Ukraine now writes in its mother tongue8 min read
As of 16 January this year, all national print media in Ukraine have to be published in Ukrainian. While independence in 1991 brought a break from Moscow’s rule, and with it an emphasis on national identity formation, the Russian language remains widespread in Ukraine. Discussions about the relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian languages have stayed relevant, with only about half of Ukrainians exclusively using the state language at home. Most others either speak Russian or use both interchangeably. With Putin claiming that Russian speakers face genocide in Ukraine, the Kremlin has drawn language into its war against Ukraine.
Putin sees the Russian language as uniting Russia and Ukraine and claims that Ukraine needs to be saved from anti-Russian ‘fascists’ – a blatantly false political tool. Even if there are heated debates about the best way to deal with linguistic diversity, the notion that language is a major source of tension is part of a Russian narrative that undermines the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood.
After the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Ukrainian politicians moved to clearly define the relationship between Ukrainian and Russian. The largest step in this direction came right before Petro Poroshenko left office in April 2019, when he signed a law establishing the Ukrainian language as dominant in the public sphere. The law came into force over the span of several years, providing transitional periods for society to adjust to the new reality.
Schools, medical centres, and government organisations are now required to operate in Ukrainian, while media organisations must adhere to Ukrainian language quotas. As of January of this year, the law also applies to newspapers and magazines, many of which had been printed in Russian for decades. This is not the final part of the law: new provisions will continue to come into force until 2024, when regional-level media will also have to publish in Ukrainian. Since Poroshenko’s law contains exceptions for Crimean Tatar, English, and EU languages, it is no secret that the law is primarily meant to reduce the presence of the Russian language.
The language law represents a decisive political shift in favour of Ukrainian. Back in 2019, it passed through parliament with an overwhelming majority, and Poroshenko described it as “one of the most important steps on the way to independence.” He argued that if Ukraine is truly an independent state, society cannot keep using the language of an aggressive neighbour. However, international institutions such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Venice Commission voiced criticism, saying that minority languages, including Russian, could face stigmatisation. According to the Venice Commission, the law “fails to strike a fair balance between the legitimate aim of strengthening and promoting the Ukrainian language and sufficiently safeguarding minorities’ linguistic rights.”
In this view, the promotion of Ukrainian could lead to political and social tensions. However, there is no tangible indication that this is the case, with only the Kremlin portraying it as a major issue. Many media publications have Russian versions of their websites, and the language law still provides space for the use of Russian on television. What’s more, a special state-backed bilingual TV channel, Dom TV, was launched in 2020 to provide Russian-language news to people living in Crimea and Donbas. This effort was expanded during the ongoing war, with Ukrainian media groups cooperating to launch a Russian-language TV channel to “open the eyes of Russians” who can only access Russian state narratives about the war. These initiatives reflect the Ukrainian government’s willingness to engage with Russian-speakers, rather than alienating them.
Language under Zelensky
Shortly after the language law was passed in 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky arrived at the political scene. The comedic actor and show-business man was not just different to Poroshenko in his political style, but also in the fact that he was a native Russian speaker. Running on a platform of national unity that contrasted with Poroshenko’s campaign slogan of ‘army, language, faith,’ Zelensky won with an overwhelming 73 percent of the vote in the second round of presidential elections.
In his first New Years’ speech as president, Zelensky emphasised that it doesn’t matter what language Ukrainians speak, which church they go to, or how they vote. While he uses Ukrainian in the public sphere, his politics disagree with the idea that language should serve to mark who is a ‘true’ Ukrainian. His statement that “the Russian language is not the property of Russia” signals his openness to the Russian language in Ukraine. This sentiment is widespread in Ukraine, even now that there is a full-scale war going on against Russia. Many Ukrainians continue to speak Russian, and there is no indication that these people are more closely aligned with Russian politics.
