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Language and Identity in Ukraine

Although speaking English is accepted in Dnipropetrovsk, speaking Ukrainian rather than Russian is not. Lviv, however, is a mecca for Ukrainian speakers and a place in which Ukraine’s official language is cultivated and spoken.

June 18, 2012 - Tomasz Kułakowski - Articles and Commentary



The lives of three young Ukrainians in search of their linguistic roots illustrate the struggle between the use of Russian and Ukrainian in Ukraine.

At a café on a side street off the market square in Lviv, a pile of newspapers lies on the table. Otar Dovzhenko, a 31-year-old media expert and freelance journalist, takes a look at the papers, all of which were published in Ukraine: Kommersant Ukraine, Korrespondent, Focus, Ukrayinski Tyzhden, Krayina, Vysokyi Zamok. Most of them are exclusively in Russian.

“Have you read the interview with Vitali Klitschko?” Otar is asked.

“No, I haven’t. I don’t read Russian language newspapers for fun,” Otar responds, setting the Korrespondent aside. This week’s front page features the boxing champion and politician, Vitali Klitschko. His party is the country’s fifth largest political force and will probably get some of its representatives into the parliament after the elections this autumn.

Otar, Oleksandr and Olena

Otar reads the Russian language press for research purposes only. He lived in Kyiv for two years and later ran a Lviv-based magazine. He also worked for Telekrytyka, an influential non-governmental organisation which monitors the media in Ukraine and was the editor of its periodical. However, a conflict with his employer forced him to resign from his position as editor-in-chief and leave Telekrytyka.

He is now working for a Kyiv-based media outlet as a freelancer. He lives in Lviv with his wife and two children but makes a living in the capital. The royalties for a text in Kyiv are three times higher than in Lviv, where the rent is four times less. Otar comes from Dnipropetrovsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine with over a million inhabitants. He says that he moved because he wanted to live in a Ukrainian-speaking community, among fellow Ukrainians aware of their culture and language.

“I was twenty years old and studying journalism at Dnipropetrovsk National University. But during the third year I dropped out and decided to leave the city. I didn’t think I would end up in Lviv, but I had friends here. I had some savings and for the first few months I rented a flat with a friend who had also come from Dnipropetrovsk,” he recalls.

Oleksandr Mandelina, a 24-year-old computer programmer also from Dnipropetrovsk, followed the path set by Otar and came to Lviv in the autumn of 2010 after graduating in mathematics, also at Dnipropetrovsk National University. The decision came much easier for him because his mother had been born in Lviv.

“I often came here when I was a student and explored the historical part of the city. I wanted to move here permanently and be a citizen of Lviv rather than just a tourist. When the opportunity came after my graduation, it did not take me long to make the decision,” he explains. The young programmer wanted to live in a city where no one would ask him why he spoke Ukrainian.

“Life is better here, not only thanks to the fact that people speak Ukrainian. There are bonds between generations and the citizens of Lviv who regard themselves as masters of their own land. My grandparents live here, along with my mother’s brother and cousins. In Dnipropetrovsk, everybody wants to make money and join the rat race. Lviv is much more provincial but I also have more time for culture. There are some nice cafés with an artistic ambience where you can listen to good music rather than Russian pop,” he says.

“I have been speaking fluent Ukrainian for the last five years and living in Lviv for the last three years. After coming here I actually started to think in Ukrainian. But I am bilingual and use Russian every day to edit news for a website called the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU). I also speak Russian in my native region,” reveals Olena Kulygina.

Olena is a 29-year-old journalist specialising in religious issues and comes from Nova Kakhovka, a town on the Dnieper River in the Kherson Oblast of southern Ukraine.

“Nova Kakhovka has about 70,000 inhabitants. Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Communist Party came up with the idea of building a city of progressive socialism from scratch, without churches or religious symbols,” says Olena.

“I am a Protestant, although my parents are Orthodox and baptised me an Orthodox Christian. They only belong to it nominally, though, because they never attend any services. Lenin was the subject of worship in Nova Kakhovka,” she says.

Origins of Russification

Ever since they were children, Otar, Oleksandr and Olena have asked themselves who they were, which culture was closer to their hearts, and which language they should communicate in. Questions about identity, to which they have long since found answers, are being asked by a growing number of Ukrainians all over the country, both in Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking regions. These questions multiply with every successive spring since the independence of Ukraine.

The origins of the Russification of eastern Ukraine are usually traced back to 1654 when Bohdan Khmelnytsky gave Ukraine to Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Pereyaslav. After the Zaporozhian Sich was liquidated in 1775, the Ukrainian language only survived in the countryside.

