Language vs. ethnicity in Odessa

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 278-279:

Odessa has been mainly Ukrainian in demographic terms since the late 1970s. At the time of the 1979 census, Ukrainians were on the cusp of being an absolute majority, at 49.97 percent of the population of the Odessa region as a whole. But until very recently that fact said little about the feel of the city in cultural terms. Even after the Second World War, the city remained a confusing space to Soviet demographers and social engineers. By 1959 it was about the most linguistically mixed place in all of Ukraine. More people considered their native language to be different from the language of their self-reported ethnic group than anywhere else in the republic. Most Jews and more than half the ethnic Ukrainians in the city spoke Russian as their everyday language. Nearly a third of ethnic Moldovans spoke Ukrainian. The smaller communities of Bulgarians, Belorussians, and others got along by using Russian, Ukrainian, or another language entirely. The Soviet system was based on the faith that modernity would cause the dividing lines among peoples to fade into insignificance. But in Odessa those lines became indecipherable squiggles as the main markers of ethnicity, language, and even religion combined and overlapped in unpredictable ways….

Ukrainians—at least those who claim that ethnic label in censuses—are now an absolute majority, forming close to two-thirds of the total population. But with a sizable ethnic Russian minority and nearly complete agreement on Russian as the city’s lingua franca, political factions have spent the past two decades waging a struggle over public memory on literally a monumental scale. A block away from the Odessa steps, the city administration removed a Soviet-era statue that commemorated the Potemkin mutiny. In its place went a restored statue of the city’s founder, Catherine the Great, which had itself been removed by the Bolsheviks (who had substituted a huge bust of Karl Marx). Catherine’s left hand now points not only toward the port but also toward the north, to Russia, which many Odessans, regardless of their ethnic provenance, still see as their cultural and spiritual home. Predictably, demonstrations—both pro and contra—accompanied the unveiling.

Elsewhere, Ukrainians were fighting a rear-guard action. Up went a statue to the poet Ivan Franko, a Ukrainian nationalist icon with tenuous connections to the city, and a memorial to Anton Holovaty, an eighteenth-century Cossack leader and, as such, a proto-Ukrainian hero. A faux-antique street sign was place at the top of Deribasovskaya, announcing that its name would become, officially at least, Derybasivs’ka—a ukrainianized version that few Odessans have ever been heard to utter. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the city government has reportedly removed 148 public monuments (104 of them to Lenin) and rechristened 179 streets with either their old Russian imperial names—usually spelled the Ukrainian way—or newly created ones.


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Filed under language, nationalism, Russia, Ukraine

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