To mark a year since Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, the journalist Dmytro Komarov released a documentary of his reporting from last February to this. Called simply, “YEAR,” it shows him in a plain train compartment with President Zelenskyy, talking about the year that is past, interleaved with Komarov’s interviews with military and security officers and footage of his experiences in the field (and his shock that his own hometown of Kyiv could be “the field”).
The day before I saw this, I read a New Lines article by a Ukrainian woman who is making a painful transition to speaking Ukrainian. “Russian is my mother tongue,” she says, “and liberation means ripping it out of my throat.”
I recommend both the article and the documentary in general, but I wanted to touch on something particular besides the character of Ukrainians shown in them, which is practical and poetic, mordant and hospitable, at one and the same time. Dr. Sasha Dovzhyk’s article is a personal account of something that is happening all over Ukraine: the urge to repudiate the language of the occupiers even if it is their own first language. The decolonization of a country here is a critical mass of individuals decolonizing their own minds and hearts — and tongues. Rereading her journals, Dovzhyk recoils at the glib servility of her own command of Russian, and every successive event compounds her decision to stop using her mother tongue, even to her own mother.
“The switch comes at a price,” she says. “There is a dam where communication used to flow freely, but we now police what’s left, looking for the toxic residue of our mother tongue. We now make political statements where we used to speak from our hearts.” The article reads like the account both of a personal rending and a natural disaster, both equally inexorable, from the first line: “My mother tongue tastes like ashes.” Dovzhyk develops that metaphor through her opening, naming Borodianka, Bucha, and Irpin — once the innocuous names of Kyiv suburbs — as scenes of acrid rot.
Komarov, too, drove through those horrifying scenes, unable to find words for what lay around him. He speaks of this to Zelenskyy, asks him why their friends and relatives in Russia would not listen to them, would not believe their words or even their videos. In fact, these Russian relations celebrated the deaths of Ukrainian civilians, before their eyes on Russian social media. (I’ve tried to cue up the scene I’m discussing in the embed above.)
I’m not good enough in Ukrainian yet to watch without the English subtitles. So as I watched Zelenskyy struggle with his response to this question, it wasn’t till he got to this: Это…Это…колоссальная трагедия — it’s…it’s…a colossal tragedy — that I realized he was saying it in Russian.
They had been speaking Ukrainian; Komarov had asked him the question in Ukrainian. Zelenskyy is famous for doggedly using Ukrainian, his second language, in public. But to answer this question, why Russians would kill their “brothers” and celebrate about it to their faces, he reaches for words and finds them in his first language.
It’s one of those moments, rare anywhere and any time, in which a word truly is its meaning. It is somehow the opposite of servile, the way Zelenskyy says the word “tragedy” both in compassion and in absolute indictment: it is both from the heart and a political statement, because it is in his mother tongue.
It’s a stunning feat of communication, so economical and uncontrived that I almost missed it altogether. I thought: in these new times we have to do close readings in three dimensions. But that’s not quite right. The fourth dimension is at our elbow, somewhere off to the side as our eyes search the empty distance, between one breath and the next, for the right word.