How I ended up despising my mother tongue in Ukraine


In early 2022, Olga Skabeyeva, the pro-Kremlin host in the Russian state TV channel, tried to explain the popular Ukrainian trolling of asking Russian speakers from Russia to say “palianytsia”, meaning a loaf of bread in Ukrainian, the word Russian speakers find difficult to pronounce. Skabeyeva failed the test herself, with mistakes not only in pronounciation but also in translation, causing a wave of memes. Screenshot from YouTube.

As a child, I heard stories from old ladies who witnessed the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union. They told me that for decades after that, they could not bear listening to the German language, but I never believed them. In a couple of decades, however, I myself could not bear listening to Russian, my mother tongue. 

It now sounds more foreign than any language I've ever encountered, even though I still speak it myself sometimes. There are no objective obstacles to me using Russian — I simply don't want to use it anymore. I also no longer think in Russian.

Today, my Russian is reserved solely for my sixty-something-year-old parents, who are already stressed enough because of the war and barely understand these political and psychological nuances around the Russian language in Ukraine today. They have spoken this language for their entire lives. For the rest, among people who speak Russian and know that someone from Ukraine also speaks Russian, the proper thing to do is to first ask whether it is acceptable to switch to Russian. I especially appreciate my Russian colleagues who either ask or just continue addressing me in English as if we don't share any other common language. And some of them are learning Ukrainian now. 

In search of a community

My story is far from unique. In Ukraine, the overwhelming number of Russian speakers — most of us are bilingual — switched to Ukrainian following the full-scale Russian invasion of 2022. Language became the primary marker of an ally. 

We switch not only in public; now, we communicate in Ukrainian via messengers, in private telephone conversations, and at home with family and guests. This creates a sense of security in the highly insecure environment of our cities, which are being constantly shelled by people who see our state as a historical misunderstanding and its language and culture as distorted provincial versions of the Russian language and culture. Using the Ukrainian language now signals mutual understanding. Many of us tried to leverage our Russian to negotiate with war supporters in Russia in the first months of 2022, but as our attempts to influence their position failed, using Russian now only evokes trauma. We are not doing this anymore, and the Russian language has lost any meaning in Ukraine outside of online trolling. 

This newly found sense of unity among millions of Ukrainian speakers created a flow of memes and jokes like the following one from early 2022, about Russian troops entering the Chornobyl exclusion zone. An old lady from a few remaining locals saw soldiers digging trenches in the area of a forest contaminated with dangerous chemicals. “Boys, what are you doing?! This is the Red Forest!” She shouted at them in Ukrainian, believing them to be Ukrainian soldiers. “What? What are you saying?” one soldier asked in Russian with a recognizable non-Ukrainian pronunciation. Realising she was talking to the invaders, the woman replied in Russian, “I'm saying: Dig, boys, dig!”

That is, even those in Ukraine who do not speak Ukrainian speak Russian with a Ukrainian accent. It is especially recognizable by the Ukrainian soft “g” which we spell in English as “h.” In Donetsk, the eastern Ukrainian city where I was born and grew up, we also used some Ukrainian words instead of Russian, like buryak for beetroot instead of the Russian svekla, maybe, because it is the key ingredient of borshch, the traditional Ukrainian soup. In that area, we put almost no or just no beetroot into borshch, however. In a word, everything has been complicated there. 

My city was overwhelmingly Russian-speaking. Throughout my childhood, I only knew one person who spoke Ukrainian: the mother of my classmate who came from another region. She sounded alien to me. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we still watched Russian TV. It had much richer content, and it broadcast engaging TV shows and new movies while the Ukrainian film industry lay in ruins. In the 2000s, that same content gradually became an instrument of Russia's new nationalist and chauvinist state propaganda.

Until recently, almost everything Ukrainian, especially on TV, continued to look marginal and second-sort. A new media product had potential only when launched in Russian so it could reach a wider audience of Russian speakers in the entire former Communist bloc. This remained the trend even after 2014 when Russia attacked Ukraine in the south and east. 

Homeless language

There is a long and complicated history of how we ended up like this. The people in the territory of today's Ukraine were never outside of European political and cultural processes. The foundation of the Ukrainian literary tradition emerged in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, the same period when the Russian language literature in Russia was first written and published. The greatest Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, was a contemporary of Alexandr Pushkin, Adam Mickiewicz, Johann Goethe, and George Byron, with the major and very characteristic difference being that those were noblemen and Shevchenko was a nobleman's slave.  

From 1240 until 1991, the (proto) Ukrainian culture belonged to no state. Until 1945, it existed in an area divided by several empires and republics. Miraculously, for all these centuries, those different parts maintained a dialogue with one another. The wave of repressions against the Ukrainian language in the Russian empire led to the relocation of printing activities to the territory under the Habsburgs; the attempts of forced assimilation under Poland in the 1920–1930s caused local Ukrainian intellectuals from the West to join the post-revolutionary cultural drive in the early Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It didn't end well, however, with the majority of those called later the Executed Renaissance either committing suicide or being, indeed, executed under Stalin's repressive regime in the early 1930s. 


The river Zbruch divides Ternopil and Khmelnytsky regions in Ukraine but from the late 18th century until 1939, it was a state border, between the Habsburg and Russian empires and later between Polish Republic and the Soviet Union. Looking at the map, it is evident how dramatic the division was: there are still towns and villages with the same name on both banks of the river. This picture of a town called Husiatyn in Ternopil region was made from the side of a village called Husiatyn in Khmelnytsky region. Photo by Yulia Abibok. Fair use.

For the rest of the Soviet years, everything Ukrainian got placed as a local folk culture. The designation of high culture was reserved almost solely for what was written in Russian. 

In Soviet times, one could receive permission not to attend Ukrainian language classes at schools where children were taught predominantly in Russian; in my area in the east of Ukraine, the overwhelming majority of schools continued teaching in Russian even in the 2000s. Some people in Ukraine still believe that the Ukrainian language is not developed enough to write cultural masterpieces or, for example, scientific texts. But the truth is reversed: the people claiming this do not know the language, hence, cannot use all its possibilities. 

In 2014 and later, many people from my area who know Ukrainian very well, including me, still continued speaking Russian out of protest, being constantly attacked and stigmatized in our own state only for belonging to that “separatist” and “pro-Russian” region speaking “the wrong” language. In 2022, all these sentiments became irrelevant. By invading the entire country, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, put all of us in the same position and left us no choice. So he managed to accomplish what all the previous generations of Ukrainian patriots failed: to Ukrainize Ukraine, in several days or weeks. Ukrainian, once a provincial “language of a village,” became the main language of those young, well-educated, creative, socially and politically active, and relatively well-off, with those who spoke Russian generally being older, less educated, poorer, and now marginal. 

In 2022, almost everyone in Ukraine made sure that Ukrainian is rich, flexible, and sexy. The long-repressed language finally found its home in the land of its origin.

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