Bilingual Ukrainians abandon Russian language due to war

MUKACHEVO, Ukraine – The moment the rockets hit the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in the early morning hours of six weeks ago, Lidiia Kalashnykova was awakened and made her decision: From then on, she would only speak Ukrainian.

“Strange as it may sound, it was right away, and all that stress served to make me reject the Russian language – completely,” Kalashnykova said.

Like most Ukrainians, Kalashnykova works equally well in both languages. But in her everyday life and with her husband and two small children aged 5 and 2, she spoke largely Russian. She grew up in a Russian-speaking family and estimated that 90 percent of her relatives speak Russian.

But when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, she said she “realized in a second” that she “had no right to use any language other than Ukrainian” and that “the Ukrainian language is actually mine. arms.”

She says she’s okay with the Ukrainians who continue to speak Russian – just like her mother. But Kalashnykova says she will only speak to her in Ukrainian.

“I do not want anything to do with Russian,” she said.

It is a feeling shared by a growing number of Ukrainians. For many, the time has come to separate Ukraine linguistically and psychologically from its northern neighbor. The two languages ​​are similar, like Portuguese and Spanish, and conversations often take place where one speaks Ukrainian and the other Russian.

But now there have been debates on social media about the need to accustom the country from Russian, and posts have multiplied by those announcing their switch to speaking only Ukrainian.

The tendency goes beyond the language. It is part of a larger rejection of “Russky Mir” or “Russian World”: President Vladimir Putin’s concept of a common Russian language and cultural space, which he claims is threatened – and whose defense he has used to justify his invasion .

To Ukrainians, the devastation inflicted by Moscow on the country and the people Putin claims to save expose the lies behind the Kremlin’s invasion.

Several eerie scenes emerge from Bucha, Ukraine, where local authorities are beginning to investigate hundreds of bodies. (Video: Joyce Koh, Jorge Ribas / The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

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It’s a lie that President Volodymyr Zelensky – a native Russian-speaker from southeastern Ukraine – seems to feel acutely.

Zelensky still uses the Russian language in some of his videos aimed at Russians to convince them of the truth about Putin’s war. In a recent video address, Zelensky, who spoke Russian and visibly excited, said that the language is now associated with crimes, deportations, “explosions and killings” in places where Russian “has always been a part of everyday life.”

Moscow, he said, addressing them in Russia, inadvertently did everything to “ensure that de-Russification takes place” in Ukraine and that “our people stop speaking Russian themselves.”

“Because the Russian language will be associated with you. Only with you,” he said.

This has been particularly sharp in the eastern and southern parts of the country, regions with the deepest cultural, economic and family ties to Russia, and where the population predominantly speaks Russian.

This is also where the Kremlin is said to be using a “burnt land” military strategy.

Among the cities that have been razed to the ground or eroded, and where possibly thousands have died, are Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city and a center of Russian-language culture, and Mariupol, where close to 90 percent of the pre-war population spoke Russian.

The language has been at the heart of Ukraine’s efforts to build a distinct national identity, separate from Russia and far from the country’s Soviet past. Before the war, there was a growing movement, especially among young people, to encourage the population to move away from speaking Russian.

It is still unknown what role Russian language and culture will play in the future of Ukraine.

About half of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian at home, and 30 percent Russian, while the rest speak both straight or other languages, such as Hungarian. Ukraine’s east and south continue to be overwhelming Russian – speaking areas.

But at the same time, the war has created a highly charged environment. In recent days, officials in the western Ukrainian cities of Ternopil, Uzhhorod and Mukachevo have removed statues and busts of the 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

“After seeing all the atrocities in Russia, there is no more room for Russian and Soviet monuments in Ternopil,” Mayor Serhiy Nadal said on his Telegram channel on Saturday, showing a photo of the empty pedestal containing a Pushkin statue had been.

“Several people over the last month have felt that they are intensely Ukrainian,” said Sofia Dyak, director of the Center for Urban History, an independent research institute in Lviv.

Dyak said she hopes the nation’s language policy will not become more toxic as a result of the war, and that Russian speakers will not be pressured or threatened to abandon their linguistic tradition.

“Russian language is part of our heritage,” she said. “Russia does not have a monopoly on the Russian language. It is a matter of respecting individual choices.”

Ukrainians have reversed the meaning of “Russian World” to now make it an expression of contempt – a unifying phrase for destruction and violence. In Russian and Ukrainian, they spit the words out with scorn in conversations or videos panning across the ruins of their cities or houses.

“You probably should not feed the culture that wants to destroy,” said Oi Fusk, a Ukrainian musician originally from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. “I think we need to nurture the culture of freedom and a culture of self-expression.”

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Dmytro Kolesnichenko, a musician, said that just before the war he completed a mini-album, which he was preparing to promote.

“Now I understand that since it has Russian texts, it is inappropriate for me to publish it,” he said. “I do not want to be a part of the Russian world.”

There is also a sense of betrayal. Artem Tamarkin, a graphic and animation designer originally from the northeastern city of Sumy who has also switched to speaking Ukrainian, said he was shocked by the level of support for the war among Russians he previously respected.

“I have always separated politics and people,” Tamarkin said. But when the hostilities began, many people he knew and public figures he liked spoke for the war or “simply kept quiet and said nothing at all.”

“I can not trust them,” he said.

Kalashnykova says the sound of Russian being spoken now makes her furious.

“I do not want to place myself on a language level with a criminal state,” she said.

Anastacia Galouchka of Kiev contributed to this report.

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