Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

March 30, 2014

Allison Batdorff: What's 'the' problem?

‘The” Ukraine gets under my skin like a sliver.

I know it’s not malicious. There’s no conspiracy. I realize “the” Ukraine is a default setting for people of a certain age, hammered into our heads by old encyclopedia entries and books on required reading lists.

Heck, when the Peace Corps placement letter arrived, I thought there was a typo. Ukraine, it said. I thought, “the Ukraine? The former breadbasket of the Soviet Union?”

I’m no foreign affairs expert, but I am protective of Ukraine, my home of two years.

“What’s the big deal?” you wonder. “‘The’ is just three letters. A shrimpy article, meaningless to most and dropped entirely in any respectable title search. Why get upset?”

Here’s the problem: “The” Ukraine was the name for a region, usually ruled by someone else.

Warlords and kings, from the Mongols to the Hapsburgs, to Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to Nazi Germany, all helped themselves to bits and bites of “the” Ukraine throughout history.

Quick memory: Huffing up a muddy Carpathian mountain trail after Sergei, who calmly dragged on a cigarette as I gasped for breath. I used a line of oddly shaped rocks as an excuse to stop Sergei’s upward chug.

“Poland,” he said. “Old Polish border.”

Occupations often came with a fight. Ukrainian language is older than Russian with roots in the Kievan Rus empire — a flash point of Ukrainian pride.

Ukrainians waged wars of independence at several points in history, and keeping hold of their own language and culture cost them dearly under the USSR when Joseph Stalin’s forced famine starved tens of millions as punishment.

My history was the dry stuff of lectures and textbooks.

There, history’s fangs punctured the living memories of people I knew.

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