Thursday, March 27, 2014

In which the coolest Ukrainian woman ever explains some things to me

It's 2 PM, I'm riding in an elevator in Chicago's loop down 42 floors with six other people, and we've just come out of a round table discussion about Ukraine. I have a migraine, and I want to get out of the city. The round table discussion was with a couple of prominent Ukrainian American politicians, journalists and educators who support Ukraine's sovereignty and transition into a western democracy.

Two college dudes are talking in the elevator about how they're not gonna remember the names of whoever said that kinda interesting thing about Ukraine earlier. Then a woman in the corner, dressed in a bowler's hat and olive green suit a la Katharine Hepburn, says, "If you don't remember anything else from this afternoon, guys, just remember that it's pronounced Kyiv - not Kiev."

The whole elevator collectively laughs. There are rumblings of, "yeah, that's crazy, we didn't know how to pronounce the name of a giant city." Earlier in the day, at the round table, the politicians reminded us that Ukrainians pronounce their city that we might know as Kiev, like Kyiv, long Y.

The woman smiles and arches her eyebrows cleverly. "You know, we petitioned The New York Times for 15 years to get them to write Kyiv instead of Kiev," she says.

"Really!" I involuntarily emit.

"Yeah! For so long, they were pronouncing it Kiev, like the Russians do. It's Kyiv, K-Y-I-V, like Kay-iv. That's the Ukrainian."

The elevator door opens and I have to ask her more. "Excuse me?" I hurry after her. "Can you tell me more about what you said about The New York Times and Ukrainian?"

"Of course!" she says, genuinely enthusiastic to be talking about it. "We would just like the world to pronounce the names of our cities correctly. And to drop the "the" before Ukraine. You wouldn't say The France or The Germany, right? So why The Ukraine? The, like in The United States, means something collective. Ukraine is no longer a part of a collective entity of Soviet republics, it's its own sovereign country."

She goes on to tell me that Ukrainians want respect for their own language, but they are relaxed when it comes to speaking Russian. That's not to say she isn't proud of speaking Ukrainian:

"Ukrainian is softer and more musical than Russian, because it's rooted more in Greek. Russian is a Germanic language so it's harsher. But no one in Ukraine makes a big deal about which language you speak."

She introduces herself as Luba. Then she tells me that Putin is attached to Ukraine in an "aggressive" way, but Ukraine is determined to break free and become a European country.

"For Putin, Russia without Ukraine is nothing. But Ukraine without Russia is everything," she says.

"It is a fight to death at this point. We cannot have a normal life with Russia on our back."

I thank her for her time, and she asks me which publication I'm writing for. I say, this might be published in The Moscow Times, but I don't know yet. She laughs a hearty laugh. "Oh honey," she says, "They won't publish anything I say."

"But it's in English, and it's independently owned," I retort.

"It doesn't matter anymore, Putin can erase whatever he wants," she says.

Luba was a banker on Wall Street for 15 years. She knows the benefits and repercussions of capitalism, and she wants them for her homeland of Ukraine.

We say our goodbyes, and I promise to publish her quotes somewhere, even if The Moscow Times won't give them a chance.