May 20, 2023
By Aleksander Palikot
KYIV — Intensified air attacks on the Ukrainian capital following a drone strike on the Kremlin that Russia blamed on Kyiv forced Iryna, Svitlana, and Olya to spend their Ukrainian-language transition class in a cafeteria opposite the National Opera instead of the usual venue nearby, which was closed once the air alert went off.
The three women, hailing from Sevastopol, Enerhodar, and Donetsk — cities in Ukraine’s south and east occupied in various stages of Russia’s aggression — spent 90 minutes together with more than a dozen students, most of them women and also displaced, trying to elevate their Ukrainian and, as some said, to “break free” from their Russian.
Iryna has a son in the Ukrainian Army. She left her native Crimea, she said, because she “couldn’t live next to the Black Sea fleet firing missiles at our country.” She wants to switch to Ukrainian to “relieve herself of a sense of guilt.”
Svitlana came to Kyiv just two months ago. Her husband stays in Enerhodar, where he works at the Zaporizhzhya power station, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, captured by Russians at the beginning of their invasion. She is learning Ukrainian to “forget the months of occupation.”
Olya left Donetsk in 2014, the year a separatist war fomented by Moscow broke out in that region and the neighboring Luhansk region, hoping to return within several months. Now, after eight years away from her home in the Donbas, she is switching to Ukrainian because she decided to “focus on the future.”
Millions of similar stories make up the most rapid shift away from using the Russian language in Ukraine’s recent history. The number of Ukrainians who use Ukrainian exclusively or most of the time in their everyday life increased from 49 percent in 2017 to 58 percent in 2022, and the corresponding number for Russian dropped from 26 percent to 15 percent, according to a study conducted in December 2022 by prominent Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Kulyk and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.
The trend is even stronger in the public sphere, with 68 percent opting for Ukrainian and only 11 percent for Russian at work and during education. The transition is most significant in the south and east of the country, traditionally more Russian-speaking than western and central Ukraine, where switching to Ukrainian became the widespread sign of resistance to the occupiers.
The reality behind these numbers is more complex due to the nature of Ukrainian bilingualism, with almost everyone passively knowing both Ukrainian and Russian and many speaking their mixture, Surzhyk, minority languages such as Crimean-Tatar or Hungarian, and new trends, most
notably the five-million-strong population of refugees who are developing new language practices abroad. But while many Ukrainians continue to use both languages in everyday life despite the anger at Russia that the invasion has ignited, the rapid shift from Russian to Ukrainian is apparent everywhere in Ukraine: in the streets, social media, bookstores, and, perhaps most significantly, private spaces.
Many in Ukraine celebrate the ongoing language shift, but the process, accelerated by Russia’s renewed attempts to erase Ukrainian culture and sow divisions in the country it is attacking, is far from painless.
‘Language Of Clarity’
“The Russian Federation, the federation of murderers and rapists, declared war on my homeland, citing protection of the Russian-speaking population as its rationale,” Ukrainian writer and Donetsk native Volodymyr Rafeyenko told RFE/RL. “They used my very existence to justify their war.”
Since the beginning of the conflict in the Donbas Russian President Vladimir Putin has been repeatedly and falsely accusing Kyiv of carrying out a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population of the region. Rafeyenko, a novelist and poet who wrote exclusively in Russian and was part of the Russian literary scene for most of his career, has a very different recollection of the status of the Russian language in his native land.
“My parents and my grandma spoke Russian, as did everybody else around me. I knew Dostoyevsky and Chekhov by heart by the time I turned 20; I studied to become a Russian philologist, and I never thought I would actively use Ukrainian until I found myself in a train from Donetsk to Kyiv in 2014, after my city was captured by the ‘separi,'” he said derisively, referring to the Russia-backed forces and in some cases Russian forces who seized parts of the Donbas after Moscow fomented separatism across eastern and southern Ukraine.
The war that broke out in 2014 prompted Rafeyenko, now 53, to sever his ties to the Russian literary world. But he wrote his successful 2017 novel The Length of Days: An Urban Ballad, which depicts the bitter irony of life in the surreal Donbas “City of Z” — a weird and unsettling foretelling of the meaning the Z letter acquired in 2022 — in Russian. He was, he explained, positioning himself as a bilingual author at that point. In 2019 he published his first Ukrainian-language novel Mondegreen: Songs About Death And Love, which grapples with issues of memory, language, and identity through the prism of a story of a refugee from the Donbas region.
