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Russia’s war is speeding up the Ukrainization of Ukraine

The legendary story of a Ukrainian border guard telling off the Russian warship Moskva on the first days of Russia’s invasion was immortalized in a stamp
Russia’s war is speeding up the Ukrainization of Ukraine
Edited by: Sonia Maryn
Following the Russian invasion, 41% of Russian-speakers in Ukraine have switched to either fully or partially speaking the Ukrainian language. This trend is especially prominent in the southeast, where the Ukrainians Putin claims await liberation by Russian troops have started attending language courses to make the jump quicker. Ukrainian is gradually becoming the language of prestige and business, reversing a centuries-long trend of Russification as an imperial tool.

Ever since the conquest of most of the territory of Ukraine in the 18th century, the Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union, had tried to assimilate the Ukrainian nation and make it part of Russia through repression and genocidal measures. However, Russia’s ostensibly largest success — massive Russification of Ukraine’s southeast in the 20th century – faded away after the February 2022 Russian invasion. Residents of what is usually termed “Russian-speaking Ukraine” are starting to speak Ukrainian en masse, even in regions where Ukrainian had lost its dominant position decades ago.

Sharp drop of Russian language during Russian invasion is climax of 30-year trend

As per the results of the poll by the sociology group Rating, between 2012 and 2022 the share of Ukraine’s residents speaking only Russian at home fell from 37% to 13%. Starting from 2012-2021, the number of Ukrainians speaking Russian at home had gradually declined, from 37% to 26%. As of August 2022, this number stands at 13%.

Languages Ukrainians speak at home as per the Rating sociological agency, from July 2012 to August 2022. Source: Rating, translated by Euromaidanpress

The popularity of Ukrainian as a home language reflects another trend – Ukrainian becoming the language of culture, prestige, and business instead of Russian. Earlier, the regional division here was strong – Ukrainian was both the home language and the language of culture and intellectuals in the west of Ukraine, while in the east, Russian had the informal status of the “language of cities,” arising from its past colonial dominance.

For example, it was common in the early 2000s to have two TV presenters during the same broadcast, with one of them speaking Ukrainian and the other Russian. The practice faded away as almost all TV presenters switched to Ukrainian after the first Russian invasion in 2014.

Similar trends are evident in music, with many more artists singing in Ukrainian instead of Russian, especially after 2014, and even more doing so after the 2022 Russian invasion. This includes some radical transformations, like the Russian rap-singer from Boryspil, Oleksandr Yarmak, who uses powerful multi-media imaging to reflect the Russo-Ukrainian war. Many other Ukrainian pop singers, including the most popular – Serhiy Babkin, Tina Karol, Pianoboy – who started their successful careers by singing in Russian, switched to Ukrainian after 2014, when they started creating pop music mainly in Ukrainian and in Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian popular band, the Hardkiss, represents a similar trend. Starting their career by singing mostly in English, they have switched to Ukrainian – almost exclusively – despite English being the language dominating the international music scene. Not to mention numerous rock and folk bands, where the Ukrainian language has strongly dominated since the early 2000s in Ukraine.

Rock strongly dominates the styles of new Ukrainian-language music albums. 2018 analysis by

Interestingly, before the 2022 invasion, roughly half of Ukrainians used to watch Russian films or listen to Russian music, often or sometimes, during the war, this number has declined radically. 14% still sometimes watch Russian films and 25% listen to Russian music. 68% say they had not watched a Russian film even a single time since the invasion, while 53% say they had not listened to even one Russian song. This is a dramatic change for Ukraine.

The number of those Ukrainians who watch Russian films or listen to Russian music radically declined during the last phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war that started on 24 February 2022. Source: Rating, translated by Euromaidanpress

When the quotas reserving 35% of airtime for Ukrainian songs on the radio and 60% for the Ukrainian language on TV were introduced in 2015-2019, they were debated – mainly by pro-Russian politicians with ostensible Russian links. However, a few years later, not only did the debate fade away, but the percentage of Ukrainian language used in these spheres outpaced the quota requirements which now seem to be too low for the demand.

According to the latest statistics of the National Council on TV and Radio, out of the 15 main nationwide radio stations, 11 have started broadcasting only in Ukrainian while the rest conduct about 96% of their broadcasting in Ukrainian, which significantly exceeds the 60% quotas established by law.

Explosion of new Ukrainian music after introduction of protectionist language quotas

Why is the Russian language losing out to Ukrainian? Grounds and history of the trend

People not familiar with the context of the Ukrainian nation may consider it strange why the language issue is so important for Ukraine. In effect, language is an instrument of security and historical justice. Prior to the 1930s, the Ukrainian language was dominant in all contemporary Ukrainian regions and even spoken by the majority in some southwest parts of contemporary Russia, like Kuban or Belgorod.

