HARD SIGNS, UKRAINE, 1919.

I’m still reading Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the period. In its concision, unsentimentality, and effective use of abrupt transitions (and short paragraphs), I could compare it to the war reporting in Hemingway’s In Our Time, but Hemingway, for all his braggadocio, was basically an outside observer of the horrors he witnessed and could go back to a comfortable life in the States when he was done, whereas Shklovsky was thoroughly immersed in it and had nowhere to go. Or rather, he had lots of places to go, but they were all soaked in horror and deprivation. And in the midst of it, he was writing his seminal essays on literature, which he mentions from time to time: “There’s a roaring in your ears, you’re half-dead from the strain and you fall down. But your head keeps thinking by itself about ‘The Connections between Plot Devices and General Stylistic Devices.’”
Anyway, I thought I’d quote a bit from his stay in the (briefly quasi-independent) Ukraine in 1919. The German-imposed hetman Skoropadsky has been chased out and the Ukrainian nationalist Petliura is coming in (Kiev changed hands 16 times during this period):

Petlyura’s men entered the city. There turned out to be a lot of Ukrainians in the city. I had met them before, working as regimental clerks, etc.
I’m not making fun of the Ukrainians, although, in the bottom of all our hearts, we people of Russian background are hostile to any “dialect.” How we made fun of the Ukrainian language! A hundred times I heard “Samoper poper na mordopisniu,” which means “The automobile drove to the photograph.” We don’t like what isn’t our own. Turgenev’s “Grae, grae, voropae” weren’t inspired by love, either…

…Meanwhile, the process of Ukrainization went forward.
During those days, all the hard signs in Kiev perished.
The order was given to change all the billboards to Ukrainian.
Not everyone knew the language. We in the units and the Ukrainians sent in from outside talked about technical matters in Russian, occasionally adding a Ukrainian word or two.
Once again, it was “Grae, grae, voropae.”
There’s a mess of pottage for you!
All the billboards had to be changed to Ukrainian in one day.
It’s easily done. All you had to do was change the hard sign into a soft sign, and one kind of i into another kind.
People worked around the clock. There were ladders everywhere.
The billboards were changed. The hard signs had been put up during Skoropadsky’s regime.

“We don’t like what isn’t our own” is a profound statement about human nature. It’s obvious in general, but it bears repeating in all sorts of circumstances, such as those involving prejudice against forms of language, whether those belonging to another people or those that are simply too modern for us. (Hopefully, you’re not disinterested.)
And the changing of the billboards is a perfect image of the kind of thing that tends to be important to conquerors. People are starving, no one has work, the entire structure of life is collapsing, but the first thing we do, let’s kill all the hard signs!

Comments

  1. I can’t help but extend that metaphor – because they weren’t even producing Ukrainian! Aieee!

  2. michael farris says:

    “People are starving, no one has work, the entire structure of life is collapsing, but the first thing we do, let’s kill all the hard signs!”
    In defense of conquerors everywhere, I’d like to point out that fixing the strucutre of life (food, work, etc) is hard and takes a long time while changing billboards can be done relatively quickly and gives employment at least to the hardsign blotter-outers.
    In other words, changing the billboards doesn’t necessarily impede any of the post-conquest things that need to be done, it’s just faster.
    The absurdity of the situation here is that they kept switching the billboards when the conquest was not secure and they knew they’d probably lose the city, probably regain it and have to change them again.

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