By the time of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, Rafeyenko, himself an exile from Donetsk, was living in a village between Bucha and Kyiv that soon came under Russian occupation — a time he does not want to remember.
“Since February 24, an obsessive thought that I want to go home has been haunting me,” he said, pausing for some time before adding: “But I have no home.”
Rafeyenko swears he will never come back to the “obscene” and “compromised” Russian language, neither in his writing nor in public or private life. “Perhaps my complete rejection of Russian says more about my trauma than any broad philosophical ideas,” he said, adding that no matter how he tries, he cannot fully break free from the books he read and the life he lived. “It is part of my personality; it will perish when I am gone.”
Switching to another language is a long, painstaking and sometimes exhausting process for him as a writer, Rafeyenko — who has six dictionaries on his writing desk — said, but it is a “self-therapeutic effort that comes with a prize”.
“Ukrainian opens up new possibilities and forces me to speak plainly,” he said. “It’s a language of clarity that lets us feel responsible for ourselves and the world.”
‘An Imperial Relic’
The voluntary transition to Ukrainian — like in the case of Rafeyenko or the women at the language class in Kyiv — though on the rise now, is part of a larger process with both bottom-up and top-down dynamics.
The public was reminded of this in January when the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, one of Ukraine’s oldest and most esteemed universities, banned the use of the Russian language on its premises. Teaching at the university has been conducted in Ukrainian and English for over thirty years; thus, the new ban concerned private conversations between students, teachers, and administration.
“We did not expect it to cause such resonance,” Serhiy Kvit, the university’s president, told RFE/RL referring to a wave of both supportive and critical reactions that swept through social media. The prohibition, he said, was unequivocally supported by representatives of all university members and does not foresee any form of punishment: “It is an expression of our corporate culture primarily aimed at the newcomers.”
The legality of the ban in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy was questioned, but it doesn’t go much further than the current language policy in Ukraine. A 2019 law made the use of Ukrainian compulsory in numerous spheres of public life, including administration, education, media, and even in restaurants and shops. After the large-scale invasion in February 2022, additional restrictions were placed on Russian books and music.
According to Kvit, the ban should be viewed in the context of the damage that the ongoing war imposes upon Ukraine’s culture and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “Some of the university’s students and lecturers remain [at home in areas] under occupation. Some have joined the army. Eleven students and graduates have been killed since the invasion began,” he said. In the university’s old buildings, the walls of corridors dating back to the 17th century are covered with posters urging students to obtain a military education.
For Kvit, who is also a literary critic, the ongoing war is “yet another chapter of the centuries-long suppression of the Ukrainian nation and its culture.” He argues that there should be no place
for the Russian language in Ukraine, calling it “an imperial relic,” and “a weapon of the Russian state.”
At the same time, he noted that, despite the ban, Russian books are to remain in the university’s library. “We must defend ourselves, but we are not going to burn books. We are not Russians, and we see freedom as central to our political culture,” he said.
Ukrainian scholars say the first burning of Ukrainian books — or, more precisely, books written in a Ukrainian version of Old Church Slavonic — took place in 1627, in a period when Russian and Ukrainian were emerging as separate languages. They say the Patriarch of Moscow, Filaret, ordered the burning of Didactic gospels published in Kyiv in the vernacular version of Cyrillic to ensure Moscow’s monopoly on print.
Visitors to the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy can learn about that episode from a memorial plaque placed next to the university in the capital’s historic Podil district. Across the historical center of Kyiv, plaques like this were put up last summer and autumn by activists with Linguicide, a commemorative project meant to trace what its initiators describe as the “history of manipulation” by imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.
Valentyna Merzhyievska, an educator from Kyiv who initiated the project, herself switched from Russian to Ukrainian after the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, in which a more Moscow-friendly candidate’s election victory was overturned amid huge protests over evidence of fraud, and after her first child was born.
“I have long felt deceived as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, but I did not fully understand how deep this manipulation goes,” she said, adding that switching from one language to another is “above all a challenge for one’s identity.”
