Russian leaders have tinkered with their alphabet for centuries, but with the letter ё, they have a fight on their hands

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from Alina Simone.

The most controversial letter in the Russian alphabet is the letter ё, or yo.

Fans of the letter call themselves Yoficators. They even have a theme song set to the music of Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoy. Why does a letter have a fan club? Because some people think yo has got to go.

Yo’s shaky status has to do with it being a relatively late addition to the Russian alphabet, dropped in at the end of the 1700s. As Yaroslav Gorbachov, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Chicago, tells me, “(yo) really never took off as an independent letter. It has always remained sort of the shady companion of the letter ye.”

Yo is really the Cyrillic letter ye, which looks just like the English letter e, only with a diacritic — that is, two dots — on top. Confused? Well, trust me, you’re even more confused when natives casually omit those two dots, turning a name like “Gorbachov” into “ Gorbachev.”

But Russians have only gotten lazy about dotting their yos since the 1950s. Before that, both the letter yo and the essentially non-Western nature of the alphabet, had a powerful backer: Josef Stalin.

In 1930, Stalin signed an edict that protected yo.

“It was a secret document, it was not to be published,” says Professor Gorbachov. Stalin’s intention was to get Russians to stop Latinizing the script. ”He also decreed that yo be put to use every time it’s there in the pronunciation.”

For the three percent of Russians whose names contain yo, not having Stalin around anymore to enforce a standard protocol is causing massive bureaucratic headaches. People have been denied passports and had their citizenship revoked, they’ve been unable to legally divorce and prove their children are theirs — all because of ye/yo discrepancies on official documents. But unlike Stalin, Russia’s current strongman is remaining silent on the issue.

“I don’t think Putin is behind this. He probably doesn’t care about the alphabet would be my guess.” Gorbachov instead blames the problem on “super-eager local bureaucrats who want to be holier than the pope.”

Of course, getting rid of yo would bring Russian one step closer to the English alphabet. East vs. West — the linguistic tug of war has been going on for centuries. Russia’s dual impulse to be embraced by the West while remaining distinctly Slavic is literally etched into the alphabet. Starting with legendary font-designer, Peter the Great.

“He was out to Westernize the country,” says Gorbachov. “[Peter the Great] had realized how far behind Russia had fallen in terms of education, in terms of technology, and all these things. And he literally sat down and picked out characters that looked more Roman than Cyrillic in the Cyrillic alphabet.”

The Russian alphabet was adapted from Greek, a radically different language, leaving a lot of extra wood to chop. But when Peter axed redundant letters, he was denounced as the anti-Christ by religious conservatives, who accused him of changing the very meaning of the Bible.

Another even more controversial modernization proposed by the last czar actually took decades to implement, finally rammed through by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It incensed language snoots — you know, the kind of people who view linguistic misdemeanors as crimes against humanity. They felt Russian was being reduced to the 20th century equivalent of chatspeak.

The monument to 'yo' in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

The monument to ‘yo’ in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

In 2005, the city of Ulyanovsk — birthplace of that most famous of Bolsheviks, Lenin himself — unveiled a monument to yo in honor of the local historian who first popularized the rogue letter. But that monument triggered protests, too, which brings us to the other reason Russians love yo.

“My guess is that the letter is so popular because a very obscene word begins with this letter,” says Gorbachov. “And Russians, we like krepkaya slova, you know — a curse word. So people are amused by having this letter around. There may be other reasons, but that’s probably the principal reason.”

Given that Vladimir Putin recently passed a law banning the use of curse words in Russian films, plays and print media, one can only wonder; will yo end up a victim of modernity or propriety?

Or maybe Russia will end up keeping yo, and keeping it weird.


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In Ukraine, the insults in both languages draw on sensitive historical moments

A protester in Kiev holds a sign that reads "Revolution or death!" in Ukrainian, December 2013. Some pro-Russian Ukrainians might have called him a 'fascist.' (Photo: Ivan Bandura via Flickr)

A protester in Kiev holds a sign that reads “Revolution or death!” in Ukrainian, December 2013. Some pro-Russian Ukrainians might have called him a ‘fascist.’ (Photo: Ivan Bandura via Flickr)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki.

