still without a Minister of Culture which makes it difficult to resolve the conflict through official channels.

Artists do get a lot of moral support and sympathy from civil society, but this is not the time for mass demonstrations in defense of workshops.

The real war continues in the South and East of the country. Ukraine knocked out Russia’s newly built missile ship Askold which was moored at Kersch in Crimea, and Russian missiles struck targets in Odesa, one missile landing right in front of the Central Art Museum, shattering windows and seriously damaging the building’s façade.

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The language battleground

Social media posts by Ukrainian intellectuals suggest that each new attack by Russia on Russian-speaking Odesa will encourage more of the city’s residents to switch to Ukrainian. However, it is worth noting that Odesa is a commercial city, focused on clients and buyers, where people will respond in the buyer’s language if they know it. At Odesa’s central market, in addition to Russian and Ukrainian, you will hear Moldavian, Bulgarian, and Gagauz. Hatred of Russia, which shows itself at every step in the city, has not transposed into a hatred of the Russian language.

Before the war, tension around the language question in Ukraine appeared to be a figment of individual politicians’ imaginations, but now a very real internal conflict has flared up. Over the past ten days, attacks against speakers of Russian have increased public interest in the question and gleaned some strong reactions from the military.

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In Kyiv, two women demanded that their Bolt taxi driver speak to them only in Ukrainian. The driver turned out to be a refugee from Crimea who spoke no Ukrainian at all. He called the women “sick” and suggested they phone for another taxi. One of the passengers recorded the conversation and posted it on Facebook as evidence of a violation of “the Law on the State Language” which states that the default language for all service providers is Ukrainian unless the client asks for another language to be used.

Bolt management immediately announced that the driver’s permit to use their platform had been canceled. Language Ombudsman Taras Kremin said that he was preparing a statement to the police and that the driver would face a huge fine for violating the language law.

Then, the Ukrainian singer Svitlana Loboda offered the taxi driver a job as her driver, and several other public figures spoke out in support of the refugee from Crimea, including the former adviser to the president’s office, Oleksiy Arestovich.

Alongside this scandal, a court in Lviv sentenced an Internally Displaced Person from Donbas to 7 years in prison for stabbing his colleague – a native of Lviv. The drama occurred when the two men were renovating an apartment. During a lunch break, tempers flared when the worker from Lviv suggested that his Russian-speaking colleague should start using Ukrainian and asked him why he had not joined the army. As a result, an apartment remains unrenovated, one worker is in prison, and another is in the hospital.

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The climax of this round of the “language fight” was a statement from the anti-Russian-language crusader and former member of parliament, Irina Farion. She stated that Russian-speaking Ukrainian soldiers should not call themselves Ukrainians. Feedback from both Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking soldiers was immediate and strident.

Ukrainian soldier Ekaterina Polishchuk – known throughout the country by her call sign “Ptashka,” (Birdie) – who fought in Mariupol and survived Russian captivity, responded: “Your position is not pro-Ukrainian, and I consider you a project of the Kremlin. You are an enemy, promoting poisonous narratives. Your position and statements are complete sh*t. I say this as someone who spoke Ukrainian in captivity and who has been defending Ukraine for three years side by side with heroes who speak Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian, Belarusian, Polish, dozens of dialects, English, and dozens of other languages...”

Major Maxim Zhorin, Deputy Commander of the 3rd Joint Assault Brigade, responded with the same message, but in words that few if any official channels will print.

Yegor Chernev, member of parliament and Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Security, Defense, and Intelligence emphasized that Ukrainians should not be divided into first- and second-class citizens on linguistic grounds. He also asked the Special Services to investigate Irina Farion’s statements for evidence of incitement to ethnic hatred – a criminal offense.

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When students and staff at Lviv Polytechnic National University, where Farion lectured in Ukrainian language and literature, demanded her dismissal, Farion tried to defend her stance by saying that a great many Ukrainians agreed with her, including a student in Crimea who had sent her a very supportive email. Farion posted a scan of the email from which it was possible to identify the student. He was immediately apprehended by the Russian occupying forces in Crimea.

Lviv Polytechnic National University dismissed Farion from her post, but later removed the notice of dismissal from their website, prompting rumors that the decision would be reversed. Farion, meanwhile, promises that her opponents at the University will lose their jobs. She also described the students as dross.

After all that, we can predict that the fight over language will subside for a while and other hot topics will appear. However, I would like to see Kyiv’s artists working in their studios on Lukyanivska Street, with the heating and lights on. Through their works, all our cultural practitioners can ensure that what happens to us today remains, not only in our memory, but also in literature, cinema, and art. The reality that kills can become a story that keeps our brains and hearts alive.

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The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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