Kharkiv on country’s eastern border has long had Russian-speaking majority but things are changing fast

By Charlotte Higgins and Artem Mazhulin

24 Apr 2023

The Guardian


In a gallery in the Kharviv Literary Museum, its usual contents now packed and evacuated for safety, a group of women sat in a row, smart and eager. Behind them, leaning back in his chair, arms folded, was a tall, gaunt figure in a military jacket and high-laced boots.

It was the first meeting – modest in scale but enthusiastic in tone – of a new bi-monthly Ukrainian language club for Kharkiv’s Russian speakers.

“Let’s introduce ourselves,” said the teacher. “But let’s do it indirectly.” Her name, she explained with a suitably patriotic flourish, was like that of the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces.

An easy one to guess. The general’s name is Valerii Zaluzhnyi, and she was Valeria Hukova.

A middle-aged woman with auburn hair and an amber necklace took her turn. “I have a very long name,” she said, in less than perfect Ukrainian, “and it’s very rough. I don’t like it. I associate it with something big – and not in a good way, it’s clumsy.”

“Svitlana?” someone offered. Pretty soon “Natalya” was guessed correctly, to a chorus of, “Oh, that’s a great name!” and “I wish I were called Svitlana or Natalya!”

The military guy chipped in next, more fluently, saying that he would go by his army callsign. Think of a historical figure, he said: a leader of rebels. That made him Oleksa, after Oleksa Dovbush, an 18th-century outlaw of the Carpathian mountains.

Kharkiv, about 18 miles (30km) from Ukraine’s eastern border, has long been a majority Russian-speaking city. Under the tsars, Russian was the language of officialdom and education. Publishing literature in Ukrainian was outlawed from the mid-19th century.

A period of official “Ukrainianisation” followed the October revolution of 1917, with a lively avant garde, Ukrainian-language literary scene springing up in Kharkiv.

But from 1933 onwards the novelists, poets, journalists and playwrights of this brief modernist flowering were brutally suppressed. Hundreds of writers were shot, deported, or sent to the gulag; others took their own lives. These trailblazing writers – the focus of the city’s Literary Museum – are known as Ukraine’s “executed renaissance”.

In the meantime, during the Soviet period, large numbers of Russians immigrated to Kharkiv and to other cities in the east and south of the country to work in Ukraine’s burgeoning industries.

The surrounding countryside, albeit transformed by the appalling losses of the Holodomor – in which up to 4 million people died of starvation as a result of Joseph Stalin’s forced agricultural collectivisation policy between 1932 and 1933 – remained predominantly Ukrainian-speaking.

As recently as the late 1990s, Ukrainian was considered the language of uneducated country people in urban Kharkiv, which you might hear spoken at the market, by those who had come into the city to sell their produce. But visitors from Ukrainian-speaking rural areas would often switch to Russian as soon as they got off the bus or train. Speaking Ukrainian in the street could invite name-calling, or worse.

But all that is changing, and at speed – over the decade since the Maidan protests against the Russian-leaning government in 2013, and all the more so since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

As never before, those who were once primarily Russian-speakers are using Ukrainian as their everyday language.

“Both Ukrainian and Russian were spoken in my family,” said Natalia Shcherbakova, the head of the Ukrainian language department at Kharkiv’s National Pedagogical university, “and my father is Russian.” She spent much of her life switching between the two languages depending on the context.

But in 2014, she said, after Russia’s unrecognised takeover of Crimea and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, “I decided to use only Ukrainian in cafes, in shops, in the bank – everywhere. And many people tried to do the same.”

The trend is born out statistically by recent research conducted by Volodymyr Kulyk, head research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences.

According to detailed surveys conducted in 2012, 2017 and 2022, there has been what he described as “a really drastic increase” of the use of Ukrainian in the previously largely Russian-speaking south and east of the country.

The west, and to a lesser extent the centre of Ukraine, were already largely Ukrainian-speaking. But in 2012, only about 10% of those in the south and east spoke Ukrainian as their language of convenience. By summer 2022, that had risen to more than 70%, he said, when presenting his research recently at the Ukrainian Institute in London.

“The act of choosing is linguistically significant but also politically significant,” he said. “Before the 2022 invasion, most people in the east and south of Ukraine preferred Russian and saw no problem in being seen as people preferring Russian. Now they are understanding it is the wrong thing to do, and they don’t want to be speaking Russian to a stranger.”

He also noted that in 2012, more than 25% of those in the south and east of Ukraine regarded Russian as their “native” language. But now that figure is down to 6%. It was a case, he said, of “language as resistance – they are using language to resist aggression and the imperialism that they think underlies that”.

Back in the Kharkiv Ukrainian club, participants were sharing their reasons for turning up. Oleksa was on rotation from military service. Last month, he’d been in the battle at Bakhmut. He’d grown up speaking an eastern dialect of Ukrainian, he said.

“I feel very glad more Kharkivians are interested in improving their Ukrainian. There were times when it was dangerous to speak Ukrainian in Kharkiv; you had to be a fighter to speak Ukrainian.”

Anna Moroz, another participant, recalled her education. “I was born in the Soviet Union,” she said. They taught us that Russian was the future, it was going to be the lingua franca. That was hammered into our heads.” Her own Ukrainian was halting; she understood it perfectly, she said, but found it hard to speak it. “Real Ukrainian is beautiful,” she said, “soft, like a song.”

Natalya Sheveliova, the woman with the amber beads, said her parents were originally from Russia. “I speak the language of the oppressor,” she said, referring to Russian. “I consider Ukrainian to be my mother tongue – even though I grew up speaking Russian.”