Most of the time this Blog does not deal with the leading stories of the day. You have many thousands of other places to read about them. For the last 19 days there has only been one significant news story in Europe: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There, I’ve said it. If I were living in Russia I could, theoretically, be jailed for 15 years for calling it an invasion. The alternate, “official” Russian line is one that defies analysis for anyone who cares about language and the truth: “military manoeuvres”, a “peace-keeping” mission, and “denazification” to prevent the “genocide” of Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine. By the time you read these words, who knows how much further the truth will have been distorted and language misused? Maybe martial law will have been officially enforced in Russia. Maybe Putin will have done more than allude to the use of nuclear weapons.
I spent a large chunk of my school and university years studying 20th century European history. The Russian Revolution and World Wars One and Two were covered at O Level (the equivalent of GCSE for those you born after 1970), A Level and as part of my degree. (I ended up with an MA in History.) At O-Level we had to write a specialist essay, submitted around halfway through the school year (Year 11, as it’s called now). I chose the rise of Stalin, examining why he, rather than Trotsky, ended up as Lenin’s successor. In recent decades, coursework has been a key component of school exams, but in my day this specialist essay was one of the few examples of such work. Almost everything (even at A-Level, and indeed at the university I attended) was dependent on timed exams. For five academic years in a row I read, and re-read, and wrote about 20th century Russian history.
Why am I telling you all this? Mainly to admit that despite everything I read and wrote over half a lifetime ago, and despite having a Masters Degree in History, my knowledge of events in the Soviet Union from 1917 onwards is patchy. I know even less about post-Soviet history. My knowledge of geography is marginally better than it was, but I wrote all those essays about 20th century Europe without being able to identify Georgia or Ukraine on a map. I had no idea how far Moscow was from St Petersburg (or Petrograd, or Leningrad, as it was known at various times). I could not have located the capital of Ukraine, which I have always known as Kiev.
This piece from the Guardian last month has set me straight on this: “How to pronounce and spell ‘Kyiv’, and why it matters”. As it explains:
Ukrainians call their capital “Kyiv” (kee-yiv), the spelling, a transliteration of the Ukrainian Київ. The Russian version is “Kiev” (kee-yev).
The latter, based on transliteration from the Russian cyrillic Киев, became the internationally accepted name through the Soviet period and into the first years of this century …
Most of the news outlets that I follow here in the UK have started to use “Kyiv” as the accepted form, and so will I.
Last week I bought prepared chicken dishes from M&S, the ones that are named after the city. As you can see from this photo, they are still sold as “Chicken Kievs”, though some supermarkets are planning to rebrand them as “Chicken Kyiv”.
The children had never tasted them before, so it must be least 15 years since we’ve bought them. We enjoyed our “Chicken Kievs” enormously, and hope that they will feature in our dinner plans for some time to come. We look forward to them being labelled as “Chicken Kyiv” too, but in the context of what is happening in Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and all the Ukrainian cities that I knew nothing about a month ago, this is all very insignificant.