Way back in the Spring semester of 2019, before the war, before the pandemic, and before we even got married, I took a class called Russian History at Trevecca Nazarene University. I had to argue why I should take a specialized upper level history course instead of the basic world history requirement. But thankfully, after I explained that I planned to be a missionary in that part of the world, my professors, advisors, and the Dean approved the substitution. I’m so glad they did. Dr. Hohman’s course became one of my favorites and arguably one of the best I took at TNU. She helped us dive deep into Russia’s history and the impact it had on its eastern European neighbors, specifically Ukraine. To the tired juniors and seniors who were starting to wear thin on the multiple intensive history classes, I’m sure my enthusiasm in class could be a little annoying at times. But I thrived. And of course, all my papers and projects had a Ukrainian angle as I sought to understand the history and culture between the two. I expected to get a little glimpse of insight into the current conflict, but thought I probably wouldn’t find much. I knew there must be some roots to the history, as every major political conflict had.
I didn’t expect to see the exact same story repeated for over a thousand years. The papers and books that we read could have just as easily been written in 2022, 2014, 1924, 1917, and 1876, just to list off a few of the major dates.
Recently I found a copy of my final analysis paper I turned in for the class, which focused on the oppression of the Ukrainian language. I made a few edits, but for the most part it remains the same as it did from 2019. Unfortunately I did not have the time or space to dive deep into the Holodomor as I wanted (yes, I’m the type of person who doesn’t like page limits on essays, although I understand why they exist), so it is only mentioned briefly. But I plan on doing a more in-depth post and/or video on that later. In the meantime, please read this summary of the Ukrainian language, its oppression, and its re-emergence.
The Power of Language
Language is one of the most crucial elements in forming a national identity. Without a unifying language with which to communicate, a country cannot progress and evolve. Having multiple languages, dialects, and cultures represented within a country enhances its beauty. On the other hand, a national language is what binds the people together. This becomes especially important when an oppressed ethnic group is not allowed their own freedom or autonomy. Ukraine is a country with a long and tired history with barely thirty years of recognized independence. Over the centuries, its rich agricultural soil was the envy of more arid, inhospitable nations, and changed boundaries and empires several times. In addition, their access to the Black Sea made it a prime target for landlocked nations such as Russia and Poland. Their language developed from the roots of Russian and, to a lesser extent, Polish, but over time diverged from both. For the Ukrainians, their language was a symbol of their freedom and tied directly to their national movements. Those who ruled over them soon realized the power that language holds, and often outlawed both spoken and written forms of Ukrainian. But given the tiniest bit of freedom, Ukrainian exploded in full force. Even today, as Russia attempts to overtake “the bread-basket of Europe (Reid, pp 224),” the country struggles with their language and identity. And as seen again and again in the past, they are using language to express their independence.
Describing the emergence of a distinct ethnic group is a difficult task when sharing a common ancestry with its neighbors. It is especially complicated when a country such as Ukraine has only known true independence for barely three decades. Many Eastern European ethnicities descended from the Kievan-Rus, which took root within the modern borders of Ukraine. This resulted in an intricately woven, interconnected, yet often disputed history (Applebaum, introduction). One of the earliest recorded times Ukrainians are dissimilar from their Russian neighbors is in 1654. After living for three-hundred years under Polish-Lithuanian rule, they were re-integrated into Russia. During their time in Poland-Lithuania, the Ukrainian mindset had shifted toward Western European ideals. In addition, religious differences had also set in. Russia had rejected the Greek Orthodox church for what they believed to be heresy in asking the Pope for help against the attacking Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Ukrainians living in Poland-Lithuania were dealing with their own drama and retained a more traditional Greek Orthodoxy (Reid, pp 27-30). Despite these differences, neither Russia nor Poland recognized them as a separate people group. Both viewed the territory as backward and primitive, lessening its importance. Any voice Ukraine might have raised was immediately dismissed, stripped of its dignity. Poland recognized that Ukrainians were different both culturally and linguistically, yet still claimed ownership of “their [Polish] Ukrainian lands (Applebaum, Introduction).” Russia called the area “Little Russia,” acknowledging the differences without giving validation. They considered the Ukrainians as a tribe and their language as a dialect, both under their supremacy (Valuev, fos. 4 verso-5). Unlike other non-Russian languages, Ukrainian was not taught in schools (Applebaum, Introduction).
By the late Middle Ages, Ukrainian had developed its own diverse language, a blend of Russian, Polish, and their own creative spin. At one point there were 21 dialects of Ukrainian within borders the size of Texas. Many Ukrainians can understand spoken Polish due to corresponding grammar and vocabulary, though they are unable to read it. This is due to the fact that Polish uses the Latin alphabet—plus a few extra letters– whereas Ukrainian is Cyrillic. As Russian also uses a Cyrillic alphabet, it looks almost identical to the untrained eye. The key difference here is that Ukraine adds three additional letters to their alphabet, the “i”, “ï”, and “ґ.” This results in a nuanced pronunciation system, even when words are otherwise the same (Applebaum, Introduction). For example, the word for “please” in Russian is “pozhaluysta” whereas in Ukrainian it is “byd’laska.” In addition, they both have their own grammar systems. The endings or “cases” of the words are also particular to the language. To this day, people continue to group the languages together, taking on the Russian viewpoint. However, it is better compared to Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, which share the same roots but still have clear differences.
