MUKACHEVO, Ukraine – As rockets began raining down on the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv six weeks ago, Lidiia Kalashnykova was shaken from her sleep and made up her mind: from then on, she would only speak Ukrainian.
Bilingual Ukrainians abandon the Russian language because of the war
Like most Ukrainians, Kalashnykova works equally well in both languages. In her day-to-day life, however, and with her husband and two young children, ages 5 and 2, she spoke Russian widely. She was raised in a Russian-speaking family and estimates that 90% of her relatives speak Russian.
But when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, it said it “realized in a second” that it had “no right to use any language other than Ukrainian” and that “the Ukrainian language is actually my weapon”.
She says she is okay with those Ukrainians who continue to speak Russian, like her mother. But Kalashnykova says she will speak to him only in Ukrainian.
“I don’t want anything to do with Russian,” she said.
This is a sentiment shared by a growing number of Ukrainians. For many, the time has come to linguistically and psychologically separate Ukraine from its northern neighbor. The two languages are similar, like Portuguese and Spanish, and conversations often take place in which one person speaks Ukrainian and the other speaks Russian.
But now debates have erupted on social media about the need to wean the country off Russian, and posts have multiplied of those announcing their switch to speaking only Ukrainian.
The trend goes beyond language. It’s part of a broader rejection of “Russky Mir”, or “Russian World”: President Vladimir Putin’s concept of a shared Russian language and cultural space that he claims is under threat – and from which he has used the defense to justify its invasion.
For Ukrainians, the devastation Moscow is inflicting on the country, and on the very people Putin claims to be saving, lays bare the lies behind the Kremlin invasion.
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It’s a lie that President Volodymyr Zelensky – a native Russian speaker from southeastern Ukraine – seems to resent.
Zelensky still uses the Russian language in some of his videos aimed at Russians to convince them of the truth about Putin’s war. In a recent video address, Zelensky, speaking in Russian and visibly agitated, said the language is now associated with crimes, deportations, “explosions and murders” in places where Russian “has always been part of everyday”.
Moscow, he said, addressing those in Russia, was inadvertently doing everything to “ensure that de-Russification takes place” in Ukraine and that “our people stop speaking Russian themselves.”
“Because the Russian language will be associated with you. Only with you,” he said.
This has been particularly striking in the eastern and southern parts of the country, regions which have the deepest cultural, economic and family ties with Russia and where the majority of the population speaks Russian.
This is also where the Kremlin would employ a “scorched earth” military strategy.
Among the cities that were leveled or dug out, and where thousands may have died, include Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and a center of Russian-speaking culture, and Mariupol, where almost 90% of the population pre-war spoke Russian. .
The language has been central to Ukraine’s efforts to build a distinct national identity, separate from Russia and away from the country’s Soviet past. Before the war there was a growing movement, especially among young people, to encourage the population to move away from the Russian language.
The role of Russian language and culture in Ukraine’s future remains to be determined.
About half of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian at home and 30% Russian, with the rest speaking both languages equally or other languages, such as Hungarian. Eastern and southern Ukraine continue to be predominantly Russian-speaking regions.
But, at the same time, the war has created a very charged environment. In recent days, officials from the western Ukrainian cities of Ternopil, Uzhhorod and Mukachevo removed statues and busts of 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
“After seeing all the atrocities of Russia, there is no more place for Russian and Soviet monuments in Ternopil,” Mayor Serhiy Nadal said on his Telegram channel on Saturday, showing a photo of the empty pedestal where a statue of Pushkin.
“More and more people over the past month have felt intensely Ukrainian,” said Sofia Dyak, director of the Center for Urban History, an independent research institute in Lviv.
Dyak said she hopes the country’s language policy will not become more toxic as a result of the war and that Russian speakers will not be pressured or threatened to abandon their linguistic tradition.
“The Russian language is part of our heritage,” she said. “Russia does not have a monopoly on the Russian language. It is a question of respect for individual choice.
Ukrainians have reversed the meaning of “Russian world” to make it a term of contempt – a catch-all phrase for destruction and violence. In Russian and Ukrainian, they spit the words with contempt in conversations or panoramic videos of the ruins of their cities or their homes.
“You probably shouldn’t feed the culture that wants to destroy,” said Oi Fusk, a Ukrainian musician from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. “I think we need to nurture the culture of freedom and a culture of self-expression.”
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Dmytro Kolesnichenko, a musician, said that just before the war he finished a mini-album which he was about to promote.
“Now I understand that since there are lyrics in Russian, it’s inappropriate for me to post it,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of this Russian world.”
There is also a feeling of betrayal. Artem Tamarkin, a graphic designer and animation designer from the northeastern city of Sumy who has also taken up speaking Ukrainian, said he was shocked by the level of support for the war among Russians he once respected.
“I’ve always separated politics and people,” Tamarkin said. But when hostilities began, many people he knew and public figures he loved spoke out in favor of war or “just kept silent and said nothing at all”.
“I can’t trust them,” he said.
Kalashnykova says the sound of Russian being spoken enrages her now.
“I don’t want to place myself even at the language level with a criminal state,” she said.
Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.