The Russian Empire in the 19th century, followed by the USSR, exiled and executed Ukrainian writers and intellectuals, starved 4 million Ukrainians in the Stalin-manufactured Holodomor famine and imposed the official status of the Russian language in Ukraine – all to make people speak Russian instead of Ukrainian and to assimilate them into the Russian world.

Ukraine still felt these post-colonial traces after its independence in 1991, as reflected in the 2001 census: 78% of people living in Ukraine considered themselves Ukrainian by ethnicity; 67.5% considered Ukrainian their mother tongue; only 44% spoke solely Ukrainian at home; and 15% spoke both Ukrainian and Russian. This inconsistency emerged due to Russified Ukrainians – those who under the pressure of official policies, first of the Russian Empire and then the USSR, tried to show they are Russians for career prospects, but did not lose their Ukrainian roots.

Proportion of citizens for whom Ukrainian is the native language, according to the 2001 census

In the 2000s and 2010s, Russia used language as a foreign policy tool, claiming that those regions where people speak Russian should belong to Russia. Yet, after the USSR ceased to exist, people started gradually returning to the Ukrainian language even in the absence of an active state policy.

As late as 2014, after the Revolution of Dignity, the Ukrainian state started a soft policy of Ukrainization, requesting state officials to use Ukrainian, establishing radio and TV quotas for Ukrainian music, as well as making Ukrainian compulsory at schools (with the option of studying minority languages in parallel, upon the request of parents).

The 2019 language law established Ukrainian as the language of services in Ukraine by default, unless another language was requested by an individual. All these measures in no way prohibited the use of Russian or other languages. The new legislation was intended to eliminate post-colonial traces that implied the priority of Russian, when Ukrainian-speakers would be answered in Russian in stores, state offices, or hospitals in their home country – a practice once common but now rare.

Read also: A short guide to the linguicide of the Ukrainian language | Infographics

Ukraine has bridged political divisions based on language

The rising popularity and empowerment of the Ukrainian language also helped to bridge political divisions between Ukraine’s southeast and northwest, especially on the language issue. Until 2014, the language card was often played by domestic political forces, since roughly half of Ukrainians supported Ukrainian as the only state language for all regions, while the other half was in favor of Russian, either as the second state language or the official language of some regions, in parallel to Ukrainian. The second group significantly declined after the 2014 Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas and shrank close to nil during the 2022 Russian invasion.

Waged under the motto of the “protection” of Russian speakers, the Russian war in reality dissuaded them from speaking Russian in favor of Ukrainian, since most Russian speakers in Ukraine did not consider themselves Russian but only spoke that language as part of the legacy of formerly belonging to the empire.

As of August 2022, 86% of Ukrainian citizens believe Ukrainian should be the only state language, while only 3% think Russian should become the second state language, and another 10% that Russian should have official status in some regions, in parallel to Ukrainian.

During the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war, the status of the Russian language ceased to be a disputable issue in Ukraine, the absolute majority of Ukrainians now say only Ukrainian should have official status in all Ukrainian regions. Source: Rating, translated by Euromaidanpress

Notably, during the Russian invasion, the number of Ukrainian speakers increased most sharply in the southeast of Ukraine (regions that Russia is trying to conquer) where Russian speakers used to dominate over Ukrainian speakers — until 2022, that is. According to the Rating poll, 31% and 34% in Ukraine’s unoccupied south and east areas respectively have started speaking Ukrainian more often since the invasion. The figures for the center and the west of Ukraine are about 16% and 3% respectively — people already spoke mostly in Ukrainian in these regions.

In total, 41% of Russian speakers in Ukraine have already switched to Ukrainian fully or partially after the invasion.

In total, 41% of Russian speakers in Ukraine have already switched to Ukrainian fully or partially. Source: Rating, translated by Euromaidanpress

This pro-Ukrainian tendency has occurred in the southeast regions, where Russia claims Russian people waiting to be liberated by Russian troops live. The reality is that those who live here are Ukrainians whose ancestors lived through the Holodomor in the 1930s and the subsequent massive repressions and became partially Russified. Today these people have a strong motivation to repay the Russians and expel their unprovoked invasion.

To not be part of the “Russian world and culture,” “moral choice,” and “the language of the future” – why Russian speakers in Ukraine switch to the Ukrainian language

Larysa Shurkhovetska from Mariupol

Many people started speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 aggression when Russia occupied Crimea and part of Donbas. Among them is Larysa Shurkhovetska from Mariupol who says the Russian language is the language of “occupiers.” When Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, she and her friends stopped considering Russia a friendly nation. They immediately asked themselves, “Why are we Ukrainians but are not speaking Ukrainian?

Since 2014, seeing what is happening in the Donetsk Oblast [partially occupied by Russia], my friends and I started going to [Ukrainian] rallies. These were the first attempts to communicate in Ukrainian. At first we did not speak well, but over time we improved our skills, supporting each other in this endeavor. In the city, some teachers of the Ukrainian language organized conversation clubs. There were those willing to visit them. Everywhere, speaking Ukrainian, I felt confident.


