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Has Putin triggered a linguistic shift in Ukraine?

Ukraine is fighting for its language against the aggressor. Dreaming of “denazifying” Ukrainians, Putin gave a critical boost to their language and brought irreversible cultural changes. This will cement the Ukrainian national identity and build stronger resilience among the population.

September 23, 2022 - Pavlo Cherchatyi - Hot Topics

Photo: Vadven / Shutterstock

When asked, “What have you started doing more since the start of full-scale war?”, eight out of ten Ukrainians responded that they certainly started “speaking more Ukrainian”. This is followed by “donating money to the armed forces of Ukraine”, according to research conducted by the National Democratic Institute. At the same time, 83 per cent of Ukrainians want Ukrainian to be the only state language, while before the war 25 per cent supported Russian to be the second state language. This demonstrates a significant cultural shift in national self-determination that Ukraine has never experienced before. The war by far has become this catalyst that inspired millions of Ukrainians to rethink their cultural roots and identity.

Looking back at history, one might find it miraculous how the Ukrainian language survived after being banned more than 100 times by policies prohibiting its usage. Most of the bans were related to the policies of forced Russification aimed at eradicating the Ukrainian national identity. This went hand in hand with the mass killing of those who tried to defend Ukraine’s cultural values, in particular Ukrainian poets, civil society activists and thousands of dissidents sent to labour camps to perish. To extinguish the Ukrainian language was critically important for the Soviet and tsarist authorities and their goal not to allow what they called “little Russians” to create a distant political identity, which may have encouraged them to put forward political demands.

The Soviet strategy was to attempt to prove that Ukrainian language and culture were non-existent, artificial constructs and that Ukrainian was destined to soon unite into the language of Homo Sovieticus: Russian. In order to achieve this goal Soviet authorities deemed it necessary to kill or suppress everyone who stood against it. One of its opponents was Vasyl Stus, a famous Ukrainian dissident and writer who was arrested for allegedly “spreading anti-Soviet propaganda”. In reality, however, Vasyl supported Ukrainian culture and opposed the Soviet regime with his literary works.

Today, one can ponder the question: How culturally resilient would Ukraine be had, for instance, the Soviet authorities not carried out the famine of 1932-1933 where nearly four million Ukrainians perished or had thousands of Ukrainian dissidents survived the brutal Soviet repressions?

Since launching its full-scale war against Ukraine, Russia has followed a familiar logic by attempting to  eradicate everything Ukrainian. Not surprisingly, we have witnessed the deliberate destruction of Ukrainian schools, universities archives, and libraries, as well as the changing of all signs to Russian in the occupied territories. This is not even to mention the criminal killings of hundreds of activists in the town of Bucha or recently liberated Izium. These deliberate genocidal efforts follow the sole purpose, as Timothy Snyder argues, of controlling “the minds of Ukrainians and eliminating its future”.

For Vladimir Putin, as in the past, the rise of the Ukrainian language represents an existential threat. He fears that, with the development of a national consciousness in Ukraine, he could lose the ability to control the country for good. The popularity of Ukrainian language has experienced a significant upward trend since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. For instance, in 2016 the Ukrainian parliament introduced quotas for the usage of Ukrainian on TV and radio, which has dramatically increased the presence of the language in the media, while triggering hysteria among Russian propagandists.

In 2019, Ukrainians MPs adopted a comprehensive law to support the development of Ukrainian language in all spheres of life. Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher and scholar,  referred to the law as a “first systematic attempt”, since independence, to give the Ukrainian language a chance to grow “to weaken the colonial wounds”. The law obliges most citizens to know Ukrainian at workplaces and anchors the use of Ukrainian in the public sphere. These measures have had an effect, and by 2020 more than 70 per cent of Ukrainians considered the Ukrainian language to be an important attribute of its independence.

In an attempt to stop Ukraine’s irreversible cultural shift, Putin launched the “denazification” of Ukraine or, as he also argued in his speech,  the “final resolution of the Ukrainian question”. What “denazify” means in practice is to kill and torture those who speak and admire the Ukrainian language, embrace the uniqueness and distinctiveness of Ukrainian culture, and are ready to defend Ukrainian cultural values. Russia has prepared the list of those to be killed and already tortured to death hundreds of civilians in the de-occupied territories. Its genocidal behaviour has changed the attitude of many Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They started to switch back to the language of their ancestors, Ukrainian. 

Oleksandra, 34 years old and originally from Kharkiv, heads a young NGO specialising in communicating political reforms to citizens. She switched immediately from frequently speaking Russian to communicating in Ukrainian after February 24th:

“I want my child to be a native speaker of Ukrainian, that is why since the start of the war I have started taking intensive classes of Ukrainian with a professional linguist, as I am not a native speaker of Ukrainian myself. Over a few months of learning, I speak Ukrainian even better than some native speakers. I aspire to learn a literary Ukrainian language, the one our dissidents used to write in. Our language is our cultural weapon against the aggressor.”

Before the war, Ukrainian never defined one’s political views. Many Russian-speaking Ukrainian soldiers fought in Donbas and thousands protested during the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan Square in Kyiv, where nobody paid much attention to the language people spoke. After the war started, however, more and more Russian speakers started to switch to Ukrainian after seeing how Putin weaponised its usage, seeking to instrumentalise its language to attack Ukraine and to allegedly protect Russian speakers:

“I do not want to speak Russian any longer, as one of the narratives the Russian regime uses to justify the aggression is to protect the Russian speakers in Ukraine,” says Olena, a 23 year old who works for an international organization. She grew up in Kyiv speaking Russian, but switched to Ukrainian after Putin started the full-scale invasion.

