The striking dissonance at the heart of Ukraine


Every day on my way home in Kyiv, I walk past a huge building covered in an extremely striking piece of graffiti. At first glance, it might mean nothing to you other than what it depicts. On it, a huge man stands on a circular patch of farmland. In his left hand, he holds a mace and, in his right, a sword with which he has cut in half a two-headed snake.

On closer inspection, however, this graffiti reveals a key aspect of the national psyche of Ukraine. The man is dressed in Ukrainian national dress, the sword is a Cossack sword, and the mace is a Bulawa, the official emblem of Ukraine. Looking at the snake more closely, its heads resemble hands that grasp at the land from either side. You might then remember that the national symbol of Russia is a two-headed eagle. You also might notice that the snakes are grasping land from the directions that Russia is positioned towards Crimea and the Donbas region.

Travelling to Ukraine to improve your Russian will not always be met with a positive reaction

Put simply, the mural represents the determination of Ukraine to maintain its land in the east in the face of continual interference from Russia. In this regard there have been two major events, the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and their continual support of separatist rebels in the Donbas region of Ukraine. The extent to which this struggle permeates Ukraine’s national identity cannot be overstated. The opening lines of the Ukrainian nation anthem translate:

Ukraine’s glory, Ukraine’s freedom did not disappear, Fate will smile on us Ukrainians, our skies will be clear. Our enemies will vanish like a sun-dried foam, We will be the only masters in our dear home.

The anti-Russian sentiment of this mural is something that I have witnessed continually since arriving in Kyiv. In this context, as you can imagine, travelling to Ukraine to improve your Russian speaking proficiency will not always be met with a positive reaction. To celebrate the end of lockdown, a few friends and I went to a bar. When a local approached us to ask what we were doing in Kyiv, I responded tentatively that we were studying Russian. His face dropped and he lowered his voice – “you should not say that around here.”

However, throughout the country, it is just as common to hear the opposite viewpoint. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many people who considered themselves Russian now found themselves living in modern-day Ukraine. As a result, to this day, the further east you travel through Ukraine the more likely you are to hear a much more pro-Russian sentiment. Such a geographical divide is clear, as 93% of Eastern Ukraine speak predominately Russian over Ukrainian compared to only 5% in the West.

The fundamental divide in Ukraine between pro and anti-Russian sentiment runs deep

As a result, the image of Russia as a two-headed snake grasping land that belongs to a rightfully independent Ukraine is not agreed upon. While putting out the bins in sandals, a babushka started making fun of me for not wearing socks. We joked about it for a while until, with no prompting whatsoever, she began an extensive monologue about the glory days of Ukraine under the Soviet Union.

In recent weeks, tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated once again over the sovereignty of the Donbas region, with Russia eventually agreeing to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border. Despite this superficial sign of de-escalation, however, the fundamental divide in Ukraine between the pro and anti-Russian sentiment runs far deeper and is far from being resolved.

Photograph: Harry Drew.

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