The Geopolitics of Ukraine’s ‘The’
Why three letters—and a Beatles song—trigger grammatical controversy, historical trauma, and existential crisis in Kyiv.
At a White House press conference on Wednesday, a reporter asked U.S. President Donald Trump what he had wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to find out about Joe Biden, Trump’s putative 2020 presidential rival, and Biden’s son Hunter, when he pressed Zelensky about the Bidens on the phone in July—a call that has prompted impeachment proceedings. Dodging the question, Trump retorted, “Why are we the only ones that give the big money to the Ukraine?” This was wrong, and for more than one reason.
First, it was wrong factually: The European Union has given more than $16 billion to Ukraine since 2014, the year that Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, in the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution, which Ukrainians call the “Revolution of Dignity.” But it was also wrong linguistically or, rather, geo-politico-lexicographically. For nearly 30 years, it has been officially incorrect to refer to Zelensky’s country as “the” Ukraine. On Aug. 24, 1991, four months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence and released its constitution. Ever since then, the country’s official name has been “Ukraine” only—hold the “the.”
Many, possibly most, English speakers have been slow to catch on. “It’s been so many years since independence that you’d think people would be more up to date,” said Mark Andryczyk, who directs the Ukrainian Studies Program at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. But old habits die hard: In the opinion of Adrian Ivakhiv, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and a specialist in Ukraine, “In the U.S., I’d say there’s always been a habit of saying ‘the Ukraine’ because of the mental shorthand of considering Russia as the Soviet Union, when it was only one of the federated socialist republics.” In the United States and Canada, he said, “the émigré community cared because it cared about whether Ukraine was recognized as its own thing or if it was seen as a territory that belonged to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union or Poland.” Andryczyk put it more bluntly: Adding “the” to the name is offensive to Ukrainians, he explained, “because it’s a colonial legacy and it makes it sound like a region.”
The Ukrainian journalist Olena Goncharova broke down the specifics of the etymological insult in a series in the Kyiv Post called “Honest History.” “Saying ‘the Ukraine’ is more than a grammatical mistake — it is inappropriate and disrespectful for Ukraine and Ukrainians,” she wrote. Attaching “the” in front of the name not only suggests that Ukraine is a “sub-part or region of a country,” like “the Fens in England, the Algarve in Portugal, and the Highlands in Scotland,” but it implies that Ukraine is a vassal state, a colonial territory, whereas “Ukraine is no longer a part of another country or empire,” she emphasized. “After many hard battles, it has become an independent, unitary state.”
In 2019, this statement requires constant defense, which is why Zelensky took the call from Trump in July—and why, according to Andryczyk, so much emotion is contained in this one little word. “In the years since 1991, Ukraine has constantly been defending its independence and been on the verge of losing it. If things had been stable since then, and if there hadn’t been fear of losing their independence, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.” But Andryczyk also suggested a more innocently insidious cause of confusion. “I’m a big believer in popular culture,” he said. “Think of Paul McCartney.” The Paul McCartney? Yes. A line he sings in the Beatles song “Back in the U.S.S.R.”—“the Ukraine girls really knock me out”—has misled fans for half a century, Andryczyk said. “That has really stuck. It’s everywhere. If he sang ‘the Ukrainian girls’ in that line, maybe we wouldn’t have this issue.”
If you’re Ukrainian and are speaking Ukrainian (or if you’re Russian and are speaking Russian), this issue does not come up. The Ukrainian language, like the Russian language, lacks the definite article: “the.” This means that Ukrainians would not be able to put a “the” in front of Ukraina in their own language even if they wanted to (which they wouldn’t) because there is no “the” in Ukrainian (or in Russian, for that matter … you see problem?). Even if your language abounds in definite articles, as French and German do (le, la, les in French; der, die, and das in German), you don’t have to use them when you give your country its name. The French choose to adorn theirs with “la”—la France—but the Germans, equally armed with articles, choose not to deploy one in their country’s name, leaving it at Deutschland, not das Deutschland.
