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In Ukraine's Language Battleground, Some Soldiers Switching Sides

Yehor Huskov during a one-man rally to promote speaking Ukrainian.

Language has long been one of the key battlegrounds in the struggle to determine Ukraine's post-Soviet identity. Yehor Huskov has become an unlikely frontline soldier.

The 33-year-old was born in Soviet Russia to a Russian father and Ukrainian mother before moving when he was a small boy to Dnipropetrovsk. Renamed Dnipro in 2016 as part of Ukraine's decommunization drive, the country's third-largest city remains dominated by Russian speakers.

The family's first language was always Russian. But today, Huskov eschews his mother tongue in favor of speaking his mother's tongue, Ukrainian, a move prompted by both historical and recent events.

"I realized that communicating in Russian in Ukraine was actually a continuation of the work of communist Russifiers who tried in every way to destroy the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture," he told RFE/RL in an interview.

While language has long been a hot-button issue across the country, it has become an even thornier issue since Russia's 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and intervention in a conflict in eastern regions of Ukraine where the majority of the population speaks Russian as its first language.

"Since then, I basically don't communicate in Russian. Even with Russians, I speak Ukrainian," Huskov added.

Tips by Yehor Huskov on "How to switch from Russian to Ukrainian."
Tips by Yehor Huskov on "How to switch from Russian to Ukrainian."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Ukraine and Russia have often been testy.

Russia has been protective of Russian-speakers in all of the former Soviet republics, and arguably most so in strategically-located Ukraine. About one-third of Ukraine's 45 million inhabitants use Russian as their mother tongue, particularly in the regions.

The 2014 Euromaidan uprising, prompted by anger over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to not sign long-planned trade and political association agreements that had rankled the Kremlin, clearly exposed the split among Ukraine's population over efforts to expand beyond Moscow's orbit.

Shortly after Yanukovych's post-Euromaidan flight to Russia and ouster as president, Kyiv's new government repealed a contentious 2012 law signed by Yanukovych that had allowed regions to give Russian or other minority languages official status. The move fueled anti-Kyiv sentiment in the east that escalated into a Russia-backed separatist insurgency.

Russia's aggression hardened attitudes toward Moscow within Ukraine, with language becoming a key means of broadcasting one's national identity.

"I began speaking Ukrainian to discuss the language law," said Serhiy Bilonog, a 20-year-old student who lives in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Given the prevalence of Russian in eastern Ukraine, Bilonog says making the switch hasn't been easy.

Not only has he had to rewire his brain, he's had to reconfigure his life, from friends to electronic devices.

Still, he believes it's in the country's best interests for more people to follow the lead of those who are making the effort to change their linguistic life.

"If the state encourages everyone to switch to the Ukrainian language, I think it would be effective," he said.

"They have to realize that Russian-speaking Ukraine is a satellite of Russia. And not just for Russia, but for the whole world. If you speak Russian, you are Russian," he added.

National identity has been described as a relationship between consciousness, territory, and language.

The complexity of the relationship between these three is readily apparent in Ukraine, where deep regional contrasts are exacerbated by linguistic differences.

Last year the government approved a new law banning schools from teaching in minority languages beyond primary school level in Ukraine.

In addition to its Russian minority, Ukraine has sizeable Hungarian and Romanian minorities.

The bill has damaged Ukraine's ties with its Western neighbors at a time when post-Euromaidan Ukraine continues to push to join structures such as the European Union.

Still, a leading European rights watchdog said in December that there is a legitimate need for the law even though a provision allowing some subjects to be taught in official EU languages appeared to discriminate against speakers of Russian, the most widely used nonstate language.

In a 2017 study, the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research (UCIPR) noted that some of the responses from Russian-speakers showed their community had "radicalized" and become less tolerant of the Ukrainian language.

However, others talked about "painful rifts" and personal shame for being a Russian-speaker in a country other than Russia.

"The multifaceted conflict in Ukraine is certainly one in which agreement over language use will be an important part of a comprehensive resolution process and which will prove key to the consolidation of a national identity and, ultimately, peace," the study said.

Olha Konovalova left the eastern city of Kramatorsk in 2014 because of the Crimean conflict.

When she started volunteering in her new city, Kyiv, she came into contact more often with Ukrainian-speakers and felt the need to communicate in their tongue.

Now, even though she still makes mistakes in her adopted language, she says the decision fundamentally changed her.

"I was just ashamed to speak Russian with Ukrainian-speaking fighters and volunteers who came from the front lines," she said.

"I have military friends who never spoke Ukrainian at all, but now they are teaching it," she added.

The UCIPR study showed that since the conflict in Crimea, more and more native Russian-speakers are speaking Ukrainian, and that their children mainly identify as Ukrainian even if they speak Russian at home.

At the same time, integration is a slower process.

Maksym Olekseyev was born in Zhytomyr, east of the western city of Lviv, but almost exclusively spoke Russian growing up despite having a Ukrainian mother.

That started to change with the mass Euromaidan protests, which spurred the 40-year-old to reconsider many things in life, including the language he speaks.

"I realized that the linguistic question is one of the tools that led to the escalation of the conflict," he said, noting that speaking to his father in Moscow in Russian is "mildly unpleasant."

Iryna Krasina, a 50-year-old philologist, also started to question her native language, even though she has spent her entire life speaking Russian and has lived only in Ukraine.

"I began to wonder why Soviet and Russian figures were always in the first place, and my countrymen were completely forgotten and underestimated," she told RFE/RL.

This led her to take Ukrainian lessons and study Ukrainian culture. Along with her young daughter, she's now fluent in the language even though they are the only Ukrainian speakers in her five-story apartment building.

"I feel freer and think it's due to the language, too. The horizon in front of me is boundless, just like it is for my child," she said.