The Russian aggression has triggered a significant cultural change among many people who grew up in predominantly Russian-speaking cities with a limited presence of Ukrainian in their environment. Valeria grew up in Zaporizhia, a city in the south-east of Ukraine, and is now fighting on the frontlines to defend Ukrainian culture:

“I was outraged that hearing Ukrainian within my city was a miracle. I understood that I wanted Ukrainian to be spoken in Ukraine, that the east and the west should not differ so much in the linguistic context. I understood that here there is no place for the language of the aggressor, and it is language that drives the change in national consciousness, a tool that will help Ukraine become stronger and more united. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, I have realised more the importance of the preservation of Ukrainian culture, its distribution and increase in ‘trendiness.’”

Maria, a 20 year old girl whose native city Lysychansk was fully devastated in July 2022 by Russia, used to read classic Russian literature. She did not believe that culture was somehow connected with politics until the start of the war. Now, she admires Ukrainian culture and language on her own:

“I used to believe that culture is detached from politics, it is created by geniuses, people from a utopia where everything is beautiful and ‘black’ does not exist … it was a perfect bubble that I had created for myself. While I was sceptical of Russian bloggers and singers, I did not attribute that to those geniuses. As the war started, my rage overwhelmed me so much that ‘no such culture’ can convince me that there are no exceptions among Russians. Now I am learning more about our own [Ukrainian] culture having fully switched to speaking Ukrainian. I work with the cultural media, and on my own ‘front’, I try to convince Ukrainians not to look for ‘another culture’ somewhere else, but fall in love with their own.”

The war has also changed the attitudes of many Ukrainians who live abroad towards the Ukrainian language. 25-year-old Olesya and a communications manager, grew up in a Russian-speaking family in Donetsk (occupied since 2014). Olesya argues that under no circumstances she wants to be associated with Russia while living abroad. Now, she only speaks Ukrainian in her daily life:

 “I don’t want to provoke thoughts that we have something in common, that we are brothers. After Russia invaded my county, I began to get sick of the Russian language. In particular, after the terror in Bucha, speaking or hearing Russian made me want to vomit, just physically. This language caused rejection. And then I switched completely to Ukrainian. I also realised that Russian was artificially imposed by the Soviet legacy to eradicate my native language. Now I want to work towards my origins, to my real mother tongue.”

Viktor has become a volunteer in a young NGO which helps to mitigate the implications of war. 28-years-old, he always embraced Ukrainian culture, although he found it hard to switch to Ukrainian before the war, as he did not feel enough support from his loved ones. The war has changed everything for him:

“After February 24th the wish to popularise the native culture was fostered by hatred towards Russia. This time the desire to switch to Ukrainian was obviously higher and support was coming from everywhere, at the same time the understanding of the uniqueness and importance of our cultural values was with me long before the full-scale war”.

Putin has targeted regions where Ukrainian identity is less rooted as the situation on the ground has demonstrated. Not surprisingly, the first regions to be occupied by Russia in 2014 were regions where Russian speakers constituted the majority, like Crimea and Donbas, with a weaker presence of Ukrainian culture. Never has Putin expressed in his speeches the willingness to “liberate” the west of Ukraine, which is mostly a Ukrainian-speaking region with a stronger Ukrainian identity. This is also confirmed by a US intelligence report, which found that Putin planned to leave “a rump Ukrainian state in the west” after occupying the whole of Ukraine. In Putin’s mind, Ukraine’s west is seen as populated with “irredeemable neo-Nazi Russophobes”. The region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where Ukrainian culture prospered. Yet, throughout history the Russian empire and the Soviet regime sought to eradicate it.

This is not to say that Putin would not annex this region if he had the chance, killing tens of thousands of people or at least making them flee in order to populate the region with a more loyal population from Russia. One can assume that Russia would want to occupy the west of Ukraine given patterns of its behaviour, which are very much reminiscent of the Russian empire that sought to occupy regions regardless of the ethnic identity of the population.

A recent tweet of Dmitry Medvedev to “liberate” Georgia, where Russian speakers constitute a small minority, serves as an alarming reminder that even culturally different states are not safe from Russian aggression. Another example are the Baltic states that were invaded by the Soviet Union and occupied during the Cold War. There were no Russian speakers in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in the 20th century, but the Soviet Union populated them over time with a more loyal Russian-speaking population. However, as it became clear with time, these regions never came to terms with the Soviet occupation and immediately escaped once the USSR collapsed, turning to the West and investing in their own identities.

The fact that more Ukrainians have started to return to the language of their ancestors gives ground for cautious optimism that the country will prevail and defend itself, while at the same time debunking Putin’s myths about Ukraine and Russia being “one nation”. As a source of inspiration, Ukraine could look at Finland, which lost almost 10 per cent of its territory and thousands of its people as a result of a Soviet attack 80 years ago. The Finns realised the critical importance of a “cultural umbrella” after the war and have been actively investing in their creative industry to provide Finnish language courses to everyone, develop its film industry, as well as publish books in the complex Finish language.

Ukraine is now fighting the biggest existential war in its history. In order to preserve its identity it should continue the fight on the cultural front. By nurturing its own culture, with the Ukrainian language as a key pillar, Ukrainians will help to discourage the aggressor in the long-run. It will make Ukraine more resilient in the event of a future war should Russia again dare to challenge Ukraine’s right to exist.

Pavlo Cherchatyi is a civic activist researching democracy and governance issues in Ukraine. He graduated from the University of Tartu.

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the RITA – “Region in Transition” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

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