At the same time, there were those in the city who stubbornly said that which language you speak is not important. I hope they have changed their minds now [after Russia occupied Mariupol in 2022]. Because if language doesn’t matter, then why did the occupiers rename Ukrainian Mariupol (МарІуполь) to Russian (МарИуполь) in the first place, why did they seize and burn Ukrainian textbooks and import their own? So how can language be unimportant?

Some people decided to learn Ukrainian properly after having to flee the war to the west of Ukraine, where everybody speaks Ukrainian. Natalia from Mykolayiv says she knows Ukrainian but never spoke it in Mykolayiv, where people speak mostly Russian. Now, moving to Lviv, she took courses to improve her Ukrainian, because locals “don’t want to listen to Russian”:

“We didn’t have the practice of speaking Ukrainian, since the city was Russian-speaking. And here we faced the fact that people don’t want to listen to us in Russian. Despite the fact that I understand and translate everything from Ukrainian, there are difficulties while speaking. I came to learn the language for myself. Not just because it is needed but because I want to.”

Kateryna Nesterova from Odesa. Photo by Suspilne.

Interestingly, the moderator of her courses, Artem, is originally from Kharkiv, in the east of Ukraine, and spoke Russian until 2014, but then switched to Ukrainian. After moving to Lviv, he started teaching Ukrainian refugees from his region because it is “the language of the future”:

“It’s the stage now when more and more people are starting to speak Ukrainian. One day, the moment will come when everyone in Ukraine will speak Ukrainian. This is the language of the future,” he says.

Many people in Ukraine’s main port city Odesa, one of the most Russified Ukrainian cities, are also switching to the Ukrainian language so as “not to be part of the Russian world.”

Lisa Mayska from Odesa. Photo by Suspilne.

Kateryna Nesterova is one of them. She says it is important to switch to Ukrainian, because it gives an opportunity to “completely separate from Russian culture, which often denigrates other nationalities, in particular Ukrainians. Also, [because of] the growth of the audience that perceives only Ukrainian-language content will give impetus to our artists to create, and for foreign companies to adapt their works for Ukrainians.”

Ukrainian actress and TV presenter from Odesa, Lisa Mayska, started the course for people from Odesa who wanted to start speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian. She says it is sometimes hard for people because of the different pronunciations and different groups of [vocal] muscles used in the Ukrainian and Russian languages. Sometimes even those who conduct all necessary exercises feel it hard to speak, she says.

Still, some people need language courses even if they lived in Ukraine all their life: Russian and Ukrainian are different languages, despite stereotypes

Most Ukrainians in Ukraine can understand both the Ukrainian and Russian languages – not because of their similarity, but rather because of the strong Russian-language presence, alongside Ukrainian, in mass media, which used to be common until a few years ago. However, Ukrainian and Russian are quite different languages. Ukrainian is most similar to the Belarusian and Polish languages, with strong similarities in 84% and 70% of the vocabulary, respectively; next to Slovak, where 68% of the words are similar. Only after that does Russian come, with a 62% similarity.

Not surprisingly, Ukrainians from the diaspora who come to Ukraine and have never heard Russian do not fully understand it without training. Similarly, when Ukrainians go to Russia and try to speak Ukrainian, Russians can grasp only occasional words but not the whole meaning. This is why those in Ukraine who once spoke only Russian and want to switch to Ukrainian often need language courses, despite already understanding the language. Such courses or other educational means are especially relevant for earlier generations who did not have the opportunity to learn Ukrainian properly at school during Soviet times.

Today, the war has contributed to several millions of people wanting to switch to Ukrainian, and language courses have become more popular than ever. Some projects have scaled up incredibly, like the Yedyni (United) online school of Ukrainian that has already helped 20,000 people to switch to Ukrainian. The course has a 28-day special program for transition for people already familiar with the language. The course is supported by audio material and either online or offline speaking clubs.

One of the ambassadors of the Yedyni project is Pavlo Vyshebaba, a soldier of the Ukrainian military who himself switched from Russian to Ukrainian in 2014.

“I switched to Ukrainian in 2014,” he says. “I decided to establish my personal borders. We have nothing in common with Russia. We have different principles, different values. The only thing is the Russian language, which we are used to speaking, because many years ago our parents were Russified in the Soviet Union. But Ukrainian is the language of our ancestors! I started to communicate in Ukrainian, and my family supported me. Our daughter’s first word was the word ‘tato’ [daddy in Ukrainian; in Russian it would  be ‘papa’]. The Ukrainian language is our weapon in the war and our security!”

While on the frontline, he wrote the poem To My Daughter, to send her his love. The poem has been translated into many languages:

During a short furlough from the frontline he was able to be with his daughter for a few days, presenting her with this very special gift.

Edited by: Sonia Maryn
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