Through centuries of Russian political domination over Ukraine, despite the dissent of successive generations of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, Russian was widely cast as a “high” language associated with power and social status, while Ukrainian was portrayed as a “low” language of the countryside.
These dynamics started to change not long ago. Merzhyievska’s father switched to Russian after resettling in the late 1960s from a smaller town to Kyiv, where he married her Russian-speaking mother. When she started to speak mostly Ukrainian in her early twenties, she often met with hostility or a lack of understanding. But today, her two teenage sons have limited knowledge of Russian and hardly ever use it in their daily lives.
The plaque put up most recently has the year 2022 written on it. It is dedicated to Russification policies that Kyiv and eyewitnesses say Russia is implementing in the areas it occupies, including looting museums, stealing cultural artifacts, demolishing Ukrainian memorials, reinstalling statues of Russian cultural and historical figures, and Russifying education at schools.
Out With It
These acts are not going unanswered.
Every week, Syayvo Knyhy, one of Kyiv’s oldest and biggest bookstores, collects about 2 tons of books in Russian and ships them away to be recycled. The money received in exchange is donated to the Ukrainian Army.
“There were weeks when we were collecting some seven tons and had to carry boxes of books out several times per day,” Hlib Malych, the bookstore’s 27-year-old director, told RFE/RL.
Syayvo Knyhy, the only state-owned bookstore in Kyiv, runs other programs, too — such as promoting readership among children and retirees and holding meetings with emerging authors — and aims to become a hub for veteran literature, which is booming in Ukraine.
Malych said that people of all ages and backgrounds bringing their collections of Russian-language books to be recycled reflect the fact that more and more Ukrainians agree that any Russian content is useless and potentially dangerous to Ukraine.
Still, Russian has retained a portion of its status in Ukraine, in part because with about 258 million speakers worldwide, it operates within a market for cultural goods — such as television, music, or books — that is far larger than Ukrainian.
Within Ukraine, this imbalance has been changing gradually since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But recently, due to restrictions on Russian content and the nationwide shift toward Ukrainian, the opposite situation is becoming the new status quo.
Fashionable independent bookstores popping up in Kyiv despite the ongoing war are a visible sign of this change. One can find popular contemporary Ukrainian authors such as Serhiy Zhadan or Oksana Zabuzhko there, new editions of Ukrainian classics, history books that are now in high demand, and increasingly more available Ukrainian translations of foreign literature.
Nonetheless, experienced bibliophiles in Kyiv say that the biggest chances to get rare and niche titles are at the Petrivka open-air book market. The legendary spot is the biggest place to buy books in Ukraine and a destination where book lovers can be found browsing for hours at a time.
One of the market’s biggest bookshops is kept by Oleksandr Drobin, a 78-year-old ex-soldier. High rows of thematically categorized books, both in Russian and Ukrainian, create a labyrinth only he knows how to navigate through. He is here almost every day, helping customers and chatting with his friends as tranquil jazz plays in the background.
“No one knows how many books there are here, and no one will ever know,” he told RFE/RL on a recent morning. The biggest single category in his collection, he added, is specialized books, as he is an engineer by education, although many people come to buy world literature in Russian translations as well as Ukrainian classics.
Drobin spent much of his life serving at Soviet Army bases in Belarus, Poland, Germany, Russia, and Afghanistan. He was raised in the Russian Far East after his grandparents were deported from Ukraine’s southern Mykolayiv Region during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s rule.
“If I were younger, I would go to fight, especially given that our boys fight so beautifully,” he said after he finished a telephone conversation with an acquaintance on the front line.
Drobin — who had not heard about the Syayvo Knyhy campaign — said he sees no point in destroying Russian books, arguing that the Russian-speaking population needs to be “secured with books.” The only books that are thrown away from his shop at the Petrivka book market, he added, are those that have gotten wet from rainwater pouring through the stall’s old roofs.
He said that the Russian invasion forced him to close his shop briefly, but after two months he was back at Petrivka.
“I thought the war would ruin my business, but it turned out that people need spiritual nourishment even more now,” Drobin said. “They also need to get away from the brutality of war.”
Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.