Why Ukrainians Are Speaking More Ukrainian

As the war with pro-Russian separatists grinds on, many Ukrainians are turning to the Ukrainian language as a badge of national self-identification.

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It’s been 16 months since the first Ukrainian soldier was shot by Russian troops in soon-to-be occupied Crimea. Since then, Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has presented the country’s Russian-speaking population with some tricky questions about identity. “I’m afraid of speaking Russian now, because Putin might want to protect me” — that became the frequently repeated joke last year after the Russian president made it clear he considered Russian-speakers in Ukraine to be endangered by Kiev’s new government.

Now many Russian speakers in Ukraine — who live primarily in the country’s east and in large cities — are demonstratively turning to Ukrainian as a badge of self-identification. A concise tutorial on how to switch from Russian to Ukrainian, written by a Kiev blogger, has earned thousands of shares and reposts. Patriotic Russian-speakers in Kiev and big eastern cities are pledging on social networks to speak Ukrainian to their children, hoping to make the next generation more fluent and natural speakers of their native tongue. For the first time in decades, speaking Ukrainian is seen as fashionable rather than backward.

Ukraine’s strong civil society has also been an important factor in “socializing” the country’s adult population into using Ukrainian. Amid the dire lack of state-funded support for life-long education, dozens of organizations and initiatives teach the language to adults across the country. Activists say the bulk of their students came in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution and the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Most of the students, says an organizer of the biggest course in Kiev, are 30-to-50-somethings. Free Ukrainian courses have mushroomed in big, mostly Russian-speaking cities such as Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Kramatorsk and Odessa. However, they’ve also popped up in Lviv and Vinnytsia, Ukrainian-speaking cities where many people displaced from Crimea and the east have settled.

The media landscape is also unmistakably becoming more Ukrainian. Granted, the traditional media are still somewhat dominated by Russian: two of the top three TV channels broadcast their evening news and most entertainment programs in Russian. Most high-circulation weekly magazines are published in Russian. However, the emergence of powerful Internet-based news outlets is bucking the trend. Ukrainian-language web-based TV, most notably Hromadske.TV and Espreso, have few Russian-language competitors of comparable quality, although the former has started to produce programs in Russian.

Since over half of Ukrainians regularly use the Internet, the social media is turning into another channel of “Ukrainization,” especially of the middle class. Top bloggers writing in Ukrainian on Facebook and Twitter are boosting their follower bases, and many Ukrainian Internet users are starting to abandon platforms based in Russia, such as VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. A controversy over Facebook blocking Ukrainian-created content, allegedly by Russian citizens staffing tech support teams in Dublin, provoked calls to write more in Ukrainian as a way to insulate the “Ukrainian” blogosphere from Russian interference. Discussing politics in Ukrainian makes it harder for Russian trolls to chip in.

The gravitational pull of the Ukrainian language is making a mark on business, too. For the first time, Ukrainian pop music is selling better than Russian. A popular chain of coffee shops, Lviv Handmade Chocolate, has made waitresses and baristas that serve customers only in Ukrainian into a signature policy, yet the chain is popular across the whole country. Roman Matys, a Ukrainian activist, campaigns for companies to include labels and documentation in Ukrainian in addition to Russian, and several large companies have yielded to his group’s petitions.

For the past twenty years, state education policy has been to promote Ukrainian in schools without directly impending the use of Russian. Ukraine’s post-Soviet governments, even pro-Russian ones, treated secondary education in Ukrainian as a generous concession to national-minded activists. While only 47 percent of Ukrainian schools taught in Ukrainian at the end of Soviet rule in the 1980s, that rate steadily increased to 75 percent in 2004 and 86 percent in 2013. And as Ukrainian has become the principal teaching language at leading universities, schoolkids and their parents perceive it as more of a priority, even if they use Russian at home.

The trend was not reversed even after the passage of the 2012 “language law,” which provided for greater use of Russian on the regional level. Legislative initiatives pertaining to the language use have been politicized since the Maidan revolution as well. Parliament’s attempt to repeal the controversial language law in February 2014 (which was rejected by a presidential veto) was used as a rallying call by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is still a bilingual country. But the Ukrainization phenomenon is not just anecdotal — survey data shows that, in the last decade, the country’s linguistic landscape has undergone a visible change. In 2005, 42 percent of Ukrainians claimed that they spoke mostly Ukrainian at home. By 2011, 53 percent said they spoke it in their everyday lives. Since most of them are perfectly fluent in Russian as well, the 11 percent upsurge, representing at least 5 million people, reflects the share of Ukrainian society that has switched from Russian to Ukrainian. The Euromaidan revolution and conflict with Russia accelerated that trend: a poll conducted in May 2015 shows that almost 60 percent of the population prefer to use Ukrainian in everyday communication.

This burgeoning popularity of Ukrainian, especially among the youth and the middle class, is having unifying effects on the country’s social structures. It facilitates social mobility between the east and the west. Many western Ukrainian students are bringing their Ukrainian to universities in Kiev and the big eastern cities. Young IT and service professionals who move from Kharkiv or Dnipropetrovsk to Lviv tend to bring Ukrainian into their everyday lives, despite Lviv’s tolerance for Russian speakers.

The revival of Ukrainian is only one of many societal upshots in the Ukrainian-Russian war. Yet, as Ukrainian-savvy children come of age and the middle class starts to pay more for Ukrainian products and services, it may well become one of the most durable ones. Along with the blue-and-yellow flag and the embroidered traditional shirts so often seen in the streets in this trying time for Ukraine, the Ukrainian language is set to become a cherished, and practiced, national symbol.

Photo credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

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