You know the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” Well, what if those words carry the weight of centuries behind them?

Reporter Igor Kossov was recently in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, hearing the insults that supporters of Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian separatists were slinging at one another. He decided to write about the history of the insults for The Daily Beast.

“There’s a lot of bad blood going around where people dredge up the past, either deliberately or because they can’t help themselves, and that’s really driving people apart,” he says.

That past is embedded in the language. One common slur that Kossov heard was the term khokhol, used to insult ethnic Ukrainians. The term refers to the traditional lock of hair worn by Cossacks during czarist times.

“Nowadays the word cossack is also used as a word, not to refer to the ethnic group, but to refer to army irregulars or ‘deniable assets,’” says Kossov. “I’ve heard people say ‘Oh, the Cossacks are coming in across the Russian border.’ They mean that instigators and irregular forces are coming in to stir up trouble.”

On the flipside, says Kossov, Ukrainians sometimes refer to Russians in the pejorative sense as moscali or “muscovites.”

This language goes back hundreds of years, according to Kossov. However, he heard one term with more recent origins — banderovtsi. This was a term that pro-Russian separatists have used when referring to the government in Kiev.

Banderovtsi refers to the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. Stepan Bandera was a very divisive ethnic Ukrainian politician in the lead-up to and during World War II.

“Bandera and many of his followers believed that they needed independence from the Soviet Union at any cost,” says Kossov. “And the only people powerful enough to ‘emancipate’ them were Nazi Germany, which was really a military powerhouse.”

Bandera was one of the founders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. His party aided Nazi Germany during World War II.

People claim, says Kossov, that Bandera believed in racial purity, a pure race of Ukrainians with no Jews and Poles. His followers were responsible for the killing of Russians and for ethnically cleansing Poles and Jews. Some later united against Nazi Germany when they realized that the Nazis weren’t going to let them be independent.

Pro-Russian separatists look at the history of Bandera and Ukrainian anti-semitism, and at the participation of right-wing groups in the Maidan protests, and label the Kiev government as fascists. “The fact is there are neo-Nazi groups that are pro-Ukrainian independence,” says Kossov. “They look very bad for the non-Nazis who are pro-Ukrainian independence, but they are there.”

“Separatist people are saying, ‘Look at this, this is history all over again. We must fight back. We destroyed them 70 years ago. We can’t let this happen again.’”

As a Russian-speaker born in Ukraine, Kossov is sensitive to the history behind the rhetoric. And he worries that English speakers are missing out on some of what has driven the tensions in the region.

“How many English speakers that are not from this area actually understand what this history means and what these words actually mean? These are not entirely empty accusations, they do have a past.” And the historical tensions threaten to tear apart modern-day Ukraine.


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For your next cocktail, would you prefer ‘The Bitter Taste of Calm’ or ‘Seven Days in the Grave’?

Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Here’s a guest post from Alina Simone.

How do cocktails get such memorable and wallet-opening names?

We’re used to the idea of bartender as therapist — a great shoulder to cry on — but bartender as poet? As historian? As multi-linguistic wizard? I admit that I was guilty of my own prejudice until I met bar owner and cocktail consultant, Joaquin Simo. Well it turns out, good bartenders are always on the hunt for literary as well as libatious inspiration, from iPod playlists to more old-fashioned sources.

Joaquin Simo prepares a cocktail (Photo: Alina Simone)

Joaquin Simo prepares a cocktail (Photo: Alina Simone)

As Joaquin tells me, “one of the best ways to name drinks, is just pick up a racing form, cause someone’s already done all the heavy lifting of thinking of a short, quippy, memorable name.”

But sometimes the search for a name starts with a hunch — an elusive feeling. The perfect visual can help:

“Sprezzatura is that great Italian, that almost, like, stylish disheveled thing,” says Joaquin, “where you see an Italian guy in an impeccably tailored suit and a perfect shirt, except his cuffs aren’t done. Or his tie is like artfully askew. You know, these little details where you’re like, is that on purpose? It’s kind of rakish and stylish and awesome. So we had this great drink that was a riff on a French 75 and, I wanted it to be elegant and stylish and sexy and so, Sprezzatura Royale, it turned out to be.”

