Speed Reads

Foreign affairs

Why George H.W. Bush stopped calling Ukraine 'The Ukraine'

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Due to recent (and ongoing) events, the arrival of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, by Professor of Ukrainian History Serhii Plokhy, feels about as timely as any history book ever could.

In fact, it's hard to read Plokhy and not gain insight into modern times. For example, he recalls that even around the time of the Soviet Union's collapse, while Russians were basically split over the question of Lithuanian independence, "only 22 percent of Russians favored Ukrainian independence, while almost 60 percent were opposed."

And for those interested in debates over what might be described as pedantic semantics, there's an interesting history on the linguistic debate that took place prior to President George H.W. Bush's visit, over whether or not to refer to Ukraine as The Ukraine:

Jack Matlock [the American ambassador in Moscow], who was shown the text of the speech that Bush was scheduled to deliver later that day in the Ukrainian parliament, protested to one of the speechwriters against the use of the definite article with 'Ukraine.' "Make sure the president leaves out the article. He should just say 'Ukraine.' Ukrainian Americans think the article makes it sound like a geographic area rather than a country." The speechwriter protested, "But we say 'the United States,' don't we?" But Matlock eventually prevailed. His argument was not linguistic but political: If the president says 'the Ukraine,' the White House will be getting thousands of letters and telegrams in protest next week." [The Last Empire]

Interestingly, the speech still managed to cause problems back home, becoming derisively known as the "Chicken Kiev speech." But it had nothing to do with the definite article.

With Russia and Ukraine back in the news, it feels like everything old is new again. Two decades later, Americans are still struggling with the definite article.