Russian was the official language in the cities built by the Russian Empire. The cities imposed identity onto their citizens through power, culture, and the Orthodox Church. Russification was accompanied by the urbanisation of Ukraine as a province of the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century. Promoters of the Ukrainian language, such as the great poet Taras Shevchenko and other members of the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, were submitted to brutal repression. The Russians put constraints on Ukrainian academia, publishers and culture. By settling in cities, some peasants chose the Russian culture and language, thus freeing themselves from the threat of persecution. Ukrainian was treated as a language for “home use only”.

In the Soviet Union, communicating in Ukrainian was interpreted as an expression of “bourgeois nationalism”. It was the language of the “Banderists”, followers of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the Second World War in the armed struggle for Ukrainian independence against the Soviets, the Germans and the Poles. Russification was replaced by Sovietisation along with religious suppression and ideological indoctrination. Activists who fought for the Ukrainian culture and language were put in prisons or mental hospitals, or were subjected to other forms of repression. As a result, the Ukrainian language became a sacred symbol uniting or dividing Ukrainian society, rather than a means of a communication.

The split mind

Otar was six years old when he realised that another language existed. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Otar became interested in history and he understood that there was something wrong: he was living in Ukraine but communicating in Russian.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, very few people thought about who they were and what their country was. At that time there were two types of Ukrainians: communists and democrats. I ‘Ukrainianised’ myself on my own by reading Ukrainian writers and poets. At first, my parents were sceptical about my childish fantasies. Later, once I had become an adult, they started to understand and respect my choice. Now they also perceive themselves as being Ukrainian, although they still stick to the Russian language,” Otar explains.

In the Soviet Union, Olena’s parents worked in a factory producing armaments for Moscow. They had stable jobs, an apartment, a decent standard of living and have good memories from that time. Olena’s grandmother has remained an ardent communist and always votes for “the Reds”. She is convinced that it is a good party, due to the fact that life was good in Soviet times, while it is now every man for himself.

“These were the circumstances in which I started searching for my identity. I am not even sure myself where this urge came from. My parents have nothing to do with the Ukrainian language. They even called me a ‘Banderist’, although I had no idea who Bandera was. But I was allowed to make important decisions for myself,” Olena says.

Oleksandr’s search for his roots was made easier by the fact that his mother is from Lviv. “We only spoke Ukrainian at home, and Russian outside. Even by the time I went to kindergarten I had a split mind. I didn’t understand why I was speaking two similar, but different languages. Primary school was Ukrainian in name only, and external pressure made me feel ashamed of being a Ukrainian speaker. They even asked me at school if I was ashamed that I didn’t speak Russian.”

Olena only started to use Ukrainian during her studies in journalism at Kharkiv National University. Her Ukrainian speaking peers spoke a sophisticated language and had broad intellectual horizons.

“I was interested in everything connected with Ukrainian history and culture, and was searching for my roots,” she says.

A few years previously, Otar also had a Ukrainian-speaking group of friends which he met with in his apartment. They had open discussions and did not regard each other as eccentrics.

“However, it was an artificially created community, for after leaving my home, my friends all switched back into Russian,” Otar says. “In 1999, I got an internet connection and started chatting in Ukrainian with my peers in Lviv. I was amazed that they had such a beautiful command of literary Ukrainian. In Dnipropetrovsk I felt isolated. The second term of Leonid Kuchma’s presidency was beginning and there was no hope that his era would ever end.”


Otar admits, “You can speak English in Dnipropetrovsk but not Ukrainian, as you would come across as a nationalist. This is why I moved to Lviv. It is the only city in Ukraine where Ukrainian speakers feel at home.”

The Ukrainian language dominates on the streets, and the inhabitants of Lviv and its surrounding areas are attached to their own history, culture and tradition.

“In Lviv, radicalism is on the decline,” Oleksandr believes. “I have even developed an interest in Russia literature. I am no longer hostile towards Russian culture. I don’t sense hostility on the part of a Russia ‘wanting to occupy the Ukraine’. I am at home, I feel safe.”

“I’ve stopped fighting against my fellow Russian-speaking Ukrainians,” Otar says, “but if I was able to press a button that said ‘Ukrainianisation’, I would do it. For now, my sphere of influence is my family. Therefore my two sons only hear Ukrainian at home and express themselves in this language.”

Otar finishes his coffee and leaves the café in Lviv. He is eager to go back to his family and take them for a walk. When he arrived in Lviv ten years ago, he explored these narrow cobblestoned streets and could hardly believe that access to such places was free.

Tomasz Kułakowski is a Polish journalist and the Moscow correspondent for Polsat News. He is a regular contributor to Nowa Europa Wschodnia

Translated by Tomasz Bieroń

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