Moscow’s Invasion Pushes Ukrainians to Ditch Russian, Learn Ukrainian

Moscow’s Invasion Pushes Ukrainians to Ditch Russian, Learn Ukrainian #Moscows #Invasion #Pushes #Ukrainians #Ditch #Russian #Learn #Ukrainian Welcome to Lopoid

KYIV, Ukraine—At a Kyiv bookstore one recent evening, two dozen adult students took turns explaining why they were brushing up on their country’s official tongue.

Among them were Kyiv natives who had never mastered Ukrainian and refugees from Russian-speaking front-line towns pummeled by Russian rockets.

“I no longer want to use the language of the aggressor country,” said graphic designer Natalia Nykyforova, speaking hesitantly in Ukrainian. “The problem is I still think in it.”

Russian President

Vladimir Putin

launched his invasion of Ukraine in February with a pledge to defend Russian speakers. His war is instead pushing Ukrainians across the country to switch languages, accelerating a broader effort to cast off the legacy of Russian imperial rule. Since Russia seized Crimea and covertly invaded its neighbor’s east in 2014, Ukraine has toppled statues of Lenin, renamed streets and sidelined the once-dominant Russian language.

It is one of several consequences that Mr. Putin’s invasion was specifically intended to avert. His army now occupies 20% of Ukrainian territory, but Finland and Sweden are closing in on membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the U.S. has bolstered its military presence in Europe.

“You’re doing everything so that our people turn away from Russian,” Ukrainian President

Volodymyr Zelensky,

who grew up speaking Russian, said in a March video address. “Because the Russian language will be associated precisely with you, and only you, with those explosions and murders, with your crimes.”

Svitlana Lukach teaches a Ukrainian language class for Russian speakers in central Kyiv.

Svitlana Lukach, a professor of Ukrainian who teaches the free course at the Kyiv bookstore, says she has 200 students and a waiting list of people wanting to join.

“I’m not able to fight on the front line,” she said in an interview this week before teaching three consecutive, hourlong classes. “So I do my part like this instead.”

Ukrainian and Russian both use Cyrillic script and share a similar vocabulary and grammar. Almost all Ukrainians understand, and usually can speak, both. Under decades of Moscow’s rule, authorities promoted use of Russian, which dominated in cities. Ukrainian was derided as not a real language spoken only by uneducated villagers.

A Ukrainian language class in Kyiv. Most Ukrainians usually can speak both Russian and Ukrainian.

Ukrainian and Russian both use Cyrillic script and share similar vocabulary.

Even after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, many Ukrainians would speak Ukrainian at home and Russian in public. Most national newspapers and magazines were printed in Russian.

That all changed after 2014. Kyiv accelerated legislative efforts to promote Ukrainian, making it obligatory in the service industry and ordering publishers to print as many copies of newspapers and magazines in Ukrainian as in Russian.

Russia called it discrimination against Russian speakers, but many Ukrainians willingly switched.

Kyiv bartender Yaroslav Mukha, in white shirt, says he used to be laughed at in school for speaking Ukrainian.

“Everybody understands that this is a process,” said Yaroslav Mukha, a 28-year-old barman in Kyiv who said he was laughed at for speaking Ukrainian two decades ago during recess at school, where all the children spoke Russian. “People don’t judge if you still speak Russian. But they are encouraging Ukrainian.”

After Mr. Putin gave a speech on Feb. 21 that indicated he planned to invade, the phrase “this is my last tweet in Russian” began trending on Twitter in Ukraine. Social-media posts went viral of Ukrainians announcing they were abandoning Russian and encouraging others to do the same.

“From today I have no Russian keyboard on my devices and computers, and I’ll be speaking only in Ukrainian,” wrote Oleksandr Nenashev, a doctor. “Not easy for someone who grew up in a Russian-speaking family and in large part on Russian literature.”

A March survey by the pollster Rating showed that 76% of Ukrainians consider Ukrainian their native tongue, up from 57% in 2012.

To be sure, Russian remains the main language heard on the streets of many cities such as Dnipro and Kharkiv in the east. But Ukrainian now dominates in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital where Russian was the main language a decade ago.

Ukrainian-Armenian business coach Vache Davtyan stopped speaking Russian after the war started.

Vache Davtyan, a Ukrainian-Armenian business coach who stopped speaking Russian after the war started, said he worries constantly about making mistakes in Ukrainian. Mr. Davtyan had been critical of some Ukrainian laws aimed at marginalizing use of Russian, deeming them too strict. But, he says: “We now don’t need any such policies, because Russia has done our work for us.”

Russia is seeking to reverse the trend. In cities it has occupied, it is replacing Ukrainian street signs with Russian ones and removing Ukrainian-language textbooks from schools.

But with its military advance stalled and Ukraine gearing up for a counteroffensive, the prospects of a Russian-language resurgence in Ukraine are dimming.

For 32-year-old gym instructor Olena Shubina, a lifelong Russian speaker who fled Donetsk in eastern Ukraine after the city was taken over by Russia in 2014, switching to Ukrainian since the war began was a way of proving to Russia that Ukraine can’t be defeated.

“Russians wanted to destroy our culture and nation, they tried to show our language doesn’t exist,” she said. “So every day I show that they have lost, that I exist and my language does too.”

Write to Matthew Luxmoore at

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