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The War of Words Between Between “Rashka” and Ukraine

Every March 9, Ukraine celebrates the birthday of its national poet, Taras Shevchenko, by awarding the Shevchenko Prize, the state’s arts prize. It’s usually a festive occasion, but this year’s announcement took place against the backdrop of a reminder of who Shevchenko was, and of what, in his short life, he had fought for.

Shevchenko was a writer whose poems many Ukrainians know by heart and a painter whose images are everywhere in Ukraine. He was also an advocate of independence who was jailed, “under the strictest surveillance, without the right to write or paint,” for the crime of writing poems in the language Russians called “Little Russian,” and which Ukrainians called Ukrainian.

This year, my Ukrainian publisher, Anetta Antonenko, was delighted that one of her authors, Natalia Vorozhbyt, won the Shevchenko Prize for her play Bad Roads, which draws from interviews with real people in the Russian-occupied Donbass region.

It was a rare bright moment in an otherwise dark time. Anetta, these days, has been committed to exercising regularly (“in peacetime, I neglected this”), in part by bringing bread to the birds in her Kyiv neighborhood. She’s handed over her gun to the Territorial Defense (“They need it more and they have ammunition”), and she’s been stockpiling food for her cats, who have no idea there’s a war on: “They give me joy and peace.” She depends on the fresh vegetables brought in by an Azerbaijani grocer, and she tries to work on a regular schedule: She’s got a novel by Isabel Allende on deck, and a series of biographies, including a series on dictators—Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Tito, Salazar—that centers on the question of whether “one person could become the engine of history.”

It’s a scarily relevant question today. And it also raises the question of what a regular person can do in the face of such Men of Destiny. Antonenko assures me that Ukrainian culture is every bit as engaged in the struggle against the country she calls by the derogatory “Rashka.” The term is derived from the English pronunciation of Russia, complete with the diminutive suffix to convey extra venom. Not one to mince words, she calls that country “the scum of the earth, looters and cowards, who don’t even collect the bodies of their dead soldiers, who blow up maternity hospitals, who erase peaceful towns from the face of the earth, who even attacked Babyn Yar” (better known in the West as Babi Yar).

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