Russian-Speaking Ukrainians Learn to Speak Ukrainian, in “Outraged Defiance” of Violent Russian Invaders

(p. A9) Since Russia’s invasion, a number of language clubs have opened in cities in western Ukraine. Teachers and volunteers are reaching out to millions of displaced people who have fled to the relative safety of western cities like Lviv from the Russian-speaking east — encouraging them to practice and embrace Ukrainian as the language of their daily lives.

An estimated one in every three Ukrainians speaks Russian at home, according to researchers, and many of them — outraged by the violence of Russia’s invasion — are enthusiastically making the switch as a show of defiance.

. . .

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, the country experienced many waves of “Ukrainization,” said Olga Onuch, who researches the relationship between language and politics at the University of Manchester. President Volodymyr Zelensky was an inspiration for one of the recent waves, she said.

A former comedian, Mr. Zelensky grew up speaking Russian, but switched to Ukrainian in 2017 before running for office.

. . .

At a Yedyni language club, teacher Maria Hvesko argued that Russia had intentionally tried to erase Ukrainian culture in the east when one of her students, Victoria Yermolenko, offered polite opposition.

“This ‘Russification’— I don’t know if it was always intentional,” she said hesitantly.

Another reason, she argued, was rapid Soviet industrialization in the mid-20th century. This brought many Russian engineers and technicians to eastern Ukraine, as well as specialists from other parts of the Soviet Union, and they used Russian as a common language.

Ms. Yermolenko switched to Ukrainian out of political conviction. But she also did it out of consideration for the local residents of Lviv, concerned they would be pained to hear Russian spoken during these days of war.

“I’ve done a lot of — what’s the Ukrainian word for re-evaluating?” she asked, in Russian.

As her teacher offered a word, Ms. Yermolenko finished the thought in Ukrainian: “So, I’m re-evaluating. For me, it’s something quite drastic. It’s like turning my world upside down.”

. . .

Ms. Onuch, the professor, said there was little data yet to support the notion that Russia’s invasion had accelerated a switch. And for many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, she said, language was not so tied to identity politics before the invasion.

“Now, they’re thinking about it, and it starts meaning something,” she said. “Taking away that glimmer of Russian greatness, to switch over to Ukrainian, is a power. They are so powerless right now. This is the one power they have.”

Ms. Yermolenko framed her decision as a positive embrace.

“I don’t want to use Russian, not only because it’s the language of the occupier, but also because: Why not use Ukrainian? It’s so cool.”

For the full story see:

Erika Solomon. “Russian Speakers Decide To Use Ukrainian Instead.” The New York Times (Monday, May 30, 2022): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2022, and has the title “For Russian-Speaking Ukrainians, Language Clubs Offer Way to Defy Invaders.”)

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