During the first 10 years of my life, my multi-ethnic family roamed the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and France. As we moved, I picked up languages that continue to shape who I am to this day. One of them is Russian. I also absorbed cultural models on the way. One that I cherish is tolerance.
When we lived in Tashkent in the 1970s, tolerance had a specific and highly political name: Дружба народов (Druzhba narodov) or “fraternity of nations.” Those two words were endlessly deployed in school textbooks, street posters, television news and speeches at official events. Soviet reality soon taught me, though, that besides the slogan and its elevated language, ethnic slurs were equally part of daily life, at the bazaar, in overcrowded buses, in long queues for milk and at border crossings.
And yet, that same daily life showed me that people intermarried. In Odesa, where we moved in 1979, our friends and neighbors came from mixed Karaim–German, Russian–Armenian, Ukrainian–Jewish, Greek–Moldovan families. When we watched World War II movies daily on television — there wasn’t much of a choice — all of them shared the same stories of their parents having fought the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, because, you know, Дружба народов.
On February 24, 2022, when world news exploded with the sentence “Moscow is bombing Kyiv,” I did doubt my own sanity. When I saw images of destruction, of people hiding in the subway, with grandmothers and their cats, I did doubt my own eyes. I doubted the very foundation of language because headlines combined words that seem to make no sense. Sentences described things simply not conceivable. Except it all happened, and continues to this day, with thousands of Ukrainian women, children, men, civilians and soldiers killed. Maimed. Orphaned. Kidnapped. Raped. Tortured.
I spent the first three months of the war glued to the news, watching eight hours of footage every day, losing most of my sleep. I also stopped reading books, though my friends call me a book addict. Simply because my eyes would crisscross the page but retain nothing. My mind kept racing, trying to process the news, looking for some explanation.
Eventually, one day, it all led to one suffocating question: in the face of genocide, what is to be done with that part of the brain that still speaks Russian every day?
Back in the 1970s Soviet Union, solidarity with the oppressed people was yet another way of embodying tolerance. We learnt it at school, shouted it in May 1st demonstrations, and saw it in movies glorifying comradeship with the freedom fighters of Cuba and Vietnam. Perhaps, as children, we failed to notice that the great Soviet hero helping to spread the revolution was never Uzbek, nor Buryat, nor Chechen, but almost always Russian. Little did we know that the same Tsarist narrative of “bringing progress to the savages” was merely recycled by Soviet propaganda, in the name of the “friendship of nations.” And indeed, wasn’t speaking Russian the best way to foster peace and understanding among so many different ethnic groups, since we would all be speaking the same language?
Fast forward to 2014: Putin builds his entire pseudo-argument for invading eastern Ukraine and occupying Crimea in the name of the Russian language, namely to protect Russian speakers allegedly threatened and discriminated against by Kyiv authorities.
Being a Russian speaker has always been a joy for me. Yes, there is the poetry, but more importantly, there are the caustic jokes, the absurdist humor of a language shaped by resistance to Tsarism, anti-semitism, Stalinism, and for some time, against Putinism — until he confiscated Russian TV, that is. I spoke Russian as a kid in Tashkent, Odesa and Moscow. Then as a journalist and researcher in Bishkek, Almaty, Baku. Now I use it daily with friends when living in Prague or Berlin. The Russian I speak is one that is mixed with Uzbek and Kyrgyz words, the language of people of dozens of ethnic origins who do not think of themselves as Russians at all.
With every day of the war, with every horror made known, I see more and more bilingual Ukrainians abandoning Russian. Writers switching to Ukrainian entirely. No surprise there, of course. I also hear calls to cancel Russian literature, Russian culture, Russian presence at events. This is where the question of tolerance hits me hard.
To be clear, should Ukrainian culture be amplified, widely taught, showcased, its literature translated? Of course. Should international museums change their labels and rename paintings accordingly to stop the erasure of Ukrainian culture? Absolutely. Totally. Everywhere. In every language. Not only because Ukrainian culture remains largely ignored as a result of decades of Tsarist, Soviet and Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda, but also because it is beautiful, extremely diverse, enticing, full of talent.
Here I have to take a detour. Several of my great-grandparents were native speakers of Occitan. In less than two generations, the centralized French state demonized the Occitan identity to the point that, while the language was spoken by 90 percent of the people living in southern France in the early 20th century, today that number is fewer than 9 percent. Cultural celebrities with Occitan backgrounds are still largely ignored, or simply denied their identity in the French school and university curricula. A clear and, alas, very successful example of colonization conducted by an educational system in which I spent over 12 years of my life.
It did take me decades to realize how deep the denial of identity was embedded not only in textbooks, but eventually in me. Now, I am learning Occitan, reading books about its history and literature. But will I stop reading French literature? No. Why? Because I believe responding to what was in effect — and still partially is — a ban with another ban will not help.
I’d rather deconstruct what is presented as great cultural icons, no matter how painful it might be. I’d rather face the idealized writers who wrote enlightening texts, and next thing, recognize they also embraced the worst of colonial attitudes and participated in such discourse.
Did the Russian poets Pushkin, Lermontov, Brodsky write awful and racist texts targeting Ukrainians, Chechens, and celebrating Russian imperialism? For sure. This needs to be known, studied, and unpacked because their words have been and are still weaponized by Moscow today, in the case of Ukraine, but also elsewhere.
There is no easy or happy conclusion to being a Russian speaker today, watching daily more horrific news coming out of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, listening, when one can bear it, five minutes of abominations emanating from the Kremlin, and trying to reconcile conflicting emotions, identities and moral questions.
The person who made me go back to reading, including in Russian, is Andrey Kurkov. He was born near Saint Petersburg, grew up and studied Japanese in Kyiv, served in the Soviet army in Odesa, and now lives in Kyiv. He writes quirky and ironic novels in Russian, including but not only, about the 2014 and the 2022 wars. In May 2022, he said a sentence that stayed with me: Ukraine should own the Russian language, because “Putin has no copyright on the use of the Russian language.”
When an empire collapses, the former peripheries liberate not just themselves, but eventually, its center.