The first significant instance of linguistic oppression occurred under Tsar Alexander II. A debate concerning which language to teach in schools had been discussed for quite some time. A letter to the St Petersburg Literacy Committee in March 1862, described the Ukrainians as the indigenous people of South Russia. The letter urged inclusion for the native language in schools, while acknowledging it as different. Although school children could read in Russian, they were unable to summarize what they had learned in Ukrainian (Konys’kyi). “Pupils’ development can be achieved only by permitting the people’s language [but] may be greatly hindered by completely excluding it from teaching (Kiev Censorship Committee).” Yet Alexander, known as the “Liberator Tsar” for freeing the serfs, and the “Good Tsar” for granting Finland autonomy, ignored them both. As Ukrainians experienced a surge of national identity, the use of their language denoted their opposition to the current establishment (Applebaum, Anne. Introduction). In a speech made to the deputies of Polish nobility in charge of overseeing Ukraine, Alexander proclaimed, “Gentlemen, let us have no dreams! (Morfill, pp 429).” The Tsar wanted a cultish population which would follow him, one without any individuality. The 1876 Edict of Ems banned the usage of the Ukrainian language, including books, concerts, lectures, teaching, and public health notices (Reid, pp. 68). The impact in Ukraine was profound. Having access to a Russian education and speaking fluent Russian was the only way one could get a job. When schools switched to Russian, many Ukrainians could not continue their education. Their education system collapsed, leaving a vast portion of the country illiterate (Applebaum, Introduction). The peasants continued to speak Ukrainian in secret at home and in villages, yearning to have the freedom to be themselves.
Historians mark 1917-1918 as the first serious beginning of Ukraine’s national journey. By the 1900s, the Russian people were growing disenchanted with the monarchy and their Tsars. The Women’s Bread March protest in early 1917 forced Nicholas Romanov to abdicate his throne and the reign of the Tsars was finally over. Emboldened by the successful revolution, the Ukrainian movement gained momentum. They declared themselves a free nation detached from Russia: Ukrainian People’s Republic (Mace, pp 1). Ukrainian became the national language, and people spoke it unashamedly. Major world powers such as France, England, and even the infant Soviet Union recognized the new Ukrainian government (Applebaum, Chapter 1). Unfortunately, this new freedom lasted only a year.
As the Soviet Union gained more power, Vladimir Lenin tried to unite the country using language as the main weapon. A civil war raged as the White Army—consisting of Cossacks, communist deserters, and allied forces—tried to keep the Bolsheviks of the Red Army from taking over the country. As usual, Ukraine’s fertile fields became a prime target. Every time the Bolsheviks took Kiev, they changed the street signs to Russian and shot Ukrainian speakers in public. But with the Bolsheviks driven out, Ukrainian street signs reappeared. In the words of Anne Applebaum, “the deep connection between language and power was driven home to the residents of Kiev once again (Chapter 1).” Whoever was in power used language to assert their dominance and the Ukrainians retaliated by keeping their language alive. As Gareth Jones remarked in his diary, “Literature is a weapon of class warfare (pp 116).”
After several attempts, The Bolsheviks realized that they were unable to subjugate the Ukrainian people. So, Lenin tried a new tactic. Ukrainization: a chance for the people to develop their culture in exchange for becoming Soviet citizens. The Soviets put Ukrainian communists to oversee the process, believing they would guide the people to develop the country. However, this compromise backfired. Without meaning to, the Soviets had given the Ukrainians validation they craved. Influenced by Western Europe, a cultural revival burst forth independent from Russia, which caught Soviet leaders completely off guard (Mace, pp 1-3).
Tactics changed once again in 1924. By this time, Lenin had suffered two strokes which took his life, and Joseph Stalin came to power. As Stalin began enacting his Five-Year Plans in 1928, he started to crack down on the growing Ukrainian movement. Stalin abandoned Ukrainization, forbid the language and history, and disbanded Ukrainian institutions (Mace, pp 5; Jones, pp 192). Suicide was not uncommon. The Commissar of Education, accused of over-Ukrainisation, committed suicide in 1933 (Jones, pp 194-195). To make matters worse, the Bolsheviks stole food and livestock from the people in a forced collectivization. It is estimated that nearly seven million people, including more than half the male population and a quarter of the female population, perished in what is now known as the Holodomor (Krawchenko, pp. 23). In a small but vital victory for Ukraine to reclaim its history, the term derives from Ukrainian. “Holod” comes from the Ukrainian word for hunger, and “mor” the word for extermination, (Applebaum, Preface). Stalin censored the region’s news and censuses, denying the famine’s existence (Carynnyk, pp 110). (Sound familiar?) Forbidden to speak about the famine, Ukrainians passed on an oral history for generations (Applebaum, chapter 15). Through this persecution, the Ukrainians grew to hate the Soviets with a passion. Though for now, they were powerless (Krawchenko, pp 22-23; Jones pp 190). “The Ukrainian Village was silenced and never again rose in opposition to the Soviet regime (Krawchenko, pp 23).” After the famine, they were too weak to stand up for themselves, illiterate, starving, and feeling more oppressed than ever before.
