Russian and Ukrainian: The Long Story of Two Languages at War

Marina Sorina
Writer and translator


Now that Ukraine has become a matter of interest for many Europeans, questions arise that need to be answered, starting from the most basic one: why are there so many people speaking Russian in the territory of Ukraine? Besides Russians who migrated to Ukraine recently in order to escape from Putin’s regime, there are native Russian speakers, born in Ukraine although not necessarily of Russian origin. Among them, there are Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Moldavians, followed by mixed families, and ethnic Ukrainians who have chosen to abandon their own language. This choice is a result of a centuries-long intentional strategy of cancellation of Ukrainian, perpetrated first by imperial Russia (and to a certain extent by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland), and later by the Soviet government. Cancelling something so immaterial as a language, which actually cannot be totally controlled, and is something intrinsically free and private, is not an easy task; that’s why the rulers of Ukrainian land used all means possible to achieve its disappearance.

The first level of oppression regarded the ecclesiastical sphere. Starting from the 18th century, the Tsars regularly ordered the physical destruction of religious books that contained sermons, prayers or theological works in Ukrainian, by burning them or tearing off certain pages.

The next level of persecution regarded the educational system. Gradually, all types and grades of schooling in Ukrainian were forced to choose the Russian language as the main vehicle of knowledge.

Another important strategy regarded literature: publishing books in Ukrainian was strictly censored. Moscow banned printing, importing and translating Ukrainian literature. This obviously limited the possibilities of development of Ukrainian literature, scientific research, and didactics.

Gradually the government of the Russian Empire went on to regulate even such innocent pastimes as choir folk singing, geographic societies and theatre, which were subject to bans. Even celebrating centenaries of famous Ukrainian writers was prohibited.

All these bureaucratic measures would often turn out to be inefficient, due both to corruption of the governmental officials and to the crafty ways the Ukrainians found to promote their agenda. The government realized that legal ways were not enough and started to act against persons who were creating and spreading Ukrainian culture. Therefore, during the 19th century, they arrested many of the most prominent Ukrainian writers and intellectuals and enticed those who, like Mykola Hohol’ (better known as Nikolai Gogol’) chose to collaborate. Economic methods of repression (for example, restricting the number of teachers employed in an academy in Kyiv, thereby pushing the unemployed teachers to move to Moscow) went along with severe personal repressions, leading to arrest and imprisonments.

The October Revolution in 1917 was supposed to have freed the nations oppressed by the Russian Empire, but very soon it turned out that these were just empty slogans. The new ways of oppression, hidden behind international rhetoric and enforced by modern technologies of control, were ever crueler. The Soviet government allowed a generation of young Ukrainian-speaking writers and researchers to emerge, just to destroy them about ten years later when Stalinist repressions started to spread out. 

Once they had exterminated most of the Ukrainian intellectuals, they proceeded to embed those who were left in the Soviet educational and cultural system, subject to strict regulation by the Communist party. From that moment on, the Soviets could act more boldly in the field of forced russification, knowing there would be no one to protest. This method was applied specifically to linguists, who used to work on the description of the norms of the Ukrainian language and the compilation of a modern dictionary of Ukrainian. Had it been completed, it would have been very helpful for the further development of the language. Unfortunately, all their endeavors were doomed to be abandoned and forgotten.

Over the 1930s, the Soviets killed and starved to death millions of Ukrainian peasants, who were the largest group of native Ukrainian speakers. Once deported or killed, their households were taken over by Russian peasants from inner provinces. Those who managed to survive preferred to move to larger towns to look for jobs. Soon they realised that it was wiser to adopt Russian as the main language, hiding their identity and blending in with the Russians.

The Russian language was perceived as the only key to career advancement, while Ukrainian became the language of uncultured peasants or eccentric protesters. This perception, that externally could be mistaken for the natural and logical result of a community of Soviet nations”, was instead a carefully and intentionally engineered process, directed at strengthening the domination of the Russian nation.

Once this division was firmly established as common sense in the Soviet population, they moved to a deeper level of influence, acting directly on the language itself. Philologists loyal to the regime issued articles which aimed at purifying” the language from foreign influence and “archaic” forms: the thesaurus of words in their selection suspiciously resembled the Russian language. All their efforts were aimed at presenting Ukrainian as a weird local variety of Russian, just as the Ukraine” was supposed to become barely a periphery of Mother Russia. A communication tool that had been created by generations of Ukrainians, against all odds, was going to be confined as a kind of folkloristic ornament, necessary only to prove that the minor nationalities” are respected. 

That is how in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s there were official Soviet writers who praised Lenin and Stalin in Ukrainian, double-language personal documents, folkloristic choirs with very limited repertoires, satirical magazines and cartoons for kids, along with other forms of de-potentiated existence of the Ukrainian language, which stopped being innovative or expressing national characteristics.

Soon it became self-evident (and confirmed legally): there was no sense in translating scientific research or technical documentation into Ukrainian; no need to teach it at school or to discuss doctoral theses in this language. The most brilliant Ukrainian minds dreamt of moving to Moscow. Certainly, there still existed university faculties of Ukrainian, but their aspirations were quite modest, aiming at training teachers for the countryside. If somebody who was not of peasant origin tried to enroll at a faculty of Ukrainian language and literature, they would be probably treated with suspicion; actually, not many enthusiasts were trying to study Ukrainian.

Clearly, such politics could lead to only one result: the idea of the supremacy of Russian over Ukrainian stayed in the minds of many citizens even after the fall of the Soviet state. Officially, the independence of Ukraine was declared in 1991, and some very soft measures for the promotion of the national language were taken. In the meantime, the rules of free market took over the role that communist ideology had had. This implied that it was more advantageous for Ukrainian publishers and producers to create content in Russian, so it would be sold in more than one market. Different Ukrainian governments tried to introduce regulatory laws, which were more or less friendly to Russian, but the process of introducing Ukrainian as the first language was very slow. 

