For Russian-speaking Ukrainians, language clubs offer a way to defy invaders

The teacher pronounced her words slowly, taking care to indicate on which syllable to stress: eyebrow. Cheekbones. Hair.

The students, arranged in a semi-circle around her, repeated them. But they weren’t there to learn a foreign language: aged 11 to 70, they were Ukrainians, in Ukraine, trying to master the official language of their own country.

Since the Russian 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 adopt Ukrainian as the language of their daily lives.

According to the researchers, around 1 in 3 Ukrainians speak Russian at home, and many of them – outraged by the violence of the Russian invasion – are enthusiastically making the switch in defiance.

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Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population is a legacy of centuries of domination by its most powerful neighbor – from the age of the Russian Empire to the rise of the Soviet Union. Although most know the Ukrainian language, the transition is not without concern for some like Anna Kachalova, 44, who grew up speaking Russian. Language clubs provide an inviting space to build confidence.

“I understand Ukrainian, I just can’t speak it,” she said. Despite feeling the change was significant, the sudden transition to another language was difficult, she added. “It’s a psychological thing.”

She found help in a language club in a Lviv library run by a private voluntary organization, Yamova. Grimacing as she stumbled through her story in Ukrainian, she continued anyway.

Anna Kachalova, a native Russian speaker who attends a Ukrainian language class hosted by the Yamova Group, at a bookstore in Lviv, Ukraine, May 21, 2022. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

“From the moment we arrived here, my children and I agreed: we will only speak Ukrainian,” said Kachalova, who is half-Russian and fled her battered hometown of Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, the capital city. “I even try to use Ukrainian now in my head – for my inner dialogues.”

Ukrainian language activists see a unique opportunity in moving west.

“When you change your language, it’s like changing your identity,” said Natalya Fedelchko, who founded another language club, Yadinya, which means united.

“Now, while they are still in a Ukrainian-speaking region, we thought it would be easier to make the transition. With these clubs, we want them to feel that everyone accepts them, regardless of how they speak Ukrainian.

The trend is felt from pop music to social media. On TikTok and Instagram, influencers promote Ukrainian words of the day or recommend Ukrainian bands as alternatives to once-popular genres like Russian rap.

Dantès, a singer who once sang only in Russian or English, recently released a song in Ukrainian, “Hug Me”, which encourages Russian speakers to “make the switch”.

But most language activists were promoting Ukrainian long before the Russian invasion in February.

Yamova emerged after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. That same year, Yadinya of Fedelchko was not motivated by the war, but by outrage that her son’s school in Kyiv was teaching in Russian.

A bookstore with a unique facade in Lviv, Ukraine, May 21, 2022. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

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 studies the relationship between language and politics. at the University of Manchester. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy inspired one of the recent waves, she said.

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

Under his leadership, Kyiv strengthened its Ukrainian language law in 2019, requiring schools and public places to use Ukrainian. Russia invoked this law before its invasion to argue that Ukrainian Russian speakers were under attack.

However, Russian remains a common language in the country. Some Ukrainians have said that in their youth Russian resembled the language of urban cosmopolitans – a notion they now reject as part of what many call the “decolonization” of their culture.

Ukraine resents Russia’s references to it as a “little brother”. Throughout the centuries of Russian rule, intellectuals and nationalists were periodically executed or imprisoned. They were also subject to population transfers under Josef Stalin, whose government expelled more than half a million Ukrainians to Russia.

It is a sensitive story for some of those who are now turning enthusiastically to Ukrainian.

At a Yadinya 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.

Yermolenko switched to Ukrainian out of political conviction. But she also did it out of consideration for the people of Lviv, fearing that they would be pained to hear Russian spoken in those days of war.

“I did a lot of – what’s the Ukrainian word for reassess?” she asked in Russian.

As his teacher offered a word, Yermolenko finished the thought in Ukrainian: “So, I’m reassessing.” For me, it’s something quite radical. It’s like turning my world upside down. »

Mariia Tsymbaliuk, director of the Yamova language club in Lviv, said it’s about “rebuilding neural pathways” more than learning the language.

Many students are less familiar with Ukrainian pronunciations, she says, or simply respond in Russian to Ukrainian speakers without realizing it. It is common in Ukraine, especially in metropolitan areas like Kyiv, to hear conversations where one person speaks Russian and the other Ukrainian. Mixing the two is also common in Ukraine.

A Yamaha Ukrainian lesson in progress at a library in Lviv, Ukraine, May 19, 2022. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

Although they are both Slavic, the two languages ​​are different. Most Ukrainians say that if they hadn’t grown up in an environment where both are spoken, they wouldn’t be mutually intelligible.

Tsymbaliuk said she believes helping people speak only Ukrainian is her national duty.

Despite the warm linguistic embrace that most Ukrainian speakers show their Russian-speaking compatriots, tensions persist. Some said they did not want to publicly voice their wartime concerns, when they favored unity over language policy.

New Ukrainian language students and teachers in Lviv say there is also a class dimension that cannot be ignored. Hvesko said most of his club’s participants were financially well-off.

“Other struggling people are just trying to survive. They can’t think about the language now,” she said.

Onuch, the professor, said there was still little data to support the idea that Russia’s invasion had accelerated a change. 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’s starting to mean something,” she said. “Taking away that glimmer of Russian greatness, to switch to Ukrainian, is power. They’re so helpless right now. It’s the only power they have.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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