“Are you studying Ukrainian or Russian?”
Moving to Dnipro, Ukraine has forced me to answer a wide variety of questions. Often, these questions are repetitive, “Why are you here?”, “What part of America are you from?”, “Do you like Ukraine?” etc. But, one question has proved to be more nerve-wracking than the rest: “Are you studying Ukrainian or Russian?”
Although there is never malice in the question, I always feel the hint of judgment. I don’t lie. I say that I am studying Russian. But, even in a predominantly Russian-speaking city like Dnipro, I can’t help but feel I’m giving the wrong answer.
On paper, the national language of Ukraine is Ukrainian. Any government building, university, or official place of business is run in Ukrainian and most citizens have a basic level of Ukrainian language knowledge. But, when you walk through the streets of most major cities, you begin to see a different picture.
The most common statistic I have seen cited is from a 2005 census, stating that 42% of the population self-reports Ukrainian as their native language. In 2011, this jumped to 53% and by 2015 more than 60% said they prefer Ukrainian to Russian. Just as commonly cited is the statistic that more than 60% of Ukrainians speak some form of Russian at home. Each of these statistics has been heavily debated and does not factor in Surzhyk, which is is a mix of the Ukrainian and Russian language. More commonly heard in villages, Surzhyk is estimated to be spoken by 11 to 18% of the population of Ukraine.
To put it bluntly, trusting any of these statistics is difficult. Many who identify as Ukrainian-speaking or Russian-speaking spend more time blending the two languages than speaking a pure version of either.
Since the Russian Federation’s illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014, and the start of the war in Donbass, more complications have arisen. The Kremlin insists that Russian-speakers in Ukraine are faced with ‘genocide’ and must be protected. Many began to joke, “I’m afraid of speaking Russian now because Putin might want to protect me.” But, behind each joke is the bit of truth.
Like most Ukrainians, I hear and speak Russian daily. No one bats an eye at anything but my accent. No matter where I am, I hear individuals switch seamlessly between the two languages. A barista says ‘Hello’ in Russian. The customer responds in Ukrainian. The barista then switches to Ukrainian. The languages stitch and weave into each other so perfectly throughout Dnipro. But, when asked about the transitions, opinions deflect.
My first week in Ukraine a colleague explained to me that, “Some government officials don’t even speak Ukrainian. It’s ridiculous. We are in Ukraine.”
Another told me, “The strongest patriots in Ukraine are Russian speakers. They love this country more than they love their native tongue.”
I listened as my friends from Russia expressed concern for me. They told me I would be attacked for speaking Russian because that’s often the narrative told by the Russian media. I listened as a colleague arrived in the office in a huff. She said the bus driver accused her of being a ‘Banderivka’ or a Stepan Bandera supporter (a controversial ‘hero’ of Ukraine who has become a symbol for Ukrainian nationalism) for speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian.
I’ve heard it both ways. Ukrainian speakers impinging on the rights of Russian speakers. Russian speakers impinging on the rights of Ukrainian speakers. I argue it’s not as black and white. It’s not as Western vs. Russian as both medias try to paint it. There isn’t a perfect answer.
But, I can’t deny the shift that has taken place in Ukraine. Even in Dnipro, a great number of my friends tell me about the conscious shift they made following the start of the war- the choice to speak Ukrainian. In 2014, a prominent Kyiv blogger wrote a viral article detailing how to switch from Russian to Ukrainian. Many patriotic Russian speakers enroll in 30-day challenges to speak only Ukrainian, and to teach their children Ukrainian.
Media, which was once dominated by Russian-speaking outlets, is being challenged by Ukrainian-language web-based TV, such as Hromadske.TV and Espreso. Even social media is taking the hit as many Ukrainians turn to Facebook as opposed to the Russian equivalent Vk.
In 2016, Ukraine adopted a law that required 25% of all songs on the Radio must be in Ukrainian. On the 17th of March, 2017 a new law was proposed insisting that 75% of national TV broadcasts be in the Ukrainian language. This proposed law is still going through Parliament and requires presidential approval.
I understand the need to speak Ukrainian. I understand the desire. But, I do worry. When the war in Donbass began, it was predominantly Russian-speaking cities such as Dnipro, which volunteered and stopped the advancement of Russian separatists. I wholeheartedly agree that one does not need to speak a certain language to be a patriot. Being an American, some of the most patriotic people I know barely speak English. But, I am careful to make the comparison. America, unlike Ukraine, does not have an official language. It’s hard for me to truly comment on Ukraine’s language politics, for I have only lived here for seven months, but I hope.
I hope that the beautifully unique intermingling of Ukrainian and Russian speakers will continue in Ukraine. I honestly believe that it is through unification that Ukraine will thrive and prevail. I believe that it is through these differences that a new and more global Ukraine can emerge. I believe in Ukraine, and all its citizens, no matter their native tongue.
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