Ukrainians who grew up speaking Russian learn a new mother tongue

For many, switching from Russian to the Ukrainian language is an act of resistance as the war continues to devastate lives and cities.

A Soviet monument to a friendship between Ukrainian and Russian nations is seen during its demolition
A Soviet monument to the now soured friendship between Ukrainian and Russian nations is seen during its demolition in central Kyiv, on April 26, 2022 [File: Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

Oleksandr Zahalskyy spent most of his life speaking only Russian.

Born in 1960 in what was then the Soviet Union, Zahalskyy hails from the largely Russian-speaking Ukrainian city of Kherson.

Now, at 63 and living in the capital, Kyiv, Zahalskyy and his wife Natasha are in the midst of the difficult but voluntary transition – making the Ukrainian language their own.

“At first, we thought we needed to know our national language, but with the start of this full-scale war, the feeling changed from ‘I have to’ to ‘I want to’,” Zahalskyy told Al Jazeera by phone.

The invasion Russia launched on February 24 last year, which started the biggest war in Europe since 1945, is seen by many Ukrainians as an attempt to wipe them out – and their culture, language and way of life.

And switching to Ukrainian is one way to fight back.

Oleksandr, wearing a blue T-shirt, shorts and with a camera around his neck, leans against a damaged military vehicle in the centre of Kyiv.
Oleksandr Zahalskyy pictured in Kyiv last year [Courtesy: Oleksandr Zahalskyy]

“It became a symbol of our resistance against Russian aggression,” said Viktoriia Tarasuik, a 25-year-old born and raised in Kyiv, who grew up speaking Russian and has also made the linguistic shift.

“It’s something they tried to tell me shouldn’t exist; they wanted to suppress it but couldn’t.”

Across Ukraine, reports suggest that many of the roughly 20 percent of Ukrainians who identified as Russian speakers in March 2022 are actively choosing to distance themselves from the language of their aggressor.

“A very serious shift has occurred in the consciousness of many people,” said Zahalskyy, a landlord who used to own a pharmacy business.

“All of our peers in this apartment complex, they are all above 60. These are people who spent a minimum of 60 years of their life speaking in Russian. They studied in the Soviet Union, in Russian-speaking schools, completed university in the Russian language and now we are all transitioning to Ukrainian.

“We have also become interested in Ukrainian history, Ukrainian culture … before, there was a large gap,” he said.

Outside the home, Oleksandr and Natasha try to talk in Ukrainian, but when the door closes behind them, sticking to it is still difficult.

Natasha has been taking Ukrainian courses online. But even though they know the language, the challenge lies in changing their inner machinations, the way they think, the Zahalskyys said.

An explosion erupts from an apartment building at 110 Mytropolytska St., after a Russian army tank fired on it in Mariupol
Mariupol was levelled by fighting in 2022 [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

In the war’s early days, their apartment block was hit twice by artillery fire from the nearby town of Bucha, where Russians are accused of many atrocities.

“In 2022, the entire country witnessed the war and all the crimes the Russians committed. It made people rethink what language they wanted to speak and I started hearing Ukrainian literally everywhere,” said Tarasiuk, a front-end designer who had to put her career on hold because of the persistent blackouts caused by Russian attacks.

“I knew Ukrainian well but the hardest thing was to stop thinking in Russian. It took me a while to start speaking naturally without feeling any pressure.”

For now, it is not clear exactly how many Russian-speaking Ukrainians have switched but Dominique Arel, an associate professor of political science and chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said the trend “greatly accelerated” after the war started.

Russia’s invasion was particularly traumatic for eastern Ukrainians, Arel said, because this “terrible war of aggression is waged mostly in the east”.

Most of the cities that have been reduced to rubble, such as Mariupol, Severodonetsk, Mykolaiv and Bakhmut, were largely Russian-speaking, Arel said.

“Russia is … bombing eastern Ukraine, the population that allegedly [President Vladimir] Putin seeks to defend,” he said.

A close-up of Victoria, with straight blonde hair, wearing a black coat and holding a green takeaway coffee.
Viktoriia Tarasiuk in Kyiv, April 2022 [Courtesy: Victoriia Tarasiuk]

The transition to Ukrainian began for some in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and led forces into the Donbas region, which borders Russia.

Moscow says the Russian-speaking population there was being persecuted by Ukraine, a claim denied by Kyiv as well as many Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the Donbas.

After the events of 2014, some eastern students moved to Kyiv and started learning the Ukrainian language, because they did not want to associate with “anything Russian, any more”, said Tarasiuk, who met several Donbas natives at university.

“After hearing their stories, I decided to stop speaking Russian too.”

Now, when she sees or hears Russian “propaganda”, Tarasiuk baulks.

“Maybe it’s PTSD, but we react negatively to the media in Russian,” she said.

