The Hill

Einbeck is a city in Germany with about 31,000 inhabitants. It survived the Thirty Years’ War, lived through Kristallnacht in 1938 and had the good fortune of becoming part of West Germany after World War II. Few Americans — or, one suspects, Germans — have probably heard of it.

Until Aug. 26 of this year, when the city made headlines all over Germany. Here’s the press release that served as the basis of the newspaper accounts:

The Public Prosecutor’s Office in Göttingen has initiated an investigation of attempted manslaughter by an unknown person as a result of an attack on August 26, 2023, at around 6:40 pm on a 10-year-old Ukrainian boy in Einbeck on the Reinserturmweg Bridge. According to the results of the police investigation so far, several Ukrainian children were in the area of the bridge when a still unknown man complained that the children were speaking Ukrainian. They should speak Russian instead. Then he said that Ukraine had started the war. He is said to have pulled a girl’s hair and then grabbed a 10-year-old boy and thrown him over the railing into the canal. The boy hit the iron girders attached to the bridge. As a result, he was injured in the head and left foot. While the boy was lying in the canal, the unknown perpetrator is said to have thrown a glass bottle at him, which hit the victim in the area of the right shoulder. The unknown perpetrator then left the crime scene. The approximately 40-45 year old man is said to have worn a blue T-shirt, a black cap and denim shorts.

According to the Rheinische Post, the man spoke Russian.

The investigation is continuing, and we may soon learn who the assailant was. In the meantime, we know only that a Russian-speaking man allegedly attacked a young girl and tried to kill a young boy for speaking Ukrainian.

The man was in all likelihood Russian, but he could have also been a politically pro-Russian though ethnically Ukrainian, Belarusian or some other Caucasian non-Russian. Whatever his nationality, we may surely conclude that he supports Russia in its war against Ukraine as well as Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin.

The assailant and his assault are metonyms for Putin and his war. In both cases, the assault appears to have had nothing to do with some putative threat that Ukraine or the little boy posed, and everything to do with the assailant’s twisted hatred of everything Ukrainian, especially the language and culture.

When Putin’s Russia invaded in 2014 and again in 2022, Ukraine was not a NATO member, had no chance of becoming a NATO member for decades to come and lacked the capability to threaten Russia’s security. But, like the little boy, whose only offense was speaking in Ukrainian in a West German city, Ukraine wanted to be both Ukrainian and Western. And that sufficed for

Putin to have unleashed a genocidal war, just as that sufficed for the deranged man to have tossed the boy into a canal.

This isn’t the first time that speaking Ukrainian has provoked Russians or Russian speakers to express their outrage. It was standard practice in the Soviet Union for people who dared to speak Ukrainian in public to be told to “speak human.” And, as often happens in colonial settings where subordinate populations hope to ingratiate themselves with their imperial masters, the perpetrators of such intolerance were as often Sovietized ethnic Ukrainians as they were Russians.

The Soviet Union’s nationality policy actively promoted the Russian language and just as actively demoted the languages of the non-Russian nations; the goal was to make Russian the language of high politics, high society and high culture, and to confine all other tongues to kitchens, villages and dusty museums.

The openly colonial intent produced a backlash among dissidents, especially in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia, but it was not entirely unsuccessful in creating a “Soviet people” consisting of dominant Russians who viewed the empire as theirs and subordinate non-Russians who gladly served the metropolis in exchange for certain privileges. In this, and so many other respects, the USSR was a colonial empire like those of the British, French and Spanish.

As the Einbeck incident illustrates, and as Putin’s propaganda machine ceaselessly claims, many Russians — perhaps most Russians — still suffer from that imperial mentality that prevents them from seeing Ukrainians and other non-Russians as genuine human beings with voices, and tongues, of their own.

Small wonder that thousands of ethnic Ukrainians who had been indifferent to which language they spoke before the 2022 re-invasion have abandoned Russian for Ukrainian. Small wonder as well that Ukraine’s government and intellectual class are actively pursuing policies of “decolonization.” Streets, cities, towns and villages are being renamed, monuments torn down or reconfigured, and Ukrainian language and culture promoted.

There is no alternative, as the former colonies of the Global South know full well. Like them, Ukrainians know that the only thing standing between them and imperial subordination is their identity.

That 10-year old boy and his friends will continue to speak Ukrainian and they will continue to play near that bridge. Their assailant, like Putin, made the targets of his assault into patriots.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”