Switch to Ukrainian for protection against Russian occupation, Ukrainians urge compatriots


Article by: Alya Shandra
 Please switch on subtitles on video for English translation

“Russian interests are where the Russian language is spoken. If we speak the same language, they will bring their troops to ‘liberate’ us and annex us to themselves,” urge the stars of the debut video of a Ukrainian project called Switch to Ukrainian. They are Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers that have spent the last year and a half fighting off a camouflaged Russian invasion in the Ukraine’s East. The video was released on the Day of Ukrainian language, November 9.

Ukraine is a country where roughly half speaks Ukrainian, the state language, and the other half – Russian, though the division line is blurred: surzhyk, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian in differing proportions, is Ukraine’s “vulgar Latin.” Again, roughly – the villages and the West speak mostly Ukrainian, the cities and the East – Russian. 67,5% of Ukrainians declared Ukrainian as their native language, according to a recent census. Most Ukrainians are bilingual.

Image: Washington Post

This is a situation that is a result of centuries of Russian rule and the subsequent language policies of the USSR. From 1654 onward, the part of Ukraine that was swallowed by the Russian empire experienced an assault on its statehood and nationhood. Exterminating the Ukrainian language was an essential part of the strategy: such legislative acts as the Ems Ukaz and Valuev circular, which forebode publications in the Ukrainian language.

During Soviet times, Ukrainian was pushed out of education and science and was firmly associated with the language of the village. Russian was promoted as the language of the Soviet nation that communist leaders attempted to forge our of the USSR’s array of ethnicities and nationalities. Scoffed and mocked, it was portrayed as a provincial dialect, and villagers would forget their mother tongue and teach their children Russian when making the migration to the city – a tendency that continues to the very day.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has stated on many occasions that it is his duty to protect Russian speakers that are supposedly oppressed in Ukraine – an argument that supposedly legitimizes his military interference in a sovereign land, sending troops and weapons to Donbas and orchestrating a military takeover of Crimea.

Ironically, it is Ukrainian speakers that need protection in Ukraine.

According to a 21 June 2015 investigation of the portal language-policy.info, only 4.81% of songs on Ukraine’s top-radio stations are in Ukrainian. Russian songs scored 38.88%. TV channels fared a bit better: 28.8% had Ukrainian-language content, 27% was Russian, 21% was Russian with Ukrainian subtitles (a total of 38%), and 24% was mixed.

The situation with published press is worse – this internet meme about languages of magazines sold in Ukraine’s capital speaks a thousand words:


Until a social movement led my Roman Matis called “They will understand anyway” [I tak poimut] started their campaign in 2012 to require businesses to have websites, menus, apps, instructions in Ukrainian, as well as provide Ukrainian service to Ukrainian-speaking customers, Ukrainian language was mostly absent in the service sphere.

In general, the language situation in the country is well described in this picture:


But things changed after the start of the Russian aggression in Donbas. More Ukrainians started to speak Ukrainian, and less support the idea of making Russian a second state language.

“Many Ukrainians would like to speak Ukrainian, but don’t have the environment for that,” says Nina Prokopieva, a National Guard soldier. Like others in the video, she urges her compatriots to switch to Ukrainian, and the government to help the Ukrainian language recover after centuries of extermination.

For them, it’s a question of Ukraine’s safety. Russian-speakers are twice as prone to nostalgia about the USSR than Ukrainian-speakers, a poll by the Rating sociological group found, the dissolution of which Putin considers to be the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the XX century.


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  1. Avatar canuke says:


  2. Avatar Lev Havryliv says:

    Great initiative.

    For centuries Russian rulers of Ukraine engaged in forced linguistic and cultural Russification. The legacy of this remains to this day.

    After Ukrainian make English your second language. This will enhance your personal and work opportunities.

    1. Avatar M W says:

      Great idea! I am an ESL teacher and I am learning Ukrainian. Such a beautiful language and dear to my heart.

  3. Avatar Lev Havryliv says:

    What a disgrace? 95% of magazines sold in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv are in Russian.

    To which capital city of the world does one go to learn Ukrainian?

