Now, when the Soviet Union broke apart, tens of millions of Russians suddenly found themselves living in foreign countries, like Latvia and Ukraine. Moscow says Ukraine's Russian speakers are an embattled minority whose linguistic rights are under threat, and Ukraine's government worries that could become a rationale for Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine, where many Russian speakers live.

NPR's Gregory Warner was in that region and found that the Russian-Ukrainian linguistic divide is not so clear-cut. The evidence: an American cartoon on television.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The Simpsons...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bart) (Foreign language spoken)

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Misha Kostin was just 11 years old when he fell in love with "The Simpsons."


WARNER: Now, Kostin is a 21-year-old building engineer in the city of Donetsk, in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Kostin, too, is a Russian speaker. But when he downloads "The Simpsons" - and he still does - he and his friends prefer the version dubbed in Ukrainian.

MISHA KOSTIN: I have friends, and they talk in Russian, think in Russian. Their parents talk in Russian language. But "Simpsons"? They like in Ukrainian, too. (Laughter)

WARNER: It's funnier in Ukrainian, he says, even the name Homer.

KOSTIN: In Ukrainian, it sounds Homer. It sounds...


WARNER: Wait. How does it sound in Russian?

KOSTIN: Homer.

WARNER: And in Ukrainian?

KOSTIN: Homer.

WARNER: Wait, wait. Do them both again.

WARNER: OK. To judge for yourself, here's Marge talking to Homer in Russian.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Marge) (Russian spoken)

WARNER: And here again, in Ukrainian.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Marge) (Ukrainian spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Homer) Marge!

WARNER: Now, if you still don't get the joke, just take the word of Vladimir Lykov. He's creative director of an animation studio in Donetsk. He says his Russian-speaking friends all prefer their "Simpsons" - and their "Family Guy," he adds - served up in Ukrainian, especially those people under 35, who grew up outside the shadow of the Soviet Union. They like being bilingual.

VLADIMIR LYKOV: (Through translator) Unfortunately, it is usually very important for the media to show that only Russians live here, and only Ukrainians live in western Ukraine. Actually, people here have no trouble understanding both languages. And Ukrainian is even funnier for Russian speakers. It's got some cleverer slang.

WARNER: He blames a media controlled by oligarchs, and Ukrainian politicians from east and west of the country, for exaggerating the language divide. He says it's always easier to stoke language fears than address real problems, like the lack of jobs or the stumbling economy.

LYKOV: (Through translator) It's always been this way - this constantly present rhetoric of our politicians - all the 20 years of independence.

WARNER: So the propaganda today out of Moscow that tells Russian speakers here that they're under siege is only treading ground that was already laid by domestic politicians. So might "The Simpsons" - which has been in existence longer than Ukraine has been independent - be a small counterforce to unite this divided country? Unfortunately, the Ukrainian-dubbed "Simpsons" stopped airing on television in Donetsk five years ago. No one could tell me exactly why, but it was right around when former President Viktor Yanukovych, from this eastern region, took power. It's all Russian now.

Gregory Warner, NPR News.


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