Why We Speak Ukrainian in Ukraine

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Sep 12 14:30:03 UTC 2008

 Why We Speak Ukrainian in
Several people, both Ukrainian and American, have asked us why we are
learning Ukrainian instead of Russian. So I thought I'd answer those
questions by posting about it and sharing some of the history behind the
Ukrainian language. Like some of the recent Government TV commercials
proclaim, "I live in Ukraine, so I speak Ukrainian." It's not quite that
simple, but almost. The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian and that's
what the schools teach. (It's interesting to note that the United States
doesn't have an official language.) Since both of our boys go to Ukrainian
public school and the dominant language in our region is Ukrainian, choosing
Ukrainian over Russian was an easy decision. I'll admit that Russian can be
more useful as an inter-Slavic language both in Ukraine and abroad, but God
has called us to Ukraine not its neighbors. That's not to say that we don't
learn some basic Russian, but our focus remains Ukrainian.

Statistically, Ukrainian is a growing language and we constantly see
government programs promoting its use and expansion. In the 2001 census,
67.5% of the country population named Ukrainian as their native language (a
2.8% increase from 1989), while 29.6% named Russian (a 3.2% decrease). There
are even children's camps where the entire focus is on learning the history
and proper use of the Ukrainian language. The language of Ukraine and its
culture has had a difficult and sometimes brutal past. Even before Ukraine
was annexed as a part of Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union, it went
through periods where spoken and written Ukrainian was prohibited and only
survived due to underground movements and the smuggling of Ukrainian

The Ukrainian language and culture probably suffered most during modern
times under the control of the Soviet Union following the genocide/forced
famine called Holodomor <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor>. The
following was taken from an article on the history of the Ukrainian

[Soviet policy towards the Ukrainian language changed abruptly in late 1932
and early 1933, after Stalin had already established his firm control over
the party and, therefore, the Soviet state. In December of 1932, the
regional party cells received a telegram signed by Molotov and Stalin with
an order to immediately reverse the korenization policies. The telegram
condemned Ukrainianization (allowing Ukrainian language and culture within
the Soviet Union) as ill-considered and harmful and demanded to "immediately
halt Ukrainianization, switch all Ukrainianized newspapers, books and
publications into Russian and to prepare by autumn of 1933 for the switching
of schools and instruction into Russian".

The Stalinist era also marked the beginning of the Soviet policy of
encouraging Russian as the language of (inter-ethnic) Soviet communication.
Although Ukrainian continued to be used (in print, education, radio and
later television programs), it lost its primary place in advanced learning
and republic-wide media. Ukrainian was considered to be of secondary
importance, and an excessive attachment to it was considered a sign of
nationalism and so "politically incorrect".

Major repression started in 1929–30, when a large group of Ukrainian
intelligentsia was arrested and most were executed. In Ukrainian history,
this group is often referred to as "Executed Renaissance" (Ukrainian:
розстріляне відродження). "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism" was declared to
be the primary problem in Ukraine. The terror peaked in 1933, four to five
years before the Soviet-wide "Great Purge", which, for Ukraine, was a second
blow. The vast majority of leading scholars and cultural leaders of Ukraine
were liquidated, as were the "Ukrainianized" and "Ukrainianizing" portions
of the Communist party. Soviet Ukraine's autonomy was completely destroyed
by the late 1930s. In its place, the glorification of Russia as the first
nation to throw off the capitalist yoke had begun, accompanied by the
migration of Russian workers into parts of Ukraine which were undergoing
industrialization and mandatory instruction of classic Russian language and
literature. Ideologists warned of over-glorifying Ukraine's Cossack past,
and supported the closing of Ukrainian cultural institutions and literary
publications. The systematic assault upon Ukrainian identity in culture and
education, combined with effects of an artificial famine (Holodomor) upon
the peasantry—the backbone of the nation—dealt Ukrainian language and
identity a crippling blow from which it would not completely recover.

