The “problem” of the Russian language in Ukraine

In a country, Ukraine, where not so long ago people were nostalgic for the Soviet Union, today most people see themselves as Europeans, and they see no other future than with Western political unions.

EU membership is now supported by a record number of Ukrainians – 91%, while the majority believe that membership will follow in the coming years.

In the country where only yesterday the Belarusian Alexander Lukashenko was the most popular international leader, today Boris Johnson and Joe Biden are their best friends, with the support of more than 80%.

The country, where Russian content recently dominated the pop charts, now bans Russian music and pro-Russian parties, which is approved by the majority of the population.

A majority in Ukraine, despite half of its population having relatives in Russia, hate both the Russian authorities and the Russians, and do not believe that it will ever be possible to restore relations with them (over 60 % are sure).

But the most significant change, which is gaining momentum, is the change in self-definition through language. It is the key element of the so-called “Russian world” (the concept that Moscow uses to wage hybrid wars, both in Ukraine and in other annexed territories).

But ironically, the aggressor’s attempt to bring the “Russian world” to Ukraine has caused just the opposite since the start of the war: more and more Ukrainians are switching from Russian to the Ukrainian language.

Declining use of Russian

Over the past decade, the number of those who consider Ukrainian their mother tongue has risen from 57% to 80%, and only 16% considered Russian their mother tongue, compared to more than 40% in 2012.

Today, in daily communication, 51% use only Ukrainian and 33% use both languages.

And only 15% communicate only in Russian, and in the few months since the start of the war, this number has dropped at least 10 percentage points. Obviously, switching to another language cannot be instantaneous, it requires some time to adapt.

However, this trend will continue to grow: two-thirds of those who use two languages ​​today are ready to switch exclusively to Ukrainian. Even a third of Russian-only speakers are ready to switch to Ukrainian.

The result of changing attitudes towards the Ukrainian language can be seen in all regions, including the most Russian-speaking ones, in the south and east of the country.

Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, claims that the Ukrainian language is fictitious and that it is necessary to protect Russian speakers inside Ukraine.

However, the majority of the population (about 70%) thinks that there is no problem among Ukrainian and Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine. Thus, no one believes in the myth that Russia came to protect Russian speakers.

On the contrary, when asked about Russia’s main objective in the war, most respondents talk about the annihilation of the Ukrainian people and the complete occupation, but never about the protection of the Russian-speaking Donbass.

In fact, since the beginning of the war, many refugees from the Russian-speaking eastern regions fled the bombings to western Ukraine, which did not cause significant language conflicts.

For example, in the all-Ukrainian-speaking city of Ivano-Frankivsk, only 6% of residents report considerable difficulties in understanding refugees. The rest of the respondents have no such problems.

In addition, 80% want to get to know and make friends with displaced people. A large percentage of Russian-speaking refugees say they are trying to switch to Ukrainian to communicate with the local population, and more than half are considering staying to live and work in the city.

World War II “Nostalgia”

Another cultural and ideological divide between Ukraine and Russia, created by the war, is a different vision of the Second World War and the Soviet past.

One of the reasons for Russia’s confidence in its military strength is its powerful propaganda work on the invincibility of the Soviet army 80 years ago and the hyperbolism on the heroism of Russian soldiers during the Second World War.

The modern ideology of the “Z” movement in Russia’s war against Ukraine finds its antecedents here.

Russia’s poverty and many internal problems are conveniently overshadowed by the cult of glorifying victory over Germany – indeed, Russia regards Victory Day on May 9 as a national holiday that shapes its identity.

The Russian invaders are doing their best to transfer this sacred tradition, the “cult of victory”, to the currently occupied Ukrainian territories. But while Russians proudly view World War II with the slogan “We can do it again”, Ukrainians view the same event with a “Never again” mindset.

Ukraine begins to break with the tradition of May 9, to consider this event as a great tragedy with millions of unnecessary victims: today, 80% of Ukrainians consider this day as the day of remembrance of the victims of war, even though it was only in 2012, the majority (74%) also saw it as ‘Victory Day’.

The same goes for the “de-idealization” of Soviet-era leaders. With the cult of Stalin and Lenin taking on new meaning in Russia, Ukrainians regard these figures as forgotten executioners of their nation. Before the invasion, about 50-60% of Ukrainians viewed them negatively. Since the beginning of the war, about 80 to 85% share this opinion.

And before the war, a third of Ukrainians regretted the collapse of the USSR – today only a tenth of them do.

Regardless of age, region and language, Ukrainians increasingly realize that they all have a common enemy: Russia, which is encroaching on Ukrainian statehood.

The meaning of the struggle in this war is not just for Ukraine: Ukrainians see themselves as part of Europe, so they are also fighting for European values ​​of freedom and democracy.

Russia’s ideology is based on the myths of the past, while Ukraine strives to look to the future.

Sylvester L. Goldfarb