З днем незалежності! [Happy Independence Day!]

Happy Independence Day!

Yesterday, August 24, was the twenty-first anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine is one of my absolute favorite countries – I was there for two or three days in 2009 and I have spent three years now wishing I could go back – so I decided to prepare a nice little post as a tribute to this country.

Before it became independent in 1991, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union and before that, the Russian Empire. For much of its history, it has been ruled over by various people, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Even though it was not an independent state for much of modern history, Ukraine has a distinct language and culture.

Despite the fact that the Ukrainian language was often repressed (both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union practiced policies of Russification), it is a rich and vibrant language today. Though it is closely related to Russian and is part of the East Slavic subgroup along with Russian, it has had a heavy Polish influence and is distinct from the Russian language. I have never properly studied it, but I can understand quite a bit of it when it’s spoken. To compare it to Russian, consider the title of this post: З днем незалежності. In Russian, that is С днём независимости. Close, but not exactly the same.

Ukraine has produced some beautiful literature, despite the state repression of its language. Two of my favorite writers, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaak Babel, were both born in Ukraine, but they wrote in Russian (at least as far as I know). Perhaps the most famous Ukrainian writer was Taras Shevchenko. He also wrote in Russian, but I have only read his work in Ukrainian. One of my favorite poems he wrote is called Заповіт [Testament].* This translation is by John Weir:

When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes … then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields —
I’ll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I’ll pray …. But until that day
I nothing know of God.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.

If you are really interested, you can download this lovely PDF document comparing eight different English-language translations of this poem. (Just to warn you, some of them are really bad.)

In a post about independence day, it’s only appropriate to talk about the national anthem. You can listen to it in the embedded video below (if you can’t see that, click here to see it).

The anthem is based on a poem written in 1862 called Ще не вмерла Україна [Ukraine has not yet perished]. The first verse and the refrain are normally performed. The lyrics in Ukrainian and English are below.

Ще не вмерла України ні слава, ні воля,
Ще нам, браття молодії, усміхнеться доля.
Згинуть наші воріженьки, як роса на сонці.
Запануєм і ми, браття, у своїй сторонці.

Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу,
І покажем, що ми, браття, козацького роду.

Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу,
І покажем, що ми, браття, козацького роду.

Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom,
Upon us, fellow Ukrainians, fate shall smile once more.
Our enemies will vanish like dew in the sun,
And we too shall rule, brothers, in a free land of our own.

Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom,
And we’ll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!

Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom,
And we’ll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!

It’s a lovely anthem.

Happy Independence Day, Ukraine!

*Hilarious story involving the Russian and Ukrainian words for testament: once in class, we were talking about something and my professor asked us if we knew how to say testament in Russian. My classmates did not know, but I thought I did. After thinking briefly, I smiled and said brightly, “Заповіт” [zapovit]. That was correct – but in Ukrainian! The Russian word is завещание [zaveshchanie]. Since then, I’ve never mixed up these two words.