Ukraine agonizes over Russian culture and language in its social fabric
A third of Ukrainians have called Russian their mother tongue. Russian statues and cultural markers abound. Are these influences inherently toxic? The war is prompting emotional conversations.
LVIV and ODESA, Ukraine — In prewar Ukraine, Svitlana Panova spoke her native Russian without giving it much thought. But now, she has lost her home to Russia twice — fleeing Crimea after Russia's 2014 annexation of it and then fleeing eastern Ukraine after Russia's invasion this year — and the Russian language no longer feels quite right.
"It's hard for me to switch to Ukrainian, but I will learn it for sure," says Panova, one of millions of Ukrainians displaced by Russia's war, as she makes her way through the train station in the western city of Lviv.
On the streets and on social media, at family gatherings and at work, in interviews and in political journals, people across Ukraine are having a tense conversation over the place of Russian language and culture in Ukraine's social fabric. Can they even have a place now? Is this inescapable part of the country's history inherently toxic?
The war shattered the acceptance of Russian identity as a natural part of Ukrainian society
About a third of Ukrainians have named Russian as their mother tongue — in the last census, in 2001, and in more recent surveys — and the majority of Ukrainians say they speak it. Conversations often combine both languages, and some people even speak a Spanglish-type mashup called Surzhyk. Russian and Ukrainian are closely related but not enough for speakers to fully understand each other. Ukraine was Russified for centuries, under the Russian Empire and then under the Soviet Union, when Russian was the lingua franca mandated in schools.
Interest in speaking Russian has been declining, particularly after Ukraine's pivotal 2014 pro-Western revolution. The Ukrainian language emerged as a cornerstone of the nation's push toward a strong post-Soviet self-identity. After Russia commenced its violent invasion this Feb. 24, many began viewing language as a matter of national survival.
"It is a question of our existence," says Oleh Myrhorodskyy, 57, a Russian-speaker from the southern city of Odesa, who quickly signed up for a Ukrainian-language class. "That's why everyone needs to put some effort into building a national foundation. And the language is that national foundation."
The remote class, launched online from Lviv shortly after the invasion started, filled up instantly. More than 800 people signed up within three days, organizers said.
Still, many Ukrainians have a complex relationship with the Russian language
For example, a large share of the interviews with Ukrainian refugees that foreign viewers might see on TV or hear on the radio are in Russian. Ihor Lysenko, who fled west when the war began, points out it's the shared language with millions of people elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Lysenko's wife, Olha Lysenko, ditched Russian in anger after Russia attacked Ukraine. Weeks later, she returned to using it. Russian is the language of her children and her family — it does not belong to the Russian government or its leader, Vladimir Putin, she says.
"For me, language is not attached to a nation. It's not attached to certain territory," she says. "And so the Russian language, like English, doesn't make me feel disgust. In the first week of the war, it did, and I switched entirely to Ukrainian. But over time, that first anger has passed, and as my relative says, whatever it may be, it's the language of the heart."
At a cafe in Odesa, Artyom Dorokhov voices another common view — that Ukraine's cosmopolitan diversity of languages and cultures is a strength. He says he has always celebrated his Russian roots, never feeling anti-Russian bias, but the war brought a shift: He feels new pressure to speak Ukrainian and signal to friends and co-workers that his loyalties lie here, not with Russia.
"Silence is very close right now to a hostile act," Dorokhov says. "All the good stuff that we know about Russian art and literature, it's been wiped out by the current deeds of [Putin's] regime."
Another debate centers on statues and landmarks, particularly in heavily Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine
Some cities, including the capital city of Kyiv, have begun removing Russian-related monuments, markers and even road signs. Odesa — once a key port in imperial Russia — has created a commission to consider the future of some of the city's most significant landmarks.
"My own mother tongue is Russian," says historian Oleksandr Babich, an Odesa native who sits on the monument commission. "But the war makes us want to become more Ukrainian. We don't want to have anything in common with the Russians who are killing us."
The city's Russian history is rich and won't be easy to disentangle. Walking past sandbag barricades and soldiers with assault rifles, Babich points to a house where Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol wrote the Russian literary classic Dead Souls and then a house where Russia's most famous poet, Alexander Pushkin, once lived.
Local landmarks now in question include the Potemkin Stairs — featured in a classic Soviet silent film about a 1905 mutiny on an eponymous Russian battleship in the Odesa harbor. Then there's the giant statue to Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who ordered the founding of modern Odesa in 1794 but who also eroded Ukraine's autonomy with oppressive imperial politics.
Dorokhov compared this debate to the reckoning over Confederate statues and monuments in the American South: a cultural reckoning over a history of oppression. Except this one is happening amid a brutal war, with missile strikes erasing neighborhoods and cities and with Russian troops facing accusations of mass killings of civilians and other war crimes.
The Kremlin itself has helped politicize Russian cultural influence on Ukraine
In 2014, Moscow claimed persecution of Russian-speakers to justify its annexation of Crimea. Similar claims have factored heavily into the eight years of bloody conflict between Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region and the Ukrainian army.
In the late 2010s, Ukraine's government passed new mandates and quotas to boost the use of Ukrainian in education, the media and professional communication. The Kremlin launched a wave of propaganda, claiming Western anti-Russian forces were pushing ethnocentric mandatory Ukrainization.
In July 2021, Putin penned a now-infamous historical screed claiming that Russians and Ukrainians were "one people — a single whole," bound by the shared language and culture of the Russian World (Russkiy Mir). With the war, the concept has taken on a sinister meaning and is loathed in Ukraine.
"Russia itself is doing everything to ensure that de-Russification takes place on the territory of our state," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, himself a native Russian-speaker, said in a March address. "You are doing it. In one generation. And forever."
The war has escalated a fierce anti-Russian sentiment
Many here call Russian soldiers "orcs" or "Rushists," the latter a twist on "fascists." Ukrainian officials frequently warn that there is a threat from Russian-speakers in Ukraine who sympathize with Moscow.
"It's hard to say, but the [Russians] aren't people for us anymore," says Julia Bragina, a Russian-speaker who co-owns a jazz club and theater in Odesa. She adds: "Yeah, that's mean — that's gross to say."
Before the war, Bragina regularly hosted performances by Russian musicians and counted many of them as her friends. Now, she says she views their cultural influence as tainted, in part because many Russian artists have been silent about the invasion or support it publicly.
Moscow has passed new laws that criminalize even referring to Russia's presence in Ukraine as a "war" or "invasion." The Kremlin insists it's engaged in a "special military operation" to "denazify" Ukrainian leadership and protect the Russian-speakers of the eastern Donbas region.
At the same time, Bragina and many others say they believe the difficult conversation about undoing centuries of Russification in Ukrainian culture can unfold peacefully and with nuance. Babich says it's a sign that Ukrainian society is free and capable of wrestling with complicated problems — the kind of open debate that would be instantly stifled by Putin's regime.
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