Travelling to Ukraine was part happenstance and part careful planning. Despite having focused on Eastern Europe and the former-Soviet Union in my international relations studies, I had never actually had the chance to visit there. I knew I wanted to get some on the ground experience in the region, both to further my understanding of the security issues being faced there, but also to add further credibility to my resume on those topics. I also knew I wanted to travel to a country where I would be able to use my Russian to some degree, already having two semesters of intensive study from my time at Georgetown. I also thought it would be useful if there was a program where I could not only learn more about the region, but also learn another Slavic language if possible- which would be easier having already learned the Cyrillic alphabet from Russian and there being other similarities. Having another lesser known language in addition to Russian seemed like something that would be useful to have in order to stand out professionally.
With those criteria in mind, I searched for various summer programs and found one that fit my needs. The University of Kansas’ summer study abroad program in L’viv Ukraine came up repeatedly as an option and it seemed like a perfect fit, meeting all the criteria I had established for my search. That it took place in Ukraine was an added bonus, as that country has become a top security issues vis-à-vis NATO and the Russian Federation and remains so as the fighting in its eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk continues. I was also partly familiar with L’viv as it had come up in several weeks of a class I had taken in the Spring semester in the REES program on issues of borders and belonging in Eastern Europe. Having been ruled by multiple empires over the centuries, L’viv and Western Ukraine in general are a perfect example of the shifting boundaries of the region that have continued to lend themselves to conflict. All these factors combined made it seem like the perfect option for me as a Summer grant program.
If there was anything I wish I could have known before leaving for Ukraine, it would have been the differences and similarities between the Russian and Ukrainian languages. Knowing Russian beforehand definitely gave me an advantage and gave me a far quicker start than if I had known no Slavic language at all. They both share a common alphabet, with only a few differences in letters and pronunciation, and the grammatical cases and rules are also very similar. They also have many words that are either exactly the same, or only slightly different in composition or pronunciation- for example, many verbs are the same as Russian, but with different endings. However, these subtle differences can sometimes be difficult to remember if you have been instructed in Russian first, and they can become common pitfalls that are hard to avoid if you are not prepared- one common mistake I always made was trying to reduce vowels, which is done often in Russian but barely ever in Ukrainian. In the end I managed to adapt, but it would have been easier and quicker if I had been told the major ways in which Ukrainian differed from Russian and what common mistakes to keep in mind before going into my classes.
After over six weeks of living and studying in Ukraine, I think the biggest lesson I learned from observing and learning about the Ukrainian people is that the conflict and the tensions with neighboring Russia are not going to simply vanish any time soon. While the central and eastern parts of the country often can have different attitudes towards Russia, Ukraine’s cultural heartland in the West is fiercely nationalistic and resistant to Russian influence and interference. I could scarcely ever see a Ukrainian flag in the West without seeing the red and black flag of the controversial, World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) flying next to it. And in the markets of L’viv, you can buy all manner of merchandise mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin, often displaying his head with “colorful” insults in Ukrainian alongside it. And with Putin himself seeming just as reluctant to back down in his bombastic agenda, the conflict seems even farther from a resolution. Despite so many common ties, the issues that divide Ukraine and Russia are long lasting and complicated, covering areas from language to economics and religion and more. A military victory alone wouldn’t solve these issues, and if a solution is to be found it will require deep and thoughtful soul searching that won’t come quickly or easily.