Language at the front

Although many like Tarasiuk might shudder when they hear Russian, a sense of understanding often prevails.

Ferlain, who asked Al Jazeera to use her callsign, speaks Ukrainian as her first language.

A professional translator, she now works as a cultural and language liaison for the Rubizh brigade, a part of the national armed forces engaged in fighting around Bakhmut.

She said many soldiers she works with who spoke Russian before the invasion are continuing to do so.

Two women are looking up at the camera. Kudriava is wearing camouflage uniform and hat while Ferlain, with curly red hair, hugs her friend. She is wearing a black jersey.
Ferlain (left) and Kudriava, who serves as a guardswoman in the Rubizh brigade [Courtesy: Ferlain]

“They think faster in Russian language,” she said. “They make decisions faster. It’s just too much for the brain activity to keep on fighting and changing the way you think, so those people have made up their minds to change the way they speak only after the war.”

Other troops might keep speaking Russian to keep a grasp on the language of the enemy, especially if they are working in reconnaissance, Ferlain said.

But Ukrainian society more broadly, Ferlain said, is making the switch “just to pay respect for the nation”.

“This is an existential war and language is a part of the identity,” she said.

Does she think the Russian language will eventually disappear in Ukraine?

“Yeah. I just don’t see any other way. It’s going to be a generational change, but it’s going to happen eventually.”

Tarasuik disagrees, but says Russia has unintentionally reversed “decades of Russification”.

The history of language in Ukraine

Because Russian culture dominated the days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, most Ukrainians can speak Russian.

“There is nothing natural about the way a language develops,” Arel told Al Jazeera. “It is always a state project.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, not everyone who spoke Russian was ethnically Russian; for some Ukrainians and other minority populations such as the Crimean Tatars, Russian was also the first language.

In 1989, for example, while about 40 percent of the Donbas population identified as ethnically Russian, more than 60 percent considered Russian as their “mother tongue”.

“A language tends to come out politically as the language of modernity. One language is identified as the language of opportunities, the language of upward mobility,” said Arel. “With Russian, they used the expression back then [in the Soviet Union] of [it being the] language that opens perspectives of life, or a language of perspectives.”

“So the project of making Ukrainian the state language, which began with independence, was the project of making Ukrainian relevant.”

Ukrainian was enshrined as the only national language in the constitution in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent, but the law was not enforced nor did it change daily life.

“Everyone kept speaking Russian, everyone kept watching Russian television, except probably for the Western regions of Ukraine,” Zahalskyy told Al Jazeera.

In 2019, Kyiv adopted a law to guarantee Ukrainian as a state language, which required Ukrainian to be used in most aspects of public life.

But again, those interviewed by Al Jazeera said there were few strict rules.

Official forms such as those in doctors’ offices, particularly in Russian-speaking areas, largely came in both Russian and Ukrainian. Russian speakers could also request Russian versions of other documents, such as marriage certificates.

But, said Arel, the legislation affected education as it “essentially eliminates” Russian from high schools.

“Russian can only be taught as a first language in primary school, and that’s it,” he said.

But he doubts the measure is too divisive because parents in the eastern and southern Ukrainian regions “want to send their kids to Ukrainian school anyway”.

When it comes to everyday communication, Russian remains – even amid war – one of Ukraine’s two main languages.

“If you were to go to Lviv right now [considered the heart of the Ukrainian-speaking part of the country] … and walk into a café there and start speaking in Russian, the waiter or waitress will change to speaking with you in Russian,” Zahalskyy said.

Most Ukrainians can speak Russian and many speak what has been labelled “Surzhyk” – a blend of Russian and Ukrainian – so measuring who speaks what is challenging.

According to the first census conducted in Ukraine in 2001, about 14.3 million Ukrainian people, or 29 percent of the population, spoke Russian as a first language.

After 2022, the number of those who identify as Russian-speaking has probably decreased.

Moscow paints Kyiv’s language policies as oppressive as Russian officials claim they are “liberating” Russian speakers from the Ukrainian project.

And in the territories Moscow has occupied since 2014, it has swiftly moved to restore the primacy of Russian culture and language.

In March, the New Voice of Ukraine reported that in the occupied city of Mariupol, Russian-installed “authorities” were suppressing the Ukrainian language in schools.

Russia announced similar plans for other regions it controls, though some of the proposals, like introducing the Russian currency rouble in the Kherson region, are in flux.

Towards the end of 2022, Ukrainian forces wrested back the city of Kherson, while most of the rest of the region remained in Russian hands.

According to Arel, any identification with Russian culture, including the Russian language, is “untenable right now”.

“Even a lot of authors that wrote their books in Russian or singers or poets that wrote in Russian have decided to stop spreading the language of the aggressor,” added Ferlain. “And it’s hard for them, but they understand the significance of their choice.”

Source: Al Jazeera