In 1991, Ukraine finally gained its independence, and the majority were overwhelmed with joy and relief. However, not everyone was happy with the new arrangement. The people were a colorful mosaic of cultures, sharing a common ancestry yet painted with specific customs. Several spoke Russian, had family on the other side of the border, and identified as Russians. Many did not view themselves as Ukrainian, an opinion sometimes shared across a particular region such as Crimea. Others who identified as native Ukrainians had grown up only with Russian, a result of the frequent repressions. Those who did speak a little Ukrainian had poor language skills and found that Russian was easier to learn. It was a time of confusion as the country tried to sort out their new identity (Reid, pp 171-174). It was not until the revolution of 2014 that the people truly came together (Winter on Fire, Netflix). Still, Ukrainian emerged from the shadows and once again began to be spoken in public. However, there were still those who preferred to stick with Russian.
Geographically, the closer one lived to Russia in cities like Donetsk, the more Russian you and your family spoke. The further west you traveled, in cities such as Lviv, you would hear a purer form of Ukrainian. In the middle of the country, a semi-dialect now known as “Soujik” emerged as a mixture of the two languages. It is common for most citizens to use Russian grammar with Ukrainian words, or Ukrainian words with Russian cases, or vice versa. It is almost impossible to understand unless you have a knowledge of both Ukrainian and Russian (Reid, pp 222-223).
In light of the recent Russo-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea, language has become a tricky and often sensitive topic. Part of this is due to Russian separatists, who identify as Russians and think that Ukraine should merge back into Russia. They refuse to speak Ukrainian as some Ukrainian nationalists refuse to speak Russian. But overall these appear to be minority opinions. Most are caught in the middle, like my friend Sasha. Although she identifies as Ukrainian, her native language is Russian. She grew up speaking Russian in the city of Kyiv, and while she understands Ukrainian when read or spoken to her, she is unable to respond in true Ukrainian. We learned Russian in order to communicate with her. While we have certainly received some questions and mild disappointment when people learn that foreigners have come to Ukraine and learned Russian, most understand and are nice about it. We have never been discriminated against for choosing Russian. They are grateful that we are learning such a difficult language at all so that we can communicate.
Today, as Russia repeats history in trying to take back Ukraine, the Ukrainian people want to signify their differences. They are a unique, beautiful blend of the surrounding cultures, neither Asian nor Western European, neither Russian nor Polish. While Poland has left Ukraine in relative peace, Russia continues to oppress their neighbors. For the Ukrainians, it feels much like a repeat of the 1917-1918 revolution. Over one hundred years later, they are still forced to fight for their right as a recognized and legitimate country, people, and language. The Ukrainian language has re-emerged as the foundation to claim the Ukrainian identity. It is a powerful tool that has divided a land in the throes of self-discovery and freedom.
Morfill, William. A History of Russia: From the Birth of Peter the Great to Nicholas II. James Pott, Nabu Press, 2011.
Applebaum, Anne. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Red Famine. Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.
Serbyn, Roman and Krawchenko, Bohdan, editors. Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933. Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1986.
- Mace, James E. “The Man-Made Famine of 1933 in Soviet Ukraine.” Serbyn and Krawchenko, pp 1-14.
- Krawchenko, Bohdan. “The Man-Made Famine of 1932-1933 and Collectivization in Soviet Ukraine.” Serbyn and Krawchenko, pp 15-26.
- Carynnyk, Marco. “Blind Eye to Murder: Britain, the United States and the Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Serbyn and Krawchenko, pp 109-138.
Reid, Anna. Borderland. A Journey through the history of Ukraine. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997.
Saunders, David. Russia and Ukraine under Alexander II: The Valuev Edict of 1863. Taylor and Francis, Ltd., 1995.
- Memo by Konys’kyi, V. Loboda, and D.P. Pyl’chykov to St Petersburg Literacy Committee, 10 March 1862, RGIA, f. 398, op. 26, d. 9979, fos 2-3.
- Kiev Censorship Committee to Valuev, RGIA, f. 775, op. 1, d. 188, fos 9.
- P.A. Valuev, “On Books Published for the People in the Little Russian Dialect,” memo, 11 July 1863, ibid., fos. 4-8.
Jones, Garreth. “Tell them we are starving.” The 1933 Soviet Diaries of Gareth Jones. Edited by Lubomyr Y. Luciuk.