OK, but what kind of name do you get by relying on your taste buds alone, without help from Twitter, sexy Italians or racing forms? I decided to invite an expert to Pouring Ribbons, Joaquin’s bar — my friend, stand-up comedian Eugene Mirman. Spending a lot of time in bars has made Mirman something of the equivalent of a foodie: a drinkie.

“There are three beautiful drinks in front of me. One has what can only be described as having very valuable grass in it,” he says.

That’s Eugene’s first impression of the drinks Joaquin brings over to our table. He is trying two classic cocktails and one house original. The first two are a couple hundred years old — the last drink, only weeks old.

Unfortunately, the first name Eugene comes up with can’t be shared on a family-friendly site, like this one. Sorry guys.

On to drink two:

“That’s very good. I’m going to call it — The Citrus Good Morning. It’s like what you’d pour on your feet to start your day,” he says.

Stand-up comedian and cocktail taster Eugene Mirman (Photo: Alina Simone)

Stand-up comedian and cocktail taster Eugene Mirman (Photo: Alina Simone)

Turns out he wasn’t far off — this classic cocktail is called the “Corpse Reviver #2.” One of a class of drinks intended to be consumed first thing in the morning to ward off a hangover.

Now for the last drink, the one with that stalk of “valuable grass” in it — better known as dill. And the name Eugene comes up with…? Seven Days In the Grave.

“I can obviously taste the flesh, and it’s not fresh, but it’s not so old that you’re like, Yuck!” Eugene explains, adding, “I’ve basically either named a drink, or poorly described World War I.”

Seven Days in the Grave is a pretty awesome name, but Joaquin’s is even better: The Bitter Taste of Calm. Turns out the story behind the name is just as memorable.

Whenever one of Joaquin’s business partners has to board a flight, he takes a pill for anxiety, which he slowly grinds between his teeth, “and as he’s chewing it, turns and says, ‘Ah, the bitter taste of calm,’” Joaquin explains. “And because there are so many things that are kind of bitter and savory in this drink, that name struck me immediately. I was like: We’ve got to name a drink after this; it’s one of my favorite expressions. So that’s where that name came from.”

When you’re naming a drink, nothing quite beats life experience, except maybe, one’s native tongue. Joaquin was born in Quito, Ecuador, and often looks south of the border for linguistic inspiration.

“I am a firm believer that anything in Spanish is going to sound better than anything in English: Like fork. Blech! Tenedor. That’s elegant, you know, that’s really cool. You know, beet? Meh. Remolacha. That’s awesome!” he says.

But spiking a cocktail menu with Spanish doesn’t always work. Take the time one of Joaquin’s coworkers decided to update a Prohibition-era cocktail called The Monkey Gland.

“Well, Monkey Gland does not work, in Spanish, at all. Not that it sounds that great in English but: glándula de mono .” No thanks.

Then Joaquin wows me with another great factoid from his seemingly bottomless archive: The original Monkey Gland got its name from a dubious surgical procedure invented by Russian doctor Serge Voronoff where grafts of monkey testicles were transplanted into guys hoping for a Viagra-like effect. Turns out, that’s another secret naming trick, Joaquin tells me. Get people thinking, “If I order this, I’m destined for love tonight.”

I’ll drink to that.


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In Scotland’s independence referendum, Lady Alba is voting ‘Naw!’

Zara Gladman prepares to become Lady Alba (Photo: Cori Princell)

Zara Gladman prepares to become Lady Alba (Photo: Cori Princell)


Here’s a guest post from Scotland-based reporter Cori Princell.

In this Jekyll and Hyde story, Dr. Zara Gladman is the ordinary, respectable character.

Zara is in her late 20s and a scientist. She got her PhD a couple of years ago in ecology and now works doing outreach for the annual Glasgow Science Festival.

