The Language Switchout

The war has forced Ukrainians to reexamine relationships with their neighbor to the east. While economic and political issues may come to mind first, for many Ukrainians ties to Russia are rooted in the ways they communicate with members of their community. Most Ukrainians living in the eastern part of the country speak Russian as their native language. Studies have estimated that one-third of the entire country claims Russian as their first language. Yet even before the most recent invasion both the government and individuals have tried to distance themselves from speaking the language of the invader.

In 1989, only two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian became the official language of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. Since Ukraine declared independence in 1991, and especially after the 2014 Euro-Maidan revolution, the government has made it a priority to ensure the Ukrainian language is further embedded in the country’s culture. In 2017, the parliament passed a law mandating that Ukrainian be used in all state-funded secondary schools. Just this past year a provision came into place that requires all registered media outlets to publish in Ukrainian. Any news printed in Russian must also be accompanied by a Ukrainian version.

While measures have been implemented at a federal level to ensure that future generations can speak their nation’s tongue, some individuals have taken it upon themselves to make Ukrainian their first language. A professor at a university in the western city of Lviv established a language club to teach internally displaced people, many of whom speak Russian, the Ukrainian language. More than 800 people signed up in the first three days. Even some who are living in the eastern city of Kharkiv, a city with strong contemporary ties to Russia, have shunned their native language in favor of Ukrainian.

The move away from Russian extends beyond the borders of Ukraine. There has been an intentional effort to translate the Ukrainian names of cities when reporting on the war. For example, using “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev” or “Kharkiv” not “Kharkov.” While individuals are certainly free to make their own choices, non-profit organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, have raised concerns that the Ukrainian government’s new laws will isolate minority speakers in the country.

One of Putin’s chief claims for the invasion of Ukraine has been to “defend Russian speakers.” While claims of violent persecution against Russian speakers are unfounded, the government has made it clear that the future language of the country is Ukrainian. The Russian will have a presence in Ukraine for the foreseeable future, but the result of both policy decisions and individual choices will mean the language will be spoken far less frequently.


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