As a rule, English speakers don’t use the definite article in naming countries. Think about it: If you were heading to Paris or Berlin, would you tell a friend you were going to “the” France or “the” Germany? But there are a couple exceptions. We do use “the” for countries that are composed of plural entities, such as “the United States” and “the Bahamas,” and we use it for distinctive geographical regions, whether they’re countries or not, such as Goncharova’s Fens, Algarve, and Highlands, not to mention the Congo, the Sudan, and, in this country, the Midwest.
There’s no harm in calling England’s coastal marshland “the Fens” or in describing Indianapolis as a city in “the Midwest.” But several of these regional names carry loaded historical associations. To refer to today’s Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo as “the Congo” summons thoughts of King Leopold II, who brutally exploited the Belgian Congo and its people in the late 19th and early 20th century. Saying “the Sudan” evokes the British colonization of that vast sub-Saharan region in the first half of the 20th century. And in the 21st century, if you say “the Ukraine,” wittingly or not, you impose a territorial, Kremlin-style attitude to that autonomous nation.
But part of the difficulty that attaches to thinking about Ukraine, qua independent state, comes from the etymological fact that the name Ukraine derives from the Ukrainian word okrayina, which means borderland. On this basis, you might be forgiven for saying “the Ukraine” if you pictured yourself traveling to the “borderland” as you said it. It is doubtful, however, that most Americans are aware of this antique derivation. Furthermore, the origins of the word “Ukraine” are disputed; some believe it comes from krayina, which means country—by which logic, u-krayina would mean “in my country.” This subject, however, touches on a linguistic tripwire, which even Ukrainians can set off if they’re not careful, according to Ivakhiv.
“There is a related debate among Ukrainians—speaking/writing in Ukrainian—over whether one should say ‘Ya yidu v Ukrayinu’ (literally, ‘I am going into Ukraine’) or ‘Ya yidu na Ukrayinu’ (literally, ‘I am going onto Ukraine’),” he explained. “The latter would carry territorial connotations: I am going onto the territory of (the) Ukraine—whereas the former connotes a nation-state with formal boundaries (which is more appropriate to the contemporary situation).” A speaker of Russian or Ukrainian who announces, “I am going onto Ukraine,” may well have hostile intentions. Which is why a Ukrainian president who hopes to acquire Javelin missiles from an American president—even one who is seeking ammunition on a political rival—might overlook the linguistic flub when the American president says, or tweets, “the Ukraine.”
But most Ukrainian politicians, journalists, and loyalists are not so sanguine. In their eyes, the fact of saying “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine,” is not cosmetic—it’s existential, and, more simply, correct. “It’s not something that we just now made up and decided we’re going to impose on the world,” said the Ukrainian American geographer Roman Adrian Cybriwsky, who wrote a 2014 book about Ukraine’s capital city, which the publisher had wanted to spell the pre-1991 way: “Kiev,” arguing that readers would not be able to find the book if it was called “Kyiv.” A compromise was reached: the title is Kyiv, Ukraine. “It’s been like this for a long time, for generations, centuries,” he said.
For 28 years, Ukraine at last has had the opportunity to uphold its own definition, and name, of itself. “Now that the Soviet Union has finished and Russia has been shed, it becomes newly important to make the correction,” Cybriwsky said. “So, we’re not making a redefinition of how to say the country—it’s a correction that we’ve wanted to make for a long time, but we now have new opportunities.”
There are ultranationalist Ukrainians, he noted, “who call Russians moskali [a pejorative term which means “people from Moscow”] instead of Russians.” But the Russians have every right to call themselves what they want, he said. “The idea is that Ukrainians get to call the shots about what to name Ukrainians and what to call the country.” Cybriwsky had a further thought: “I noticed that it took a while in this particular news cycle, this topic of the Trump-Zelensky conversation, for the American media to start referring to Zelensky by name,” he said. “They never said his name—they just said ‘the Ukrainian president.’ It took a while.” Maybe, he suggested, they found the name Volodymyr “too challenging.” He thought they should get over it. “In my opinion,” he said, “Zelensky gets to call the shots whether he wants to be Volodymyr or Vladimir, Zelenskiy or Zelensky.”
But as for what to call his country, Cybriwsky stands firm: Ukraine is Ukraine.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based journalist and translator, and teaches at the New School in New York. She is the author of the book of neologisms, Wordbirds.