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Ukrainians are breaking their ties with the Russian language

KHARKIV, Ukraine — In Kharkiv, a historically Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine, just 25 miles from the Russian border, Ukrainian classes are in high demand. Waiters, hairdressers and shopkeepers have stopped using Russian. Ukrainian language books are flying off the shelves, and local publishers are struggling to keep up with orders.

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s central — and false — justifications for invading Ukraine, that he was defending Russian-speaking people, has backfired dramatically.

In cities across Ukraine, people started bringing their Russian literature to local recycling stations to be shredded and converted into toilet paper. Street names have been changed to honor Ukrainian heroes instead of Russian writers. Russian dishes, like pelmeni dumplings, have been relabeled on restaurant menus. Radio stations stopped playing songs by Russian artists, long popular in Ukraine.

“For many people, it has become impossible to speak Russian because it is the language of the enemy,” said Iryna Pobidash, an associate professor of linguistics at Kyiv’s Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute. “Russian is now a marker of everything that has happened: a marker of pain and tragedy.”

“Language is not only about communication, but also about positioning oneself. It’s my ‘who am I?’” Pobidash added.

Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov, who writes novels only in Russian, said that after the invasion, he felt “in pain” when writing because he was so ashamed of Russia.“I understood that Russia was destroying itself and destroying Russian language culture worldwide,” he said.

Rejection of Russian spiked in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea and fomented war in eastern Ukraine, but a broader, accelerated repudiation of the language is one of the chief failures of Putin’s 2022 invasion — breaking apart a cornerstone of Ukraine and Russia’s shared history and shattering any notion that Putin’s invasion can ever reunite “Russian lands.”

On one sweltering day in early July, about 15 students of varying ages gathered around a table at a cultural center in Kharkiv for their weekly Ukrainian class.

“How would you describe the Ukrainian language in one word?” asked Svitlana Isaieva, their teacher, dressed in an indigo-blue vyshyvanka, the traditional embroidered shirt. “Unique!” “Melodic!” “Native!” students replied. The word “native” holds the most power here, as many have begun to reclaim the national language long viewed as provincial by Kharkiv’s elites.

“I think that the Russian language has no future in Kharkiv,” said Oksana Tortyhina, 43, an assistant schoolteacher who began taking Ukrainian lessons after the invasion.

Tortyhina said it was crucial that people be allowed to make their own linguistic choices. “There is no need to ban the Russian language. Let people gradually abandon it, bit by bit,” she said.

Isaieva describes her class as “gentle Ukrainization.” It is one of 50 weekly speaking clubs in more than 20 cities in Ukraine, as part of the Yedini project, a nonprofit that organizes free language classes. On the board were four sentences in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian for an exercise to combat students’ tendency to use “Russianisms” when speaking Ukrainian.

This resurgence of Ukrainian echoes past chapters in Ukraine’s history, when the language was used as “an instrument of resistance” against Russian imperialism, Pobidash said.

As a frontier city and trade hub that was systematically absorbed into Russia’s sphere of influence, Kharkiv was also a cradle for subversive Ukrainian writers, such as Mykola Kulish, who was executed in Stalin’s Great Terror.

“These processes of Russification steamrolled Kharkiv,” said Tetyana Pylypchuk, the curator of Kharkiv’s literary museum, who has studied Ukraine’s linguistic upheavals. “But with each new generation, something that was imposed on us fell away and something of our own was formed.”

Pylypchuk said she believes Kharkiv will ultimately become more Ukrainian-speaking. As soon as the bombs started falling on Kharkiv, she said, many residents realized that “language is our defense and our subjectivity.”

“It was a very heavy price to pay for such an understanding, but now many here consider the Ukrainian language their own,” she said. “For most of those who still use Russian today, this does not mean love for Russia. This desire to dissociate yourself from someone who has done you so much harm will remain.”

For many Ukrainians, the issues of language and identity are emotionally wrenching, and they cannot abandon Russian overnight.

Liubov and Taras Pavliuk, both 50, live in the Kyiv suburbs and have been married for 30 years. Their relationship reflects Ukraine’s linguistic complexity. Liubov speaks Russian; Taras speaks only Ukrainian. When they bicker, they say they forget what language they are speaking.

The couple met at a Ukrainian-language high school in 1984. Liubov said she speaks Ukrainian but too formally for her liking, and feels more comfortable in Russian. Before the invasion, she used to listen to Russian music and watch Russian TV. Now she cannot stomach them.

“Russian is the language of the enemy, I agree,” Liubov said in Russian. “It is not that I am refusing to speak Ukrainian — it’s just I am a very emotional person and sometimes I lack the words in Ukrainian.”

Liubov blames Ukraine’s history of Russification for her dependency on Russian. “As children of the U.S.S.R., it is very often hard for people of our age to switch to Ukrainian,” she said. “A lot was lost … our national identity was etched out.”

Liubov still speaks Russian at home to Taras, who has refused to speak Russian since 2014 and replies to her in Ukrainian, as well as with friends and some colleagues. But in public, she speaks only Ukrainian.

“It is not that I am afraid to speak Russian … Nobody has said anything bad to me when speaking Russian since the invasion,” she said. “But when I speak Russian, inside myself I am embarrassed that I speak the language of the enemy in public. This is a very personal feeling.”

Liubov said she expects Russian will still have a place in Ukraine, but she hopes for a more Ukrainian-speaking nation in the future.

Russian continues to be used by Ukrainians in everyday life. In Kyiv, some young residents chat in Russian in the capital’s bars and restaurants. Many Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines also speak Russian. And while Ukrainians post on social media in Ukrainian, and use the language in public, many admit they still speak Russian at home.

Kurkov plans to continue to write his fiction in Russian. “It’s my mother tongue, first of all … I can only write fiction in the language I know the best,” he said, acknowledging that his novels are unlikely to be published in Russian in wartime Ukraine.

The future 0f Russian language in Ukraine is a daunting question for the roughly 30 percent of Ukrainians who speak it as their first language.

After last year’s invasion, the flood of Russian-speaking refugees to western Ukraine caused tensions, with suspicious landlords refusing to rent apartments to them. In June, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a divisive bill banning the import of literature from Russia and Belarus. President Volodymyr Zelensky refused to sign it, saying it violated European Union rules on minority rights. The same month, Zelensky proposed making English Ukraine’s second official language.

Alisa Sopova, a Russian-speaking anthropologist at Princeton University who is from Donetsk and often works in Donbas, said Ukraine’s long-standing, “multilayered” problem with Russian speakers is “kind of the elephant in the room.” Many Russian speakers are afraid to voice their concerns, she said.

“The public discourse is so narrow now that the only accepted way of talking about this problem is to say that I hate Russian because it’s the language of aggressor,” she said. “Russian speakers do not feel they have the right to demand to speak their language because the problem has been warped and discredited by Russia.”

“It would be smarter,” Sopova added, “for Ukraine to claim the Russian language and show people that Russia doesn’t have a monopoly.”

Ultimately, the key is tolerance, said Angela Bulat, 60, a cow farmer in the southern front-line city of Huliapole. Bulat has a splintered identity emblematic of the Soviet Union — half Russian, half Tatar, born in Horlivka, a town in east Ukraine occupied by Russia since 2014.

“I was always asking myself, ‘Who am I?’” she said. “I speak Russian, Ukrainian, Surzhyk. My parents are from Dagestan. I am a Ukrainian citizen. But I’ve stopped asking this question after the war. The most important thing is how people treat each other.”

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