The Communist Party leader of Ukraine from 1972-1989, Shcherbytsky, purged
the local party, was fierce in suppressing dissent, and insisted Russian be
spoken at all official functions, even at local levels. His policy of
Russification was lessened only slightly after 1985.

Ukrainian Children - Ukrainian School!" Protesting Soviet Russification

The Ukrainian language is currently emerging from a long period of decline.
Although there are almost fifty million ethnic Ukrainians worldwide,
including 37.5 million in Ukraine (77.8% of the total population), only in
western Ukraine is the Ukrainian language prevalent. In Kyiv, both Ukrainian
and Russian are spoken, a notable shift from the recent past when the city
was primarily Russian speaking. The shift is caused, largely, by an influx
of the rural population and migrants from the western regions of Ukraine but
also by some Kyivans' turning to use the language they speak at home more
widely in everyday matters. In northern and central Ukraine, Russian is the
language of the urban population, while in rural areas Ukrainian is much
more common. In the south and the east of Ukraine, Russian is prevalent even
in rural areas, and in Crimea, Ukrainian is almost absent.

Modern signs in the Kyiv Metro are in Ukrainian. The evolution in their
language followed the changes in the language policies in post-war Ukraine.
Originally, all signs and voice announcements in the metro were in
Ukrainian, but their language was changed to Russian in the early 1980s, at
the height of Shcherbytsky's gradual Russification. In the perestroika
liberalization of the late 1980s, the signs were changed to bilingual. This
was accompanied by bilingual voice announcements in the trains. In the early
1990s, both signs and voice announcements were changed again from bilingual
to Ukrainian-only during the Ukrainianization campaign that followed
Ukraine's independence.

Use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine can be expected to increase, as the
rural population (still overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking) migrates into the
cities and the Ukrainian language enters into wider use in central Ukraine.
The literary tradition of Ukrainian is also developing rapidly overcoming
the consequences of the long period when its development was hindered by
either direct suppression or simply the lack of the state encouragement

Dark Blue = territory where the Ukrainian language is used chiefly
Light Blue = other territories where the language is used
Gray = territory where Ukrainian is not used

So you can see that to many Ukrainians, especially where we live and in
Western Ukraine, (some regions are predominantly Russian speaking) speaking
Ukrainian is a symbol of national pride. It's not just a language, but an
identity. I've witnessed two older men, who could both speak Russian quite
well, take their time to properly speak Ukrainian to each other even though
it was more difficult because Russian had been their first language. That
experience gave me a better understanding as to why things are the way they

Knowing the history of Soviet Russification programs also helps to make some
sense of why Surzhyk (a blend of Russian vocabulary with Ukrainian grammar
and pronunciation) exists. Living in an area where Surzhyk is spoken, like
we do, makes it difficult, to say the least, for anyone trying to learn pure
Russian or Ukrainian. The villages in our region seem to have resisted
Russification better than the urban areas. On our visits to one local
village, we have always been surrounded by almost pure Ukrainian, in
contrast to the mixture we sometimes hear in Bila Tserkva.

Transliteration, or the changing of words from the Russian or Ukrainian
alphabet to English is another area that still confuses me. All Ukrainian
cities have reverted to their Ukrainian names from the former Russian, so
the correct transliteration of the capitol city (Київ) is Kyiv, but you will
still find it on English language maps with its Russian name,(Киев) Kiev.
Personal names are another area that often give me trouble. Transliterating
often can make a Ukrainian name sound different than it should be
pronounced. When you factor in that names change depending on how the person
prefers it (Russian or Ukrainian), I really get confused. Oleg in Russian
becomes Oleh in Ukrainian while Pavel becomes Pavlo. (I won't even mention
the multitude of pet, or diminutive, names for each name.)

Learning and speaking Ukrainian is an ongoing adventure and one we are glad
we have embarked on. While we love our homeland of the United States, we are
blessed to share in the language, culture, pride, and identity that is
unique to Ukraine.

Слава Україні!


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