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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

In The Battle For Identity, Language May Be Ukraine's Strongest Weapon

Volodymyr or Vladimir? As the Ukraine war rages on, Kyiv is also defending itself against Russian aggression on the linguistic battlefield, countering Russification attempts, past or present.

Performers dancing at Ukraine folk festival

Performers dressed in regional clothes presenting folk dances from different regions of Ukraine in Lviv.

Pavlo Palamarchuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA
Michal Kubala

For almost a decade, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has been raging on the ground, in the air — and for control of information. Less bloody than the battles for Kyiv, Mariupol or Bakhmut, the information war is critically important to a recurring theme of the entire war: the preservation of Ukrainian identity.

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Through speeches and in an essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have argued that Ukraine is an inseparable part of Russia. They deny Ukraine's statehood and brush off any distinctions between Ukrainian and Russian cultures as superficial. When Putin's essay was published in July 2021, few could have foreseen that the theories he articulated were a precursor to the full-scale Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

The war has become a battle to preserve Ukraine’s national identity, and counter any attempt to distort its history. Language has emerged as a crucial shield in this struggle.

On the Day of Ukrainian Literature and Language, Nov. 9, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said language is “a powerful weapon of the Ukrainian people in the struggle for our independence and victory," emphasizing that "for centuries, Russia tried to destroy our cultural national face along with our language, Russify Ukrainians, and distort the facts of our history.”

Now, a decade of conflict has prompted Ukraine to embrace its language more fervently, making the language front of the war a source of emotion, where even something as seemingly innocuous as the transliteration of a name has had profound implications for the assertion of national identity.

The two "rulers of peace"

To understand this, one has to look no further than the names of the leaders of both countries at war.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart and current nemesis, Vladimir Putin share the same first name: Volodymyr in Ukrainian/Vladimir in Russian. It's a name with a long history in Slavic countries, and one which almost paradoxically means “ruler of peace."

But while identical in etymology, the spelling and pronunciation of this name differ between Russian and Ukrainian. And when national identity is on the line, these distinctions are important.

Ukrainian publications and international media refer to Zelensky using the Ukrainian iteration, Volodymyr. But Russian publications prefer to write Vladimir Zelensky, including in English articles.

The Russian media might just be sticking to their spelling of the ancient Slavic name, which is more recognizable to Russian audiences — and not entirely incorrect, as Zelensky’s first language is, in fact, Russian. Even his famous sitcom Servant of the People sees him playing a mostly Russian-speaking character.

Could the use of the name Vladimir also be a subtle attempt to diminish the "Ukraineness" of the president's name, shrugging off any Ukrainian uniqueness, under the guise of aligning Ukraine with Russian norms? After centuries of Russification, this would not be the first time such tactics were used.

Pigeon flying past statue of Taras Shevchenko

A statue in Lviv of Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, the founder of the modern Ukrainian literary language.

Anastasiia Smolienko/Ukrinform/ZUMA

'Archaic' Soviet conventions

The war in Ukraine has also reached the realm of grammar. In the Russian language, which is widely spoken in Ukraine, there has been a longstanding dispute over the preposition used before the word "Ukraine." Two versions exist: Hа Украине, loosely translated as "on Ukraine," and в Украине, which more closely means "in Ukraine."

Both variants have been in use for centuries. But after the collapse of the USSR, “Russian statists switched to the more conservative pretext на ('on')," wrote the Linguist Maxim Krongauz, explaining this makes Ukraine sound like a territory "on" which someone lives. "While those sympathetic to Ukraine began to use the pretext в ('in'), which might be closer associated with the idea of Ukrainian statehood.”

Russification was actively used as a tool to extinguish each constituent country’s national identity, culture, and language.

Similarly, the #CorrectUA campaign launched by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in 2018, was directed towards the English-speaking world, advising them to change some "archaic Soviet-era" grammatical conventions in English spelling.

“Russification was actively used as a tool to extinguish each constituent country’s national identity, culture, and language. In light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, including its illegal occupation of Crimea, we are once again experiencing Russification as a tactic that attempts to destabilize and delegitimize our country,” the foreign ministry wrote. “You will appreciate, we hope, how the use of Soviet-era place names — rooted in the Russian language — is especially painful and unacceptable to the people of Ukraine.”

For example, the Russian transliteration of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, was transliterated into English as Kyiv to more closely match the Ukrainian name. Other cities followed: the Russian iterations of Ukrainian cities Lvov and Nikolaev became Lviv and Mykolaiv.

In addition to changing the way the capital's name is spelled, the government sought to stop Ukraine from being referred to as "the Ukraine," which, similarly to the на Украине and в Украине debate, implied Ukraine was a territory as opposed to a state.

Shed Russification

In a move to let go of old Russification efforts, the Ukrainian National Commission on State Language Standards proposed renaming the region of Zaporizhzhia, the town of Brovary near Kyiv, and another 1,400 cities and villages in late June to implement the law "On Condemnation and Prohibition of Propaganda of Russian Imperial Policy in Ukraine and Decolonization of Toponymy," which sought to change town, street and landmark names if they were associated with Russia.

84% of Ukrainians believe there are no problems with using the Russian language in Ukraine.

But renaming cities is not without its challenges, involving extensive administrative work, historical research and public engagement. The proposal to rename Zaporizhzhia, the region housing Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, faced opposition and caused a backlash. Over a week later, the commission decided to scrap the decision to rename Zaporizhzhia and reduced the number of names that would get a rebranding.

In numerous instances, as was the case with Zaporizhzhia, the association with Russia could not be conclusively established.

Man holding banner

A Ukrainian man holds a banner reading "Russian language: a weapon in the hands of Moscow! Do not speak Imperial!'"

Serg Glovny/ZUMA

Linguistic heritage

One of the pretenses for the Russian invasion of Ukraine was that the Ukrainians were supposedly oppressing the Russian speakers. According to a recent survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 84% of Ukrainians believe there are no problems with using the Russian language in Ukraine, and Russian-speaking citizens are not oppressed.

But as was evidenced time and time again during the war, by seeking to discredit the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation, Russia has prompted Ukrainians to defend their national identity ever more fiercely.

Though complex and sometimes contentious, these efforts attest to Ukraine's commitment to preserving its identity in the face of adversity. Ukrainians have been working diligently to counteract Russification and assert their distinct linguistic heritage — because, as Zelensky implied last year, language serves as a weapon in asserting Ukrainian national identity.

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