She’s planning to vote yes in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum because of issues like care for the elderly and free education. She thinks Scotland will do better if it separates from the United Kingdom.

But Dr. Zara Gladman has another side. When she applies her make-up and secures her platinum blonde wig, she becomes Lady Alba. And Lady Alba is voting “naw.”

On stage, her backup dancers wear paper face masks of Scottish and British politicians. “I want your weapons. I want student fees. I want a country run by Tory MPs,” sings Lady Alba in the online video that went viral in Scotland.

The video is a spoof on the hit “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. Like Gaga, Lady Alba has crazy make-up and soda cans rolled into her hair, although hers are cans of Irn Bru, an orange soda that’s iconic in Scotland. Her name, Alba, comes from the Gaelic word for Scotland. But don’t mistake all that for Scottish nationalism: Lady Alba wants Scotland to remain part of Britain.

“I want your love, even if it’s wrong, I like being told what I should do,” she sings. “It would be mental to try something new. Let’s sit around and wait for things to improve.”

Zara says the joke is on “no” voters. “I’m just trying to poke fun,” she says. “I just think some of the arguments against independence are so ludicrous.”

The orange and blue stripe on her cheek is inspired by David Bowie, who came out as opposed to Scottish independence when Zara was coming up with her Lady Alba costume. She looks at a photo of Bowie's Aladdin Sane persona on her phone as a guide. (Photo: Cori Princell)

The orange and blue stripe on her cheek is inspired by David Bowie, who came out as opposed to Scottish independence when Zara was coming up with her Lady Alba costume. She looks at a photo of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane persona on her phone as a guide. (Photo: Cori Princell)

When Zara realized how popular Lady Alba was becoming online, she created a Facebook page for her. Lady Alba now does media interviews and performs at comedy shows—always in character as an outrageous “naw” voter.

The Scottish comedian Keir McAllister says it’s a great example of Scottish humor. “We always laugh at ourselves when we kind of downscale things,” he says. “It’s just a really clever piece of satire.”

McAllister recently invited Zara to perform as Lady Alba at The Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow. The sold-out show was all about the referendum, and it was clear there were both “yes” and “no” voters in the audience. But as Lady Alba came out on stage wrapped in a Scottish flag, they were all laughing.

I did have to ask Zara whether this split identity is having any effect on her. She laughed and said there’s no danger she’ll transform permanently into Lady Alba. “I don’t have any kind of weird conflict in my head like, oh maybe she’s right!” she says, “I just put on a character and that’s it.”

Zara sees an important role for comedy as people in Scotland face the difficult questions ahead. Comedy can dispel apathy, she says, and “it can get people engaged.”

This past weekend, she released her second Lady Alba video. This one is a take on Yellow Submarine by the Beatles, and it focuses on another issue in the Scottish independence debate: nuclear weapons.

The hits have been going up.


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“Dear Sir, I like words…” and other letters of note

Letter written in 1957 by Denis Cox to Australian scientists. Cox wanted Australia to join the space race. (Courtesy Shaun Usher/Letters of Note)

Letter written in 1957 by Denis Cox to Australian scientists. Cox wanted Australia to join the space race. (Courtesy Shaun Usher/Letters of Note)


Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki.

In 2009, Shaun Usher was working as a copywriter when he received an assignment from a stationery company. He was tasked with somehow making stationery interesting — a daunting feat in an era of email and Twitter and Facebook posts.

So, what did he do? He went to the library and dug through collections of old letters.

“I spent a few hours looking at these old, dusty books full of correspondence and was instantly hooked,” he says. So he decided to start a blog. “I couldn’t believe that a blog didn’t actually exist.”

The first letter that he posted on that blog was a rejection letter from Disney to a young lady who wanted to be an animator. Disney replied to her on beautiful Snow White letterhead stationery, says Usher, though the message itself wasn’t so beautiful.

“It basically said women don’t get animation jobs, instead you should apply in the tracing department where men aren’t employed,” says Usher. “It was a document of its time.”

Usher has since posted hundreds of letters from the famous and not-so-famous. Now, he’s publishing many of those letters in a book, Letters of Note, coming out in May.

