The Russian-Ukrainian relationship is volatile, often bitter, and hard to grasp. As evidence of this, take borscht. We, of course, consider borscht the quintessential Russian food. And Russians apparently do too, at least subconsciously– it’s on the menu 3 out of 5 days a week at the university cafeteria, and they have three different recipes for it in the rotation. But anytime borscht is mentioned,  someone will feel compelled to clarify that in fact, borscht is not Russian, but Ukrainian. If I were at a party and happened to be engaged in a conversation about borscht, I would not be surprised if a total stranger popped their head in from another room just to be sure I understood that borscht isn’t actually Russian.

Generally speaking, the problem (not about borscht–we’re back to the big picture)  is that Ukrainians want to assert their independence and celebrate Ukrainian culture, whereas Russia still sees them as mini-Russia and a great place to get natural resources. For many years (when Ukraine was a part of Russia, as it has been off and on throughout history), Russian was the official language of Ukraine. Although the official language has now been changed back to Ukrainian, Russian is still spoken by practically everyone, and among those my age and older, Russian is usually the language people speak more proficiently. Of course, you have to be careful, because in the more nationalistic circles of Ukraine, speaking Russian can be seen as a kind of insult. This will be relevant in a minute.

An accent is a powerful thing. With one word, we can determine where a person is from, what their upbringing was like, and whether they’re one of us or not. In Germany, this works in my favor. There, the problem is always that my accent is very good, but my mind is still definitely English-speaking. So when I can’t come up with the right word or I decline something incorrectly, I can’t get away with it. The assumption isn’t “Oh, she’s a foreigner, so she must have made a mistake.” Instead–and you can actually see this happening inside people’s heads if you watch for it–they say, “Oh, she must be stupid. I should treat her accordingly.” And Germans, God bless them, aren’t the most tolerant of stupid people.

In Russian it’s a completely different ball game. I have an accent, although it’s getting better, and sometimes I’ll get well into a conversation before my interlocutor asks where I’m from and I have to stop what I’m doing and relate my whole life story to him. Even on the rare occasion that I manage to get through a conversation without garbling it, I’m still obviously not from around here. Fortunately, Cherepovtsians are generous with their time and generally tolerant of the idiosyncracies of my speech.

On Monday, Julia and I were talking in the Interglossa office, where a few students were waiting for their lesson to start.  I noticed that they were giggling and looking at me as I talked (protip: when you see a foreigner, DON’T DO THAT. It’s annoying). When Julia left, they asked me (in Russian) how long I’d been studying. Turns out they were all giggly because they thought I was Russian. They were in their 7th-ever English lesson, so they were all excited about the living, breathing success story they thought they were seeing. Sorry to disappoint.

We went on talking for a few more minutes, when one of them commented, “Your accent is pretty good. You sound almost Ukrainian.” It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment, like saying “That necklace really brings out the color of your eyes. When you wear it, I almost don’t notice how big your nose is!”

Alright, so I can’t be one of these guys. I can’t be Russian. And I can’t be almost Russian. But I can be almost-almost Russian, and I guess that’s good enough.

 

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