The Bahamas. The Gambia. The Ukraine. According to the CIA World Factbook, the first two countries listed here are the only two countries whose names officially begin with a definite article. “The United States” rolls easier off one’s tongue than “The Gambia”… and it goes without saying that “The Ukraine” rolls just as easily as “The United States,” but it shouldn’t. And it’s complicated.
First, Ukraine is not just a region of a country; it is a country… And it has been since 1991. Time magazine quoted former ambassador William Taylor this past March stating, “[‘]The Ukraine[’] is the way the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times … Now that it is a country, a nation, and a recognized state, it is just [‘]Ukraine[’].” When Ukraine was a border region of the Soviet Union, westerners called it “The Ukraine”. Interestingly enough, though, there is no definite article in Ukraine’s own language – and University of Minnesota etymologist Anatoly Liberman was quoted in a BBC article: “Those who called it ‘the Ukraine’ in English must have known that the word meant ‘borderland’ […] So they referred to it as ‘the borderland’.”
Yet other philologists have dissected the name and its origins and have mused that the meaning has been morphing since 1187, and has changed from “border area” or “on the edge” to “native land” or “their own country”. The gradual maturation from “border area” to “their own country” signifies an immense development of identity and carries heavy social and cultural implication. Thus, the independence of Ukraine is not novel to 1991; it has been a hard-won strife for nearly a thousand years. Utilization of “the” as recently as in Obama’s interview on March 4 signifies that the Western world has some work to do. One could argue that calling the country “the Ukraine” is a generational trait. And perhaps this is the case – but based on the meanings of “Ukraine” over the past millennia, the “the” should have never been there in the first place.
Most Ukrainians cringe when the “the” is inadvertently left in… but likely not all. What about the pro-Russian Ukrainians? The Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are exploding with conflict between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russia separatists (who have been designated as terrorists). With the elections happening today (Sunday, May 25), the fighting has shown no signs of cessation – especially when viewed through the lens of the Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker.
Amidst the recent turmoil, it is now more important than ever for those in the international arena to drop the “the”, recognize it as simply “Ukraine,” and get used to calling the capital “Kyiv” (the Ukrainian spelling of the city) rather than “Kiev” (the Russian spelling). “The Ukraine” has merely been cringe-worthy in the past. Now, on the brink of a civil war, the “the” signifies much more than a generational gap.
So, as we watch the crisis unfold from our own safe and united country, let’s take some time to redo this muscle memory now. Most of all, we have to consider the implications and take this as a valuable lesson going forward. The last thing we would want is for our kids to one day scoff at a generational gap evidenced by “The Crimea.”