The letters Usher has collected span the globe. And you find so much about history and culture between the lines of missives —whether it’s William Safire’s letter to the Nixon White House on what to do in the event of a moon disaster or author Mario Puzo’s letter to Marlon Brando begging him to play Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of The Godfather.

Here’s one penned by Mahatma Gandhi that never found its way to its intended recipient:

Shaun Usher is partial to the sad letters that he has collected. And quite a few of them are pretty sad. One letter featured in the book is between the Ciulla family from New Jersey and the Connell family from Lockerbie, Scotland.

In 1998, a bomb exploded on a PanAm flight destined for New York while it flew over Lockerbie. Frank Ciulla was onboard that flight and his body landed on the Connell’s farm in Lockerbie. Years later, the Connells hosted the Ciulla family when they came to visit where Frank’s body had been found in Scotland. The Connells then wrote a letter to the grieving Ciulla family to thank them for their visit.

“It really touches me because it’s such a difficult letter to write within such a tragic situation,” said Usher, “And I’ve been in touch with both families whilst producing this book and they’re both the loveliest families, brought together by such a hideous event. It really is a unique letter.”

Another tragic letter that Usher included is from sixteenth-century Korea. It’s a letter from a widow to her dead husband. “How could you pass away without me?” she writes to her husband. The letter was found in 1998, when archaeologists unearthed the tomb of Eung-Tae Lee, a thirty-something man who lived in the 1500s. The touching letter was found resting on his chest and caused a cultural stir in Korea. There are books, movies, plays, and even an opera based on the letter.

“It’s a unique way of looking back at history,” says Usher. “I find it a more interesting way than just reading a textbook.”

A rocket design included in the letter written by Denis Cox to Australian scientists.

A rocket design included in the letter written by Denis Cox to Australian scientists.


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Words written in secret: a history of invisible ink

Norwegian-born Nazi spy Nickolay Hansen who had invisible ink secreted in his tooth (Courtesy Kristie Macrakis)

Norwegian-born Nazi spy Nickolay Hansen who had invisible ink secreted in his tooth (Courtesy Kristie Macrakis)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Clark Boyd.

I have been finding little scrappy bits of seemingly blank paper all over the house lately.

I say “seemingly” because my daughter recently got a “top secret sleuthing kit” for her 8th birthday.

The kit contains two pens. One pen has “invisible ink,” which you use to craft your super-secret messages.

You use the other pen to rub over the note, revealing those messages.

My daughter’s notes usually say something like: “Can I have a cookie?”

I tend to write back: “Eat your vegetables.”

Okay, not exactly Spy vs. Spy, but it did pique my interest.

And then, I received a review copy of a new book called Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to Al-Qaeda.

“People are always surprised, because they think this is kid’s stuff. It is serious business,” says the book’s author Kristie Macrakis.

Her research focuses on the historical intersections between science and espionage.

On a trip to Berlin a few years ago, she was working on a book about the East German secret police, the Stasi.

She’d gotten hints that the Stasi liked to use invisible ink, but she’d never seen an actual method or formula detailed.

Then the archivist handed her a very thin file, tucked in among a bunch of others.

“I opened it up, and my mouth fell open, and I thought, ‘Wow, finally,” Macrakis says. It contained invisible ink formulas from the Cold War in the 1970s.

Macrakis hand-copied the whole file, convinced there was no way the archivists would make a photocopy for her.

But she asked anyway, and to her surprise, they did.

A few minutes later, she was making a quick getaway.

“I stuffed the copy of the file in my knapsack and started waltzing down the steps in my sandals. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie, you know. I fled down the steps and looked behind me, and they weren’t asking for my files back, and I walked outside, thinking I was home free.”

Macrakis brought the Stasi secret ink formula back to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where she teaches. She found a chemist friend, and together with some students, they recreated the formula through trial and error.

Macrakis was having so much fun with the topic that she decided to write a book about the history of invisible ink and “secret writing:” steganography, to use the proper name.

To be clear, this isn’t cryptography. We’re not talking codes and ciphers.