In his handling of language and national identity, Zelensky openly accepts the use of Russian in society. This attitude also reflects reality: it is common to hear conversations that take place in both Ukrainian and Russian throughout Ukraine. One person may be speaking only in Ukrainian while the other speaks Russian; in other cases, both parties use a mix of the two, inserting a few Russian words into an otherwise Ukrainian sentence or vice versa. This language mixing is a fact of life, and while more people have consciously decided to switch to Ukrainian since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, many others still have no preference—they go through their daily lives in two languages, or simply speak one and understand the other. If the divide between Russian and Ukrainian is not emphasised, there is no real reason for tensions to arise. If political leaders continue to include Russian-speakers in the country’s future, Putin’s statements about oppression are clearly false.
Over the past few years, one of the main linguistic trends is an increased consciousness about language use, with some choosing to switch to Ukrainian out of personal conviction rather than out of legal concerns. An example of this is the popular literary podcast Vusya Hoholya (Gogol’s Moustache), hosted by the Odesa-based Vadym Kyrylenko and Mykyta Rybakov. The podcast was recorded in Russian for about two years, but in May 2021, they decided to switch to Ukrainian. They explained that this is unrelated to the language law. Instead, they see it as a personal choice, explaining that they want to promote the Ukrainian language in their hometown, where it is rarely spoken. The hosts wanted to practise before recording their podcast entirely in Ukrainian, speaking it in daily life and not consuming Russophone media for half a year. They apologise for their mistakes and recognise that they speak a kind of ‘Odesa-surzhyk‘ (mixed Russian-Ukrainian dialect), incorporating elements of Russian as well as local Odessite dialect into their Ukrainian speech.
The clumsiness of Kyrylenko and Ryabkov speaking their native language is a symbol for a wider trend in Ukrainian society. Attitudes have improved toward the Ukrainian language since 2014, along with a stronger recognition that it is an important symbol of national identity. This goes in tandem with an increased desire among Russophone Ukrainians to speak ‘proper’ Ukrainian.
At the same time, prominent patriotic writers such as Andrei Kurkov and Ihor Pomerantsev continue to write in Russian. Kurkov argues that “Ukraine should take ownership of its Russian-language culture, which is distinct from the cultural world of the Russian Federation.” He proposes the promotion of Ukrainian Russian—similarly to the differences between American and British English, this Ukrainian Russian would differ slightly from what is spoken in Russia, rooted as it is in the Ukrainian cultural context.
While the language law reflects a desire to eventually remove Russian from the public sphere altogether, this kind of initiative could help carve out a clearly-defined space for the Russian language in Ukraine – as a widely spoken language that is integrated in Ukrainian society but is excluded from official spheres. Given Zelensky’s stance toward language issues, he may be open to this idea.
With Russia waging an all-out war against Ukraine, Zelensky knows that many patriotic Ukrainians, like himself, speak Russian at home. He understands that if people speak Russian, it is because of their upbringing and personal preferences. At the same time, the language law provides clear primacy of the Ukrainian language in the public sphere, and this law is not up for discussion.
Independent Ukraine has its own language, and regardless of what people speak at home, this language is now designated as the norm in public settings. This does not mean an oppression of the Russian language, which is still widely spoken. Instead, there is a clear distinction between the state language of Ukrainian and minority languages such as Russian. In the context of Ukraine’s fight for independence from the ‘Russian world’ and Putin’s claims that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people – a single whole,’ it only makes sense that the Ukrainian authorities make a clear distinction between the state language and minority languages.
If Ukraine comes out of this war as a truly independent country, its linguistic diversity will not suddenly have disappeared. However, the current legislation will allow Ukraine to further develop its independent identity, reflecting a definitive break from the ‘Russian world’ while protecting the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. It is hard to predict what post-war Ukraine will look like, but given the enmity between Russia and Ukraine, society may increasingly move away from the Russian language. While this would result in a solidification of the status of Ukrainian, there is still little evidence that Russian-speakers will be discriminated against in Ukraine.