The Kremlin believed that Russian forces would be welcomed as liberators in the predominantly Russian-speaking Ukraine to the south and east. Instead, Ukrainians of all linguistic backgrounds rallied against the Kremlin’s invasion.
This should come as no surprise, at least to the guys in Moscow. Russian-speaking Ukrainians have been organizing to defend the Ukrainian state from Russian aggression since at least April 2014, when Moscow-backed forces began seizing administrative buildings in the Ukrainian Donbass region.
“In the first week after those events started, ordinary steelworkers in Mariupol were organizing at a grassroots level to form local leagues,” said Dr Olga Onoch, Associate Professor at the University of Manchester. NEWSWEEK. “These were Russian-speaking Ukrainians coming together to defend their neighborhoods and their families from Russia itself.”
“Ukrainians have an attachment to the place, and this connection extends to their state,” Onoch added. “In the past eight years, this association has only grown. However, Russian intelligence has continued to repeatedly miscalculate that the Russian language equals Russian identity.”
The social reality that Onuch describes is not unique to Mariupol.
“Eighty percent of the men in our unit speak Russian among themselves,” said Alexander Bespali, a soldier in the Odessa Regional Defense Forces. NEWSWEEK In an interview conducted in Russian. “But 100% of us are united against Russia and against Putin. Language has nothing to do with that.”
“Our leaders speak Russian, Ukrainian, and Surzhik,” Bespali says, referring to the Russian-Ukrainian creole common in rural Ukraine. “Everyone speaks the language they are most comfortable with, just as they always do.”
Bispaly’s description of a multilingual military unit may come as a surprise to outsiders. However, it does represent how fluid the linguistic reality in Ukraine really is.
“Bilingualism was very fluid,” said Canadian journalist Neil Hauer, who traveled to Ukraine from his base in Armenia in the run-up to the war. “There were conversations where one person was speaking Ukrainian, the other speaking Russian, and they were going back and forth without any problem.”
“There wasn’t anything political about it,” Hauer says. “I spent the month before the war in Kyiv, and I could count by one hand how many conversations I heard on the street were in Ukrainian. The same was true in Kharkiv, in Mariupol, in Mykolaiv. Then we all saw how each of those cities fought when I invaded. Russian forces.
This fierce resistance from Russian-speaking Ukrainians seems to have come as a surprise to the Russians themselves. For several months before the start of the Russian invasion, Kremlin propaganda referred to the people of southern and eastern Ukraine as “our”. The Russian media was full of accusations that the “Kyiv regime” led by Russian President Volodymyr Zelensky, was engaged in a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.
Russian President: “In Ukraine, human rights are systematically violated on a large scale, and discrimination against the Russian-speaking population is enshrined at the highest legislative level.” Russian President Vladimir Putin On February 15, just a week before the start of the unprovoked Russian invasion. “According to our judgments, what is happening in the Donbass is genocide.”
But the assessment of the Ukrainians themselves is very different from that of the Russian president.
“It is basically impossible to convince the people around power in Moscow that Russian speakers in Ukraine are not discriminated against,” said Vadim Chankin, a Ukrainian political strategist and former TV analyst in Russia. NEWSWEEK in Russian.
“In Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odessa, everyone speaks Russian as their primary language,” he said. “My mother lives in Kyiv and speaks Russian.”
“But when I explain this fact to influential figures in Moscow, they take it as evidence that all these Russian-speaking Ukrainians will welcome Russian soldiers as liberators,” Chankin added. “It was impossible to convince them that people could have a national identity separate from their linguistic identity.”
This is not to say that the Kyiv government has always handled language issues with unquestionable political skill. On February 23, 2014, a day after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital amid bloody clashes between protesters and members of the security service, the Verkhovna Rada voted to repeal a 2012 law establishing Russian-language schools and government services in more Russian-speaking regions. Although Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov vetoed that parliamentary initiative, the initial vote featured prominently in subsequent Russian propaganda efforts against Ukraine.
Then, in January 2021, Ukraine adopted a law requiring service sector employees to speak with customers in Ukrainian unless the customer specifically requests to switch to Russian.
“The move provided easy rhetorical food for pro-Russian political groups to exploit,” says Andrew Dainieri, assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “This resulted in a slight increase in support in those regions for the pro-Russian opposition parties.”
However, Danieri was quick to explain that “asking the cashier at McDonald’s in Kharkiv or Odessa to greet customers in Ukrainian is not the same as genocide against Russian speakers. Carpet bombing of Ukrainian cities and executions of civilians, as Russian forces did, just might be.”
“Within Ukraine itself, language is not just a core political issue,” Daenery added.
But for some Ukrainians, language has become a political issue, if only on a personal level.
Kyiv-based philosopher and journalist Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of the magazine UkraineWorld.org, talks about “a gradual shift from Russian to Ukrainian. Some of my friends made the switch after 2014,” when Russia occupied Crimea in Ukraine and sparked a separatist war in Donbas. “More has brought about change since the last Russian invasion,” he said.
But Yermolenko emphasized that language preference had nothing to do with patriotism.
“Russian-speaking Ukrainians are no less patriotic than Ukrainian-speaking,” he said. “My wife and I speak Ukrainian with our children, but we still sometimes go back to Russian when we talk to each other.”
The fact that many members of the social circle of Yermolenko could consciously choose which language to speak depending on the particular social situation indicates the fact that the Ukrainian society is functionally bilingual. Some citizens may feel more comfortable using one language or another in different situations, but this choice says nothing about their political loyalties.
Major Serhiy Volina, commander of the 36th Brigade of the Ukrainian Navy, provided a useful example. Volina and his men are among the last Ukrainian soldiers fighting to defend the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol from Russian forces, who had already taken control of much of the predominantly Russian city.
On April 20, Volina made a public appeal to the outside world, saying: “We appeal to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the extraction process to take us to the territory of a third-party state.”
Volina’s statement on April 20 came in fluent Ukrainian.
On April 24, Volina gave a video interview to Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleksiy Honcharenko. The officer repeated his plea for help: “I am very much asking that the global diplomatic community and world leaders provide us with our expulsion.”
Volina’s appeal on April 24, along with the rest of the interview, was delivered in fluent Russian.
Correction 04.28.2022 @ 2:50 ET: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the translation of a Russian quote.