For example, the number of Ukrainian schools was slowly growing, but the Russian language was still predominant both at school and university level in many regions; in most Ukrainian-speaking regions, Russian was still taught as a foreign language starting from middle school. Ukrainians often went to Russia to look for a job or for higher education, there were no clear fixed borders between the two cultures, and it continued this way even after the beginning of the war in February 2014. The activists who insisted on the need to legally protect the status of Ukrainian as the language of the state, and limit the influence of Russian by regulating percentages of books, songs, films, serials, and newspapers produced, sold or broadcast in this language on Ukrainian land, were considered as weirdos.

In 2019, President Petro Poroshenko, whose electoral program was based on faith, language and army” lost the elections to Russian-speaking Volodymyr Zelensky who was convinced that the war could be stopped by diplomatic talks. He himself used to work in Russia as a stand-up comedian, side by side with Russian pop-stars loyal to Putin. And yet, once he became the head of the state, he carried on some of the initiatives of the previous government and approved the language law, initiated by Poroshenko. That much debated law stated that, just as in any other European country, there would be only one language of state, while such languages as Russian, Hungarian, Polish and so on would be considered as languages of minorities, which they actually are. The Ukrainian language was to be the only one allowed in Parliament, in governmental and municipal offices. 

It became obligatory to use it in private companies, and if there was any contact with clients involved, it was mandatory to initiate the interaction in Ukrainian, which could then be changed to another language on request of the client. For example, a sales-person in McDonalds is supposed to address the client in Ukrainian, and only in the case that the client declares that they do not understand it, is it possible to reply in English, French, German or Russian, which become equal foreign, external languages, without any privilege for Russian.

This measure might seem strange for people outside Ukraine, as it is obvious that, at first, staff in public-facing roles in France will speak French, in Greece they will speak Greek, and once they realise you are a foreigner, they will try to find a common language. It’s hardly possible to imagine an immigrant who opens a shop in a country, but refuses to serve clients who speak that country’s main language, and is moreover rude with them! Strange as it may sound, such situations were quite common in Ukraine. Service personnel often insisted on speaking Russian and pretended not to be able to understand a Ukrainian-speaking client. All this was still happening 30 years after the declaration of independence! Some people even dared say that they were unable to learn Ukrainian because their jaw is anatomically different, which is quite absurd considering that phonetically there’s no radical difference between the two languages. For sure, what can be expressed in one can be said just as well in the other.

Yet after all these years, the Ukrainian government tried to be realistic. They knew that there are millions of people who are not used to speaking Ukrainian. In order to help Russian-speaking citizens in this transition, they offered free-of-charge Ukrainian language courses or speaking clubs, in order to allow anyone to learn. They have also limited broadcasts, arriving from the neighbour countries, and bringing in poisonous imperialistic ideology along with musical shows and serials. For the politicians from Moscow, all this was too much: they considered that the interests of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are a matter for their concern and a sufficient reason for military intervention.

What happened next? At dawn on 24 February 2022, the Ukrainians were able to witness the expressions of brotherly love” that the Russian people have shown with missiles and tanks on peaceful streets. It was the fastest language learning course ever: blood on the streets and bombs on their roofs pushed the Russian-speaking Ukrainians to wake up and realise that somehow Russian does not feel like their mother tongue” anymore. It became the language of the enemy, the language of the aggressor, or rather, it has always been, but no one dared to notice, save for a few dissidents. This simple fact was quite difficult to realize for the majority of citizens, who were induced into a desire to speak perfect Russian by centuries of deliberate strategies of discriminating against any alternative. After the full-scale invasion, the Russian language, so dear and so much connected with their identity, childhood memories and life-long habits, became bitter-sour. In times of distress, studying a new language is barely feasible, but Ukrainian was actually not totally new to anyone, not even to Russian-speaking families who immigrated to Ukraine from putinist Russia in the search for freedom and democracy. They all learned Ukrainian with ease, just like any well-motivated immigrant looking for integration does.

Even easier was the return to the state language for those Ukrainians who had shunned Ukrainian, the language they had heard their mothers and grandmothers talk, but were discouraged from carrying on speaking. The barriers that withheld them were mainly psychological and not linguistic, and the return to the mother tongue was somehow liberatory. It was more difficult for those who belonged to other nationalities, and had long forgotten their ancestral tongue, as happened to me. Being Jewish, hypothetically I am supposed to speak Hebrew or Yiddish, but my first language is Russian, followed by Italian and English. Diving into school-time memories and dragging my Ukrainian to the surface was not easy, and shame and fear of imperfections were among the main hindrances. Thanks to the refugees that I happened to interact with, I somehow managed to overcome my inner barriers. Listening to Ukrainian-speaking bloggers, taking classes, reading and translating modern poetry helped me to improve, and now this language does not feel strange or complicated, although I’m very far from being at a good level in my speaking habits. The same path is being followed right now by many of my fellow Russian-speaking friends who chose to stand by Ukraine in this fight for democracy.

In the moment when the social status of the two languages radically changed, to the detriment of Russian, the communicative habits of the Ukrainians have dramatically changed. Clearly, in private conversations the old habit prevails, but in new contacts or in official situations people tend to use Ukrainian as a marker that puts a barrier between our people” and the enemy. The side-effect of the military invasion that was meant to protect Russian speakers has led to the fact that the very same category of speakers has become averse to their own language, seen now as a tool of vile propaganda and blind violence.

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