Offensive Language: Putin began his verbal attack on Ukrainian statehood in 2004

Vladimir Putin stopped using the preposition “v” or “in” Ukraine in 2004, reverting to the older form “na” or “on,” in official government documents, an indication that the Kremlin leader did not view Ukraine as a country but rather as a Russian borderland, according to Andrey Illarionov.

Editor’s note: This is similar to the distinction in English between ‘Ukraine’ and ‘the Ukraine’ with the Russian “on Ukraine” being an archaism equivalent to ‘in the Ukraine’. See articles in TIME and Business Insider for more on the subject.

From the time he became president in 2000 through March 2004, Putin used the preposition “v” exclusively in official documents he signed, but beginning on April 5, 2004, he shifted to “na” and since Putin returned for his third term, such documents have used “na” exclusively.

In his own speeches, commentaries and responses to questions, Illarionov points out, Putin has gone from using “in” in 87.5 percent of the cases in 2002 to 70 percent in 2007 to 15.4 percent in 2012 to 8.2 percent last year, thus ever more often replacing it with the “on” and thus showing his lack of respect for Ukraine’s status as a state.

Since April 5, 2004, 99.4 percent of the official documents Putin has signed which refer to Ukraine have used “on” rather than “in.” Most of these 11 exceptions reflect either statements about the past or about the work of specific Russian officials of various kinds in Ukraine, he says.

“The last time the grammatical form ‘in Ukraine’ was used in official documents of the Kremlin was about five years ago on July 1, 2010,” concerning the presentation of an award to the head of ITAR-TASS in Ukraine. And that order was signed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.

Since that time, “in” has not been used in the official documents of the Russian president and his administration even once. “In 2011-2015, 100 percent of the cases have used the form “na Ukraine,” Illarionov reports.

233176_600Graph 1: Use of “on Ukraine” (red) versus “in Ukraine” (green) in official Russian use, 1910-2008
Graph 2: Use of “in Ukraine” (blue) versus “in the Ukraine” (red) in English books, 1910-2008

This allows one to conclude, the Russian analyst says, that the decision to shift from “in” to “on” was taken “in the period between March 1 and April 5, 2004” – quite possibly immediately after Putin’s winning a second term as president and thus an indication of his intentions toward Kyiv at that time.

Certainly by April 16, 2004, Putin had made a decision to shift gears with regard to Ukraine. On that date, Illarionov recalls, Putin told the Ukrainian President Viktor Medvedchuk, “You know our position.” Working with Ukraine is “the top priority and the most important for us.”

“But however that was, the beginning of linguistic aggression by denying the statehood of Ukraine by the Russian authorities begins in March-April 2004,” Illarionov says. That was before the beginning of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in that year and long before July 2013 when Putin began his hybrid war against Ukraine.

“In other words,” Illarionov concludes, “the decision about the denial of the statehood of Ukraine was not provoked by any real actions of Ukrainians, be they from the Ukrainian authorities or Ukrainian society. This decision was taken by Putin personally, independent of the situation in Ukraine and as a result of his own ideas and in correspondence with his own plans.”

Snyder: Freedom in Russian exists only in Ukraine

Russian is a completely normal language of interchange in Ukraine. There, tens of millions of Russian-speakers read a free press, watch uncontrolled television and learn from an uncensored internet, in either Ukrainian or in Russian, as they prefer.

In Russia, the major social media have been brought under state control, television has been almost completely subdued and several of the remaining free-thinking blogs and internet news sites have been shut down or pressured. This leaves Ukraine as an island of free speech for people who use the Russian language.

There is a country where millions of Russian-speakers lack basic rights. That country is the Russian Federation. There is a neighbouring country where tens of millions of Russian-speakers enjoy basic rights — despite the disruptions of a revolution and Russian invasion. That country is Ukraine. As the joke goes, Ukraine is a country where people speak Russian, while Russia is a country where people stay quiet in Russian.

Timothy Snyder is an American historian and Professor of History at Yale University.

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