We’re talking about the Roman poet Ovid giving Dear Abby-style advice about the kind of plant juice that lovers could use to write secret messages.

We’re talking about prisoners who have used oatmeal and milk, urine and even semen to write notes.

We’re talking about al-Qaeda hiding correspondence in the pixels of a porn film.

You name it, says Macrakis, and it’s been tried.

“Just use your imagination. Throughout history, you find the most fascinating ways of concealing secret messages, whether it’s in jewelry, or even writing on bodies, or even in a tooth. There are lots of ways of concealing and they’re all just fascinating.”

By now, you’re probably thinking back to those days as a kid when you tried this with lemon juice. You take the juice, dip a toothpick or other sharp object in it, and then write on a piece of paper.

Then you hold the paper over a flame and the message appears. Primitive, but it works.

In fact, in writing the book, Macrakis uncovered the story of the “Lemon Juice Spies” — a group of Germans in Britain who were caught using lemon juice to try to send secret messages during World War I. She even found one of the actual lemons used as evidence against them in a box.

“I mean, I looked at it, and I thought, ‘Wow, a 100-year-old lemon.’ And this innocuous lemon meant that about a dozen German spies were shot one by one in the Tower of London.”

Of course, the invisible ink cat-and-mouse game between the Germans and the Brits continued into WWII as well.

During that war, the Brits caught a Norwegian named Nickolay Hansen.

“At first, he told a bunch of lies, and they asked him about secret writing, and he said he didn’t use any,” Macrakis relates. “And finally, it came out that he hid a little baggie with invisible ink in his molar. Hopefully, he already had a hole in his tooth. Hopefully, they didn’t drill a new hole in his tooth to hide the secret ink in it.”

Macrakis also writes about Britain’s mass intercept of war-time mail.

Teams of women in Bermuda would sift through letters heading from the US to Britain, searching for secret messages.

Draw a pretty straight line, she says, to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.

“After WWI, for example, the British claimed they had a grip on the world’s correspondence,” Macrakis says. “Similarly, that’s what the NSA wants to do with blanket electronic surveillance. It’s really the same story of secret writing 100 years before with mail interception, just with digital methods.”

Everything old is new again, as the saying goes.

There’s one mystery, though, that Macrakis hasn’t been able to figure out.

Sixteenth-century Italian scholar and polymath Giambattista della Porta suggested using a mix of alum and vinegar to write secret messages on an egg.

Macrakis says she’s tried and tried, but can’t get it to work.

She’s says she’ll soon launch a contest offering 200 bucks to anyone who can do it.

Get cracking.


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A Canadian journalist escapes detention in Ukraine by speaking French

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague, Nina Porzucki.

It may not be quite an epidemic, but pro-Russia insurgents in Ukraine are increasingly turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping.

Many people have been held hostage in the eastern town of Slovyansk — including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

One person not caught up in the sweep is the Toronto Star’s reporter in Slovyansk, Mitch Potter.

And that’s not for lack of trying on the part of pro-Russia activists.

Last week, Potter and his interpreter were pulled over by a group of angry insurgents. It was a tense situation and the one thing that Potter knew he shouldn’t do was speak English.

“It was known, well-known for days, that it was trouble to speak English on the streets,” said Potter. “There are pamphlets circulating in that city warning that anyone who speaks English is a spy and turn them in.”

So what did the English-speaking Canadian do?

“My lips started moving and the French language came out,” said Potter.

“I’m French Canadian,” Potter told the angry insurgents. “I have nothing to do with the English language.”

That’s not true. Potter is not French Canadian. Yet, somehow his improvised French worked and the Pro-Russian activists let him and his interpreter leave Slovyansk.

“This was after a week on the ground. And it was clear that we’re all Americans now, when we go to that place. They make no distinction between Americans and Canadians,” said Potter.

So why did speaking French pacify the insurgents in eastern Ukraine? Potter doubts that it has anything to do with an affinity for the French-Canadian separatist movement.

“People there tend not to travel. It’s a very insular place. They don’t even travel to western Ukraine, let alone pay attention to language politics in Canada,” said Potter.


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