    1. Avatar Nowhere Girl says:

      Ottawa, perhaps? 😉
      Still, I don’t think it’s THAT bad (even though I haven’t had an opportunity to check it personally, I can only rely on what I read). Let me start a digression that will make the loop towards someone actually succesfully learning Ukrainian in Kyiv. I started learning Ukrainian through a free e-mail course – the guy who started it is a Polish correspondent of “Dzerkalo Tyzhnia” and more than that: he’s trying to promote the idea that since Polish and Ukrainian are linguistically so close, Poles and Ukrainians should learn each other’s languages instead of using “bridge languages” such as Russian or English. Over ten years ago he was a student and decided to go on a student exchange to Kyiv – his primary motivation was close to “Hey, this can be quite an adventure”. He started learning vocabulary from a dictionary and a phrase book, still when he arrived in Kyiv, he could still hardly communicate in Ukrainian – and to make the matters worse, he didn’t speak Russian as well. Yet he asked the teachers to give him some time and he would speak communicative Ukrainian by the end of the month. He kept his promise; his learning method was so intense that in the evening, when he went to sleep and thought he would have some time just to think in Polish, after the whole day he thought in some Polish-Ukrainian “surzhyk”. Anyway, as for his – mostly Russian-speaking – Ukrainian colleagues, they were very understanding and said that they had already wanted to switch to Ukrainian, but hadn’t had an opportunity… By the way, he also had a habit of buying all Ukrainian-language magazines available at the newsagent’s, just to have another piece of learning material. So he succeeded, he learned Ukrainian and not a surzhyk – of course, later, after returning to Poland, he still needed to practise a lot. But he did. And maybe he even motivated some locals to make the switch…

      1. Avatar M W says:

        I keep hearing good things about Poland. I watched an informative documentary on the history of Ukraine made by a Polish guy who seemed to have a real love of Ukraine. Seems like Ukraine should move closer to Poland and away from Russia because the Polish respect Ukraine and democratic society. Of course there are democratic, pro-Ukraine Russians too, but in general Russia has had a negative effect on Ukraine.

        1. Avatar Nowhere Girl says:

          Unfortunately, it’s getting worse in Poland. First, the PiS government is in no way pro-Ukrainian (plus it may seem anti-Russian, but in fact its goals in terms of a whole vision of civilization are very close to Putin’s: Euroscepticism, anti-Western views, homophobia, aggressive conservatism, intolerance towards religious minorities, appropriation of the state and disdain for the very idea of independent public officials etc. etc.), and second, unfortunately Russian trolls and Russian fifth column in general are doing their job. Nationalists are now openly supported by PiS and in Poland these groups are very often pro-Russian. And anti-Ukrainian views have spread very much in the last two years. Recently the Ukrainian flag was burned during the nationalists’ Independence March…
          And it’s really bad also because for years Poland has been Ukraine’s link to Europe. If Poland shows Ukrainians that they are no longer welcome, it may push Ukraine back towards Russia.

  4. Avatar Nowhere Girl says:

    Still, I doubt if it can have any influence on Russia. For the likes of Putin the number of Ukrainian speakers increasing will never mean that there are no Russian speakers to protect. On the contrary, for such people it will mean that they are being pressured to switch.
    I deeply regret the way Ukrainian language has been treated “by history” – or rather by its very precise actors such as the tsars and genseks – but making the switch is no magic bullet, definitely not for the problem of Russia using the language issue to its own ends.

  5. Avatar Vol Ya says:

    The government must stop the funding of all Russian language schools. All resources must be devoted to promoting the Ukrainian language at school, work, in government. TV and radio channels must be forced to switch to Ukrainian language programming.

    1. Avatar Nowhere Girl says:

      Such a kind of policy would be a gift to Russia – another reason to say that Russian speakers are being discriminated against. Don’t be like Russia – there is a substantial Ukrainian minority in Russia (though, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, after all these years they almost exclusively speak Russian), but not a single Ukrainian-language school. I definitely believe in grassroots methods more.

      1. Avatar M W says:

        Good point. Any grassroots suggestions for Americans who love Ukraine?

    2. Avatar M W says:

      I agree… but it must be democratic. No funding for Russian language sources, but I do not believe in forcing independent TV and radio channels to switch to Ukrainian, but we can give them incentives if they do. Ukraine should also be careful to ensure that Russia is not funding Russian media and schools in Ukraine though.

  6. Avatar Being says:

    Do not need Russians in Sarm-Al-Shaik help of protection have not they called for protection and connection to Russia-Novorussia? Some
    declare of independence. They would need BUK, Strelkov, and few AKs.

    Ukraine is Ukraine not Russia.